‘Only superficial people do not judge by appearances’: type, design and the spirit of the age #2

What do commercial or designed things tell us about the age we live in? And how do they do this? Writers and artists have brilliantly created a reality distortion field where we expect them to give us the benefit of their opinions about the world as they see it. But what about designers of chairs, clothes, computers, type …?

In my previous post I was riffing on the title page of a book published in 1667 – this post is designed to follow on from it. From the contemporary era, for analytical counterpoint, I’d like to look at a typeface, by Jeremy Tankard, released in January 2013: Capline. Here is a sample of it (‘HEADLINE’/Cyrillic at the bottom of the page), with the designer’s own explanation of his rationale at the top:

Capline by Jeremy Tankard.  Available from www.typography.net

Capline by Jeremy Tankard. Available from typography.net

I wonder what creative uses graphic designers will make of it? The sample brochure usefully suggests a robust identity even after various kinds of distortion. The highly original and intelligent conception of a family of types based on a varying-width inline is outside the conventional batterie of typographic effects and may take some time to filter down into collective creative consciousness.

The font’s name is elegant and concise but its neutrality hints at concerns with form rather than the same designer’s full-on brand storytelling in his Shire types or the acutely observed postindustrial ruralism of Fenland. I’m not saying this is ‘bad’, because type designers must get to see their creations in all kinds of unforeseen contexts, some of which (I presume) they must think are completely unsuitable; all makers at some point have to reconcile themselves to the inconceivable and uncontrollable plurality of ‘their’ users’ interpretations (including mine!). Perhaps the reticence in the name indicates more openness, less wish to control end uses – I suggest this is a feature common to the best-received commercial design of any object, product or service.

The customary type designers’ play on negative space and the almost palpable presence of voids is turned outside in, to explore the expressiveness of space inside the strokes as much as between the forms. The designer’s sensitive response to the possibility of visual excess – negative space both inside and outside – is to simplify and rationalize the letterforms. This is an aesthetic, characteristic of modernism, that models coherence and identity in an information-noisy world.

Going beyond official meanings and overt intention to the deeper levels that channel the Zeitgeist, what other metaphors are in play? (I am not suggesting, by the way, that Jeremy is deliberately and consciously addressing the following issues. My subjective responses are necessarily mine; I like to think I’m saying something more than purely subjective, but you have to judge if there’s any truth in it. And regardless of a designer’s intention, isn’t the reception of – the user response to – an object ipso facto the ultimate arbiter of whether it channels the spirit of the age?)

I wondered if Capline is at some level an exploration of body image. Is there a potential commercial and expressive use for this typeface in cosmetics and fashion?

The change to the inline gives the impression of a change in weight. As the inline becomes thinner, the fonts appear to become heavier. The Heavy font has a thin inline, whereas the Thin font has a heavy inline. Or are the lighter fonts in outline?

Creative insight comes from all kinds of strange sources. Whether something feels right, like the punchline of a good joke, is only obvious afterwards. I’m not trying to justify a ‘perambulator type’ design aesthetic that Beatrice Warde denounced in the 1930s: bulbous letterforms that look like an old-fashioned pram. Our souls need something richer than literalism, which is always reductive and deadening.

More speculatively, I wondered if this typeface might only have been thinkable after the banking collapse of 2008/9. The backstory here is that the value of debt as a financial asset depends on what people can pay back; what we thought was full, turned out to be hollow. If we can imagine type in the same way, Capline shows that letterforms can be empty in the middle but still occupy the same space on the outside. I wondered if there was a sense of play on the contemporary crisis of financial value  a very serious subject but handled with wit and entertaining irony in Capline because the designer knows we know, in complete safety, it’s a typeface.

When money is puffed up by quantitative easing, ice cream by air, language by cliché, and burgers by horsemeat, it’s good to remind ourselves that fine commercial designers reflect richly and complexly on our lived world.

About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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