Function Over Letterform

We now live in a wondrous digital world of endless interactive possibilities, but doesn’t everything come at a price? HTML. CSS. iOS. GUI. OMG. In this abundance of letters, what has become of the art of typography? I am referring not only to calligraphic styling, but also to the creation of perfect “visual spacing” in every paragraph and letter pair.

The decline of this craft actually started with the advent of “desktop publishing.” The miracle of creating a composed layout that appeared onscreen, in front of your very eyes, brought about the extinction of the typography department in ad agencies around the world. The artistry of the professional typesetter has been replaced by mathematical application defaults that provide decidedly inferior results (the “professional” programs do allow overrides, but they are not always used).

Today, digital programming often requires font restrictions and templated copy styling, sacrificing even more typographic control. In return, we get a feast of living, breathing interactive treats throughout a magically connected world. So I am not saying it is not worth it. I am just saying we should not lose appreciation for the beautiful presentation of words.

I was happy to see Communication Arts come out with their first Typographic Annual in 2011, celebrating great letter design. There were 2,135 entries and 179 winners (of note, however, is that only 3 of those winners were in the Digital Media category). I was disappointed to learn the 2012 issue reflects only 1,723 entries and 150 winners (the Digital Media category did take 4 of those spots this year).

So, is there hope? Absolutely! We can start by discovering (or rediscovering) what can be accomplished with the simple alphabet. Just go to or to see some great work being done today. And, yes, there is irony in the very same digital space being both party to typographic restriction and portal to typographic beauty.

Also, the optimist in me fully expects that as digital programming evolves, we will see more and more capabilities for manipulating type. In the meantime, my fellow designers and I will still bring our typographic senses to both traditional and new media, be it in the form of unique headline treatments, custom logotype, or just a properly kerned “1.”




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