Last summer a discussion flared up amongst typographers about an interview with Rudy VanderLans on the Fontstand blog. He spoke about his motivations for not releasing new fonts anymore but focussing instead on updating and marketing Emigre’s back catalogue.

“In terms of new typeface designs, we believe we’ve reached a point that we refer to as ‘Infill-ism’, where designers are simply filling in the few remaining options left. Which begs the question, how many more Helvetica or Futura inspired designs do we really need?”

The remarks Rudy VanderLans made were inspired by his personal quest for how to navigate the highly competitive industry of type foundries.

VanderLans seemed to echo remarks made in the same vein by Fred Smeijers in Eye Magazine: “It has become a lot easier to come up with a design that looks acceptable at first sight. But this does not mean that new things are automatically genuine or authentic. The type design community fails to be critical enough towards itself; we seem to welcome everything … this attitude will ensure a waterfall of mediocrity.”

It describes a phenomenon the type scene has to cope with urgently: digital tools and easily accessible sales platforms make it possible to saturate the market with new fonts of dubious quality.

Infographic by Julian Hansen
Infographic by Julian Hansen

But VanderLans went one step further: “There are fewer type design options left to explore, since type design is restricted by the structure of the alphabetic characters. And, although the options are technically infinite, it becomes increasingly difficult to see the differences between designs.”.

And in the words of Fred Smeijers: Yes, many of us see that the proverbial pie is continually sliced thinner. But have we really seen the whole pie? Are there pies we haven’t even imagined? “Today there is a peak in type design, yet we have few Calypsos (innovative/artistic/display) or Garamond Premiers (fit-for-purpose/workhorse/text) to show for it.”

This was frowned upon by some. What they (thought they) read between the lines was a disavowal of the efforts of young typographers, and a deliberate revival of the decrepit discussion grumpy old men like to have about ‘everything has already been done, nothing is new’.

Some creatives reacted as if stung by a wasp. As if the remarks addressed their deepest insecurities. Isn’t it one of the daemons creatives must learn to fight, this deeply puzzling idea that, indeed, everything has already been done, and who am I to do that same thing al over again.

Paul Rand paraphrasing Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s quote: “I don’t want to be interesting. I want to be good.”</br>Designing in pursuit of being original, or even interesting, can be a foolhardy prospect. Design that strives to be original for the sake of it, and typically at the expense of its real purpose of communication, often falls into a mire of stylistic tropes and shallow meanings.
Paul Rand paraphrasing Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s quote: “I don’t want to be interesting. I want to be good.” Designing in pursuit of being original, or even interesting, can be a foolhardy prospect. Design that strives to be original for the sake of it, and typically at the expense of its real purpose of communication, often falls into a mire of stylistic tropes and shallow meanings.

Stephen Coles (Tyografica/Fonts in Use) was among the first to comment on the Fontstand interview. Acknowledging the mediocrity of many type releases that VanderLans and Smeijers assess, he doesn’t want to settle with that:

The typographic landscape seems wide open with possibility. With the rise of an authorship culture and independent publishing, with the introduction of new substrates, platforms, formats, and media, a blossoming of new font uses and users echoes the output of new fonts. And there are future needs we cannot fathom today. So, yes, we still need new fonts. We also need tools for judging the quality of these fonts. We need type labels and sellers who place a stronger emphasis on curation than promotion. We need critical eyes and fearless voices. Today, count me an optimist: I see all of this on the horizon.

Not much later Kris Sowersby (Klim Type Foundry) followed with a lengthy article. He threw the ball back into Emigre’s court. The problem is not – according to Sowersby – the enthusiasm of young type designers and the number of new typefaces they design. VanderLans should instead shift his attention to his peers, who own large parts of the distribution networks, and to corporates like Monotype or Adobe channeling profits towards a few beneficiaries.

It might be about distribution instead of creativity. Fontstand – already working according to the Spotify model – may be part of a solution.

VanderLans graciously reacted to both articles, denying he was neither old nor grumpy (“Anybody who thinks there is still much left to explore in type design, I say go for it and have fun!”), and explaining what he actually meant. For instance, he pointed to the problem of updating older font files to the now mandatory multilingual support without hitting a bottom price level. Nevertheless: ”In the end, however, I feel that we are all pretty much saying the same thing: there’s a glut of type and it’s getting ever more difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.”

For him the whole interview was about Emigre and the challenges that they’re facing. “I think you are misreading and mashing together a lot of my comments to make a point about what bugs you in the world of type design”, VanderLans concluded.

So, was it a dialogue of the deaf? No, for me two questions emerge from this. What is good type? What purpose has good type?

A spread from the book 'Typo 9010, Czech Digitised Typefaces 1990–2010'
A spread from the book ‘Typo 9010, Czech Digitised Typefaces 1990–2010’

Take a break

The market is saturated by fonts that fill all niches, that answer to all needs. Just fill in the remaining gaps, and voila, font designers can take a really long brake…

But it doesn’t work out that way. Did Smeijers and VanderLans exactly mean this? Both Erik van Blokland (Letterror) and Peter Bilak (Typotheque) made some sound remarks steering the discussion into the direction of a fundamental critique on the current state of the type industry and the flooding by mediocre fonts. For them the discussion should evolve around two questions.

Is it any good?

First, can the typographer give an affirmative answer, when he asks himself: is it any good?

Erik van Blokland: “It is an interesting discussion. But I do think Fred and Rudy deserve more thought and a better answer than “it happened before” or “we need”. It starts at a designer looking at a single shape and asking “is it good” and the followup “how can I tell it is good”.

Gerrit Noordzij teaching a typeface design class.
Gerrit Noordzij teaching a typeface design class.

That’s really a critique to the level of craftsmanship of some font designers. Van Blokland is a professor of type design at the KABK. Letterror’s randomfont Beowolf was drawn and engineered in 1989 – the dawn of digital typography. However deeply immersed in digital technique, he really sees the need for craftsmanship. He can be counted among the The Hague breed of typeface designers, like Fred Smeijers (Our Type), Peter Bilak (Typotheque/Fontstand), Bas Jacobs (Underware), Ilya Ruderman (CSTM Fonts), Albert Pinggera, Ludwig Übele (Ludwigtype) and founding father Gerrit Noordzij. The design of their letters can always be traced back to ‘the stroke of the pen’.

Does it solve a problem?

Second, can she give an affirmative answer, when she asks herself: does it solve a problem?

Clearly, “If an existing typeface does the job, there is no reason to make a new one”, says Erik van Blokland.

But as Tobias Frere-Jones puts it at Typo Berlin 2016: “We keep needing new typefaces because we keep having new problems. Some solutions turn out more widely useful than their original briefings”.

Retina typeface, Frere-Jones Type. Retina MicroPlus uses exaggerated proportions and details to preserve the identity of each letter and word. Deep-cut notches absorb ink in print and further reinforce the gesture of each shape, on screens as well as paper.
Retina typeface, Frere-Jones Type. Retina MicroPlus uses exaggerated proportions and details to preserve the identity of each letter and word. Deep-cut notches absorb ink in print and further reinforce the gesture of each shape, on screens as well as paper.

According to Verena Gerlach, ”It is true that everything has been done. What is important is to find new combinations.”

Peter Bilak adds to this: ”Many people drawing type today have solid drawing skills, but no desire to advance the field (let alone rebel against it) by creating original solutions. Can we call them type designers? I think not, at least not any more than we can call every fast, accurate typist a writer. Content is at least as important as form, the ideas we express as important as how we express them.

Still, there are typefaces which haven’t been made yet and which we need. Type that reacts to our present reality rather than being constrained by past conventions; type for non-Latin scripts that gives its users more choices; type that brings readers from previous media to new ones. It is time to think about why we design type, not just how we design it.”

Drawing by Erik van Blokland (Letterror)
Drawing by Erik van Blokland (Letterror)

And even then, when all the typeface designers could agree on what good type is, there will be plenty of ways for users to screw up. ‘Users’ meaning: graphic designers, desktop publishers, computers, printers, my aunties cat.