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Typography – A Lost Art Form or better than ever?

Has Typography as an art form been forgotten or overlooked? Do we tend to focus on the content itself instead of the way it appears? The type and the way the content is presented can have just as, or even a larger, impact on the way we interpret the information. Typefaces are over 500 years old, but we barely knew their names until about twenty years ago when – thanks to Steve Jobs – the pull-down font menus on our first Mac computers made us all gods of type.

For many of us involved in the Graphics business, Steve Jobs was a hero. He has left a lasting legacy of products and philosophies. In 2005 he addressed the graduates of Stamford University and told three personal stories, the first of which went like this:

‘I want to tell you three stories from my life. Just three stories. The first story is about connecting the dots.

‘I dropped out of College after the first six months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit.

‘I couldn’t see the value in it. I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

‘It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 11km’s across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

‘The College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

‘None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. Of course, it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

‘Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.’

We have much to thank Steve for, and the introduction of Typography into the world of IT is certainly one of the reasons to be grateful. Digital typography has enabled the wide world to have access to some of the most beautiful and innovative fonts at the click of a button.

Fonts surround us every day; on street signs and buildings, on movie posters and books, and on just about every product we buy. But where do fonts come from, and why do we need so many? Who is responsible for the staid practicality of Times New Roman, the cool anonymity of Arial, or the irritating levity of Comic Sans (and the movement to ban it)?

Type can be adjusted in many ways. There are a variety of techniques such as kerning, ligatures, tracking and the use of typographic cues. Kerning is a method in which the spacing between two letters is adjusted. Without increasing the space between certain letters, words would lose their uniformity. Kerning keeps the words uniform and neat. Adjusting the spacing across a word, line, or column text is called tracking. Tracking can be used to add emotion to the type or be used to resemble the object the word describes.

Typography is everywhere. It is in the streets, in your house, and even on you – if you have a tattoo or wear a T-Shirt. Whenever we buy a product, advertise a shirt, or just sit down to read the newspaper, typography is always playing a part in our world. Typography plays a large part in our society, our decisions and our lives.

So, a word of thanks to just a few of these colossus of typeface designers: Claude Garamond, William Caslon, Frederic W. Goudy, Francesco Griffo, John Baskerville, Giambattista Bodoni, Emil Rudolf Weiss, Edward Johnston, Eric Gill, Stanley Morison, Rudolf Koch, Nicholas Jenson, Paul Renner, Roger Excoffon, Herb Lubalin, Max Miedinger, Chauncey H. Griffith, Evert Bloemsma, Herman Zapf, Edward Benguiat, Gerrit Noordzij, Adrian Frutiger.

Most of all thanks Steve!
Is Design and typography better than ever? in my humble opinion – Yes, and thanks to the industry awards such as The GAPP Awards, South Africa can be proud of our high quality of creative print and typography.

So, next time that you rattle off an e-mail, write a personal letter, or send a typed note, be creative and try to reflect the emotion of the content with the right font (Oh but not Comic Sans or Souvenir).

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