Typography in the 1990s
Essay published on Printmag.com, October 25, 2009.
How quickly “now” becomes “then.” A few weeks ago, I was looking for examples of experimental typography to show to my MFA students at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art). I pulled a book off the shelf called Typography Now Two: Implosion, edited by Rick Poynor in 1996. Twelve years later, Typography Now has become a fascinating piece of history, showing us what ambitious, forward-reaching design looked like at a time when the Web was just finding its legs, print was digging in its heels, and digital tools had revolutionized our work flow.
Although some of the material in Typography Now Two reeks of grunge mannerisms and digital-effects mania, much of it still looks totally alive. This work was striving to define what was new for its time, and for many pieces, the freshness stamp has yet to expire. The early 90s were an extraordinarily fertile period. In the U.S., a far-flung vanguard had exuded from Cranbrook and CalArts, where several generations of designers—from Ed Fella to Elliott Earls—had embraced formal experimentation as a mode of critical inquiry. Émigré magazine, edited and art directed by Rudy VanderLans, provided an over-scaled paper canvas for experimental layout, writing, and typeface design. In Europe, designers including Switzerland’s Cornel Windlin, Berlin’s CYAN, and Britain’s Tomato made mayhem with modernist vocabularies to create dense, dynamically layered posters and publications. What began as a vanguard movement never ossified into “old guard.” The work shown here still feels marginal—entranced with the edges, challenging visual norms, and contesting values of legibility and order.
Most of the designers featured in Poynor’s book are still active today, and some remain among the field’s most prominent figures. Yet the fervent search for new forms no longer seems to energize the larger profession. Typeface designers are focused on creating useful, solidly researched fonts for general communications rather than high-concept faces addressing questions of chance, decay, and technological breakdown. New modes of experimentation have emerged in areas such as system design, code-driven graphics, and data visualization. Although these areas can yield astonishing visual results, a sense of order and sobriety prevails.
As a critic, Poynor embraced the examples he had collected while seeing them as historical artifacts gathered up from a point in time. The book was designed by Jonathan Barnbrook, who lavished Poynor’s opening essay with interpretive devices that slow down the easy flow of reading. The main text block jogs left and right around large-scale callouts and visual footnotes. The essay concludes with a collage of quotations that point to designers’ anxiety about the relevance and longevity of the typographic avant-garde and its relationship to an advertising culture that had grown temporarily enamored with the new style. (That sure didn’t last long.) Tucked into a corner is this comment by Tobias Frere-Jones: “The contortions of the 1990s will fall out of favor, but not before showing us what the tools can do.”