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Future Tendencies of the Past

It's interesting to read "Future Tendencies in Type Design" in 2006, 20 years after Hermann Zapf first wrote this article about whether or not there is any point in updating classic typefaces for yet another new type technology. (Short version: He says "no.")

I tend to agree with him, for many of the reasons he cites. Typefaces are very much products of their own era and its technologies, and attempts to carry them over into other contexts lose a fair amount of the spirit inherent in the source. At the same time, it's not as if the basic designs of type should be laid to rest just because new technologies call for adaptation. Instead, it would be wiser to openly acknowledge the source and inspiration, but solve the problems of the new context from scratch without holding too slavishly to the model.

Of course, any revival of an old typeface is forced to do this to some degree or another. The problem, though — one which Zapf (and plenty of other people I’ve heard/read) feels has mostly been handled badly — is one of typefaces getting badly updated without enough regard to the past to accurately match them, or enough thought about the future to adequately evolve them in to something else.

It strikes me as a very Modernist stance to take: form follows function, so if the function (or manufacture or reproduction methods) changes, then the forms should adapt accordingly in order to give the best result. Zapf has seen his own work designed for metal go through some poor adaptions from film to digital, and wishes that market forces would have made it easier to create new versions altogether rather than corrupt the original ideas and slap the same names onto them.

The interesting questions come from the time this article was written, when digitization of type was really in its infancy. From the vantage point of a couple of decades later when we have more sophisticated type technology and more processing power and storage capacity for handling digital type, we're probably in much better shape to produce more faithful historical revivals. However, whether or not to do so is a big decision. Some foundries, thankfully, are coming out with newer, more sophisticated versions of their initial adapations of older fonts (Adobe Garamond Premier Pro, Linotype Sabon Next, Monotype Bembo Book), but they still involve compromise. At the same time, there seem to be more and more families like Hoefler & Frere-Jones' Mercury, which may start from some historical models but really blossom once they are adapted for contemporary usage problems and take full advantage of contemporary production technology.

Zapf's essay is followed in the same volume of Visible Language by an essay from Matthew Carter, in which he describes his historical references and the extent to which he followed or departed form them in his design for ITC Galliard. Carter based Galliard very directly on the work of Robert Granjon in the 16th Century, but describes in some depth how his own design for a contemporary typeface required many adjustments for technical reasons, market demands, and & perhaps most importantly & to preserve the actual spirit of the source material. To get something to work in film and eventually digital setting, a slavish recreation was less useful than an informed, sensitive tribute.

Zapf, Hermann, "Future tendencies in type design: the scientific approach to letterforms." Visible Language, vol XIX, no 1, 1985, pp 23–33

Carter, Matthew, "Galliard: a modern revival of the types of Robert Granjon." Visible Language, vol XIX, no 1, 1985, pp 77–97

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