Typography: the origins of graphic design?
In this section we will cover:
- What the word typography means
- Why graphic designers depend on typography
- Examples of typographic skill
Design as a commercial activity is inextricably linked with reproduction: a designer produces the original design and a reproduction process replicates it for the client. So the earliest origins of graphic design as reproducible visual material could be said to lie with the advent of the mechanical printing press in the 15th century. With its introduction of moveable type – individual letters cast in metal – printed material could not only be reproduced in volume, but a predetermined ‘design’ could be set by arranging the letters in the printing grid. In fact, the grid remains an organising principle in both print and digital design, although its containing lines can now easily be broken.
Moveable type blocks and Grid-it! notebooks designed by Astrid Stavro
From moveable type comes typography – the selection and layout of letters in a space – as well as typeface design. Both are important elements in graphic design. A major and still hugely resonant movement is the International Typographic Style, or Swiss Style, which originated in Switzerland in the 1950s. Its clean, ‘objective’ aesthetic uses sans-serif and often ‘geometric’ type set on a grid and tends to favour photography over illustration.
This style is exemplified in a poster advertising a production of Giselle by the Municipal Theater in Basle, created by Swiss graphic designer Armin Hoffman in 1959.
Another product of the International Typographic Style is Helvetica, a typeface which has been employed liberally in corporate identity design for many years. It was developed (as a version of the late 19th century font Akzidenz Grotesk) in 1957 by Swiss typeface designer Max Miedinger and Edüard Hoffmann, then director of Switzerland’s Haas Type Foundry. For more about this, and graphic design in general, it is certainly worth watching Gary Hustwit’s 2007 feature film Helvetica.
Scarf made up of Helvetica uppercase letters designed by Little Factory. Orange logo using Helvetica designed by Wolff Olins in 1994
‘As a designer, you’re always going to be dealing with type,’ says Benjamin Tomlinson, creative director at Ico Design Consultancy. ‘You don’t see much [visual design] without type and the grid structure is the framework of good typography, as well as for the composition of colour, blocks – anything really. Using the grid and understanding composition is a craft; you get better and better at it over time. People say ideas are the most important things, but if you can’t make something look good it’s no use. Layout, composition and typography you take into any piece of graphic design.’
In fact, Freda Sack, president of the International Society of Typographic Designers, claims that ‘the finest designers are first and foremost typographers’, citing influential figures including Wim Crouwel, Derek Birdsall, Paul Rand, Ivan Chermayeff and Josef Müller-Brockmann. ‘The students who ‘get’ typography become good communicators and designers. They realize that it is not just about ‘the devil’s in the detail’, although that is important, but it is the use of space and structure that is the key [to visual design],’ says Sack.
Poster for IBM designed by Paul Rand in 1981 and Vormgevers poster for Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam designed by Wim Crouwel in 1968
The above examples are all largely typographic designs. In each case, the words type make up obviously provide information – a key role of most graphic design – but type is also aesthetic: the layout of the text gives composition and the form of the typeface itself carries its own visual qualities and associations.
In many cases, people are ‘instinctively’ aware of what we could call the grammar of graphic design. A heraldic crest and serif typeface, for example, generally suggest establishment, heritage and power, while a cut-and-paste collage of newspaper lettering might suggest punk, rebellion and youth, as shown below. But in these examples, the associations are largely the result of cultural, rather than technological phenomena.
Cover of God Save The Queen single by The Sex Pistols designed by Jamie Reid in 1977
As an interesting aside, Reid is described as an ‘artist’ not a ‘graphic designer’; Peter Saville says much the same thing about his early record cover work.
Of course, type has to work in more functional environments too. For the redesign of The Guardian newspaper in 2005, Paul Barnes and Christian Schwartz created a bespoke typeface called Guardian Egyptian (as well as many others), which needed to deliver legibility and clarity across the paper’s relatively dense news pages.
With just over 200 fonts, ‘the Guardian family is one of the most ambitious custom type programs ever commissioned by a newspaper,’ claims Schwartz. This illustrates the importance of type to the paper’s art director Mark Porter.
While early moveable type may have been the starting point of typography, over time all manner of other material comes into the graphic design fold, including printing, photography and digital imagery and screen graphics. Of course, predating anything so mechanical or electronic is hand-drawn imagery such as illustration, cursive script, painting and sketching.
Like most forms of communication, graphic design has developed its own grammar: a set of ‘rules’ and references which inform how something is put together, as well as how it is read and understood. Some of these rules have been influenced, or even fixed, by the production processes themselves, others are cultural. An example of the influence of production techniques can be found in corporate identity, where the cost of printing multiple colour logos might restrict the complexity of designs.
‘If you were printing with spot colours – traditionally using the Pantone system, which is the most accurate method – each colour would need its own film and plates. So in identity work, the logo often had to work in a maximum of two colours because printing becomes more and more expensive as more colours are used. This is why you end up with things like the black and white BBC logo. Part of the justification for the redesign in 1997 was the time and money saved on printing,’ says Simon Meek, director of online design group Okayso.