Where is type going?

Essay: Where is type going?

by Thomas Girard

[Editor’s Note: The second in a series of essays on the subject of typography. Read Thomas Girard’s first essay on the subject here]

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Thomas Girard moments before starting a presentation at Mobify in Vancouver, November 2022

A good way of looking at where type is going is to look at where it has been most recently. From Apple to Google, the big guns have made their presence known, and not necessarily tied it to the word typography, but there can be no doubt that that’s exactly where it has been. 

Talking about specifics of typeface choices in a world where even typographic choices like serifs, italics, and double spacing can seem daunting enough, is a challenge. But through engaging in Googling of words like typographic readability and legibility we can start to see how these choices make a difference, even to the least discerning eye that might be reading, as type casts its magic spell on you. After that, Google Fonts, Apple Fonts, and other more historical fonts and their type designers will become everyday ideas for you and you will be armed to go to battle with a heavy-duty typographic toolkit. In our overstimulated feeds and worlds of impression analytics, you’ll be ready to fight the good fight, or help others with their aims as well. 

Let’s dive into a few examples.

SF or San Francisco

SF (San Francisco)

SF is a font by Apple that made its way onto my radar while teaching interaction design at Emily Carr University of Art and Design on their certificate program. During that program the students had a small window to move outside of the conceptual, theoretical framework of study and start to play, and to play those days and in that place meant to play visually, and inevitably that meant to play with fonts.

For many years Apple had used, on iPhone, a variation of Helvetica that was pretty safe and reasonable, I thought. However, the phone came later, after Helvetica as inventions go, and so Helvetica at that time was in a way being repurposed for the phone, and the iPhone. You wouldn’t know it at the time, as it seemed to work very well. Craftsman at Apple like interface designer Mike Matas made very good use of the visual tools of the day when creating visual interfaces for early iPhone, so at the very least in terms of usage of Helvetica, and how it seemed on the iPhone, well, it seemed very reasonable and very fitting. But, of course, Apple would have to consider that iPhone was going to need something more iconic for iPhone, as it became so ubiquitous. Apple was going to need a font that it could own, in the association with iPhone, and that perhaps it could span across more devices and tech and Apple products and services essentially, and so a new font had to be created in the shadow of Helvetica of that time period, and that font was SF.

When I first became aware of SF, I had probably seen it implemented already and didn’t really notice the difference. I shouldn’t admit that, as anyone who has a responsibility to have a typographic eye, should see the difference right away. But I didn’t. But when I looked closely the difference between Helvetica and SF was probably that SF didn’t look as well done. Some of the curves and glyphs seemed a bit wonky and kind of not right. And perhaps that’s the way it had to be to work well on the devices, which it did, and still does. But it wasn’t Helvetica. And as typographers and type designers throughout history have often noted, it’s not easy to just remake Helvetica. Nothing can quite do that.

NY or New York

NY (New York)

I don’t know NY as intimately as SF. I just found it, and found it obvious that SF by Apple needed a companion font, and NY was obviously that. It was a bit unexpected as it dropped. It’s common for big names that are branded to create a font for themselves done by one of the top type designers. I often think of the font for Yale University done by Matthew Carter, a lifelong type master who created some great work at Microsoft Typography among a lot of great work in his lifetime. Yale was obviously a beautifully crafted, fitting, modern, but also academic typeface. It was as Yale as Yale could be in an innovative modern way. And Yale, the font, was it. There was no companion with a different name in the way that Apple had done. That’s why what Apple did was so surprising. But maybe that’s the sign of the times.

Montserrat
Thomas Girard gives a presentation at BrainStation Vancouver in November 2022

Monserrat

Google Fonts – which gets a lot of criticism by older designers, and a lot of fame and appreciation by younger designers, I think, because of its ability to be used easily and used well – was a necessary step forward in the type world. It has the big name Google attached to it but by many regards it could have been named something else, as long as it still had the ability to influence and become ubiquitous in the way that it did. Regardless of if you’re talking about Monserrat or Raleway or Brandon Grotesque, you’re talking about type of this era, type of user experience perhaps, type of slide decks perhaps, type of the necessary modern visual aesthetic, the look that we all know now, in the realm of places like flat design and everything after the long stretch of trying to use Helvetica for that purpose. Google Fonts really did the job and even if you tried to convince a young designer that decades of typography existed before and were the foundation for all of this, they might very well lean towards Google Fonts anyway, perhaps when you aren’t looking or aren’t noticing. Even the older designers would perhaps turn their heads away in shame but also admit that it looks okay. These days who can argue with that, especially when typography has begun to collect dust and fewer people have the luxury of spending the time necessary to become fully adjusted, and, let’s say, good at typography.

It’s hard to be good at typography. It’s not hard to be good at Google Fonts, and Google Fonts looks good.

Thomas Girard presenting Unique Ways of Prototyping at Vancouver’s Mobify

Minion

Minion is a great, historical, beautiful, useful typeface. But it wasn’t until recently that I started seeing it in high end design for screens. It was always a type for print, and type that you could pull up in Adobe Creative Cloud or Creative Suite before then and reliably use to make good work. I think I was looking at CMS (Content Management System) templates and saw this trend of using Minion. Perhaps I was recently looking at personal websites that were done by agencies and noticed Minion. I was pleased. Actually, to be fully disclosed, at first, I was like, “what is that font that they’re using for screen in that way that looks so good” and only later uncovered that it was Minion. Minion to me will always be tied to Adobe CC and print design but I would say the way that it is being used these days on screen is probably the best I’ve ever seen it, and that’s saying a lot as it’s a beautiful, carefully-crafted typeface of the highest order. It is among a few of the, let’s say, more recent typefaces that would actually fall into a designer’s fistful-of-good-type toolkit, and we should all be happy that it’s still around.

Knockout

Perhaps the one typeface, the one really good typeface, that doesn’t really fall into an old or new category, is Knockout. You can click over to typography.com to see all the weights and usages of this one. Paula Scher of Pentagram at one point often mentioned Knockout as a go-to. It’s elegant, beautiful, useful, and has managed to stay on the radar for years despite the influx of the Googles and Apples. It’s a sans serif type, which seems to be a determining factor in choosing type these days. It isn’t cheap, but there are worse things to buy than buying fonts, and through layouts and in-use examples you can pitch it to be expensed to a client. 

Typeface selection is something that evolves over time, and is perhaps the most desirable knowledge to be had by a typographic layperson. It’s useful, applicable, and takes us back into typeface history in a way that we want to know about it.

Hopefully, this entry gives you glimpse into what has been relevant for say the last decade, and will allow you to make better choices for you, your users, your clients, or whatever manifestations that you stumble upon. Type is a graphic designer’s secret weapon, something only graphic designers know about, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Entries like this can bring it into dinner table conversation and increasingly spread knowledge about this area of study. Type is only archaic and strange if we make it that way. In fact, it is very much something we can all talk about.

[Editor’s Note: Thomas Girard spoke to the British Columbia Review on the subject of typography. See the interview segment here]

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Thomas Girard

Thomas Girard (born 30 December, 1980 in Vancouver) is a Canadian scholar. Girard was accepted to attend the University of Oxford in lectures equivalent to graduate coursework. Girard has received several Emerging Scholar awards, first at the Design Principles and Practices conference in Barcelona at the prestigious ELISAVA. At Emily Carr University of Art and Design he received his second Emerging Scholar award. Other awards include RBC Emerging Scholar, Royal Bank of Canada Foundation. For 2021, he has been awarded an Emerging Scholar award from the New Directions in the Humanities conference in Madrid. He is a 2022 graduate of the Graduate Liberal Studies programme at Simon Fraser University. He presented “Advanced Typography Workshops in Quarantine” at the Sorbonne in  June 2023. Editor’s note: Thomas Girard has written several essays for The BC Review, including User experience & SophoclesTeaching typography in quarantine (also to be presented here) and Podiums, prototypes, and Plato. He has also reviewed  books by Garnet Hertz and Ron Wakkary.

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The British Columbia Review


Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie


Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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