My first computer sounds like a spaceship, and to begin with filled me with a science fiction sense of awe. I could finally do my own typesetting, a skill which I acquired quite naturally as an extension of being trained as a calligrapher as well as teaching graphic designers and doing commissions.
I had my share of despair concerning arrogant (and ignorant) art directors and advertising agencies. To hand craft a word with a broad edged pen for a publisher, only to have an incompetent graphic designer combine it with Futura extra bold was a shock to me, because I cared and I knew better. Simple as that. Not to mention the times I needed to defend the optical spacing of majuscule letters. Numerous times frustration drove me mad enough to smash my fist into a wall.
It was 1991 and people were drooling over the ‘new possibilities’ that their pc’s gave them. In the form of stretching letters, choosing randomly from font menus and drop shadowing logos.
I got my hand on some of the Adobe Originals typefaces that I knew were good. Their text faces had expert sets with designed small caps, old style proportional figures and special ligatures. Their title faces were spectacular; Trajan, Charlemagne, Lithos. The font equivalents of mega hits. You found them everywhere.
According to Sumner Stone, one of the people responsible for Adobe’s font initiative, there was a collaborative effort to bring the best of the past into the digital age, a philosophy which slowly came to be replaced by a focus on more commercial aspects. Still, there is important work being done at Adobe, notably by the eminent type designer Robert Slimbach.
Type designers aren’t rock stars, even though their typefaces may be spread all over the world and even be household names in font menus.
The type designer Matthew Carter once spoke about striking up a conversation with a young hipster on a plane, who asked him what he worked with. When hearing that he was sitting next to the creator of the Verdana typeface he was struck with awe. This story isn’t descriptive of the reality we face as makers of letters. The sometimes tedious work of chipping away at letters doesn’t resonate with the rock’n roll mythology. Some of the worst calligraphy I have seen has been on stage to a heavy metal soundtrack.
As calligraphers we can meet some approval, at least, for having a peculiar profession. Type designers may feel even less acknowledged. Robert Slimbach has made an unfathomable amount of brilliant typefaces, of great cultural value, and yet outside a small group of connaisseurs he is unknown. Adobe Garamond, Minion, Cronos, Myriad, the list of typefaces that he has had his hands on is too long to mention. He has created special characters; ligatures, fractions, ornaments.
He has made multilingual typefaces; Minion can be used for Cyrillic, Greek (and Ancient Greek), Latin and Armenian. It’s an example of a font that meets the needs of a modern multilingual world.
The ability to do my own typesetting corresponded with me teaching calligraphy and typography at the School for Graphic Design in Norway, and this again helped me familiarise myself with PageMaker, eventually InDesign.
Being able to teach both calligraphy and typography as part of a comprehensive whole was self evident to me, but to many the notion of connecting typography to the history of the written letters was less obvious, and to some even ridiculous.
The skill based aspects of graphic design, like life drawing and lettermaking by hand, were continously cut down until there was nearly nothing left; at the end I was asked to teach a class of 60 students basic calligraphy over a period of less than five days. The school had now changed its name to Westerdals / Høyskolen Kristiania, and the shift from pedagogical thinking to ‘money talks’ was obvious.
As a student, I would ask; am I getting my money’s worth?
My Apple Centris 610 computer had a portrait format black and white screen. I honestly didn’t think I needed colour at that point (!). After all I was mostly working with text.
I am grateful for this choice, as it helped me focus on getting the best possible results in black and white. The restriction made me a better typographer, and this corresponded to my attitude to calligraphy also; ‘Only the contrast between black and white remains uncorrupted’ (Friedrich Poppl). Or to modify Poppl’s statement: We have as much to gain from choosing fewer options as we have have from choosing many. Probably more. The word ‘choice’ is key. And in a modern, digital online world, options abound. To choose correctly we need skill and knowledge.
An Artificial Intelligence could make choices for us in many instances, based on algorithms, and in some instances this may be of help, so we don’t drown ourselves in options. But being aware of slipping into blind populism or being manipulated by capitalist interests is necessary, otherwise we will be caged. Times New Roman may be a popular font which an AI will choose for you, but it is hardly the best. Nor is Trump, unless you are speaking of Trump Medieval, the wonderful font by the German type designer Georg Trump (hardly a mega hit font, but undoubtedly a master piece).
Today I am grateful for my MacBook with its colour screen. I am glad I don’t need to do paste ups of photo copied calligraphy and Letraset rubbed letters. But I still need my broad edged pen, my Chinese stick ink and my handmade paper. Graphically speaking it is the air I breathe.
© 2021 Christopher Haanes