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Comments (28) Posted 04.19.11 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Paul Shaw

Standard Deviations: Types and Families in Contemporary Design


When the Museum of Modern Art decided, at the beginning of this year, to expand its purview and include typefaces among the artifacts of modern design it collects, it was a moment of celebration not only among the type designers whose works were selected but among all of us in the design community who care about type. The notion that a museum of art, especially one as august as MoMA, rather than a museum of history or technology had stooped to recognize type design as a culturally significant activity was thrilling. However, the feeling of elation quickly gave way to puzzlement over the specific fonts that were chosen and the multiple rationales proffered for their inclusion.

The roster of twenty-three inductees* into MoMA’s Font Hall of Fame includes:

OCR-A (American Type Founders, 1966)
New Alphabet (Wim Crouwel, 1967)
Bell Centennial (Matthew Carter, Mergenthaler Linotype, 1976–1978)
ITC Galliard (Matthew Carter, International Typeface Corporation, 1978)
FF Meta (Erik Spiekermann, FontShop, 1984–1991)
Oakland (Zuzana Licko, Emigre, 1985)
FF Beowolf (Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum, FontShop, 1990)
Template Gothic (Barry Deck, Emigre, 1990)
Dead History (P. Scott Makela and Zuzana Licko, Emigre, 1990)
Keedy Sans (Jeffery Keedy, Emigre, 1991)
HTF Didot (Jonathan Hoefler, Hoefler Type Foundry, 1991)
FF Blur (Neville Brody, FontShop, 1992)
Mason (nèe Manson) (Jonathan Barnbrook, Emigre, 1992)
Mantinia (Matthew Carter, Carter & Cone Type, 1993)
Interstate (Tobias Frere-Jones, Font Bureau, 1993–1995)
Big Caslon (Matthew Carter, Carter & Cone Type, 1994)
FF DIN (Albert-Jan Pool, FontShop, 1995)
Walker (Matthew Carter, Walker Art Center, 1995)
Verdana (Matthew Carter, Microsoft, 1996)
Mercury (Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones, Hoefler & Frere-Jones, 1996)
Miller (Matthew Carter, Font Bureau, 1997)
Retina (Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones, Hoefler Type Foundry, 1999)
Gotham (Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones, Hoefler Type Foundry, 2000)

According to the criteria outlined in the January 24, 2011 MoMA press release, the chosen fonts fall into four groups: functional, technological, historical, and cultural/aesthetic. “We chose some of these typefaces because they are sublimely elegant responses to the issues of specific media,” it says. In other words, some fonts were selected because they were designed to accomplish a specific typographic function: OCR-A for optical character readers, Bell Centennial for telephone directories, Verdana for computer screens, and Retina for stock listings. The press release continues, “We have tried to form a comprehensive collection of the most elegant solutions to typography design in the midst of the digital revolution….” Thus, some fonts qualify for inclusion on technological grounds: New Alphabet, Oakland (one of the inaugural bitmapped fonts by Zuzana Licko), Beowolf (the random font by LettError) and again, OCR-A and Verdana. Other fonts were selected because they “visually reflect the time and place in which they were made.” Hence the inclusion of Template Gothic, Dead History, Keedy Sans, FF Blur, Mason, Meta and Walker — typefaces which exemplify the upheaval in the small world of type design (and the larger world of graphic design) in the 1990s. These are fonts that were notable for their aesthetic experimentation. Finally, the new MoMA collection includes a number of fonts that bear no visual signs that they are digital or even that they were designed in the last forty years. These fonts are ushered into the modernist temple on the grounds that they “most inventively distill the essence of historical examples to give it new, contemporary life”. This historical rationale embraces three groups of fonts: revivals of metal typefaces (ITC Galliard, HTF Didot, CC Big Caslon, Miller, Mercury, FF DIN and Interstate), revivals of past lettering (Mantinia and Gotham), and parodies (Dead History, Keedy Sans and Mason).

All twenty-three of these typefaces are worthy designs, but not all deserve the singular honor of being the first fonts collected by MoMA. Using each of the museum’s four criteria, there are many other fonts that are not only equally worthy of inclusion but a number of which are more deserving‡. On the technological front, MoMA failed to include any fonts from the five companies that pioneered the digital revolution in type: Dr.-Ing. Rudolf Hell, URW, Bitstream, Adobe Systems and Apple. From a cultural standpoint, Remedy (the answer to too much Helvetica) and Thesis (the largest type family to date) are among the no-shows. And among historical revivals, Adobe Garamond, the font that did more than any other to make digital type palatable to the design community (especially book desigers), is missing in action.

At “MoMA Embraces Typography,” a panel discussion sponsored by AIGA NY at the Museum of Modern Art, Paola Antonelli, the museum’s Senior Curator in the Department of Architecture and Design, answered questions about the new font acquisitions. One factor in deciding which were in and which were out had nothing to do with their design merits. Instead, it was the legal issues surrounding fonts once they become part of the museum’s permanent collection and are expected to remain accessible to curators and the public in the distant future. She said that wrangling over EULA’s (end-user license agreements) scuttled the inclusion of Chicago and other city fonts from the first Macintoshes. Jonathan Hoefler, one of the panelists, said that the legal negotiations Hoefler & Frere-Jones went through were complicated but resolvable. On the other hand, panelist Matthew Carter, said that they were not particularly onerous. No one provided details, other than to indicate that the sticking point centered on the view that fonts today are not physical objects or images but code.


When asked about oversights that did not involve legal issues (especially the glaring omission of any fonts from Adobe), Antonelli sheepishly said, “Think of us as ignoramuses.” Although her candor is to be applauded, the statement is damning. It implies that the museum did not do its homework, despite having empaneled a group of experts (among them Steve Heller, Rick Poynor, Emily King, Michael Bierut, Khoi Vinh, Peter Girardi, Tarek Atressi and Matthew Carter) in 2006 to advise the Department of Architecture and Design on its future design acquisitions, fonts included. Antonelli said that the current font selections were an outgrowth of the discussions among those experts, though she did not say — other than herself — who was involved in the final decisions.

The twenty-three fonts were not the first to be acquired by MoMA, according to Antonelli. Instead that honor goes to the Helvetica, specifically the metal fount originally loaned by Lars Müller for “50 Years of Helvetica,” the small exhibition the museum mounted in the wake of Gary Hustwit’s film. Antonelli also stressed that the museum would be adding more fonts to the collection in the future, possibly as early as 2012. This first group will be joined by others and any mistakes made this time may be rectified.

Standard Deviations: Types and Families in Contemporary Design”, the exhibition designed to showcase the new font acquisitions, was curated by Antonelli and Kate Carmody, Curatorial Assistant. The installation was overseen by Julia Hoffmann, MoMA’s Creative Director for Graphics and Advertising, and others in the museum’s design department. An exhibition on type for a general audience is a difficult assignment, especially one devoted to digital type. Type is esoteric and, unlike type in the past, digital type is ephemeral. Yet, type is both universal and ubiquitous. And, as a result, more and more people are familiar with fonts — witness the unexpected popularity of “Helvetica: the Movie.” Antonelli recognized the problem and chose to solve it by lumping typefaces with other objects already in MoMA’s collection on the grounds that they shared the concept of “families.” This was a fatal decision.

The first problem is that Antonelli does not fully understand the concept of family as applied to type and, although the exhibition includes a glossary, “family” is not among the words defined (nor are italic, weight or width). “Some of the clearest examples of family in design are digital typefaces,” the introductory panel exclaims, “which each comprise several dozen related sizes, styles, variations, and behaviors.” This is an inaccurate description. And no examples, either verbal or visual, are provided to clarify the concept, especially for the average museumgoer. The type family has changed over time and a simple chart outlining its evolution — from the pairing of harmonized roman and italic types by Simon de Colines in 1528 to the addition of bold romans in 1830s England to the full blown concept of a type family by American Type Founders with the extension of Cheltenham (from one typeface in 1904 to twenty-one in 1914) to the eighteen-member pre-programmed Univers family of 1957 to the standardization of families by International Typeface Corporation in the 1970s to the widespread acceptance of the superfamily (in which serifs, sans serifs and other styles are mated) in the 1980s and 1990s — would have been immensely helpful.

Having established family as one of the governing themes for the exhibition, Antonelli failed to follow through in the typeface samples. No italics are shown (other than the pairing of an HTF Didot italic k with its roman counterpart), which is a shame given the radical aspect of ITC Galliard Italic. A number of fonts are displayed in their heavier weights (FF DIN Medium and FF Meta Medium; Keedy Sans Bold, Template Gothic Bold, FF Blur Bold, Mason Serif Bold, Gotham Bold; and Interstate Black), but without their regular or roman version for comparison.

More importantly, the increasingly complicated notion of family that has sprung up during the digital era is not addressed, though it could have been. Even with the absence of Lucida, ITC Stone, Rotis and Thesis — four of the pioneering superfamilies — there are fonts in the exhibition that exemplify this slippery topic. For instance, only the Bold Listing of Bell Centennial, the least representative member of this unusually named family is shown. There is no Address, Sub-Caption or Name & Number. Similarly, Mason Serif is present, but Mason Sans is not. And Oakland is presented without its siblings Emperor and Emigre. To be fair, the artifacts that accompany the font specimens do, in some cases, show other members of the type family. But are general museumgoers going to do anymore than glance at them?

Antonelli’s idea of showcasing fonts alongside furniture, toy robots, early Macintosh computers and other objects is a strange one. She sees “serial manufacturing and customization” as their common ground, but exactly what is meant by this is unclear and the exhibition itself is no help. The installation is confusing. The furniture, the toys and the industrial items are not integrated with the type but isolated. A mishmash of chairs, dressers and lamps is planted on a platform in the middle of the gallery with two additional lamps hanging above. The three walls to the left, behind and to the right of the pile are covered in type specimens (truncated character sets and apposite quotations set in each font) with printed samples of each font propped up on a narrow shelf and, sometimes, accompanied by a small screen playing videos illuminating technical aspects of the fonts or interviews with their designers. The fourth wall, contains a glass vitrine full of old Macintoshes, toy robots, messenger bags and other industrial products; to its right the original series of sketches that led to Milton Glaser’s iconic I [heart] NY design; and, further right, the title and introductory statement about the exhibition. The title and subtitle are printed on four narrow panels, perched sideways on a narrow shelf.

To a museumgoer entering the Architecture and Design Gallery from the escalator bank — the most common direction — the title of the show is invisible. Instead, the viewer is confronted by the pile of furniture and the three walls of type specimens. There is a sense that one is looking at two exhibitions, a not unreasonable expectation given the habitually cluttered nature of that section of the museum. Only when — and if — the museumgoer turns around is the title and introductory panel seen. Even then it is unclear whether it is referring to the I [heart] NY designs, the items in the vitrine, the island of furniture, the typefaces on the other three walls, or to the whole shebang.


One wonders if Antonelli’s inclusion of the furniture and other design objects was done to disguise her lack of knowledge about typefaces. She has included a glossary of type terms to help the viewer understand the esoteric world of type design, but the list is woefully inadequate and several terms are severely bungled. Descender is defined as, “The part of a letter that reaches down below the baseline of the font, in g, p, and q, for example.” This definition is slack. It not only leaves out j and y but it could include the tail of Q which descends but is not considered to be a descender. Furthermore, ascender, descender’s more significant counterpart, is not included. Other terms that are deficient include cathode ray tube, font, joining stroke, ligature, and titling face. Definitions of point size, serif, typeface and x-height are flat-out wrong.

Point size is not the “size of a font, based on its x-height” but, in metal type, of the metal body bearing the character. This height was larger than the distance from the bottom of a descender to the top of an ascender. In digital type the measurement is similar, except that now there is no physical object, just a bounding box. Typefaces with the same nominal point size can have wildly divergent visual sizes. This concept should have been illustrated in the glossary. (Furthermore, it is only with Postscript that 72 points equal exactly one inch. In the Didot system, 72 points equals 1.186 inches and in the Anglo-American system — the one that dominated in this country until the advent of the Macintosh computer — it equals .9936 inches.)

“A short line that extends from the top or bottom of a stroke in a letter,” the first part of the definition of serif, is merely incomplete. But the second part — “It is a symbolic leftover from handwriting.” — is laughable. A serif is a tiny stroke (not necessarily a line) that terminates a principal stroke of a character. Serifs are not confined to letters and they may be found on horizontal and curved strokes as well as on vertical ones. They derive from formal lettering, not handwriting; and, although their functional value has been a matter of debate, they are certainly not symbolic holdovers.

Typeface: “A set of letters in different sizes and styles, united in form and look, that are designed to be used together. Also called a type family or face.” Originally, typeface referred literally to the design of the character on the face of a piece of type metal. From there the term has come to mean the design of a group of related characters (not only letters) “united in form and look” but not comprising “different sizes and styles.” A typeface is not the same as a type family. The latter is a set of related typefaces, most often various weights and widths of a roman and its companion italic. Increasingly, the definition of family has been stretched to include serif, sans serif and mixed serif variants. Getting this term wrong undermines the whole notion that Standard Deviations is about types and families.

Character is defined as, “An individual letter, also called a glyph or letterform.” This collapses the critical distinction between a letter (or letterform), a character and a glyph. A character can be a letter, but it can also be a figure (numeral), a punctuation mark or a symbol. Glyphs, in typography, are graphical units and as such they encompass and go beyond characters to include writing marks in non-Latin languages.

“The height of the lowercase x in a typeface, upon which the heights of all other characters are based,” is the definition of x-height. This is overly literal and it puts the cart before the horse. The x-height (the z-height in older American type books) describes the height of the body of a lowercase letter and is only meaningful as a guide to the proportion of the body to the ascender height first, the capital height second and the descender depth third. The height of the x (or the z) is merely a convenience and not what the type designer is really concerned about.

These definitions are crucial to the recent development of digital type and are precisely the sort of thing that Standard Deviations should have focused on.

It is telling that the image used to advertise Standard Deviations on MoMA’s website is “You Can’t Lay Down Your Memory Chest of Drawers by Tejo Remy (Droog Design, 1991), a set of mismatched drawers precariously assembled together with a giant leather strap. This is a fantastic and fascinating design, but it is not a font. This image symbolizes the confused nature of the show and seems to be symptomatic of Antonelli’s and MoMA’s unwillingness to confront type on its own terms. Instead of displaying type in a direct and mature manner that, at the risk of being labeled boring or didactic, acknowledges the intelligence of the museumgoer, the museum has opted for sleight-of-hand tricks to entertain and distract him/her from the real subject of the exhibition. A prime opportunity to educate the general public about a niche area of design has been squandered.

*I have added the foundries who issued the faces or the clients who commissioned them to the list provided by MoMA. The names are those in existence at the time the relevant typeface was released rather than its current one. For instance, the Hoefler Type Foundry did not become Hoefler & Frere-Jones until 2004. I also added Zuzana Licko’s name to Dead History since she is usually credited as a co-creator, the person responsible for turning P. Scott Makela’s design into a workable font. Some of the dates given by MoMA are questionable, most notably that of Mercury which the Hoefler & Frere-Jones website describes as “the product of nine years’ research and development.”

‡ See for extended arguments for other fonts.
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Comments (28)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

Bravo! This is one of the best posts I've read in a while. Paul Shaw is the real deal.

Even our beloved design stars and starlets need to be called out when they get it wrong.

More historically grounded design criticism like this, please!
04.19.11 at 10:41

I strongly agree with Paul Shaw. Although its hard to single out typefaces as better than one another, "Not all deserve the singular honor of being the first fonts collected..."

For example, Its impossible to go down a street without seeing the helvetica typeface. How was this font overlooked?
Josh A.
04.20.11 at 09:38

Helvetica was left out because it was designed before the digital era. It did not fit into MoMA’s thematic or chronological criteria. However, at the AIGA/MoMA event Paola Antonelli said that Helvetica was actually the first typeface acquired by the museum. After the small Helvetica show that they did as a follow-up to the Hustwit movie, Lars Müller donated the metal Helvetica font on display to MoMA. I wish that it had been on display as part of Standard Deviations. It would have made a great starting point for a discussion of how and why digital fonts are different from their metal and photo forebears.
Paul Shaw
04.20.11 at 01:00

This is a great review with some really valid criticisms.

Although I am not nearly the type afficionado that Paul Shaw is, I am perplexed by the inclusion of Interstate (all due respect) over Clearview. (

And seriously -- “Think of us as ignoramuses.” ? The Museum of Modern Art? That runs completely counter to their self-professed mission of "being the foremost museum of modern art in the world." (

Everyone involved would have benefitted from reading any number of readily available texts of an introduction to typography to at least get the terminology and definitions correct. Pretty lame, in my opinion.
Anne C. Kerns
04.20.11 at 01:27

I share some of your complaints, Paul: I think the show was more reliant upon the foggy "Standard Deviations" concept than it cared to admit, but the argument being made by the show remained (perhaps due to structural constraints) pretty obscure.

While any list of twenty-three fonts is going to be draw disapproving murmurs from the typophile corner, the more curious problem to me is the institutional insistence on "contemporary" design exhibits versus historical ones. The fact that the "family" of goods in design goes back further than Behrens is not really made much of. Similarly, the evolution of the type family into the digital era elides its origins in metal type, without which it must be taken as miraculous, or incomprehensible, or both.

The most self-contained concept for the show--and the thing that probably makes it "contemporary"--is that much of the industrial design exhibited seems supposed to tweak its relationship to "family," or the show's idea of "family." Thus the inexplicably undulating generic forms and winking modular systems among the furniture.

But the selection of typefaces perforate this concept pretty easily. Regardless whether these particular ones merit acquisition, the comparison between a "family" of goods and a type family is, as you observe, a precarious one. And ultimately the relationship between the various fonts and their respective families very rarely realizes that winking, "contemporary" criticality. Really the only common point between these typefaces is that they are digital (and licensable on MoMA's terms).

To translate this mismatch into the furniture would make for an exhibition that refers to a evolving notion of the "family" in office furniture whose curatorial concept evaporated into the fact that the desks were designed on computers, and meant to support computers. A more extensive comparison between e.g., a successful digital typefamily and metal precursors would have offered opportunities to put a finer point on what exactly is novel about what this set of faces, and what they supposedly have done with "family," apart from the fact that a somewhat all-in-the-family panel has just picked them. Instead there is only a (uncaptioned? I forget) early-20th c. technical publication set in DIN.
Z. Sachs
04.20.11 at 03:09

Outstanding article Paul. Thank you for your insight and very direct review of MoMA's exhibition. I agree that it is encouraging to see type design receive this kind of recognition, but it should have been done right. I'm not sure Antonelli consulted the right people when putting this together.
04.20.11 at 04:23

While this article may prove that museum curators are not experts at everything they curate, it's also provides a very sort of narrow vision of what might generate the contents of a museum collection or exhibit. The lack of cultural insight and endless technical detail completely misses the point of how type has become woven into our collective consciousness in the last thirty years. The inclusion of a font by Neville Brody may indicate technical merit but in this case it's probably because half the people buying Cabaret Voltaire albums in the eighties actually knew who designed the album's typeface - a complete first - despite the fact that it's barely used today, not to mention its definite influence on the graphic design community. The same goes for Emigre, not only for its type design but also for its significant influence on graphic design writing that was almost non-existent at the time. Dwelling on technical details also exposes the lack of serious conceptual thought that permeates the graphic design profession, save for the rare BMD's and Sagmeister's of the world. That’s a completely different exhibit.
Like architecture, typography will always dwell in the shadows simply because it is such a complex profession. I would hope that its inclusion in the Museum of Modern art collection might inspire a sort of coming out that graphic designers might use to step into the big picture of design in the eyes of the public in the way architecture has in the last decade. Instead, we have a withdrawal into a technical cloud that only serves to extend those shadows.
04.20.11 at 07:17

The, "End-User Liscence Agreements" argument caught me off guard.

Do artists/coders/corporations have an "EULA" for everything now? Does Picasso have one? WTF?

Seems like the attempt recently to copyright/patent the word "the." Ludacris.

Can't believe some mid-to-low level punk (manager) or corporate lawyer got in the way of including something (digital or otherwise) that would have been a proud addition to a museum's inaugural collection.

And, what the heck? Buy a freaking license… did Steve Jobs hold out for $30million, or what?


p.s. Adobe Garamond was a MAJOR omission. Blew away any other so-called "Ignoramouses[sic]" indeed.
Joe Moran
04.20.11 at 08:28

great article.
great criticism.
now that I am further educated, I will be able to look at the exhibition with much greater clarity
04.20.11 at 08:33

And am going to come out here and say… you should have included instead of Keedy Sans.

Joe Moran
04.20.11 at 08:34

And am going to come out here and say… you should have included Not Caslon instead of Keedy Sans.


Joe Moran
04.20.11 at 08:36

For a long time now, MoMA has become a museum for contemporary "art" that has turned its back on the traditional notion of the "Modern" as well as on modernity itself. Do you expect their choice of fonts, which in this case is a serious round of jokes from the time Emigre was still the in thing, would be any better?
04.20.11 at 09:12

My review of Standard Deviations unintentionally implied that Matthew Carter had an undue influence in MoMA’s choice of fonts to be acquired for its collection. That was not the intent. The 2006 committee that Carter was on, was not devoted to choosing fonts for MoMA but to suggesting the direction that the design collection should go. Carter had a subsequent meeting with Paola Antonelli to help the museum understand the technological issues involved in collecting digital fonts. Carter was not one of the experts who advised Antonelli on the final list of 23 fonts. Their names remain a mystery.
Paul Shaw
04.21.11 at 09:37

Mr. Shaw, I'm unsure about the definition of the term typeface. You take MOMA to task for getting it "flat-out wrong." And, you wrote the following: ". . . the term [typeface] has come to mean the design of a group of related characters (not only letters) 'united in form and look' but not comprising 'different sizes and styles.'"

Not comprising different sizes? Really? I thought that, in current usage, the term typeface meant a particular style (roman, italic, or bold, for example) of type within a family. So, Univers 55 is a typeface within the Univers type family. Univers 56 is another typeface in that family. Both are typefaces regardless of the size at which they are used. That is, 10 point Univers 55 is the same typeface as 14 point Univers 55.

Adding in the term font, which is used interchangeably with typeface, creates some more confusion. What is a font? Is it different from a typeface? Are the terms font and type family synonymous?

I thought that a font was a particular size of a typeface. So, 10 pt. Univers 55 is one font, 12 point Univers 55 is another.

Or do I have the distinction between font and typeface exactly backwards?

Well, here I am a designer, and while I do think I at least know what a type family is, the correct definitions of the related terms typeface and font are elusive. Perhaps another typophile can help clarify--but I'm willing to bet that even some experts will disagree. Meanwhile, it's easy to see how MOMA could get it wrong. These terms are confusing and somewhat interchangeable in common usage today. Is Helvetica a typeface, a font, a type family--or all three?
Rob Henning
04.21.11 at 09:56

Just to help set the record straight. The 2006 committee was not entirely a conspiracy to select the world's greatest typefaces.

I was on that panel and the majority of time was spent discussing ways of introducing digital work into the MoMA collection.

In fact, it was a fascinating meeting because it was aimed at redefining how this museum, with its standards and proscriptions, was attempting to alter collecting procedures in light of the new technologies (many of which seem to have become out dated since the meeting).

What's more, it was a commitment on the part of MoMA to dedicate considerable resources to graphic design, including typography.

Since many critics - myself included - had long argued for more serious attention and exhibition space, Ms. Antonelli's initiative was a very valuable step forward into the graphic design and digital design realms.
steven heller
04.21.11 at 12:52

I was about to bash whoever says Remedy is "the answer to too much Helvetica" (I had not previously seen Remedy), until I saw what Remedy is, and then laughed out loud. I will, however, continue with what I was going to say about Helvetica: that it is a superb family, with each face (not font, if you really know what "font" means, especially in the days of handset) exquisitely designed to convey the feeling of Helvetica, and each weight perfectly balanced; that saying "there's too much Helvetica" is like saying "there's too much chocolate;" and reminding that it is the designer who can make or break the beauty of a layout, no matter what typeface is chosen. Helvetica has and still does serve as a gorgeous palette of glyphs for a creative and sensible designer to render a masterpiece of design.
Chaz DeSimone
04.21.11 at 05:06

From Emigre's last promo piece:

Emigre has its own take on this typographic technique. Instead of providing rules, which often render safe but bland results, we believe that ultimately any font can be successfully combined with any other font. It's not so much a matter of which font combinations to pick, it's a matter of how you use the fonts in combination. Size, color, tracking, contrast, layout and overall purpose determine how fonts can be combined successfully.


Joe Moran
04.21.11 at 06:18

First, let me say that Steve Heller is entirely right about that 2006 committee. It was neither dedicated to choosing fonts for MoMA’s collections nor was it any kind of conspiracy. I mentioned it because Antonelli brought it up as the moment when the museum first began thinking of fonts as one area which they might pursue in the future. Judging by the people involved in the discussion other areas were surely covered as well. I was not there so my comments are based on what Antonelli said as well as what I have been told by one or two of the people who were there.
Paul Shaw
04.21.11 at 11:15

The definitions of typeface and font are complicated because they have changed over time as the method of making typefaces has changed. Not only has font had differing definitions in the ages of metal, film and silicon but even within the short history of digital type it has evolved. One problem with MoMA’s glossary is that it not seem to have been derived from accepted sources. Here are some definitions of font, tyepface and type family (or family) from several well-known books on digital typography published since 1980. (Italics in the definitions have been left out in these transcriptions.)

From Typography: Basic principles and applications by Gerard Unger (Venlo, The Netherlands: Océ-Nederland B.V., c.1984)
“If all these different typefaces [roman, italic, various weights and widths] share the same basic characteristics they constitute a type family, and each one bears the name of the family plus an indication of its face….”

From Typefaces for Desktop Publishing: A user guide by Alison Black (London: Architecture Design and Technology Press, 1990)
“The terms typeface and font are often used interchangeably, but the best use of ‘typeface’ is as a general term to describe a family of fonts all of which bear a visual relationship to one another and which are produced by a single type manufacturer. Using the term ‘font’ in this general sense is misleading: you can talk about the typeface Helvetica, but not the font Helvetica.” [this discussion continues at length with examples that imply Black sees typeface and type family as the same, though it is never explicitly stated]

“The term ‘font’ is often used interchangeably with the term ‘variant’… rather than to refer to a variant of a typeface at one particular size…. A technical way of clarifying the distinction between these two usages is to use the terms virtual font to refer to a set of character descriptions that, theoretically, can be used to generate characters at any size and actual font to refer to the realization of character descriptions at one particular size. In practical discussions, though, these terms can seem cumbersome. So, indeed, may the terms variant and font. In the end one may have to accept the usefulness of the loose term ‘font’, despite its ambiguity, and ask for clarification when its meaning really is not clear.”
[Black’s discussion represents a moment when both bitmapped and vector fonts coexisted as her following paragraph makes clear]
“In most cases DTP fonts (that is variants of a typeface at a particular size) are scaled to their size from a single master description…. Either individual fonts are scaled from their master descriptions by the type manufacturer, who then supplies users with a set of fonts at fixed sizes for any given variant; or else individual fonts are scaled on-line when the user instructs the system (via the DTP package) to scale a stored master….”
[anyone remember having to deal with print and screen fonts?] “Most scaling algorithms apply linear transformations to the dimensions of characters and the space surrounding them…. As the sophistication of font-scaling routines increases there is likely to be a move away from linear scaling. Some manufacturers are already producing type with non-linear scaling routines….” [Black then refers to the nascent TrueType font format]

From The Desktop Style Guide: The Comprehensive Reference for Creating Professional Documents on the Desktop by James Felici (New York: Bantam Books, 1991)
“Font. The physical form of a typeface. In computer typography, a font is a set of mathematical descriptions of the shapes of the letters of a typeface, stored as programming code on a disk or other storage medium.”

“Typeface. A set of characters sharing a common design motif. Typefaces are organized into families consisting of related designs that vary in weight and width, and include roman and italic complements.”

From Glossary of Typesetting Terms by Richard Eckersley, Richard Angstadt, Charles M. Ellertson, Richard Hendel, Naomi B. Pascal and Anita Walker Scott (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994): “Font. A particular cut of a typeface, traditionally associated with one particular size, for example, 10-point Futura or 24-point Baskerville. Modern usage, tends to interchange the definitions of font and face, because in photocomposition many sizes are photographic enlargements or reductions from a single master (cut). In metal type, each size of type is separately designed and cut. If more than one master is available for a particular face, each is considered a separate font.”

“Typeface. One of the variations or styles in a type family. The design of a type family, including its shape, weight, and proportions, makes it distinct, but it usually exists in many sizes.”

“Family. The most comprehensive grouping of typefaces evolved from a common design, including all its variations of weight, width, size, and italics.”

From The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst (Vancouver: Hartley & Marks, Publishers, 1999) (2nd ed.)
“Font. A set of sorts or glyphs. In the world of metal type, this means a given alphabet, with all its accessory characters, in a given size. In relation to phototype, it usually means the assortment of standard patterns forming the glyph palette, without regard to size, or the actual filmstrip or wheel on which these patterns are stored. In the world of digital type, the font is the glyph palette itself or the digital information encoding it.”
Bringhurst does not define typeface or family.

From The Complete Manual of Typography: A Guide to Setting Perfect Type by James Felici (Berkeley, California: Peachpit Press, 2003)
“Font. The physical source of the images of type. In metal type, a font is a collection of stamping blocks, each of which bears in high relief the image of a letter; it represents the entire character set of a typeface at a particular point size. In digital type, a font is an electronic file written in programming code that describes the shapes of some or all of the characters in a typeface. These shapes can be scaled to size as needed and imaged by rendering them as an array of tiny dots, or pixels.”

“Typeface. A collection of characters, numerals, accents, and related symbols that share a common design motif.”

“Typeface family. In typography, a group of typefaces that share a common root name and common design characteristics.”

In both Bringhurst and Eckersley note that font, in the phototype world—and by extension, the digital world—does not mean a specific size of type. Although very awkward, the second Felici definition supports this view.

The definitions of family are outmoded in that type families today can also include serif/sans serif variations as a variable in addition to weight, width and italic. The definitions also incorrectly exclude the concept of decoration as a variable which was common in metal typefaces before ornament became a dirty word in design circles. For instance, see the Cheltenham family which includes outline, inline and shaded versions. Felici’s 2003 definition of family does not allow for typefaces with different names that were designed to go together such as Ellington and Strayhorn by Michael Harvey or Demos and Praxis by Gerard Unger.
Paul Shaw
04.22.11 at 12:29

Thanks for the long list of references/definitions. They're helpful. I'd read some, but not all of these. The last ones especially help to clarify what font means as it applies to digital type. It is helpful to think of font as the source. And the Eckersley definitions seem to offer the most clarity on the terms typeface and type family. (I also like them because they are in line with what I thought.)

Some of the others seem more ambiguous. Felici in particular. Common design motif? To my reading, that could be a definition of a typeface OR a type family. I ask: Are Helvetica Regular, Italic, and Bold three typefaces or one? After all, they DO share a common design motif. They must be one typeface. But that doesn't sit right with me--I think Helvetica Bold is a different typeface from Helvetica Italic, both in the Helvetica Family, of course. Felici's definition of typeface and family muddy the waters.

Maybe MOMA should have read all of these, esp. Ekcersley, to help form their definitions. But perhaps they read only Felici and Alison Black. Black seems to think that typeface and type family mean the same thing. And isn't part of the problem with the MOMA definition the fact that it conflates type and type family?

In the end, it's still a bit confusing. I don't mean to excuse MOMA for not getting it right, but I can really see how it would happen!
Rob Henning
04.22.11 at 12:16

I did not intend to overwhelm anyone with that raft of definitions about font, typeface and type family. I was trying to find definitions from the digital era that would make it clear that font had a new meaning from the one that held sway in the metal era. Allison Black’s book did not have a definition but a long-winded and, I admit, hard to follow, discussion. I was tempted to leave it out but then I realized that she had brought up an issue that has been generally forgotten (including by me). Namely, that fonts were size-based in the early bitmapped years of the digital era. They no longer are.

MoMA could have chosen to either define the term font as it describes things in 2011 (which would have excluded size as a criterion) or they could have explained how the term changed during the period of digital type. The latter would have been the right approach since it would then have helped viewers understand early designs such as Bell Centennial, Chicago (missing in action) and Oakland vs. newer ones such as Gotham and Verdana.

I agree that the Eckersley et al definition is the best.
Paul Shaw
04.22.11 at 11:51

Besides being the home of Droog Design the Netherlands is also home to a graphic design museum: please explore and comment on its way of presenting graphic design and types:
04.24.11 at 05:58

I agree with you completely, although I am happy to see that typefaces have finally been showcased and recognized as an art form, the chosen inductees made me question how some were even selected into the first font hall of fame in the MoMa. I believe there are much more fonts that could've been selected over the ones that are listed...
Amy S
04.25.11 at 12:16

I have not seen the exhibit, nor even looked at the website, but thought I would offer my experience as someone who has worked at museums for several years as a designer, including at MoMA.

When I worked at MoMA, I would eagerly await the reviews of exhibitions posted outside of the Public Relations office. More often than not, at some point in the article the author, with considerable knowledge and sophistication, would lambast the curator and museum for being “ignoramuses.” Most of the time, the reviewer would make very interesting points that added to one's experience of the exhibition.

What many of these types of reviews seemed to have as a background assumption was that MoMA was a kind of sovereign power, decreeing inclusions and exclusions that would have an immediate and deleterious effect on the ability of its subjects to understand the world of art and design. (One could easily argue that the museum set itself up historically for this criticism.)

Instead, acquiring typefaces for the MoMA collection is simply one aspect of Antonelli's job description. Creating exhibits that can offer something intelligent and with integrity to an daily audience (when I was there) of up to 6000 people is another part of the job. If one typeface isn't included at first, it is not a momentous decision, but simply an informed curatorial one that can be rectified at any point in the mueum's long timeframe.

And if an exhibition is lambasted by an insider expert, that's great – anytime passion, intelligence and criticism is aimed at one of MoMA's shows, it helps further the discourse. But keep in mind that the museum is simply a place where things get done in specific ways for certain ends having to do with their mission, their curators, their larger public, and for a variety of other historically contingent reasons.
John Calvelli
04.27.11 at 11:20


" … things get done in specific ways for certain ends having to do with their mission, their curators, their larger public, and for a variety of other historically contingent reasons. "

The bane of every graphic designer – administrative double talk.

But yes, we ( the public and professionals alike ) look up to museums to be the "sovereign power" with regard to inclusion in exhibits.

The defense of exclusion based on politics, mission, &c. (contingent reason ???? ) is kind of lame.

Isn't it a curators job to know what is included? And why?

Joe Moran
04.27.11 at 10:11

The epithet “ignoramuses” was how Paola described herself and her colleagues during the AIGA NY/MoMA panel discussion. Afterwards, I asked her if I could quote her and, to her credit, she said yes. She did not shy away from what she had said.

Apropos, the complaint that my review is an insider critique, I would like to point out that if a similar show had been mounted on Picasso’s prints and the curators had included a glossary with poor or incorrect definitions of such terms as etching, engraving, intaglio, mordant and bite they would have been roundly criticized in the same way I have taken Antonelli et al to task. In such a scenario the critics would not have been seen as “insider experts” but simply as experts. Type design and graphic design deserve as much respect as painting, architecture and cinema if MoMA wants to include them in its purview. Otherwise, they should leave such work to other institutions.
Paul Shaw
04.29.11 at 03:07

"For example, Its impossible to go down a street without seeing the helvetica typeface. How was this font overlooked?"

Everyone overlooks Helvetica; that's its purpose at this point.
05.01.11 at 03:02

Paul "ROCKS." Give me a call sometime, love to talk, consult/get your opinion on a project that has a great importance on its typography.
Peter G from Buffalo
06.04.11 at 12:43

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Paul Shaw is a designer and a design historian. He is the author (and co-designer) of Helvetica and the New York City Subway System and the co-author of Blackletter: Type and National Identity. He writes for Print, Eye, Baseline, AIGA Voice and his own slow blog called Blue Pencil.
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