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Comments (88) Posted 11.07.07 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Jessica Helfand

Type Means Never Having To Say You're Sorry


freud.jpg

About a year ago, I participated in a student portfolio review involving nearly a dozen American schools, many (most?) exhibiting the classic projects that characterize all undergraduate design programs — the color studies, the poster problems, the typographic exercises — all of which teach the student about that most essential design conceit: letterforms, and how to use them.

And here, I quickly discovered that something had gone horribly wrong. One after another, bright-faced young hopefuls displayed the products of their long hours in the studio. Book after book spilled forth with content ranging from how to cook a frittata to how to understand Freud. There were personal books, commercial books, literary and poetic books, serious and silly books, childrens books, how-to books, and everything in between.

And there they were — virtually all of them — typeset in Futura.

When Paul Renner released the typeface Futura in 1928, he was inspired by the streamlined geometric forms that celebrated the newly-minted wonders of the machine age. Futura was important for a number of reasons: arguably the first sans-serif font to be widely distributed, it has since its inception influenced countless other typefaces and remains, to some, the epitome of modern design. Save for a brief revival sometime in the 1970s (no doubt a reaction to the nostalgia-laden excesses of macramé, big hair and Victorian clip-art ) and its dazzling persistence throughout the oeuvre of Barbara Kruger, Futura remains a typeface of its era: smooth and sleek, round and uncompromising. (Renner, an early member of the pre-Bauhaus Deutscher Werkbund — was guided by a strong belief in the union of art and industry, and was, as Futura brilliantly demonstrates, a staunch opponent of ornament.)

kruger2.jpg
Power Pleasure Desire Disgust, 1997, multimedia installation. Deitch Projects, New York.

Kruger notwithstanding, I found it vexing to see what amounted to a miniature Futura-fest in all these student portfolios, and began gently questioning those responsible.

"What made you choose this typeface?" I inquired of a lovely young woman whose senior project involved a series of book jackets for Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams.

"I liked how modern it was," she replied.

"Did you read the book?"

She blushed, shook her head no, and looked down at her lap.

I tried a different approach. "Do you know what year this book was published?"

Again, she shook her head, and apologized for the lapse in research. But I wasn't so interested in the apology (a common refrain, particularly among students) as I was concerned that she was about to graduate and had no fundamental knowledge of design history — a failure of the curriculum, and by conjecture, of the faculty. I explained that when Freud's book was published in 1899 (and in it's first English edition the subsequent year) it's impact was significant — that the whole notion of addressing the subconscious was seen as wholly unprecedented, even radical at the time. And yes, broadly speaking, such a novel concept might be considered to be "modern" — and what might that entail, typographically? I could see that an abbreviated lecture on the rise of modernism in America would be about as pointless as quoting George Santayanaor even Harry Truman — and besides, the next student was already awaiting his turn for review — but the bottom line was: why Futura?

"I just kind of liked it."

Clearly, designers make choices about the appropriateness of type based on any number of criteria, and "liking it" is indeed one of them. There are an infinite number of considerations to be taken into account, from readability to copyfitting to concerns over what works on a screen to what translates into other languages. Followers of the Beatrice Warde school of thought believe that typography should be invisible, while an equal argument can (and should) be made on behalf of expressive typography — type that extends and amplifies its message through more robust gestures in form, scale and composition. (Guillaume Apollinaire's caligrammes preceded Renner's Futura by more than a decade: might not these be considered modern, too?)

It's not the designer's voice that concerns me here so much as the designer's understanding of history — a body of knowledge that once acquired, can be edited, modified, even jettisoned at will, but only after giving it a good, hard think. Designers in general (and students in particular) have an overwhelming tendency to consider anything that's been achieved in the past as a kind of "been there, done that" straitjacket, while the opposite is not only true, it's surprisingly actionable.

There are those who believe typography, like beauty, rests in the eye of the beholder. And while it is not now nor has it ever been a science, there are certain typographic tenets that remain somewhat protected by, well, the vicissitudes of cultural civility. In general, we like to be able to read our typography. Organizational conceits — like headlines, bylines and pull-quotes — offer scalable options in editorial design, while book designers guide readers to different points of entry through things like chapter headings and running heads. Poster designers get to make type big. Motion designers get to make type move. Branding and identity designers have to do it all — their task involves orchestrating visual language so that, say, the same word is recognizable whether reduced to a website icon, printed on a business card or emblazoned on the side of a truck. And yes, the starting point for all of it — whether it's a student assignment or a massive re-branding of a corporation — is likely to be the designer who says, "I just kind of liked it."

Nevertheless, one assumes that, at a certain point in the evolution of a visual idea, a certain amount of judgment intervenes, and appropriateness is questioned — even though appropriateness can be boring. (Even some of the world's most fastidious typographers know that.) True, we live in a multi-cultural, aesthetically pluralistic world now — one where the form-to-content relationships aren't so easily identified, let alone made visually manifest. Nor, perhaps, should they be: nothing really modern has ever been easy, has it? It is highly likely that the majority of the general public will never know — or, for that matter, care — that Paul Renner designed Futura nearly 30 years after Sigmund Freud published his seminal book on dreams. But does that make it right? Typography may well be the most critical component in the education of a young graphic designer. Let's begin by teaching our students what they really need to know — not just the formal and technical conventions but the cultural, intellectual, critical and yes, historical context in which hundreds of years of typographic practice preceded them. Choosing a typeface is fun, and making language visible is nothing short of enchanting; in these modern, computationally-enabled days, it's also way too easy to wander and stumble and fall. To fail to address the degree to which design history plays a fundamental role in any typographic course of study is nothing short of tragic.
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Comments (88)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

Great article. Next to not knowing history, the big problem I see in my school's program is the lack of willingness to experiment. A lot of the students who are so called "top of the class" are there because they've found futura or helvetica 85 and milk the hell out of it. Make either of those italic and they go insane. They won't even try it. When grading season comes along, it's important to have pretty, clever work to present... but what's the point in a good outcome in design school if the process to get there was the exact same as the last project? Maybe if students knew the history better, they'd be more open to trying different thing.
Matthew Aubie
11.08.07 at 07:39

> And there they were — virtually all of them — typeset in Futura.

Some teachers may cringe about what I'm about to say, but halfway into the semester at our senior portfolio class in SVA, Bryony and I decided to ban Futura. Everyone was using it and no one knew why. As a way to force them into uncharted territories we told them that, at least until January, no one could use Futura anymore. There are probably more dogmatic reasons to ban a typeface from students, but this was getting out of hand and needed drastic measures.

Someone just presented something in Optima. So I'm undecided if we did the right thing.
Armin
11.08.07 at 08:18

History is important. So is everything else!
pat Taylor
11.08.07 at 08:37

Thanks for sharing your concerns in this interesting article. Personally I've never had a problem with designers setting out to break rules about the appropriateness of solutions based on historical precedent, but only as long as they can provide a good reason for choosing to do it. I wonder if the kinds of pressures placed on today's design students combined with the massively increased size of annual college intakes can provide part of the explanation for this important issue. Many of the graduates I've spoken to recently seem to have been pushed into producing the slickest possible portfolios at the expense of really good research and well considered ideas. I'm not an educator, so it would be interesting to hear what tutors and students think about the points raised by this article.
Tony Seddon
11.08.07 at 08:50

I really appreciate this post, it makes me realise that the precious minutes I waste verbally banging my head against a wall (ie: my boss, a marketing manager) isn't ridiculous. He questions me often on my design choices, and I'm glad that after having a decent schooling in art theory, I can reel it off fairly naturally.

I often feel like I don't belong in my industry, having studied fine arts, but I am grateful for the theory and history it provided me with.
Natalie
11.08.07 at 09:32

Designers need to seek and find their own version of the History of Graphic Design (no thank you Phillip Meggs...Zzzzz). My journey began post college via Steve Heller/ Louise Fili, who went to the trouble of editing in some great work. Oaklanders is a not so secret secret.. and theres always the Strand. And Gallagher's.

This week at the AIGA, NY Jason Fulford/ Tamara Shopsin displayed some of his at the photo/ video findings
from the Prelinger Library in San Francisco. Quite fun, inspiring. Some if it is downloadable for free.
felix sockwell
11.08.07 at 09:47

I have said it before. I'll say it again. I think there is something really wrong with the graphic design is taught. When I left the graphic design program to study film/video/performance, I said at the time that I felt that graphic design was anti-intellectual. That those first projects were inane, naval gazing and based on no core knowledge. You were learning typography in one class and doing a CD case for your favorite song. (I don't even have a favorite song!) I contrasted this with my year of studying architecture (there was a 10 year gap in studies there), which at the time I found to be TOO intellectual. But in hindsight, made a lot of sense -- before we even got into the studio, we endured a lecture class where we not only learned about history of architectural thinking (in addition to a history of architecture class) but also lectures on "what is beauty." Simultaneously we were using colored paper cut to 2"x1" rectangles to explore the relationships between form, negative space and space. Once we were in the studio -- a whole semester after the fact -- we did a lot of observational and research projects. Tracing plans of historic cities, researching a particular plot of land. And not producing one darn piece of architecture. That would come in year two.

Now admittedly, you can't practice architecture without 5-7 years of study. So there is a little more time to take it slow.

But the pedagogy of architecture moves from history and research to the specifics of a building. And could be a model for how graphic design education needs to be reformed. And doesn't really care to create a portfolio of 20 different pieces all as shallow conceived as the last one.

So I went off and studied fine arts, where I was awarded for thinking. Perhaps my own design career has been slower because of that. But I got the greatest value out of my education. Because there are plenty of opportunities in the "real world" to not think. And to rush things. And not do the research. School shouldn't be like that.
Inaudible Nonsense
11.08.07 at 09:50

Armin: You're not alone. One of my teachers banned students from using Futura in her class. I had no problems with it, because I never liked using Futura to begin with, but I definitely see why such radical approach might be necessary.

I think there's a preconceived notion among students that Futura is neutral and thus it's appropriate to use the typeface for any kind of materials.
ray
11.08.07 at 10:13

Has anyone else also noticed the re-emergence of (shudder) Avante Garde lately? I recently attended the Barcelona-based Offf conference in New York, and it seemed virtually every presenter used Avante Garde in something, if not everything.

One, ISO50, did explain why he seemed to have a fascination with it, which basically amounted to it's "modern" (with a lowercase "m"), and "I like it."

Yet curiously, much of the accompanying non-typographic forms at the conference were chaotic pastiche, though also nostalgic or anachronistic. I wonder if for young designers, modernist and neo-modernist type seems to serve as a ground, a counterweight for the maximum overload of form elsewhere in their work and world.
jay harlow
11.08.07 at 10:24

I'm not sure from the text of this article what it is you're objecting to in regards to the Freud piece. The over use of Futura aside, you haven't really explained how Futura is inappropriate for the covers of those books, other than to say they were published 30 years before Futura was created. That's like saying the cover of the Bible can't be typeset in anything but black letter. If the student's assignment was to design the covers for the books as if they were for the first 1899 edition, and not a contemporary reprinting, then your complaint would hold water.

I'd argue that type, like language, has a fluid history. It evolves and adapts and changes to suit the the needs of the now. Certainly history is useful and important, but it shouldn't lock type design to one time or place. How else could Barbara Kruger have used it so successfully... doesn't her use of it enrich its history?

The student should have had a better excuse for choosing it, no argument there. But Jessica, I'd like to hear a better argument for disliking it. I know you have one, I just don't see it here.
tag
11.08.07 at 10:35

Bravo! I can not agree more.

I have My personal interest in the history of typography has not just helped in my growth as a designer but really assisted in my ability to explain and sell a design to a client. Not only does it help the client connect with the typeface but it really shows them that you have thought about their design.

A client's mindless dismissal your use of Mrs. Eaves can be countered with the interesting story of Zuzana Licko's revival of Baskerville. The history of Sara Eaves is a fantastic anecdote that can stimulate a more personal dialogue. Typography can facilitate more than just a design... it can help build a relationship.

Research is a key component that sets a great designer apart from a good designer. I would love to see the history of typography worked into more design curriculums.
Samantha Warren
11.08.07 at 10:46

I think the comments here testify to the fact that my experience doesn't represent an isolated case. "Fluid" is one of those ambiguous terms that are dangerous with regard to teaching: and while I'm hardly advocating the introduction of fascist instruction in the classroom, I am finding more often than not that many students wouldn't know a neogrotesque if it fell on their heads. (Or maybe their iPods.) Your biblical reference is perhaps too easy: Blackletter's had a glorious revival in the New York Times Magazine, but I assure you, it has nothing to do with looking cool.

Students don't read. They're not asked to think about the impact their typographic choices have on work they produce. So my Freud is someone else's Fitzgerald is someone else's Foucault and before you know it you have someone making something "modern" using, God help me, Papyrus. (Which, by the way, is no Futura.)

My argument has nothing to do with liking or disliking this typeface, but has everything to do with the fact that somewhere along the line, the infinite opportunities for being "fluid" have done our students wrong.
jessica helfand
11.08.07 at 10:53

Last year I reviewed an architectural portfolio that was set in (cue the shocker music) Comic Sans. What?!

In my experience (both as student, staff, and occasional instructor), architecture students rarely get any lessons in typography, so I see a lot of projects set in Bank Gothic, Copperplate Gothic, and, when the project is related to children or something more whimsical, the dreaded Comic Sans. I'd rather enforce Futura for these students, so they can stop thinking about whether or not to use Curlz MT and get back to designing better parking.


Jw
11.08.07 at 11:16

Does anyone teach typographical history? If nothing else, it would prevent the needlessly tragic number of anachronistic signs seen in films and television. I remember seeing a docudrama about a former Canadian prime minister; a scene was set in 1974 and a banner in the scene was typeset in Chicago (the old Mac system font). Others have seen movies set in the Old West where a railroad sign was set in Helvetica...the list goes on.

As with music and literature, we have the bounty of previous millennia at our disposal, but without context, it's useless.
AJ
11.08.07 at 11:31

As a disclaimer I must admit that my senior year of school (circa 2001-2002) I was a habitual Futura user. I used so much Futura and Clarendon that I decided to split the difference and design a hybrid of the two.

I think it's important to remember that although Paul Renner designed Futura in 1928, it became incredibly popular in the US in the 40s and 50s. To me, Futura is more immediately suggestive of the USA in the 50s than of Germany in the 30s, because it seems like almost every piece of vernacular typography from midcentury used Futura or a knock-off (like Spartan), while so much of of the avante garde Modernist european design from the 20s and 30s used grotesques instead. For example, I can only think of one really famous Tschichold piece that used Futura (a specimen book for Futura) while there are countless books, business cards, and ads from the 50s that do. And of course in those vernacular pieces Futura was invariably centered and combined with Century-esque fonts, something I don't think Paul Renner would have approved of, but which I love. This may be the result of misguided nostalgia for a time I never experienced, or maybe Futura's classical proportions actually work well in centered alignments. In any case, I have a feeling that this is the period and genre of design that so many (young/student) designers are referencing when they use Futura. Or maybe they're one step removed and are referencing Wes Anderson who may in turn be referencing Stanley Kubrick or mid-century French and Italian film titles.
Isaac
11.08.07 at 12:04

Full disclosure: When I first had the opportunity to craft an identity for my first company, I went with Futura. One of its strengths was that it could look very good on a 512x342 monochrome screen, allowing our diskette promotions and print materials to look good together.

I went to art school so I didn't learn a speck of design history there. It would not have mattered. Until I was well past my teens and having adult experiences I lumped everything that happened before I was born into 'the past' and assumed it offered little to the present.

When I started doing graphic design I cared only about the present, the tools available to me. I loved type and collected catalogs for dry transfer letters.

As I grew older my love of type provided an entry point into design history, first just out of curiosity. The more I learned the more I wanted to learn. From learning the history of type I was able to finally find a framework to support all the random historical knowledge I had picked up.

It was working with type that made me want to understand the history of communication, but it took years before I cared enough to want to know about dead people and what I have I common with them.

Is it a failure of the schools that students don't develop a sense of history? Probably, but I would also suppose that it starts before college. We live in a world preoccupied with the tiny slice of time that is now.

And now there so many typefaces that it's hard enough just keeping up with the present. Of course, just when I think - Enough! Stop! I don't need another type face - I see a passage of text set in something beautiful and unfamiliar.

I wish that I had developed an interest in history sooner. My art college had only scattered academic classes and few were required. I could find lots of technique and critique classes but little hint of how much history has to offer.

I would love to be teaching right now, helping some students discover for themselves how an historical perspective can invigorate and inform their work, but because I have worked for the last twenty years as a design professional and only have a diploma, I am under-qualified to take a pay cut and teach at the institution I graduated from.

Kevin Steele
11.08.07 at 12:04

I was absolutely thrilled to read this article.

I am currently a graphic design student at Portland State University and am taking a course on the History of Modern Design. Our professor, Margaret Richardson, has a very informal style of teaching and doesn't project her voice well, but every time I attend class, her enthusiasm for design leaves me excited and yearning for more information. Yet when I look around at my fellow design students, they are often working on other homework or falling asleep. This makes me wonder if they even understand the importance of knowing the history behind the art and profession that they claim to pursue.

That said, I just typeset a project in Futura (gasp!), but did so with intent because it was fitting for the theme and era of the project. Nonetheless, I'm beginning to reconsider that choice and explore other options for typefaces. Unfortunately, the font resources available to students are relatively limited. The university has a hefty collection, but prohibits us from copying the font files to our own computers, hindering our ability to work effectively on our own time.
Isaac Watson
11.08.07 at 12:34

With so many graphic designers working under the framework of advertising and marketing, using typographic design history to explain type choices would be met with a resounding silence. At least in commercial design environments, design decisions based on emotional connections and business smarts go much further, because the decision-makers are businesspeople, not design historians. Design history becomes little more than UBI (useless but interesting).

Not saying it's right, but what designers are faced with in the real world can be quite different than the design-centric critiques in design school.

Hell, I'm somewhat of a purist and I wish design history was more revered by all.
Tom M.
11.08.07 at 12:35

I'd love to hear people's recommendations for resources -- whether it be books, magazines, films, whatever -- for building an understanding of design/type/etc. history. As a young designer eager to learn, I find it somewhat difficult to know where to start.
David
11.08.07 at 01:07

Type Means Never Having To Say You're Sorry

I said I was sorry to my typography teacher once for what I had done. Never received a reciprocating apology in return.

But I never forgot. Not yet. Not ever?
unreciprocating, maybe he did forget, too.

oh well, that's history.

Time to move on.
nancy
11.08.07 at 01:15

Certainly everyone -- not just students -- needs to pay closer attention to the history that lies, whether we are aware of it or not, beneath all of our decisions. But I wonder if perhaps too much attention is being given here -- and in design education -- to typeface selection, which is a relatively small part of the larger problem of typography.

It is all very well, for example, for me to propose Baskerville as a governing typeface for a maritime transportation company's identity, on the grounds that Baskerville cut the letters during the 1750s, when the British Empire was entering its salad days as a naval power, and that perhaps the oaks of the British dreadnoughts informed certain of his decisions, etc.; it adds savor to a presentation, and the weight of history helps convince people who ordinarily couldn't give a rat's arse otherwise that every tiny part of the design process is somehow quantifiable. The truth is, of course, that the history is only the underpinning for what is otherwise a question of taste: Baskerville, in this context and to my eye, supplies the right measure of salt and seriousness to frame the client's message.

Weingart (invoked earlier in the comments) would do the same project in Berthold AG Old Face and Times Roman.

He would do this perhaps because he is a teacher first, and his typographical problems are different from those of the brand developer. But I also think he would do it because the larger issues of typography are about finding voice for content using the content itself; his comfort with those two typefaces mean that he has one less variable -- one less layer of taste -- to contend with in the process.

You could argue that this approach means that the result would be about Weingart's process first and about the client's needs second; but I think the important part is whether the result works: does it communicate?

This is what the standard should be. Typeface selection affects emotional temperature and a jillion other intangibles; fluency in managing those comes with experience, and a kind of experience that I don't think can be had in any serious way outside of actual professional practice. Students -- like everyone -- are influenced by fashion: they see the titles for a Wes Anderson film, a Si Scott phrase treatment, they're gonna want to try it themselves. Great. Most of us learned by aping. But in the classroom, it seems to me that simplifying the toolset so that the larger issues of voice and structure are pushed to the fore should come first.
Adam McIsaac
11.08.07 at 01:41

Oh love. Oh hate.

I've had a tumultuous relationship with Futura lately. I can only use it in uppercase and in light or bold.

One use was based on a client preference toward it already and let me tell you in my best, non-audible Bostonian accent, i turned gawbage into gold. You think the general overuse by students using it trying to be the next Wes Anderson is bad, try having your client who "took some design classes" present you with their old material and all body copy set in Futura book italic. I about pissed myself.

Following Armin's queue, I might just have to deactivate this dear friend after this project.

Don't tell Futura, but I have been cheating on it with Gotham and am loving every minute of it.

Futura lives by its own rules. Its blunt, yet sexy. You can sell tools or jewels with it. I think in certain ways its far surpassed it's initial potential, which is amazing. Though i can agree that when it becomes a case of type meningitis within a school setting and that it needs to be nipped quickly.

Yet not one has mentioned the typeface that brought us fabulous Hollywood-like success is in fact a bit of a gluttonous beast. Maybe we need successive addendums with other guilty offenders.

This obsessiveness persists in the professional ranks as well. See the use of Meta and Officina in Germany. Hey looks its a corporate capabilities brochure using Meta. Imagine that!


For adjuncts or profs that don't want the knife to plunge too deep maybe you should stop reading here.

I would advocate any way of teaching GD history/type history in a way that is engaging. Those history professors out there should be self critical of where your lectures are falling short. If the students aren't connecting its your fault. Screw the respect you think you should command and start to earn it.

I think its not only a matter of getting a proper history class in, but having qualified professors or adjuncts following up and pressing students on the choices they make when developing work. Sorry to say but I know not every person who works with students is a type historian and accordingly a "qualified" individual to teach.

Once good teachers are prepared to push students, then you'll see mono typeface usage die out.







Josh
11.08.07 at 01:58


I posted a response here: http://www.designplexus.com
Joe
11.08.07 at 02:05

Jw and Adam McIsaac pointed to this already, but to be explicit:

If you ask a novice musician to compose a work or to improvise, would they be able to defend every facet of their work? 'Why did you play in 4/4 time? Why did you use that key or this chord?' I suspect the beginner will have an answer something like "I just liked it." When learning, musicians and designers alike need some structure because they cannot justify every aspect of every facet of what they produce. 'Why did you use the diatonic scale and not whole tone? Why not serialism?' ad infinitum...

For beginning designers this structure can be provided by rigorous historical knowledge, or understanding the psychology of vision, or even arbitrary rules or constraints that at least give them some footing. In the absence of formal structure they will fall back on the comfortable and familiar, namely, Futura.

(It is a comforting typeface, isn't it? I certainly think so. Nice post.)
Ralphy
11.08.07 at 02:09

as a (wait for it ...) product designer i see a similar trend in my field. it seems that everywhere i look things are shiny, white with corner radii. i can imagine the designer presenting his work "i took my inspiration from the iPod because everyone loves it and it is shorthand for design..." etc.

not a mention of dieter rams or daniel weil.

i am not sure how relevant this is, but i just thought of it as i read the posting. i think all designers could benefit from understanding their heritage.

marty
11.08.07 at 02:18

@David You should own and read The Elements of Typographical Style. You should probably also have Meggs' History of Graphic Design. Start there. You may need more later, but that will cover you.
Inaudible Nonsense
11.08.07 at 03:02

"I just kind of liked it."

You know, in reality, it sounds to me like this student is ready for a happy practice with most of the clients she will encounter.

By avoiding deeper historical knowledge, she might also avoid the inevitable crushing ennui when she joins the rest of us in "make it bigger" territory.

Caprice is the happy future(a)!

leMel
11.08.07 at 03:03

"I just kind of liked it."

You should own and read The Elements of Typographical Style..

I think that somewhere between those 2 (above) is how I select typefaces. Having a knowledge of the history of a particular face is important, but not always necessary. Liking a particular face is almost always necessary, but not always important. However, I wouldn't go as far as Bringhurst suggests and (for instance) only set copy describing The Renaissance in a face originally cut in that period. That level of minutiae usually goes right over the heads of the majority of working designers out there, not to mention the public in general. However, I almost always laugh at obvious typographic jokes.
Doug B
11.08.07 at 03:46

On the subject of design edjumacation:

We recently interviewed someone for a production position at our company and found their portfolio to be fraught with typographical errors. They had shoddy rags, poor kerning, ridiculously long measures, inappropriate leading, horrid rivers, bulging bullets, orphans, widows, oh my!

Noticing that the individual was working part time as a teacher at a prominent (though not necessarily respected) online institution, we asked what subject was being taught?

The answer: Typography, of course!
Monostereo
11.08.07 at 04:44

When I taught typography, many of my students used Futura. Again, it was one of those situations where they "just liked the way it looked."
Ryan
11.08.07 at 05:58

What were the dozen American schools, and who taught there?
Tselentis
11.08.07 at 08:19

i remember reading something about a typeface being unsuitable for the editorial elements of a newspaper and is something that puzzled me. thoughts and ideas are so multi layered that how can they be captured in a typeface.

i have posted here about typography before and still find it such a hard thing to write about. im not sure where the difficulty lies. im guessing its a language thing.

ted
11.08.07 at 08:31

Hey...
I like futura!

Please stop with the futura hate.
futurano1fan
11.08.07 at 08:43

My love of typography crumbled when the cookie cutters bent themselves out of shape. It goes to the wayside with voting and healthcare. I still appreciate the beauty, but the nitpicking debates where not much changes outside of fancy new words remain the same.

Unless~

you dropout of the living alphabet and join the plants and animals, which has more and more appeal to me. (as long as they are tame and not poison ivy)

For those still interested:
If young people like Futura it may be they are shopping at Ikea too much, or Aldi supermarkets, or drinking Absolut Vodka too much, or reading too much HUSTLER. All those places use Futura or a form there of as their "House-type". You know how brands build that emotional attachment subliminally to young people.
nancy
11.08.07 at 08:51

all i can say is gardening rocks. what other activity actually has time as an element.
ted
11.08.07 at 08:54

i remember thinking early in college that Futura was really cool and I liked it. Later I did get a course on graphic design and type history, and decided that it looked like dog shit in lowercase.
Brandon B
11.08.07 at 09:37

I think cultural context trumps typographic history in most situations. For example, for me Futura has always been more about 1950s and 60s science texts and less about high modernism. Same deal with ITC Bauhaus and old Atari cartridges. Others may feel differently, but what I'm getting at is that anachronistic does not always equal inappropriate.

On another note, am I the only one who loves the lighter weights of Futura but hates the heavier weights? That Extra Black in particular tends to annoy me to no end.
ishmael
11.08.07 at 09:42

I'm also interested in Tselentis's question, as I am currently in design school and do not experience (much) of the problems addressed in this post / the comments.

Jessica, your own comment makes such blanket generalizations (and false ones, to my knowledge) that I'm embarrassed for my classmates to read it and be as shocked as I was. Isaac Tobin's comment offers a much more accurate description of students' decisions, judging from my close perspective of peers' work. (Then again, I do come from the same school as him...)
astudent
11.08.07 at 09:58

Exactly!

That was dead on. Historical perspective is key.
It seems that much of what gives us depth has been washed away by the velocity of our culture.
Welcome to flat academics.
Don Ulrich
11.09.07 at 12:35

jessica rightly brings the focus to the absence of design history, but then armin categorically bans a typeface. wouldn't a prevalence of the use of futura be the perfect time to educate students about the impact of typographic choice? the connotations, the historical context, etc. etc.? Even "I like it" is valid, if infused with a critical understanding of how and why one likes it.

however, there was also that movie where Danny Van Den Dungen from Experimental Jetset sang the praises of a typeface that eliminated the need to really think about what you were using, and why... not such a far cry from "I just like it."
tracy kroop
11.09.07 at 08:53

Tracy, let me explain how these interviews work. You talk for three hours, trying to present a coherent story, and it all gets edited down to two minutes. So what you end up with are some out-of-context remarks, and a stupid joke that I make in the end of the interview ("All that hunting to the next typeface every time, it took a lot of energy, and I can still remember, as students, that were really disappointed because you wanted to use a certain typeface and then you saw somebody else had used it, and then you couldn't use it because you wanted to be original. And with Helvetica this whole problem is non-existent because everybody's using Helvetica") that suddenly becomes the crux of the interview.
But that's how these things work, and we're not complaining, because we fully understand that what matters is the documentary as a whole.

We always assume that people understand that documentaries work that way, and that it doesn't make sense to criticize the person being interviewed for what is basically a heavily edited soundbite. But we guess we are wrong; there are always the humorless, the naive and the ignorant. As Tracy shows.

I didn't want to react on Tracy through a forum, as this whole forum scene is usually a bit too dark and sarcastic for us. I wanted to mail her personally, but the contact page on Tracy's website wasn't working.

Danny.
Danny
11.09.07 at 10:16

Typographic education in North America is crap. You spend inane amounts of time on ridiculous projects that teach you very little (is setting the lyrics of a song into a poster really necessary?). Profs claim to teach the rules, though they don't, they claim to teach us how to be rigorous, but they don't. All of us students get so scared, because Type Profs walk around design schools like they are holier than the pope. Here's an idea: don't teach type education with good examples, start with all bad, ugly, vile things and then burn it into us not to do it.

Basically, we're all striving to be good and perfect, but no one has taught us the rules and the rules we do know we stick to, and get too frightened to try anything different.
DesignStudent
11.09.07 at 10:25

To solve one potential mystery, I think part of the prevalence of Futura among students is availability. Despite rampant font piracy, students have limited choices of available typefaces, and Futura stands out to them. I'm sure they also like the name. They recognize something "modern" in it that appeals to them in a way that Helvetica doesn't.

However, my objection to the use of Futura is that it is an extremely difficult typeface to use. It never looks good to me as text, and I can't count the number of times I've struggled with it and abandoned it for something more readable. The few times I've made it work have been in all upper case as display, and even then it requires fussing.

So, all other considerations aside, I think using Futura falls into advanced typography. It's just not the kind of thing you can plop down on a page and walk away from. To "like" Futura is to not really see Futura in the context of readable text. So it's equally disturbing to me that students aren't learning how type works and how to separate pure form from practical use.

marian bantjes
11.09.07 at 10:53

What I Learned:
1.Only use Futura if I know it is appropriate.
2.Befriend my type.
3."I just kind of liked it." rarely holds up.
cfair
11.09.07 at 11:18

Danny,

My comments were entirely misunderstood--my point was not to criticize your interview (I do know how documentaries are made, having been involved in the process myself--and your bit made me laugh, so we can continue to debate my sense of humor, if you'd like ;-), but to point out that while Futura is "under fire" in this article, that there are other typefaces that are often used by default, or en masse because of any number of reasons (trend, personal preference, etc.).

I was trying to come to Futura's rescue with a misunderstood, tongue-in-cheek reference to Helvetica--both the typeface and the movie--that is also highly popular.

My issue was actually with the banning of particular typefaces, and in support of Jessica's call for design history, if not in curricula as a course in-and-of itself, than as an integrated component of typography, imaging, and studio classes, etc.
tracy kroop
11.09.07 at 11:23

A lot of commercial designers use design history as nothing more than a proof for their typographic choices, or something to elevate their pitch above "I like the way it looks." Platitudes like "learn the rules then break them" seem to sum it up, but students and teachers alike need to look at the work piece-by-piece and stop declaring what to "never do".

History = important. But there is the very real danger of becoming a most uninteresting bunch.
nick
11.09.07 at 11:36

i think marian has an excellent point. futura — while a well-designed typeface in its context (and others) — is essentially stock. and thus, we end up talking about the appropriateness of its use, just as we might with stock imagery.

a good typeface can lend a level of sophistication and a voice of authority to otherwise poorly-designed work, in the same way that i can use garage band to make a not-terrible musical composition, because of its professionally-recorded samples.

however, i think this debate is more about context and choice, and i think we might do well to wonder why young designers are drawn to that specific face, whatever the size of their type library might be. why are reductive forms so appealing to design students, when the bulk of non-typographic form i see them produce is so hodgepodge and maximalist?

i wholeheartedly agree with isaac in that futura has other cultural associations, freud being not a terribly indirect one by way of his popularity in the 50's. however, if i were that particular student's typography teacher, i'd ask her to explore more thoroughly what else psychodynamism implies. what is the typographic expression of the hidden desire, the projection, the sublimation? freud can be dirty as well as clean, and there is an awful lot of internal conflict built into the appeal of futura to the high moderns in the 50s.

for those on this thread that eschew the relevance of history, it's those kinds of complex cultural associations which are valuable, not one-to-one mappings of typefaces with their original historic periods.
jay harlow
11.09.07 at 11:49

Students interested in western type,

learn to speak German. Go to

http://www.typografie.info/

I find that historically the people who invented the printing press may have a better appreciation for stuff. maybe not.

who knows? On days when I do have interest I find stuff there. For instance the idea of corporate fonts, they have a whole list. Has that topic even been covered in discussion here?

Course, I'm not writing a book or doing research or in it for the money.
nancy
11.09.07 at 12:38

Excellent article. I will agree with everything said. When I was in art college I noticed many of my fellow class mates using Futura and sticking to it throughout their years in school. I used it a couple times but branched out and tried new fonts when Futura might not have been the right geometric sans-serif font for the project. As for knowing your history, I think that is what makes designing fascinating. One who is a professional in a certain skill should definitely know the history about that skill.
Jessica
11.09.07 at 12:47

Students don't read.

Jessica, were you ever a student? Did you read?
Well, me too. Can we lay off the blanket statements?
I'd like design education to be more rigorous,
but I don't think generalizing about my fellow
students' intellectual vigor helps.
bookworm
11.09.07 at 12:48

Futura is like Helvetica's red-headed step child...

Also, the gross majority of design students don't read - not so much a generalization as a fact that's probably only 20% a lie.
ILikeType
11.09.07 at 01:13

Where's the love for Avenir?

To me, Avenir takes the great parts of Futura and improves on the not-so-great ones, creating a geometric face that can actually work in text!

Long live Frutiger!
Garret
11.09.07 at 02:53

Do you guys ever get tired of the student bashing? Why would you have anything to do with students or design education with an attitude like that? Give it a rest. Jeesh.
David Smith
11.09.07 at 04:30

I taught myself graphic design when I was 22 years old. I am now 59 and still making a living at it 37 years later. I don't know much type design history, but my whole design approach is based on a love of typography, and feeling that there is a perfect font for every job. A bad font choice can ruin an otherwise good design.

And David, the bashing is not of the students, it's of the teachers who have no passion or love of typography (can you really be a graphic designer and NOT be in love with the infinite nuances that typography offers??). Some people (students) may have inner fire, but others may only catch it from others like teachers and mentors.
Wesley Mahan
11.09.07 at 05:24

I agree with the above comments here and there but the only thing I entirely agree with is the article itself. People should learn their choices.

You don't have to know everything of a typeface before using it but if you're going to be a designer you should at least have some knowledge of where the face comes from or why it was made. Or at least want to find out! And for Renner's sake know something especially if you're getting your portfolio reviewed!! Geez, you can look up most typefaces on Wikipedia!!!

I've known and know a lot of great designers—students and professionals—and they seem to all have varying degrees of interest in typography. The ones who aren't as into spotting what face is used on what are still great designers. I guess what I'm trying to say (oh so eloquently) is that you don't need to be a type-history-extraordinaire in order to use and understand type in a manner that's courteous to graphic design.

But, all seriousness aside, my favorite part was when Tracy got told. No offense to Tracy—I just love a good telling.
Whaleroot
11.09.07 at 05:55

I think Futura is framed unfairly as being a typeface associated primarily with Barbara Krueger. Also, what's missing from the discussion is how Futura is used, and how typefaces in general are used.

There are a number of fresh takes on Futura, including certain issues of OASE, the identity for the Barbican Gallery, and the book "Japan: Towards Total Scape".

Perhaps it's just zeitgeist that it shows up in a lot of students' work. Nothing wrong with that?
Manuel miranda
11.09.07 at 06:05

I see Ms. Helfand's point about understanding history and making type choices that are appropriate, but I also find it limiting to say you can't use Futura on a book that was first published in 1899. It is basically saying that you can never make old subjects contemporary through design choices. Should we only hand letter Plato's writings on scrolls from now on?

As a student I've noticed a disturbing trend myself. We get told to look at classic typefaces and learn to use them well. Then we get scolded for using classic typefaces because they are overused. Why are classics typefaces bad?

To me this sort of thing is akin to people claiming that "insert band name here" sucks because they became popular for being good.

Are Helvetica and Futura "sell outs" because they are so good? Do they no longer have design hipster cred because more than 2 people have ever used it in print?

Am I naive? Are classics bad? Why can't a designer just like something? Type is so incredibly subjective. What is innapropriate to one, is beautiful to another.

If students use one typeface too much its because we are being influenced by what we see in pop culture in the visual clutter around us. If students over use something its because we are just following the lead shown to us by the professionals out there in the world who are working and getting the cool gigs that we all want someday.

design kid
11.09.07 at 06:36

So sad that a poor "lovely young women" didn't know enough about a typeface, and now she has sparked a slew of typo-phile rants. Isn't it possible that she, for whatever reason. saw her subject in Futura? Right or wrong... isn't that a valid reason for her to choose it? Even if she knew the history... she could have still chosen Futura.

I understand and agree with the essence of this article. But sometimes we learn by doing, by experiencing, by experimenting... not merely following.

Of course, we (designers/people) should all understand history, but in the end we should be trusted to make a decision on judgement and personal experience/preference rather than only on what we have been taught is appropriate based on history. One could argue that most progressions in the arts are made by disregarding history all together.

Ultimately, who really cares (besides designers) what typeface is used on the cover of 100 year old Freud writings. Perhaps Jessica should ask Freud what typeface he was thinking in before arguing that he was so blatantly misrepresented by a student?

It's possible that when asked Freud's answer would be Comic Sans. Oh, what comments and critiques would ensue!!!


CDR
11.09.07 at 10:54

There's a good chance her educators and institution DID try to teach her about design/typographical history but she simply wasn't interested.

Like many pet interests (as is typography for you, me, and many readers here) it comes as a gift, something you we just stumble upon or that stumbles upon us. I'm not interested in birding, and that's all there is to it.

All this to say that perhaps neither the design educators nor their curriculum is to blame for this apparent hole in her type awareness; perhaps her own interests have filtered out this information while it was being taught.

As a design student, it is a discouraging reality that people who will one day work as graphic designers care little to go deep into history of the tools of their trade.

At the same time, however, good design is not always contingent upon typophiliac drives. Some people have a keen sense of form, proportion and composition that puts many staunch type snobs to shame.
Tom Froese
11.09.07 at 11:27

As a fairly recent graduate of an undergrad design program, and now as a "green" professional, having already started teaching workshops, I can see the problem from both angles.

Sure, its easy for a student to complain that the professors walk around "holier than the pope," but in a design program you have students there for different reasons. There are a few types, (please forgive me for generalizing), the inquisitive student who is there because they are mesmerized by the mystery of great design, and then there are those there because they think they can make money.

I know, I know...its an awful thing to say, but from my personal expirence, that's what I've found.

Professor's, again generally speaking, do their absolute best to train both types of students to think critically about every design choice made. Why would a Professor want to muddy the waters?

Frankly, it is up to the student to educate themselves if they want to surpass expectations and not sound like a moron in a portfolio review.

If you want to know typographic history, don't sleep through class no matter how many latte's it takes, don't be afraid to be that guy at the bar sipping a martini and looking at logotype, and take advantage of the technology at hand. I look at design blogs such as this and see so many great minds who I, as a young student, aspired to be (Ellen, Marian, Armin to name a few) and I see a resource going to waste for students.

The greatest power you have as a designer is the knowledge of other designs, past & present, and what their designs have meant to culture and history. So when you have a client you absolutely hate, you can drop an oh so pretty but hilarious bomb like Mrs. Eaves throughout a project simply so you can snicker to yourself later.

And, furthermore, I agree with Garrett, Avenir is much prettier than Futura.

--Danny
Danny Jones
11.10.07 at 11:34

TomFroes' pertaining to your rilke quote

a client you absolutely hate or perhaps have some kind of unresolve with...

came to a synopsis of The Correspondence:Rainer Maria Rilke and Lou Andreas-Salome (i suppose the social networking of their day at the last turn of the century)

...Unfortunately, a falling-out in 1901 led Andreas-Salome to demand Rilke burn all the letters she had sent to him...

"Despite illness, distance, and emotional and psychological pain, they managed to cultivate, through strikingly honest prose, an enduring and indispensable friendship, a decades-long heartfelt dialogue that encompassed love, art, and the imagination."



nancy
11.10.07 at 12:29

Just to chime in again; maybe I missed a sentence somewhere but I didn't think this article pertained to how Futura is or is not aesthetically pleasing or even whether it's used too much. It is commenting on the situations when it (and others) is used without even a remote knowledge of why.
Whaleroot
11.10.07 at 02:06

Futura fetishism hasn't been a problem with my students. Maybe neo modernism hasn't spread south of the Mason-Dixon line. (Maybe paleo modernism didn't. I don't know. I wasn't around here back then.)

Students don't read.
Jessica--You could learn something from students. If you want to make sweeping statements, go for the gold:
Typographic education in North America is crap. . . Profs claim to teach the rules, though they don't, they claim to teach us how to be rigorous, but they don't. All of us students get so scared, because Type Profs walk around design schools like they are holier than the pope.

So how about we do it all? "People in North America don't read"? No. We need to get "crap" or some other overwhelming dismissal in there. Let's work on this. "Students are crap"? "Reading material is crap"? Let's work on this.

Slightly more seriously:
Some of the advice I've heard repeated by various old school typographers talking to students: "Pick a typeface and use it a lot until you can use it well. Only then move on to other faces."

Bad advice or is Futura just not the right face to start with?

Some advice I've given to students on many occasions: "Don't look for the typeface (or photograph) that 'says it all' or you will have of choice of interrupting or sitting back and taking credit for the work of others. Take something relatively mundane and breathe life into it with your composition. If you were building a house and had a choice between birds eye maple or concrete as a material, you'd find that the gorgeous maple would stifle your formal choices and become cloying in a manner that would dominate everything else you would try to do, leaving you feeling like you were in a large, overpriced coffin.

Futura may be too prissy to play the part of concrete; what would you say if their work all featured Franklin Gothic demi? Futura may not be neutral and neutrality may be chimeric but certainly some faces are less un-neutral than others.

Slightly more to the point:
Does Futura say "Bauhausian" because of machine-inspired form or is that anachronistic because it wasn't around until after the Dessau heyday? Does it say "Art Deco" because of its use or just the opposite because of its philosophical underpinnings? Do typefaces have expiration dates? Can Vogue magazine only speak to people from southern Europe in the late 18th century?

And how many people buy a book about how to understand Freud because he's so emblematic of the late nineteenth century?
Gunnar Swanson
11.10.07 at 08:32

What type does the project "call for?" Your call.

VR/
Joe Moran
11.10.07 at 11:42

It seems the argument should not be about whether futura is inherently right or wrong when setting Freud, but more about how design students, and, by extension, designers, make typographic choices.

Although there is an unarguable benefit to being aware of issues to do with the history of typography and design in general, I find that relying solely on perceived historical appropriateness to make choices is overly limiting, often unfeasible, and too often leads to pastiche.

Besides reading books on the topic (Herbert Spencer's Pioneers of Modern Typography, and Harry Carter's A view of Early Typography are my suggestions) one thing I did which helped me alot when I was studying was to avoid repeating typefaces across projects. This forced me to research typefaces with every new brief and helped me to discover less cliched (I thought) solutions to my problems.
achilles Y
11.11.07 at 04:18

I have already received comments that I am "harsh, impersonal, and direct" in my student evaluations, so I guess I, and my colleagues, should expect additional negative comments at the end of this semester as well. I do know that I have an attitude (teaching requires having something to teach), but I am also the first person to poke fun at it.

I feel compelled to respond to DesignStudent, if only because I have been known to post on DO and because I teach at the school s/he indicts. Quite frankly, I do agree that students are taught exercises that are of dubious, if nonexistent, pedagogical value. But unfortunately, there are many reasons beyond the control of faculty that make it difficult to ensure that students are getting the education they need and deserve.

I can throw out a few explanations. None of which excuses the complaints that have been volleyed, but hopefully they can help students figure out how they can best help their faculty resolve these problems. I also don't think these issues are endemic to my program, which is perhaps why they are worth posting publicly here.

For one, very large programs have a very large bureaucracy to match. It makes changes and agreement on what those changes are to be, very difficult to initiate and implement.

Two, junior (meaning "untenured") faculty are essentially powerless to make changes if senior (meaning "tenured") faculty have no desire to make those changes.

Three, faculty that are not involved with practice, publishing, or educational forums such as this one, or even more tangible environments such as the amazing AIGA Educational Conferences, the NCSU Graduate Conference (www.optionshiftcontrol.com), and DGrad (http://design.yorku.ca/programs/dgrad07.php), eventually become out-of-touch with the relevant issues of the day, both formally and conceptually.

Four, it is very hard to attract quality instructors—both full time and part time. Unlike the US, there are currently only 4 graduate schools of graphic design in Canada. Our school is currently looking to fill an Assistant Professor position in print, but it is very difficult to do when fewer than a dozen individuals apply. And while our program's salaries are quite generous, many art schools/faculties often cannot compete with the salaries that one can make in private practice, especially if a designer is particularly talented. And owing to union rules of seniority, it is near impossible to no longer renew a contract once it has commenced. The adage about "those who can't do, teach," is hogwash. Teaching is a profession in its own right, and requires different skills and ways of thinking that are equally valid but distinct from the methods of practice.

Five, I don't understand why students are "frightened" to pursue their interests. Unlike other disciplines, graphic designers do not need to get a graduate degree, so in many ways the grades don't matter. (Although our program does require a C+ minimum in order to remain enrolled, a C+ is not that hard to achieve.) Students don't realize the enormous power they wield when they act in a unified manner. They can be more effective (and constructive) when they work as a group rather than via an anonymous posting on a web blog. Students know me to be a rather anti-establishment and unorthodox instructor, and I can assure them that I was like that as a student as well.

I think that Jessica's posting touches on a bigger issue in graphic design education, one of quality. And I don't think that the issue falls on the shoulders of our students, I think it has much more to do with programs that are strapped for cash, who need to cram as many students as possible in a classroom which cuts down on one-to-one teaching time, and who have difficulty for whatever the reason, in hiring qualified full time and part time faculty. And in turn, students, who must pay much higher tuition than when I was a student, are forced to work many more hours in a part time job than they should.

These are complex problems. And we hope that programs and instructors are doing the best that they can. But speaking as an instructor, I do need students to take a greater hand in seeking and developing their own education than they may have had to do in the past.
David Cabianca
11.12.07 at 07:31

"It's not the designer's voice that concerns me here so much as the designer's understanding of history — a body of knowledge that once acquired, can be edited, modified, even jettisoned at will, but only after giving it a good, hard think. Designers in general (and students in particular) have an overwhelming tendency to consider anything that's been achieved in the past as a kind of "been there, done that" straitjacket, while the opposite is not only true, it's surprisingly actionable."

The answer of your student does not surprise me, because it is a growing tendency among design students to understand their work solely as a styling process. However, she was honest and did not try to find a stupid excuse for it. We are faced with the lack of the research in the design curriculum that could provide students interdisciplinary approach. If I quote Dori Tunstall: "Skilful and systematic attention to creative conceptualisation (through research) produces more innovative creative thinking, because it exposes gaps in people's assumptions."
ksenija berk
11.12.07 at 09:04

Wesley:
Not to be an ass about it but I can clearly see your love for typefaces here.
I mean, what are those things anyway? Flea market-fonts?


Also, I'm kinda surprised nobody has mentioned DIN, for me that (of course together with Helvetica and possibly Avant Garde if you were one of the lucky one's to own it) was the typeface to apply on everything in college a few years ago.

It's way more reader friendly than futura but also a little less "allround" than Helvetica. It still remains one of my favourite typefaces and I still use it when I feel a little lazy (I know! Shocking, isn't it...).
Peter Sjöberg
11.12.07 at 10:08

Although we went to two different colleges, one of my friends and I recently discussed how we also used to love Futura in our first few years in design school. I even tried to make my handwriting look more like it, but both of us quickly grew to hate it after our second or third years. Now, I look at it just above Papyrus in the typographic circles of hell, maybe because I overused it or maybe because it's just fugly.
brendan
11.13.07 at 07:48

As a working, but definitely wet-behind-the-ears designer, but also a guy who's trying to cultivate a ton of interests aside from design, I can say, design is a world of fairly insane demands and brutal criticism. When you say "designers should know design history," it doesn't sound so bad. When you add that to "designers should know the history of their client's brand, of the medium they're working in, the technical quirks of the models they're using and the programs they're employing, they should know the cognitive effects of color, they should know all the details of the content they're working with, they should know PANTONE and CSS standards and printing specifications and reproduction costs and file formats etc etc etc" it starts to sound rather insurmountable... especially to a design student who hasn't been challenged in the workplace. Asking a random student to know the history of Futura is like asking them to pick a needle out of a haystack.

I think, ultimately, nobody (especially not students) draws from a complete body of knowledge to create our concepts. There's just too much information. Rather, we pick and choose the juicy bits from the little that we DO know, or that we can find in our precious research and brainstorming time, and when those choice bits of information can't determine some aspect of the design, then we desperately improvise the rest. It's the job of the core concept to look good. The details are simply responsible for not looking BAD and bringing down the whole composition as a result.

Does this mean nobody can design from a comprehensive grounding in history and theory? No, and that's what makes the great designers so great. It's a product of experience and enduring love for their discipline. Does this mean we shouldn't have expectations for our students? No; I'm glad that question was demanded of that student, and I'm glad she was mildly embarrassed at not knowing the answer.

But these intermediate failures don't represent a vast failure of design education. They just show that becoming a master of something takes a lifetime of study and practice.
Jesse
11.14.07 at 01:45

Jesse, amen!
hcabbos
11.16.07 at 08:25

Thank you for this article. It's so true and refreshing and amazingly correct. It makes me remember my "typography" teacher who suggested changes to our projects on the basis of "you know what would really look cool..."
liquid06
11.17.07 at 12:22

I don't know how it is for the students you interviewed, but at my school we had similar projects and we are INSTRUCTED to use certain typefaces. In my type I class we were assigned a project where we had to take an ad for a gallery show featuring Stieglitz and O'Keefe, and lay it out 36 different ways with different restrictions...The most restricting of these restrictions was that we had to use Univers for all 36 layouts! No choice, so thats probably why you heard the Designer's say "I just liked it." Or that they didn't bother to research it... Although, they probably should have atleast MADE UP a better reason why they "chose" that particular face.
Erik Ljung
11.18.07 at 12:37

I think there are a number of reasons you might have seen Futura pop up in rampant proportions last year. It's been colonized by trendy directors - namely, Wes Anderson (if you look at all of his movies, not only are the titles in Futura, but the font dominates almost all signage throughout the film). Also, retro-modernism (and retro-futurism along with it) has become trendy due to the popularity of stores like Urban Outfitters that sell nostalgia in the form of apartment decor and faux vintage clothes.

I guess it's still weird that everyone went with Futura all at once, but if we look at popular culture we can't really be shocked by it's sudden popularity....

Still, it would be nice if students were trained early on that taking the ahistorical,"I like it" approach is just not acceptable in higher education.
Lauren Scime
11.19.07 at 02:03

some guidelines that all students should consider:

1. the historical context of the typeface (especially when the content of the work is historical in nature). i can't help but to be reminded of the US governments decision a few years back to get rid of courier on official documents because it was too dated, yet chose times instead! clearly they looked like asses, which is something a student ought to avoid when presenting rationale for a typeface decision.

2. consider the visual relationships/unity of the face to the work. it is certainly a well supported decision when it's the form itself that is being considered in relation to the rest of the elements surrounding it.

3. utility. it's important to also consider how usable, flexible and functional the typeface chosen is. will it be more trouble than what it's worth? is it doing it's job? is it readable? with these considerations, often times typefaces such as futura, which has it's own special set of limitations just won't do.

and finally...

4. when choosing a typeface, students should be encouraged to consider rationale that is outside of themselves. this is especially in light of the fact that we don't design for ourselves. no one gives a d*mn if 'i like it', because it's not about 'me'.

it's a clear understanding of all considerations involved that can make or break your rationale for choosing a typeface. sure, you can sacrifice one (say history) for another (utility), however without the proper rationale supporting your decision it becomes noting more than a personal preference that really doesn't matter.
kristy pennino
11.21.07 at 08:10

English is not my first language and I am a student. Also, despite my rage, I will try my very best to keep myself from using any bad language. After all, we are all designers here.

I am currently studying in Assumption University in Thailand, Visual Arts department. Here in Asia, of course art students are not interested in Picasso (although obviously they should) and Mondrian. They are interested in people who are important to Thai art and Thai culture. Their styles are more similar to Asian modern art influences such as Murakami. Although some students are aware of the VERY famous(who in this world never heard of Da Vinci Van Gogh and Paul Rand), most, and this should not be at all surprise to some, don't.

Having studied art and design in America for several years before I transfer back to Thailand, I have much better foundation in art than the kids here. And I find myself a bit frustrated that they do not know who Warhol is, that they have only 2 drawing classes throughout their 4 year study instead of 4 like what I had to go through.

But does that make me a better designer than them?
The answer, as you may disagree with me, is a clear no. Knowing about design history will give you knowledge and make you a better person, but not make you a *better designer.

I don't even believe in an idea of one designer being better than another, but that's another issue.

In your article when the girl say "I just like it." And you seem to mocked that, I realized something. That answer is very respectable.
Actually, as she is a designer, the fact that she like it is a very good reason... and should be the ONLY good reason.

Don't you think it is more pathetic to say: "I use Futura because I understand the importance of it and its history, it's great because it was designed by..." if design is about successful communication, and art is about expression... what's wrong with just liking it?

We are all proud of you for knowing the great graphic design history, as I do myself, but I bet I do not know as much as you. That probably all ready made me a worse designer than you in your opinion. But then again, I am a student and I am still learning. Hopefully you don't think you know enough to stop learning yourself.

Anyway, I feel it is a tremendous sin for someone to tell you that one has to know all about art history before painting, hear all the good music before begin playing (Beethoven), and know all the design history before becoming a good designer, and it is just so damn tragic that you believed it.
Panasit Ch
11.22.07 at 11:53

I love those Futura Light lower case bicycle wheels in a Gene Federico's best-known ad for Woman's Day.

Great Post!
Carl W. Smith
11.23.07 at 08:08

I purchased this fabulous Futura-heavy copy of Freud: On War, Sex and Neurosis at the Strand many, many years ago. I admit: I bought it because "I just kind of liked it." So anciently modern. I would love to know why Futura is "wrong" for this book. Especially when so many things about the book are already quirky/wrong. (Check out the line breaks on the chapter title!) It was designed by publisher and (non-?) designer Ben Raeburn. See 1997 Times obituary.
Then there was the student who chose Bodoni for the cover of her cd of country music because it looked "Western". Bodoni has never looked the same to me since. It was a great cd cover.
John Kramer
11.24.07 at 01:27

I've noticed a few things in my experience of teaching many different aspects of design:
1. Many students enter into their studies believing that there is a specific answer to the problem set before them (and perhaps the instructor knows the answer and can guide them).

2. Many instructors teach from a position that indicates that their view of design is definitive (ie, the only way).

3. Many students treat their education as a consumer exercise rather than an educational exercise. In other words, they want to pay their tuition, 'get' their information handed over to them, and then move on, rather than taking the information and using it as a starting point in exploring further.

It's a combination of these three points that raise the hackles of students and educators alike, and makes things more than emotional at times.

I also get quite concerned when I realize that students are not reading — not only because this means they are not interested in intellectualizing design, but because this also means they are not researching their subject matter in a way that provides meaning and context to their work. And this is what this conversation ulitmately seems to be about: context. In my design history course (now called Design Culture) I try to approach design not as a historical artifact, but as something that is located at the intersection of politics, economics, cultural change, technological advancement, etc. If we can't see the context in which design was created in the past, how will we evaluate the way we design now? After studying Arts and Crafts early this semester, we discussed the success and failure of the A+C movement, and how we are still grappling with the idea of creating design that still has 'soul' even though it may be mass-produced. This led into a conversation about design as an elite form versus design that is affordable and accessible to everyone. Which is better? Which is more responsible? Where do you want to be as a designer? Students seemed to be able to relate to design from 100 or more years ago in a way they hadn't thought of before.

I don't expect for every student to embrace this approach to design knowledge, or typographic knowledge, for that matter. However, design seems to be a profession where we still struggle for respect as an intelligent form of communication. If we keep justifying our design decisions by saying that we used a specific typeface because it 'looks pretty', or because an instructor demanded/banned it, then we are condemning ourselves to remain as decorators in a world that needs a more thoughtful response.

ps: Even after editing my post a few times, I realized I am really long-winded. Sorry for the long post!
Bonne Zabolotney
11.24.07 at 07:26

" I explained that when Freud's book was published in 1899..."

Really? If this is your argument for not using Futura, it's weak. Do all projects have to have this connection? Your argument just seems like an irrational hang up. Sure, I wouldn't have used Futura but I might have used Meta. If I'm to design an old book, the first thing I'll worry about is content, then maybe time frame, if applicable.

Students need more prerequisites like they need holes in the head. They already bemoan the prerequisites they have to take and pay for. Their first job in the industry will probably not reward them for their knowledge of Freud, and how it helped them make a decision on what typeface to use. No! They're likely going into a world where most people don't even notice the difference between serif or sans-serif typefaces, not to mention when they were designed or released. Students are students, they're not professionals or experts yet. The kind of sophistication you enjoy comes with time, not an elective. The use of Futura is just a trend, like flourishes or the "urban rainbow puke" style (as seen on Comedy Central). It will soon be replaced with something else.
Ed Cross
11.25.07 at 03:05

I'm definitely with Ed on this one because students don't have the much needed experience and training yet that professionals already have, but at the same time I believe that history and background are reasons just as important as "I just kind of liked it." If you don't know the story behind the typeface you used, or the style you've picked you're not going to be shot down (in most cases) because people in the real world want to see something that's visually pleasing, not something that has history to it, but it sure helps to know why you've used what you've used more for you than anyone else.
Beau Wingfield
11.26.07 at 11:29

I disagree with the idea that this kind of historic connection between the subject and the typeface. If the form fits the idea, she was going down the right design path. Can we present ideas from the days of yore on the internet? It wasn't invented until the 1980s by Al Gore leading a team of US military geeks.
Steve Williams
11.27.07 at 02:20

Futura reincarnated at a different pace than Freud. Now the two have Clashed. (rock that cashbar!)

THAT'S GREAT. I could explain this in higher mathematical equations and professor-speak, or theological and philosophical vocabulary, but you all are smarter than me so you must just see it, correct?

So did you tell this poor dunce to stay or go? St. Joseph, pray for her. The banned Franciscan one, from the "c" place. :)
nancy
11.27.07 at 05:33

Just try to amazing the "world" without Futura...
So do you like it?
Steve
11.28.07 at 12:22

I often hear the explanation from students and type workshop attendees (who are mostly working designers) for choosing a typeface "I just kind of liked it" which makes me cringe because it indicates no thought process as to what might be appropriate for the job.

While I don't feel an historical discourse is necessary, I would totally accept the explanation "that it was right for the job" with an explanation about the mood, feel, and legibility of a typeface, as well as its appropriateness for the demographics of the readers.
Ilene Strizver
12.04.07 at 11:30

Just like fashion, typeface trends come and go. With this in mind, I
feel it is important to do some research before choosing a typeface.
This allows me to choose a typeface that I like and visually evokes
best what I am trying to communicate. The research also helps and
serves as a backup to anyone who questions my reason for
choosing a typeface.
YayA C. ENG322 Ms. Scherr
03.11.09 at 01:58

As graphic designers we're in the business of visual communication. Effective verbal communication should be appropriate within a context — this applies to effective visual communication as well. When making choices for elements (imagery, color, size, typography, etc.) to use in solving a design problem, their appropriateness should always be considered. If appropriateness isn't a consideration, choices are made arbitrarily. The result may be art, but it's probably not design.
Kevin Leonard
06.22.10 at 05:12

The reason many students and those unfamiliar with type use Futura is because it has circular 'o's. The perceived geometry is somehow comforting. That's why they use Gotham today.
Stephen Coles
10.26.10 at 03:22



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Jessica Helfand, a founding editor of Design Observer, is an award-winning graphic designer and writer and a former contributing editor and columnist for Print, Communications Arts and Eye magazines. A member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale and a recent laureate of the Art Director's Hall of Fame, Helfand received her B.A. and her M.F.A. from Yale University where she has taught since 1994.
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BOOKS BY Jessica Helfand

Scrapbooks: An American History
Yale University Press, 2008

Reinventing the Wheel
Winterhouse Editions, 2002

Screen: Essays on Graphic Design, New Media, and Visual Culture
Winterhouse Editions, 2001

Looking Closer 3
Allworth Press, 1999

Paul Rand: American Modernist
winterhouse Editions, 1998

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