Elite museum admits digital fonts

Written by New York Times | Updated: Jan 31 2011, 04:21am hrs
Alice Rawsthorn

Fancy seeing a dazzling example of: a) design ingenuity; b) imaginative use of new technology; and c) the Modernist mantra form (ever) follows function If so, open the font menu on your computer and click on Verdana.

Type the number 1, followed by the letters I, i and l. These are the characters that look most similar and are likeliest to be confused in many fonts, especially the digital ones you read on a screen. Note the subtle differences between them in Verdana: how the i is shorter than the l; and the capital I and number 1 are the only characters with serifs, or tiny strokes, at each end, to distinguish them from the lower-case l.

Then type the letters fi, ff and fl. The space between each set is slightly wider than between other such sets to prevent them from blurring together, another problem with digital typefaces. Finally, if you print out whatever you have typed, yoxu will notice that characters are wider apart on screen than on paper.

All of these details were added to Verdana by its designer Matthew Carter in 1996 when Microsoft commissioned him to create a font that would be easy to read on computers. His solution is a textbook example of how intelligent design can help us to adapt to technological change.

Now, the Museum of Modern Art in New York is to announce that Verdana and 22 other digital typefaces have been chosen to be admitted to its architecture and design collection.

Joining MoMAs collection is the biggest honour in the design world: the design equivalent of an Oscar or Olympic gold medal. Until now, only one typeface has made it Helvetica as have a few other examples of graphic design. There are more than 28,000 works in the architecture and design collection, which dates to 1932. Among them are chairs, sports cars, computers, a helicopter and the archive of the great Modernist architect Mies van der Rohe, but not many graphic pieces. The exceptions are some 5,000 posters and, such gems as a complete set of Emigre magazine, all of the books created by the brilliant Dutch designer Irma Boom and Helvetica, of course.

We realised that graphic design was a lacuna in the collection, said Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at MoMA. Three years ago we held a symposium in New York to discuss it and to identify new categories we should tackle. Typefaces were among them.

MoMA has started with digital fonts, which are designed either on computers, as Verdana was, or to be used on them, like OCR-A, the earliest typeface in MoMAs new collection. It was developed by American Type Founders in 1966 for the new Optical Character Recognition technology.

For centuries, typefaces were produced by the laborious process of casting the characters in metal, first by hand and, from the 1880s, mechanically. The introduction of photocomposition in the 1960s made the process a little easier, but the impact of digital typography was much more dramatic. Computers were not only faster than machines, but interpreted designers instructions more accurately.

Designers seized the chance to experiment with them. Among MoMAs new acquisitions is Oakland, which was designed by Zuzana Licko, co-founder of Emigre, in 1985 using a new Apple Macintosh 128K home computer. Digitisation also offered enticing opportunities for designers to invent new typefaces and reinvent old ones for computers, cellphones, games consoles, iPads and so on. And it democratised the esoteric world of type for the rest of us by allowing us to choose favorite typefaces from our computer font menus.

Some of MoMAs 23 digital fonts are inspired solutions to practical problems. Erik Spiekermanns 1991 FF Meta and Albert-Jan Pools 1995 redesign of FF DIN are models of typographic clarity. So is Carters 1978 Bell Centennial, which was designed to be legible in the tiny print of AT&Ts telephone directories. Tobias Frere-Jones and Jonathan Hoefler achieved the same result for newspaper stock market tables and sports scores with 2001s Retina.

Other typefaces were chosen for their technological ingenuity. New Alphabet was devised by Wim Crouwel in 1967, to be read in the chunky pixels of Cathode Ray Tube monitors. By the turn of the 1990s, pixels had become smaller and digital fonts such as Jeffery Keedys 1989 Keedy Sans, Barry Decks 1990 Template Gothic and Neville Brodys 1992 FF Blur showed how skillful designers had become in manipulating digital technology to create expressive forms.

Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum programmed their 1989 font FF Beowolf to change the shape of the characters each time they are printed, so that they never looked quite the same again.

To me, working digitally in the 1990s felt like a luxury, recalled Carter. For one thing, until a laser-printer was hooked up to a Mac for the first time, type designers had not been able to see the results of their work in real time. Once you had two letters digitised you could set hohohohoh at different sizes and study the forms in combination. Instantly. Magic.

Another consideration for MoMA when deciding which digital fonts to admit to its collection is the sensitivity with which they reflect broader cultural changes. Both P. Scott Makelas 1990 font Dead History and Jonathan Barnbrooks 1992 Mason exemplify early 1990s fusions of historic and contemporary references. Frere-Jones and Hoefler echo the trend for reinterpreting vernacular symbolism by basing 1995s Interstate on American road signs and 2001s Gotham (which became the official font of Barack Obamas 2009 presidential campaign) on New York street signs.

Digital typography has its detractors, who claim that it is too slick, bland and homogenous. These traditionalists led the chorus of criticism when IKEA announced in 2009 that it was replacing Futura, a fine Modernist font designed in 1927 by Paul Renner, with Verdana. A common complaint was that Verdana was not a worthy successor, because its design was dominated by a functional concern legibility on screen. Though that is, of course, partly why MoMA is honouring it.