We gaze in wonder at the ancient curlicues on the monks’ illuminated manuscripts at the Getty and the Huntington — and try to read the words underneath all that embellishment.
Of the hundreds of typefaces that make up our wide world of print today, we may even know the names of a few, and wonder, after the sans-serif neutrality of Helvetica, why anyone should bother going beyond than this compact, clean perfection. It’s like Mid-Century Modern architecture: Once you’ve got rid of the doilies and the tchotchkes, why bring them back?
Because people are perversely wired for change, that’s why. Because a skinny necktie is not intrinsically better than a wide one, but it sure is different. Because one generation’s clean-shaven good looks produces another’s desire to grow lumbersexual bushy beards.
And, with typefaces, it’s because the medium is absolutely the message, or at least part of it.
And so, even in a digital age — or perhaps because of it — Art Center College of Design just announced it will take a $2 million gift and establish the Hoffmitz Milken Center for Typography “to advance the research, teaching and understanding of letterform design.” The center is named after 20-year Art Center typography teacher Leah Toby Hoffmitz Milken, who died in October and who created type for FedEx, Nokia, United Airlines and Disney brands and whose students have created typefaces called, among others, Post Grotesque. Art Center’s Teri Bond notes all students at the Pasadena school are required to take typography courses, because by one measure of the craft 95 percent of graphic design is still made up of making words look good.
I sat down the other day in new studio space at the school’s South Campus with the Hoffmitz Milken Center’s executive director, Gloria Kondrup, and its creative director, Simon Johnston, to talk type.
Do young people today, screen readers since birth, even notice typefaces? “Well, typography has always been simultaneously visible and invisible,” Johnston said. “When it’s really working as text, it’s invisible, because you’re too busy reading and in the content to think about it.”
“Yes, the craft of how it was constructed is invisible,” Kondrup added.
So it’s like a good building, in that sense, I said — it works, but it doesn’t say, “Look at me.”
“Yes, but typography is driven by when it was designed,” Kondrup said. “Whether it was carving into stone, or doing copper engraving, or photo-typography, or using a computer …”
Johnston brings up that most basic of recent computer typography, those little dots on a Nokia phone screen, just enough of a letter for us to recognize it, which we still see writ large on those Caltrans freeway signs warning of abducted children. It’s amazing how the brain can adapt to understand a pattern language.
Right now, there isn’t a degree program in just typography at the design school, but the pair envision an M.A. in the future. “And this program isn’t just about Art Center,” Kondrup said. She points out the glass door to South Raymond Avenue. “We’re on the street in this storefront space for a reason. It’s about bringing the outside community in, too.”
There will be workshops available for non-students in the future. Right next door is the Archetype program Kondrup has long run, where I’ve had the pleasure of rolling out a poster by hand on one of her massive Vandercook proof presses. It’s one thing to select with a flick of your cursor from dozens of fonts in your Mac, another thing entirely to set type by hand, inserting letters into a composing stick to create a snug line.