dot-font: Where Type Designs Come From
Where do type designers get their inspiration? That's the question that Larry Brady -- calligrapher, type designer, graphic designer, and educator – posed in his lecture at the San Francisco Public Library during the series of talks and events collectively dubbed Zapfest.
Brady's lecture, the second in the Zapfest series, was scheduled for the Saturday right after September 11. When his flight from Los Angeles was canceled at the last minute, he and his wife Marsha decided to drive to San Francisco instead – a journey of several hundred miles and several hours on the road, each way. It was a commitment to carrying on that was admirable, but no one was sure until 2 p.m. on Saturday rolled around whether the audience would make the same commitment, in light of the week's traumatic events. In what we later learned to recognize as the usual Zapfest pattern, at a few minutes before the hour it looked like the audience might consist of half a dozen people, but by starting time a sizable audience had collected. Since the best reply to destruction is construction and creation, this was a fitting way to respond. Zapfest itself was nothing if not a celebration of creation.
Need and Desire
"It seems, in my limited knowledge, that the two primary motives for creating new typefaces are need and desire (or combinations of both)," Brady said at the beginning of his talk. "The need for new typefaces usually involves money, and since more than a few of my type-design friends have assured me that there is no money in designing type, I conclude that a lot of typefaces are created through desire."
Brady spoke about the origins of typography in the letters carved on the Trajan Column in Rome, in the second century A.D., and about how these letterforms have served as models and archetypes for letterers and calligraphers for nearly 2,000 years, and for type designers for the entire 500-year history of type. He cited Fr. Edward Catich, whose researches into how the Trajan letters were carved have ignited arguments and counter-arguments about just how and why those ancient Roman letters were created. "Edward Catich proposed," said Brady, "that ideal letters are universal prototypes, and being universal they exist only in the mind." (Catich's name and his ideas would come up repeatedly in later Zapfest lectures, both pro and con.)
Evolving Forms on a Solid Structure
The inspiration for a new type design may come from anywhere in the historical record of written letters and printed type, but as Brady pointed out, any typeface has to have "an underlying armature upon which to build a design that can be recognized as alphabetic."
Brady alluded to the commonly understood development of roman typeface design until the 20th century when he said, "I have often thought that the history of typeface design beginning with the first types in the 15th century, through its 500 years of evolution, could be arranged almost like a biblical passage: Jenson begat Griffo begat Garamond begat Van Dijck began Janson begat Caslon begat Baskerville and so on." Although he points out that "in reality, type evolution was not quite that linear," he says that "it would be safe to conclude that the changes in type designs over time were not so much in the underlying prototypical structures but in the shapes built around this armature, with the three most visible aspects of the type forms evolving consistently in one direction: 1. the serifs became more refined and delicate; 2. the contract between thick and thin strokes increased; and 3. the calligraphic or diagonal stress on curves gradually disappeared as it moved to the vertical."
Letterforms for the Getty
Brady's own type designs include the titling font he designed in the 1980s for the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. He was commissioned by Saul Bass to work on the museum's identity, and went through an enormously long and complex series of sketches, ideas, and changing directions (which he detailed amusingly for his San Francisco audience) before coming up with a typeface that took its inspiration from historical hand lettering as well as from the tapered, serif-less letters found in some inscriptions in Renaissance Italy.
Brady felt that his own design was so close to Hermann Zapf's typeface Optima, which had some of the same inspirations, that he suggested that the Getty simply use Optima. But Bass and the creative director, Dean Smith, assured him that his designs were sufficiently original to avoid confusion, and they wanted him to develop a unique typeface for their use. Brady included letters of varying heights, to give an option for visual variety, but the overall effect is of a font of classic inscriptional capital letters.
Although the Getty planned a new identity when they moved into their new home atop a hill in Brentwood, in the 1990s, they ended up continuing to use Larry Brady's typeface for signage in the new location, and the new logo, although varied in form, is clearly based on the same letters. "I was quite surprised to see the new logo direction for the new Getty," said Brady. He had been assured by Saul Bass, at the Aspen Design Conference in 1994, that while his design had worked just fine over the past ten years, it was "too recessive" for the '90s. Imagine Brady's surprise when he saw his old letters in the newly designed logo.
A Hands-on Craft
In conclusion, Brady said that "there are probably as many approaches to the design of type as there are designers," but that "for myself, it begins with drawing or writing letters." While he could cite type designers, even some who are also calligraphers, who work directly onscreen to develop new typefaces, his own preference is to work first on "a good sheet of paper," in pencil or ink, and only later to transfer the letters into digital form. "There is," as he says, "a certain satisfaction in the making of something directly by hand."
That creative tension between the handmade letter and the technology of type is what Zapfest is all about.
Read more by John D. Berry.
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