Rejecting Infill-ism and Waterfalls of Mediocrity

Written by Stephen Coles on June 10, 2016

Two recent interviews touch on a perceived degradation of quality and originality in type design.

“It has become a lot easier to come up with a design that looks acceptable at first sight. But this does not mean that new things are automatically genuine or authentic. The type design community fails to be critical enough towards itself; we seem to welcome everything … this attitude will ensure a waterfall of mediocrity.” —Fred Smeijers, Eye no. 90 vol. 23, 2015

“In terms of new typeface designs, we believe we’ve reached a point that we refer to as ‘Infill-ism’, where designers are simply filling in the few remaining options left. Which begs the question, how many more Helvetica or Futura inspired designs do we really need?” —Rudy VanderLans, Fontstand feature, June 9, 2016

I have mixed feelings about such sentiments. On one hand, Smeijers and VanderLans make sound points, informed by plenty of relevant experience. With the aid of accessible tools and sales platforms, the rate of new fonts released increases every year; many of them are half-baked, landing on the shelf with gobs of hyperbolic promotion and no critical commentary. There is a tangible vacuousness about the current type scene. On the other hand, if limited to just these interviews, the two could come off like elder statesmen bemoaning the superfluous work of a new generation. Taken alone, this talk comes eerily close to “Kids these days don’t appreciate…” and “They just don’t make ’em like they used to.”

But Smeijers and VanderLans are not grumpy old codgers. I have deep respect for both of them as champions of new ideas, of reinvention. Smeijers continues to see fresh typefaces worthy of his foundry, lots of them created by students; and many of Emigre’s latest releases come from young external designers. Still, their statements about widespread mediocrity ring true. They fire a warning shot we all need to hear. I’m not so sure, though, about these points of view:

“[T]here are fewer type design options left to explore, since type design is restricted by the structure of the alphabetic characters. And, although the options are technically infinite, it becomes increasingly difficult to see the differences between designs.” —Rudy VanderLans

Yes, many of us see that the proverbial pie is continually sliced thinner. But have we really seen the whole pie? Are there pies we haven’t even imagined?

“Today there is a peak in type design, yet we have few Calypsos [innovative/artistic/display] or Garamond Premiers [fit-for-purpose/workhorse/text] to show for it.” —Fred Smeijers

That’s a tad gloomy. Our annual reviews make a strong case that there is still innovation and authenticity in type design, and that it has not subsided over time.

Infill-ism and me-too-ism have always been present in the field (see the countless Futura followers of the 1920s–30s, or the phototype clones of the 1960s–80s). There are more copycats now, and they come at a faster pace, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t also as much “original” work as well. There is more of everything. It’s just increasingly difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff.

One can be both a skeptic and an optimist. Some days, I am annoyed by the constant churn of unimaginative releases and empty praise. On other days, the typographic landscape seems wide open with possibility. With the rise of an authorship culture and independent publishing, with the introduction of new substrates, platforms, formats, and media, a blossoming of new font uses and users echoes the output of new fonts. And there are future needs we cannot fathom today. So, yes, we still need new fonts. We also need tools for judging the quality of these fonts. We need type labels and sellers who place a stronger emphasis on curation than promotion. We need critical eyes and fearless voices. Today, count me an optimist: I see all of this on the horizon.

Stephen Coles publishes Typographica and Fonts In Use, and is working on something new. He is author of the book The Anatomy of Type and serves on the board of the Letterform Archive. He lives in his girlfriend’s home in Berlin and his cat’s home in Oakland.

16 Comments

  1. Hrant says:

    Thank you for writing that. From the protoType text:

    Today we enjoy an embarrassment of typographic riches, with thousands of fonts flaunting hundreds of judiciously crafted, shape-shifting letterforms, meticulous rendering in various media and support for languages few ever encounter. We capably organize competitions and exhibitions to discover and promote polished, versatile typefaces. And we are not disappointed. There is however an undercurrent of discontent towards our emerging neglect of invention, our apparent increasing aversion to risk; there is also an impression that the OpenType ‘arms race’ has distracted us from more fundamental dimensions of cultural progress.

    Sometimes people need motivation to think more bravely.

  2. It is an interesting discussion. But I do think Fred and Rudy deserve more thought and a better answer than “it happened before” or “we need”. It starts at a designer looking at a single shape and asking “is it good” and the followup “how can I tell it is good”.

  3. Richard Fink says:

    Color Fonts
    Multi-Lingual Fonts
    Emoji and Symbols

    Less emphasis on the “look” of the thing, more emphasis on the structure and utility of the thing.

  4. There are many many pies! Sometimes you gotta pick up a pencil and put down the specimen.

    James T. Edmondson, OH no Type Co

  5. -ep- says:

    Yes, more curation and less promotion.
    And a place for users’ feedbacks on using a particular fonts. That could help others to make better choices based on looks, but also on technical properties.

  6. Within a week of posting this, at least two new releases answer the question about the prevalence of innovative ideas in type design: Hobeaux Rococeaux and Bungee.

  7. Dejan Krsiv says:

    Instead of bemoaning the state of type design, Emigre should take care to produce all of their typefaces in proper OpenType format, with multilingual support and all the possibilities that OT offers (small caps, numbers, ligatures, stylistic sets, etc). It is really sad that two emigres don’t think that there are different worlds, countries and languages beyond California.

  8. It’s true that Emigre doesn’t emphasize multilingual support beyond Western European languages (though they do have 10 typefaces with Central European support), but as for OpenType features, their site claims this:

    All Emigre Fonts are shipped in OpenType format. The OpenType format incorporates typographic features, such as small caps, ligatures, old style numerals and lining numerals, all within one font file, thereby simplifying font management and usage.

  9. In regards to Stephen’s essay. Just to be specific, if you read the Fontstand interview carefully, these remarks were inspired by our own personal quest for how to navigate this highly competitive industry. Our solution is to stop releasing fonts, and concentrate on marketing the fonts we have. Anybody who thinks there is still much left to explore in type design, I say “go for it” and I wish them all the best.

    In the end, however, I feel that we are all pretty much saying the same thing: there’s a glut of type and it’s getting ever more difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.

    And in reply to Dejan’s message, we started building our library long before it was possible to include multilingual support in font files. We’ve been playing catch-up ever since. Unfortunately, with the demand for more extensive multilingual fonts has come the race to the bottom of font prices and discounting.

  10. It is true that everything has been done. What is important is to find new combinations.

    Verena Gerlach, 2015

  11. Dave Crossland says:

    Kris Sowersby’s “Welcome to the Infill Foundry” is another thoughtful piece on this topic.

  12. Didn’t John Downer already write the definitive piece on that subject in his “Call It What It Is” essay years ago? (… and for Emigre!) I know the man could be stiff sometimes, but as Nick Sherman once stated:

  13. Claudio Piccinini says:

    Caution: long (and potentially boring) post.

    This is all very interesting, as to me it doesn’t look like a specific debate about type design, but rather (it appears to me) about culture and its nature, and about value. I haven’t read all the articles and replies in full, but what I can say is why — in the end — I decided not to do type design as a work for a living.

    This has to do with the reasons that made me passionate about lettering and type design in the first place: while everyone develops and has his/her own tastes, it took me a lot to understand what I loved about the things: books, lettering and typography that inspired me, and that was both about why they were used, and for what they were used. What frustrated me more, along the years (and these were the formative years of Kris Sowersby) was seeing type design almost as an end in itself, and surprisingly self-referential, precisely at the moment when it reached the highest peak of its “liberalization” (both productively and commercially). I realized that I had little interest in licensing or designing a new typeface if I did not use it, and I realized that what prompted creation (in general) was its aim, its context of use.

    So, I see this “crisis” as just another facet of a cultural crisis which we experience today: instead of understanding what culture (and ultimately a love for truth) is about, people seem worried to “defend their identity” (?) and to see other countries, traditions and histories as enemies endangering their own one. In doing so, and without much criticism, it gets endorsed a global situation where everything is leveled, and paradoxically in the name of “diversity”. I think it is also naive to think the individual can’t change that, and get back to be authentic (in type design: original).

    I never saw history in general as “a recurring thing”: there are recurring instances in our times, sure, but this belongs to human nature, and constant renewal is needed precisely for this. Constant renewal is not thinking “you are done with the past”, but rather is about understanding what history teaches you, and this belongs to each person and needs to be addressed. There is no “new at all cost” and no repetition. I inversely believe that distraction is one of the things that damages us more, given also the nature of the internet, which remains largely hypertext. Its dispersive nature favors lack of study, criticism, partiality — in the end it does not favor creativity.

    I believe our approach in creating new typefaces lacks the motivation that stems from life, and that this “internet way of living” has numbed: there was a time when a specific design came from the need, from its cultural character. As an example, Civilité by Robert Granjon, comes to mind.

    That’s what motivates me in type, and in part it’s what Kris Sowersby said about doing new designs. But the purely commercial aspect is not necessarily what should fuel this drive.

    I find very funny what James Edmondson wrote in a promotional picture for his Hobeaux Rococeaux (I suppose about his foundry in general): “fonts no one wants”.

    I think in many ways we should feel compelled to do typefaces “no one wants”, not in the sense that “we should not care” about what others do, but that our motivation shouldn’t come from purely “rational” purposes, which in the end aren’t much rational but rather sentimental, and in the most detrimental meaning of the word.

    And I still vote for Akzidenz Grotesk over Helvetica. Call it a “misleading character of modernism” thing.

  14. […] As Stephen Coles noted on the Typographica blog, “There are more copycats now, and they come at a faster pace… There is more of everything. It’s just increasingly difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff”, he also added on a positivity tip that, “There are future needs we cannot fathom today. So, yes, we still need new fonts. […]

  15. Roque Strew says:

    Speaking of this site’s glorious annual reviews, I pray to the type gods that you will publish a Favorites of 2016 post. If I can help in any way with response wrangling or editing or whatever, let me know.

  16. Thanks for the kick in the rear, Roque. We are overdue, but it is indeed in process and we may indeed take you up on that offer to help.

  17. […] consider this: Some type and typographic designers have begun to wonder recently whether the field’s preoccupation with technology and the pressures […]

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