Type Choice, Political Choice

Written by Agyei Archer on February 21, 2019

A while ago, an attempt to stifle a difficult conversation made me realize that there are no utopias, not even the community where I had come to feel at home: the type world.

On May 25th, 2018, the revered (at least by me) Dutch Type Library posted a progress report on DTL Prokyon Cyrillic — an extension of the successful, well-drawn DTL Prokyon, designed by Erhard Kaiser. This prompted Erik van Blokland to ask: “Still the same designer?”

The ensuing exchange of tweets confused me a little, but eventually I came to understand: Kaiser is a public supporter of the openly anti-Islamic organization LEGIDA (Leipzig against the Islamization of the Occident)1, and there was video evidence to prove it: a clip of him reciting a nationalist poem — which I didn’t understand because of the language barrier, but which was good enough for me, since it was posted from LEGIDA’s official YouTube channel. The clip has since been deleted, though footage of Kaiser reciting the poem appears elsewhere, and you can catch him delivering an address at another LEGIDA event in 2015.

On September 6th, 2018, DTL posted a flyer that linked to the Plantin Institute of Technology’s Expert class Type design exhibition. The flyer made prominent use of DTL Prokyon. This led to another, blunter question — this time from Indra Kupferschmid: “[D]o you really prefer to promote and use the typeface of an openly fascist, racist hate speech campaigner over any of the other DTL fonts, or your students’ work?”

Industry leaders who have publicly called out bad kerning on logos were asking for this conversation, which deserved public dialogue much more urgently, to be held in private.

It was a good question. I thought it merited a response, so I stuck around for one. And immediately, in the most despairingly typical fashion, came the “What about X?” questions — X being Eric Gill, in this case. Eric Gill, for the uninitiated, was both a highly accomplished type designer and a rapist who molested his two daughters in their teenage years.

Those reactions were predictable enough, but there followed a bit of talk (in German, translated by my browser) about making this a private conversation. Some asked if a person’s political views should be a factor in choosing a typeface: there was, or at least should be, no politics in design, the argument went. It wasn’t just one person saying this; influential industry leaders echoed this line of reasoning. Industry leaders who have publicly called out bad kerning on logos were asking for this conversation, which deserved public dialogue much more urgently, to be held in private.

That made me uneasy.

I am a young black man living in a postcolonial, racially stratified, Caribbean country; I spend most of my days on guard against, and actively victimized by, fascism. I am far removed (physically) from the cosmopolitan centers of type design, but I was made to feel a sense of place in that world as soon as I decided to take it. While at Type@Cooper, I’d call my partner after a sixteen-hour day and tell her: “You know, these are really nice folks, these type people.” And I still feel that way. I’ve found mentorship, advice, and constructive criticism from people I didn’t even think answered emails. Through avenues like Twitter and Typedrawers, I’ve found a way into a community — and I cherish that.

It seems that we, as a global society, have long acknowledged that diversity is a good thing in principle and in practice. What really pushes conversations about diversity to the fore, however, are its real-world, monetary implications. I’m not critical of the reasons for more discussions about these matters; I’m just happy to be drawing type in 2019. But the response by so many esteemed professionals in my chosen field to an issue that has concrete ramifications for someone like me was deeply unnerving.

I believe that the type industry, as a whole, is moving in a positive direction: Alphabettes, for example, prioritizes underrepresented groups for their crits, and many type conferences now get tickets sponsored by foundries or individuals specifically trying to bring fresh faces onto the scene. It’s beautiful. But I find it troubling when this progress is undermined by willful ignorance; it’s possible to have internalized biases, but it’s also possible to move past them. Using a typeface designed by a fascist undermines the hard work of those attempting to open the type industry to more than privileged white people.

Fascism kills. It especially kills people who look like me.

In case it needs to be said: yes, it is wrong to promote, reward, and give voice to fascists in any way. I wouldn’t spend money at a Trump hotel, even if I could afford it. Type design is not a celebrity field, but the reality is that the proliferation of a type designer’s work comes through its use. Giving voice to people who give their voices to hatred is at best normalization and, at worst, endorsement. You don’t agree with Kaiser’s beliefs but you’re using his fonts? Well, then, maybe you don’t disagree enough. Fascism kills. It especially kills people who look like me.

I’m not advocating only for my sake — I’m lucky to have people who I believe will continue to nurture my development in my new life with letters — but for other underrepresented people like me who may be considering entering what is already a technically and mentally demanding profession. The quiet act of knowingly using a typeface designed by a supporter of fascism, and then vigorously defending that position, speaks to determined, privileged ignorance, and poses additional challenges to entry. It could even be enough to keep someone from wanting to fulfill their potential with type. In an environment where there are so many high-quality fonts produced every day, selecting a particular typeface becomes more and more an active choice. Typeface selection isn’t just about aesthetics, or features. It’s also about context and source — especially now. In other words, you don’t have to use a typeface designed by a fascist. You choose to.

The reality is this: if type design, like any other industry, wants to open itself to inclusiveness and diversity, that means necessarily distancing itself from forces that undermine those values. The tolerance paradox states that if a society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant will eventually be seized or destroyed by the intolerant. I don’t think type design in 2019 is going to suffer from a fascist uprising, thanks largely to people who are working hard to break down barriers to the discipline. But it will ultimately suffer if it gives way to the naive assumption that everyone deserves to have their voice heard. The opening of some doors requires the closing of others.

Note

  1. LEGIDA is a local offshoot of the larger and more established PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against Islamization of the Occident), and is thought to be even more radical than its precursor.⤴

Agyei Archer is a designer from Trinidad and Tobago who works with graphics, type, and code. He studied visual communications at the University of Trinidad and Tobago, and typeface design at Cooper Union. His interests include language, culture, and technology, especially as they relate to the Caribbean.

9 Comments

  1. Justin Ross says:

    Thanks for this post, Agyei. A common refrain is that “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism”, and to an extent, I agree with that, but you’re absolutely right that even something as seemingly apolitical as a typeface can have broader repercussions.

    Nothing exists in a vacuum. If you design something with a typeface created by a bigot, is it likely that *your* design is going to directly contribute to fascism in any significant way? Not really, but that hinges on the fact that most consumers of it will be unaware of the context. These days, with so much information at our fingertips, context is all too easy to discover, and as soon as someone learns of the context, your apolitical work suddenly becomes political; a statement, even, whether intentional or not.

    Sure, a creator can plead ignorance, and that might get them off the hook, morally-speaking, but if you knowingly attach a context to your work that will send a message that’s antithetical to your purpose or beliefs … at the very least, you have to weigh that decision carefully.

    Far too often, it’s the people unlikely to suffer from the spread of fascism that try to dissuade bringing “politics” into spaces that should be, in their mind, apolitical. They have that luxury because, for them, it really is just “politics”, as though racism and hatred were just this to vote on, alongside raising taxes on cigarettes, or changing zoning requirements.

  2. It’s a good debate, I think it’s better to separate what the artistic work is from the person who made them. These cases are quite extreme, but the truth is that it is common in any field, not just creative. It can be used to denounce fascism or defend the human rights, but boycotting the work seems absurd.

  3. Robin says:

    Thank you for this post. It’s time!

    We also had and still have the feeling that the “type designer” and her/his work hides a bit too often behind the often quoted “craftsmanship” of her/his profession.

    We also wrote a few sentences about this feeling in the manifest of our type-laboratory:

    http://iamgod.world/statement

  4. Thank you, Agyei for this smart, nuanced piece. It helped me process the world outside my study a little better. You are right for calling out false equivalence and what-aboutism, lazy, machiavellian tactics that primarily serve to deflect and obscure. They have no place in any honest discourse.

  5. erik Spiekermann says:

    Agyei: thank you for this piece. Well argued and very important to be argued.

    One thing I need to address is the fact that you link to a very short Twitter conversation between some of us where you misunderstood what went on. While some wanted to keep the whole topic private, others were confused by some of the earlier references (mostly in German) and were asking for more information. I was one of those, and I think you got me wrong. These discussions, of course, are more important than kerning (which is overrated anyway), and I certainly do not want to go on record as having supported a right-wing asshole. I met him decades ago, and while he is not a Nazi (yet), we — especially in Germany — have to be aware of how these movements start. First by creating fear of the other (blame Blacks, Jews, anybody not like you for what is wrong in society), then slowly eroding civil rights, then making diverging opinions illegal… We know the rest from history.

    There is plenty good type around, and luckily more and more from outside the US-Euro mainstream, so no need to support assholes by using their fonts.

  6. Ba says:

    It is worthless to hear such bold ideological words from the large mouth of Typographica if it is not willing to be consistent with them. To wit, by not only removing the post about the Eric Gill Series, but also by conducting background checks on every past featured type designer and featured writer, and then purging from the record those found guilty of any deeds deemed odious. If the people who ostensibly back such a supposed high ground are not willing to die for their ideas, they ought to at least be willing to kill their website for them; and let the judgment of all type designers begin.

  7. Chris Lozos says:

    I still can’t listen to Wagner

  8. Daniel Molinero says:

    Great post.

    Separating the art from the artist is a tough topic. On the one hand, the art that someone makes (especially art as apolitical as a typeface) is separate from them once it is done, and you can appreciate it for what it is. But as Agyei points out, especially for currently living artists, you do “endorse them monetarily” by supporting their art, and that’s the tricky part to pick out. If you know that your money will be turned into a hate campaign, then is it not accidental support for their campaign if you support them?

    To Agyei’s second point, it is also about your own reputation. If I am using fonts primarily created by fascists, even without my knowledge, the people who do have the knowledge might assume my own beliefs. What you stand for and what you support should be something close to everyone’s heart, so is it not worth it to know that when you spend your money, personally and professionally, it goes to people and causes that you do support (or at the very least, don’t absolutely not support)?

  9. Friend of John Galt says:

    Amazing. This is clearly a “millennial” conversation. As a now-ancient, we used to believe in “freedom of speech” (at least in the US, at least some of the time). The idea is that “words” can’t ultimately hurt you. And the solution for uninformed, biased speech was more speech, with well-developed arguments.

    Bill Cosby has been revealed as a disgusting person. But his acting as Dr. Huxtable in The Cosby Show back in the 1970s is still first rate — and the “messages/values” (if any) transmitted in that show are mostly quite positive. The eventual revelation of his personal failings and illegal acts does not make his skill as an actor presenting a wholesome family lifestyle in his TV Series any less well done.

    Likewise, a “fascist” or “sexual predator” who has created designs in wide use (as type) or that have been widely distributed (as music or art) does not have any real bearing on the merit of that art. The Soviet Union jailed, tortured, and/or exiled various artists and writers for their “deviant” work (according to the Soviets). Yet many of these same individuals were hailed for their work in the West. Likewise, the Nazis (fascists) denigrated, banned, and occasionally destroyed “deviant” or “Jewish” art works that were given rather different appreciation elsewhere.

    I doubt that Agyei really can say what is right or wrong when evaluating the possibly misunderstood political views of any particular artist — while I don’t know enough about Kaiser’s political views (or for that matter his type designs) to know if he is truly a “fascist” or not (or if his type designs are worthwhile or not), he certainly may express himself as he wishes. Those who disagree with him can express themselves as well. Observers of both can draw their own conclusions. Anything else becomes tyranny.

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