Type Design in the Museum: Acquiring the Immaterial

Written by Craig Eliason on April 15, 2021

@ sign from Digestive, a typeface by Jérémy Landes
The @ sign from Digestive, by Jérémy Landes for OH no Type Co.

In March 2010, the Museum of Modern Art in New York announced a strange new acquisition for its design collection: the @ symbol. “It is a momentous, elating acquisition that makes us all proud,” Senior Curator Paola Antonelli said at the time. “But what does it mean,” she went on to ask, “both in conceptual and in practical terms?”

Acquiring the symbol involved no possession-taking of a material object, and no exchange of money. When it came time to credit a designer, the museum chose the electrical engineer who, in 1971, selected the @ sign to be the convention for email addresses. This curatorial move seemed like a Duchampian readymade taken one step further: claiming for the art museum an everyday thing that in this case was not even a thing.

Less than a year later, MoMA announced another acquisition: twenty-three digital typefaces. This might seem like a more conventional accession. A particular typeface design (like Matthew Carter’s Verdana) is a more specific entity than a symbol. Moreover, as Antonelli pointed out, fonts are designed objects available in the marketplace, like the clocks or chairs that are already accepted parts of MoMA’s design collection.

But digital typeface designs are not “things” the way clocks or chairs are. And so the inclusion of type design in the museum has entailed a breakdown and reformulation of the notions of acquisition and accession. Though many critics and museum professionals have been discussing the commissioning, exhibiting, and preserving of so-called new media art, the conundrum of acquiring preexisting digital designs has not received due interrogation.

A Curious Acquisition

The acquisition of the @ sign is part of MoMA’s larger campaign to expand its design holdings beyond conventionally collectible objects. Antonelli seems to be the driving force, and public face, of this project. Acquiring the @ sign, she proclaimed in 2010, “relies on the assumption that physical possession of an object as a requirement for an acquisition is no longer necessary, and therefore it sets curators free to tag the world and acknowledge things that ‘cannot be had’ — because … they are in the air and belong to everybody and to no one, like the @ — as art objects befitting MoMA’s collection.” Antonelli dreams of tagging a Boeing 747. And although MoMA has not yet ventured that far, it has continued to acquire more public-domain symbols like the radiation trefoil or the recycling symbol, both given accession numbers in 2015.

This prompts a question: What is a museum? Is serving as a repository of physical artifacts an essential museological function? The traditional emphasis on physical things has loosened in recent years. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) used to define a museum as an institution that handles “material evidence of people and their environment.” In 2007, ICOM revised its definition, describing a museum as an institution that deals with “the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment.” (An update to ICOM’s definition proposed in 2018 is currently in limbo.) This broadening of attention in the definition seems sound for describing what many museums do. At the Holocaust Memorial Museum, for example, the narratives of Holocaust survivors are good examples of something intangible but vital for housing in a museum. Still, the Museum of Modern Art is foremost a museum of art, so its acquisitions beyond “things” feels like a shift.

The blog post disclosing that MoMA had acquired the @ sign netted dozens of critical comments, many suspicious that the announcement was an early April Fool’s joke. Two days later, Antonelli followed up with a post promising more detail about the decision. “Our recent acquisition of the @ symbol has challenged what most people think of as a typical object that a Museum acquires,” it began. “We thought it best to let you in on our process — how we think about shaping our collection here at MoMA.” What followed was a statement of principles laying out the criteria determining a work’s worthiness for inclusion in the collection: form, function, innovation, cultural impact, process, and necessity. Faced with a befuddled public that could not understand what acquiring the @ sign meant, Antonelli justified the choice of the symbol as museum-worthy design. She did not, however, address the legitimacy of using the language of acquisition.

Installation view of the exhibition, "Standard Deviations: Types and Families in Contemporary Design"
Installation view of the 2011–12 MoMA exhibition, Standard Deviations: Types and Families in Contemporary Design. Image: Museum of Modern Art.

The Immateriality of Digital Type

Turning to the twenty-three type designs acquired by MoMA in 2011, we find the language of acquisition similarly problematic, because typefaces are not material objects. Following their accession, the types (along with the @ symbol) were displayed in a 2011–12 exhibition called Standard Deviations. For that show, individual glyphs or phrases as well as an alphabet and figures from each type design were applied directly to the gallery walls. These were the first digital typefaces incorporated into the collection; prior to this acquisition, the collection included just one example of typeface design: a metal font of 36-point Helvetica Bold received by the museum in 2007. It is enlightening to compare the catalog registration differences between the digital fonts and the metal one. Under “Medium,” Helvetica is listed as “lead and wood tray,” while the newer types are simply called digital typefaces. Under “Dimensions,” the size of the type case of Helvetica is specified in inches, while the digital types are listed as “variable.” Type designs in the contemporary era are not things with physical properties like materials and dimensions.

End and side views of an 18th-century metal type punch, origin unknown. Collection of Letterform Archive.
End and side views of an eighteenth-century metal type punch. Origin unknown. Collection of Letterform Archive.

In fact, the history of type production is a history of progressive dematerialization. The production of type can be sorted into five overlapping eras. The first was typefounding in the literal sense: type manufacturers were foundries that cast letterforms with molten metal. The shapes of the types were determined by the punches painstakingly carved by engravers. The punches were struck into softer metal to form matrices. The matrix then served as the floor in the hand mold used to create the type sorts used for printing. In the West, this famously started with Gutenberg in the fifteenth century, but MoMA’s Helvetica font is also a late exemplar of foundry type.

Virgin Wood Type, Ampersand outline and fill for 12-line Chromatic Ornate.
Wood type blocks for 12-line Chromatic Ornate, Virgin Wood Type. Collection of Letterform Archive.

A paradigm shift happened in the nineteenth century with the invention of the pantograph. Pantographic punchcutting machines made the meticulous engraver of foundry-type punches obsolete. They did this by translating larger movements of a pointer into precisely scaled-down movements of the cutting tool. Thus punches (or matrices, or wood-type sorts) could be created at any size just by tracing a drawing at a larger, more convenient scale. In this era, then, we lose the sense of a specific scale fixed by the creative process.

The third phase of type production is sometimes called the “hot-metal era,” dominated in the first half of the twentieth century by manufacturers of machines like Linotype and Monotype casters. With these inventions, cast metal type was still used to print as in the previous “cold-metal era,” but the types were cast as needed at the printing site rather than obtained from a foundry. The type sorts and slugs became ephemeral, melted down to be recast once the printing job was done. From cold-metal to hot-metal eras, we lose the sense of the type sort being an enduring product.

Then, in the middle of the twentieth century, metal types began to be eclipsed by an entirely different technology of type production and printing: photography. In these phototypesetting systems, types were no longer metal or wooden things to be inked and pressed into paper. Instead, they were images on a disk or strip that were sequentially exposed by a strobe light onto film. The transformation from a fixed-scale, three-dimensional object into a freely scalable two-dimensional image accelerated the dematerialization process.

Film reel for the Photo Typositor. Photo by Laura Serra. Collection of Letterform Archive.
Font for the VGC Photo Typositor, Type Films of Chicago. Photo by Laura Serra. Collection of Letterform Archive.

In turn, and even more radically, the optical era was eclipsed by the development of digital type later in the twentieth century. Contemporary designs like those acquired by MoMA are created in the virtual design space of editing software. They are output as computer instructions for rendering by a screen or printer. The digital revolution made the virtualization of type design complete.

Victus specimen, Gen Ramírez, 2010. Collection of Letterform Archive.
Specimen of the Victus typeface, a Type@Cooper West student project by Gen Ramírez, 2010. Collection of Letterform Archive.

Exhibitable Forms

Even setting this dematerialization process within the history of type production aside, we might say the very nature of type design confounds efforts to collect and represent it in a fixed physical form. Type design by definition means shaping glyphs that can be endlessly recombined; the possibility of arbitrary sequences of glyphs is what distinguishes type design from lettering or calligraphy. An artful type design is not merely one in which (for example) the lowercase g looks pleasing, but also one in which that g is effective no matter which letter precedes or follows it. Consequently, there is no discrete set arrangement of letters that completely demonstrates the design. One might point to a poster featuring a typeface, but that is more persuasively seen as an exemplar of typography than of type design. Thus it is not clear what physical artifact could best embody the design in the museum’s collection and exhibitions.

Drawing for Metroblack ‘e’, ‘n’, ‘r’, at 6 pt., Linotype & Machinery, Manchester, 1934.
Drawing for Metroblack, Linotype & Machinery, Manchester, 1934. Collection of Letterform Archive.

Trying to collect the physically uncollectible is itself not a new aspiration for the museum. Architecture is another kind of design that MoMA has a vested interest in celebrating, though its built achievements are not something that can be literally brought into the museum’s collections. Site-specific sculpture poses the same conundrum. In these cases, MoMA has acquired documentation of the designs such as models of buildings or preparatory sketches for remote artworks. In the world of type design, drawings, sketches, specimens, and proofs might serve as analogous documentation, but ownership of that kind of design documentation is not what the museum was announcing in 2011. In the Standard Deviations exhibition, printed examples of the typefaces in use were included in cases and on the rail under the typeface displays applied to the walls. But that was ancillary material taken from the museum’s study collection — it was not the printed examples that were accessioned, but rather the typefaces above.

Ownership and Acquisition

What does ownership mean in the case of digital typeface designs? A closer look at how fonts work in the marketplace can help clarify that. Although graphic designers sometimes say “I bought a font,” in most cases that is considered shorthand for “I bought a license to use a font.” Because (like other digital products) font files can be duplicated cheaply and exactly, sellers have adopted the End User License Agreement (EULA) to control the reproduction and sharing that would destroy the market value of the type design. These contracts make clear that ownership of the design — its intellectual property (IP) — stays with the seller; it is only permission to install the file on limited devices and use it in limited ways that is being granted to the user. Accepting the EULA is a condition of the sale (though of course plenty of consumers click their assent without reading the legal agreement). So the language within a standard EULA does not discard the concept of ownership as irrelevant to digital products. On the contrary, an assertion of IP ownership is central to the EULA’s purpose: ownership exists and it does not change hands with licensing.

Thus IP is the ownable part of type design. Yet MoMA’s acquisition of the typeface designs did not include acquisition of the associated intellectual property. It is worth noting that best practices in museum work stipulate that, when considering an object for acquisition and accession, the museum should confirm the owner has legal title and is prepared to transfer it to the museum. MoMA’s own collections management policy dictates that “clear title” should be obtained. This ethical standard is targeted at eliminating cases in which objects of dubious provenance, such as looted artworks, enter the museum. But as a professional guideline, it would seem to discourage MoMA’s acquisition of the digital typefaces — in that case, ownership of the IP is clear, but it is not transferred to the museum. Although the museum catalog states that the typefaces are gifts from their respective publishers or designers, ownership of the design as intellectual property was not part of the gift.

In the case of the twenty-three digital typefaces, then, what exactly was given to the museum? MoMA Design Department Collection Specialist Paul Galloway informed me during a phone conversation in 2016 that the transaction involved special licenses drafted specifically for these gifts. He explained that many standard EULAs include language that permits the manufacturer revocation of usage rights in certain circumstances, and this possibility of revocation conflicted with the museum’s intention of permanent acquisition. After some period of back and forth over the legalese, the parties reached an agreement and permanent licenses were granted as donations. In one case, Matthew Carter’s Walker, a proprietary design used exclusively by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, both the manufacturer and the exclusive-rights holder had to assent to the special license for MoMA.

So Why “Acquire” Typefaces?

For a variety of reasons, digital type designs cannot be truly acquired: because they are virtual rather than physical; because they are type, which inherently has no single, fixed form; and because their intellectual property will not be relinquished by its owners. And yet MoMA declared this move as an acquisition, accessioning these twenty-three designs into its collection. What is the good in that?

It is easier to understand why MoMA undertook this shift by imagining the consequences of not undertaking it. If the design department of MoMA constrained itself to physical, collectible objects, the entire digital creative world would remain outside its horizon. Such a restriction would clearly consign the institution to obsolescence and run directly counter to the emphasis on contemporaneity infusing the museum’s mission statement. If important design is happening in the digital world, the museum must follow. As Antonelli has said, “digital space is increasingly another space we live in.”

Moreover, while there is nothing unique about the font software programs MoMA has licensed, acquisition for the collection entails a commitment to preservation that the institution takes seriously. Inevitably, changes in file type or hardware standards will render the font files obsolete. In that eventuality, collection maintenance standards oblige the institution to keep the type designs accessible one way or another. In 2021, when any of us can download most of these same font files with a few clicks in a browser, their status as part of the collection may seem trivial, but it’s easy to imagine that in 2031 or 2041 that might not be the case. As one of the selected designers, Jonathan Hoefler, noted: “Digital artworks are prone to different kinds of damage than physical ones, but obsolescence is no less damaging to a typeface than earthquakes and floods to a painting.” Essentially, digital type designs are immaterial and not fully ownable by the museum, but the fiction of ownership does bring with it a custodial responsibility that ensures the designs can take material form for future generations.

I remain befuddled about what it means for MoMA to have acquired the @ sign, or likewise what value lies in using the language of acquisition to celebrate a Boeing 747 that is still flying around in the sky. As for the twenty-three digital type designs, “acquisition” is a curious word to use, since the designs are endlessly reproducible and the intellectual property rights never changed hands. Perhaps this is a pragmatic metaphorical extension of older museological vocabulary that is to be expected, but it is nevertheless imprecise.

The language of collection, acquisition, and ownership is, we could say, object-oriented language (rooted in what Steven Conn has called “object-based epistemology”), and type designs are not material objects. I’ve used type design as a case study here to highlight the unresolved contradictions of object-oriented museum practices. But thinking about type might also refocus our attention on the larger purpose of the museum in its contemporary conception — an institution that has a primary responsibility not to artworks and designed objects, but to art and design.

Craig Eliason is a professor in the art history department at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. His research focuses on the history of type design. He also designs typefaces, some of which have been released by his foundry, Teeline Fonts.


  1. John Boardley says:

    I really enjoyed this. Brilliant piece, Craig.

  2. Gaz Shaw says:

    Do NFTs put a different spin on this?

  3. @Gaz Shaw: Yes, that’s a link that I have thought some about. It’s probably fair to say that NFTs arise from a quandary about digital ownership parallel to those I outline in the article. I’m not yet convinced that such tokens effectively *solve* the quandary though. I’ll be curious to see if museums (not just dealers and auction houses) get on board with NFTs.

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