In digital typography, problem-solving intelligent design

New York's Museum of Modern Art is celebrating 23 digital typefaces by admitting them into its collection. They are a great example of intelligent, problem-solving design.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

You may have never thought much about the default typefaces that are loaded onto your home computer or smartphone, but they are, subtly, the work of graphic designers who aim to improve the way we interact with the world around us.

That's hardly a new role for typography, but the digital revolution has accelerated the pace of change to lightning speeds.

We don't often write about typefaces on SmartPlanet, but a New York Times Sunday report demonstrates how important they are in facilitating interaction with devices we do deem as "smart" -- smartphones, public displays and so forth.

The occasion? The Museum of Modern Art in New York is celebrating digital typefaces from as early as 1996 -- you may be familiar with some of the 23 total, such as Verdana, OCR-A or Template Gothic -- by admitting them into its collection, alongside design classics such as Helvetica.

The Times reports:

Type the letters “fi,” “ff” and “fl.” The space between each set is slightly wider than between other such sets to prevent them from blurring together, another problem with digital typefaces. Finally, if you print out whatever you have typed, you will notice that characters are wider apart on screen than on paper.

All of these details were added to Verdana by its designer Matthew Carter in 1996 when Microsoft commissioned him to create a font that would be easy to read on computers. His solution is a textbook example of how intelligent design can help us to adapt to technological change.

Typefaces -- "fonts" in the modern lingo -- have always been used to carve meaning from words, but they also are highly functional, from the signage within public transportation systems to the array of tiny stock tables and sports scores in the back of the newspaper.

In senior curator Paola Antonelli's own words:

We chose some of these typefaces because they are sublimely elegant responses to the issues of specific media. For example, typefaces like Bell Centennial, Mercury, Miller, and Retina were all designed to be printed on newsprint, with cheap ink and in small sizes.

In many cases, advances in technology influenced the aesthetics of type. We have tried to form a comprehensive collection of the most elegant solutions to typography design in the midst of the digital revolution; typefaces like OCR-A, Oakland, New Alphabet, Verdana, and Beowolf address the span of twentieth-century type-design solutions, from CRT monitors to programming and the Internet.

Typography has a special relationship with its own past, with frequent redesigns and revivals, from among which we chose the ones that most inventively distill the essence of historical examples to give it new, contemporary life—as in HTF Didot, Galliard, Big Caslon, Mantinia, and DIN. Others, like Dead History, reference the past, but reinterpret it in new ways.

The digital era has accelerated the rate at which designers can experiment and allowed for incredible innovation, via simple programming.

Which means there has (arguably) never been a better time for type in history.

The full list of highlighted typefaces:

  • American Type Founders OCR-A (1966)
  • Wim Crouwel New Alphabet (1967)
  • Matthew Carter Bell Centennial (1976-78)
  • Matthew Carter ITC Galliard (1978)
  • Erik Spiekermann FF Meta (1984-1991)
  • Zuzana Licko Oakland (1985)
  • Jeffery Keedy Keedy Sans (1991)
  • Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum FF Beowolf (1990)
  • Barry Deck Template Gothic (1990)
  • P. Scott Makela Dead History (1990)
  • Jonathan Hoefler HTF Didot (1991)
  • Neville Brody FF Blur (1992)
  • Jonathan Barnbrook Mason (1992)
  • Matthew Carter Mantinia (1993)
  • Tobias Frere-Jones Interstate (1993-95)
  • Matthew Carter Big Caslon (1994)
  • Albert-Jan Pool FF DIN (1995)
  • Matthew Carter Walker (1995)
  • Matthew Carter Verdana (1996)
  • Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones Mercury (1996)
  • Matthew Carter Miller (1997)
  • Jonathan Hoefler & Tobias Frere-Jones Retina (1999)
  • Jonathan Hoefler & Tobias Frere-Jones Gotham (2000)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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