Opinion—Standard Deviations

On January 24 of this year the Museum of Modern Art announced that they were adding 23 fonts to their Architecture and Design Collection. I paid little attention at the time to the news, other than to nod approvingly at their choice of typefaces by Matthew Carter, Jonathan Hoefler and Zuzana Licko. But last week I visited MoMA to see the Counter Space exhibition and afterwards I stumbled upon Standard Deviations: Types and Families in Contemporary Design, an exhibition of the newly acquired fonts.

It was exhilarating to see typefaces covering several walls of the central third floor gallery. But upon closer inspection the fonts chosen raised questions about MoMA’s thinking.

The 23 fonts chosen are:

OCR-A (American Type Founders, 1966)
New Alphabet (Wim Crouwel, 1967)
Bell Centennial (Matthew Carter, Mergenthaler Linotype, 1976–1978)
ITC Galliard (Matthew Carter, International Typeface Corporation, 1978)
FF Meta (Erik Spiekermann, FontShop, 1984–1991)
Oakland (Zuzana Licko, Emigre, 1985)
FF Beowolf (Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum, FontShop, 1990)
Template Gothic (Barry Deck, Emigre, 1990)
Dead History (P. Scott Makela and Zuzana Licko, Emigre, 1990)
Keedy Sans (Jeffery Keedy, Emigre, 1991)
HTF Didot (Jonathan Hoefler, Hoefler Type Foundry, 1991)
FF Blur (Neville Brody, FontShop, 1992)
Mason (nèe Manson) (Jonathan Barnbrook, Emigre, 1992)
Mantinia (Matthew Carter, Carter & Cone Typography, 1993)
Interstate (Tobias Frere-Jones, Font Bureau, 1993–1995)
Big Caslon (Matthew Carter, Carter & Cone Typography, 1994)
FF DIN (Albert-Jan Pool, FontShop, 1995)
Walker (Matthew Carter, Walker Art Center, 1995)
Verdana (Matthew Carter, Microsoft, 1996)
Mercury (Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones, Hoefler & Frere-Jones, 1996)
Miller (Matthew Carter, Font Bureau, 1997)
Retina (Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones, Hoefler Type Foundry, 1999)
Gotham (Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones, Hoefler Type Foundry, 2000)

*I have added the foundries who issued the faces or the clients who commissioned them to the list provided by MoMA. The names are those in existence at the time the relevant typeface was released. (For instance, the Hoefler Type Foundry did not become Hoefler & Frere-Jones until 2004.) I also added Zuzana Licko’s name to Dead History since she is usually credited as a co-creator, the person responsible for turning P. Scott Makela’s design into a workable font. Some of the dates MoMA has provided seem iffy to me, most notably that of Mercury which the Hoefler & Frere-Jones website describes as “the product of nine years’ research and development”.

“We chose some of these typefaces because they are sublimely elegant responses to the issues of specific media,” says the MoMA press release. On these grounds they defend their choices of Retina, Bell Centennial, Mercury and Miller. “We have tried to form a comprehensive collection of the most elegant solutions to typography design in the midst of the digital revolution…,” is the explanation for including OCR-A, Oakland, New Alphabet, Verdana and Beowolf. Revivals and parodies of historical typefaces are included because “typography has a special relationship with its own past”. Those that “most inventively distill the essence of historical examples to give it new, contemporary life” are HTF Didot, Galliard (sic), Big Caslon, Mantinia and DIN. Dead History is seen as a reinterpretation of the past. And lastly, as the press release says, some fonts were selected simply because they “visually reflect the time and place in which they were made.” Thus, Interstate, Gotham, Walker, Meta (sic), Blur, Keedy Sans, Mason and Template Gothic. These faces are described as having cultural importance and notable for their aesthetic experimentation.

These rationales are a grab bag, essentially post hoc excuses for choosing whatever seems to have caught the curators’ fancy rather than part of a coherent argument about the changes in type over the past few decades. The overarching argument that these fonts represent the “evolution of digital typefaces” since the early 1960s is highly suspect as well.

The typefaces chosen by MoMA are, by and large, reasonable choices—just not the most important ones in every instance. More significantly, the faces left out reveal the true flaws in their claim to have assembled fonts that represent the history of type in the digital era. From this perspective, here is my list of what is not in the collection but should be:

OCR-B (Adrian Frutiger, European Computer Manufacturers Association, 1968)
The “human” response to OCR-A and the winner in the long-term in the debate over whether letters should be designed for computers and other machines to read or whether machines should be designed to read letters familiar to humans.

Digi-Grotesk S (Dr.-Ing. Rudolf Hell, 1968)
The first digital typeface

Marconi (Hermann Zapf, Dr.-Ing. Rudolf Hell, 1975)
The first original typeface to be produced with the Ikarus computer-aided design anddigitization system.

Computer Modern (Donald Knuth, 1980)
The first family of fonts developed using Metafont.

Chicago (Susan Kare, Apple, 1983)
A bitmapped screen font used for the operating system of the first Apple Macintosh.

AMS Euler (Hermann Zapf and Donald Knuth, American Mathematical Society, 1983)
Designed using METAFONT, a font manipulation program developed by Knuth.

Lucida Serif and Lucida Sans (Kris Holmes and Charles Bigelow, Imagen, 1985)
The first original type family intended for laser printing. And the first type family to successfully unite serif and sans serif designs.

Matrix (Zuzana Licko, Emigre, 1985)
The first Emigre font intended to be widely used by other graphic designers.

TF Forever (Joseph Treacy, Treacyfaces, 1986)
The first original PostScript Type 3 font made using Fontographer.

ITC Stone (Sumner Stone, International Typeface Corporation, 1987)
The though licensed to ITC, this was the first Adobe original typeface. It also further expanded the notion of the superfamily as it contained ITC Stone Serif, ITC Stone Sans and ITC Stone Informal.

Charter (Matthew Carter), Amerigo (Gerard Unger) and Carmina (Gudrun Zapf-von Hesse)—all Bitstream, 1987
The first original typefaces issued by Bitstream which, along with Adobe, was one of the two pioneering digital typefoundries in 1981. Charter was licensed to ITC in 1993 and became ITC Charter.

Adobe Garamond (Robert Slimbach, Adobe, 1989)
The first important historical revival in the digital type era. And one of the best-selling fonts of all time. Of much greater importance than Big Caslon.

Lithos, Trajan and Charlemagne (Carol Twombly, Adobe, 1989)
A trio of types based on key moments in the evolution of Western lettering (not type) that have been far more influential than Mantinia.

Rotis (Otl Aicher, Agfa Compugraphic, 1989)
A font family that went beyond both Lucida and ITC Stone to embrace sans, semi-sans, semi-serif and serif variants. A dated font, but no more so than Keedy Sans or Dead History and certainly much more popular then as well as today.

Scala (Martin Majoor, Vredenburg Centre, 1988)
Issued by FontShop in 1990 as FF Scala, this has been one of the most successful and influential type designs of the past twenty years, especially once it was joined by FF Scala Sans. It is far more important than either Interstate or FF DIN.

Poetica (Robert Slimbach, Adobe, 1992)
The first italic type family.

Myriad MM (Robert Slimbach and Carol Twombly, Adobe, 1992) and Minion MM (Robert Slimbach, Adobe, 1992)
The first two Multiple Master fonts from Adobe. Minion MM was the first optically scalable font. Myriad has gone on to be the default face for many of Adobe’s and Apple’s products, packaging and advertising.

Silica (Sumner Stone, Stone Typefoundry, 1993)
Ostensibly the first typeface designed entirely on-screen.

Hoefler Text (Jonathan Hoefler, Hoefler Type Foundry, 1994)
The most successful GX font, Hoefler Text was part of System 7.5 for the Macintosh. It is the typeface that brought Jonathan Hoefler widespread recognition.

Adobe Jenson (Robert Slimbach, Adobe, 1994)
The first type revival with optical scaling. But not a widely used typeface.

Thesis (Luc(as) de Groot, FontShop, 1995)
The beginning of the biggest superfamily which includes sans, serif, square serif, monoline, semi-serif and other variants. TheSans has been especially popular. It is a much more significant face than Keedy Sans.

Georgia (Matthew Carter, Microsoft, 1995)
How can MoMA include Verdana without including Georgia? They were designed together to be used as sans serif and serif options for screen fonts. Georgia (used here) has been extremely popular as the default font for blogs.

Warnock Pro (Robert Slimbach, Adobe, 2000) and Silentium Pro (Jovica Veljovic, Adobe, 2000)
The first two original type designs in the OpenType format.

MoMA stopped at 2000 so too does my list, though there are a number of notable fonts that have been created in the past decade. The biggest lacunæ in MoMA’s list are the omissions of any font from either Adobe (the company that invented PostScript!) or Bitstream. Their account of digital type history is the equivalent of writing about American politics in the 1960s and including Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Robert F. Kennedy, and Eugene McCarthy but somehow leaving out John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon. Accurate but woefully incomplete.