Blue Pencil no. 13 addendum no. 2—Standard Deviations

The Dialogue column (pp. 28–32) in the current issue of Print magazine (65.3 June 2011) is an interview between Steve Heller and Paola Antonelli regarding the Museum of Modern Art’s acquisition of digital fonts for its Architecture and Design Collection. The interview is fairly vague as Antonelli deflects the hard questions that Heller asks about collecting code and the licensing issues that cropped up in the course of acquiring digital typefaces.

Antonelli still has not identified the experts who advised her and the Museum on which fonts to collect. “Four years ago we held a one-day symposium with experts from all over the world—including you, Steven—to address the future of our graphic design collection, which consisted mostly of posters, albeit great ones,” she says. “We wanted to bring the collection up to date and make it a true commentary on communication design. Amongst the lacunae we identified in our historical holdings, and amongst the new categories of objects that we should tackle, were typefaces.” Antonelli continues, “The initial list of 23 typefaces is distilled from the discussions held in the symposium and tempered further by additional conversations with designers and critics.” The additional designers and critics remain unnamed.

Antonelli emphasizes collecting code as one of the new mandates of the museum, but why that is critical to the 23 digital typefaces acquired is not made clear. Four of the faces pre-date Postscript—OCR-A, New Alphabet, Bell Centennial and ITC Galliard—and were not originally created as digital fonts. (New Alphabet was not even a typeface in 1967; it only existed as speculative drawings.) Antonelli seems unaware of this as she says that the only non-digital typeface in the Museum is the 36 pt. Helvetica Bold that Lars Müller donated. That Antonelli is not comfortable or conversant with type is evident in her description of that typeface: “we collected the lead blocks within their wood tray”. (To be fair to Antonelli, English is not her native language.)

Why didn’t MoMA acquire the pre-PostScript typefaces in their original state? The typefaces that seem to me to be important for their code are Oakland, Beowolf (in its original random-font incarnation not the FontShop version that MoMA bought), Dead History, Walker and, possibly, Retina. These are typefaces that are, in large part, significant technically. Oakland is a bitmap font. Beowolf, a font that was programmed to change randomly, was conceived of as a challenge to the notion of what constituted a typeface in the digital age. Dead History mashed up two existing typefaces by combining their digital outlines and in doing so challenged the idea of what constituted “type design”. (I hope MoMA also collected the digital versions of VAG Rounded and Linotype Centennial that provided the raw material for Dead History.) Walker is of interest for its “snap-on” serifs that are not part of a normal character set and which posed technical problems for the font’s users in the pre-OpenType era. Retina, as a font designed to be used at very small sizes, involves many subtle adjustments to “normal” letterforms and thus its code is important. But the remaining 15 fonts are of more interest for how they look than how they were programmed.