Fads, Trends, Ages—A View of Typography

Was there ever a Golden Age of Typography in the present century? Should two or more typographers ever get together, in or out of a smoke-filled room, there will be polemics aplenty before any satisfactory conclusions could be reached in answer to that question! There might even be a few bruises, and not just egos.

It was a century which witnessed the personalization of typographic style as exemplified by the individual typographers, from Will Bradley to Herb Lubalin. Earlier, the significant contributions had been made by printers specializing in books, and the history of the craft has been the record of their productions.

The Compositor-Designer

For a long time following the rise of the periodical press and the phenomenal growth of newspapers, the compositors were responsible for the design of advertisements. Possibly the rule-pending excess of the 1880s made it obvious that, if advertisers were to reap the maximum benefit from their investment, special training was required for this kind of work. Thus the advertising designer, as a specialist, appeared.

Frederic W. Goudy was an early practitioner in this field, beginning as the creator of hand-lettered advertisements. Many of the Goudy types were originally styled for this purpose. However, as he became more interested in printing as an art, Goudy turned to book types. It is of course this aspect of his career which attracts those present-day printers who cite Goudy as an example of the Golden Age.

Daniel Berkeley Updike, the Boston printer, was completely traditional in his outlook. While he produced a great deal of ephemeral printing, it is as a book printer he is best remembered. His contemporary, Bruce Rogers, is deservedly renowned for his own devotion to the book arts, as is Carl Purington Rollins, who became printer to Yale University. Another great book printer was John Henry Nash of San Francisco.

There were several first-rate typographers who were equally at home in the design of both books and commercial printing. Of these, William Addison Dwiggins and T.M. Cleland were the most productive. Dwiggins was the most versatile graphic artist of his time, being a calligrapher and a type designer of note, and an innovator in typographic decoration. Cleland’s classic style (circa 1910–30) in advertising design was greatly admired and imitated.

Rise of Advertising Designer

The period between 1900 and 1941 witnessed the full development of the agency-studio approach to advertising. The philosophy of this viewpoint naturally enough clashed with that of the traditional book-oriented printer. In the post-war era the advertising designer has become the dominant force in typography. Since innovation is a key word in the preparation of any advertising or promotional message, there is an unceasing effort on the part of the ad typographer to be “different.” The inevitable result is a series of styling fads, some of which attain the dignity of a trend.

The younger designers anxiously watch the “name” typographers. What types are they using? What display styles are they promoting? The very nature of business engenders change, and the inescapable fact seems to be that this will continue to be the situation.

Those printers with strong roots in the past perhaps cannot be blamed for becoming weary with this constant striving for attention which permeates advertising typography. Under such circumstances they look back nostalgically to the period when classic typography was the trend in advertising.

The young contemporary designers have nothing but contempt for this viewpoint, and rightly berate their critics for their stodgy attitude.

Too Self-Centered

In point of fact, both groups are wrong. They are guilty of being self-centered to the point of blindness. In the wide range of producing the printed word there is a lot of room for both the traditional and the modern method.

Forty years ago Bill Dwiggins wrote that modernism was not a system of design, but that it was a state of mind—a natural and wholesome reaction against an overdose of traditionalism. Before the modernist accepts this statement without question, he should recall that the traditionalist, Cobden-Sanderson, stated that “the whole duty of typography is to communicate.”

There seems to be a great deal of badly conceived and sloppily executed typography in current advertising. While there is nothing wrong with innovation, per se, the young designers should ground themselves in the traditional concepts and values before experimenting with new styles.

There is also a great deal of beautifully planned and splendidly produced printing at every hand, an indication that designers do avail themselves of the best thinking of both schools. Unquestionably the present magnificent technical resources of the printing industry, accessible to every designer, demand nothing less. The combination of integrity in design and production will together produce printing of which any age will be proud, and which no single group can claim as its own.

This article first appeared in the “Typographically Speaking” column of the May 1968 issue of Printing Impressions.


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