She Loves NYC. Kristin Farber, student. This composition uses photography and typography to snapshot the energy of Manhattan.
Type has cultural (and subcultural) weight. It can capture the spirit of the times and the power of the people.
In this lecture, we'll explore some connections between culture and typographic form and theory. To test them out, we'll closely examine the cultural symbolism of paper money, orcurrency.
The overall question I'd like to address is this: How do designers capture cultural meaning in designed objects and letterforms? Imagine that a visual-archaeologist from the future will uncover a time capsule containing today's typography.
What conclusions would he or she draw about our society?
In this lecture, you can expect to: Explore the interaction between type and other cultural artifacts.
Look at some leading examples of extreme or experimental typography.
Study the conventions and visual language of currency design.
A great way to find design inspiration is to explore other times and other places. Explore there and then, as well as here and now.
Typography doesn't exist in a void. It is an inseparable but often overlooked part of society and culture. It's a man-made object—invented and adapted by people. Sometimes it (or the people who made it) are influenced by new materials and technologies, other times they are influenced by fashion and philosophies.
In the example below you can see the visual relationship between the three design artifacts: tower, chair, and typeface. They all have a prominent geometry with elegant vertical curves.
Fin-De-Siecle Style. Eiffel Tower (1889), Van de Velde chair (1895), Eckmann typeface (1900). Notice the cross-cultural similarities here.
All items were designed around the same time more than 100 years ago. It makes sense that the designers were influenced by the other designed objects in their world. In response, they produced artifacts that then reshaped the design culture. It's a cycle of feedback and change.
The pictured artifacts were made in the early Industrial Age when the geometric influence of machines and the influence of the organic, natural world still intermingled. So we can see both plant-like elements and more mechanical shapes.
"Zeitgeist" is what historians call the "spirit of a time" that permeates its thinking, values, and culture. What do you suppose is the zeitgeist of today?
That Was Then, This Is Now
Times change. Things evolve. Mainstream culture rejuvenates itself by borrowing from smaller quirky subcultures and using media like print, television, the Internet, and word-of-mouth to spread those ideas to millions.
Subcultures mix and meld into the mainstream. One subculture that used to be quite exclusive and is now relatively mainstream is the skate/surf/snow culture.
In the same way that extreme sports are now shaping traditional events, experimental and extreme design may eventually reshape mainstream design and typography.
Earl of Creativity. The typography of Elliot Earls is driven by an expressive urge.
It has an urban street-level aesthetic. It thrives on youth culture, fashion, and music. Coolness and street credibility abounds.
This typography is very individual and idiosyncratic and highly expressive. It is certainly meant to seen first and read second.
One of the more radical designers experimenting with type today is Elliott Earls. He designs typefaces out of necessity. His projects end up as performance/theater/video work. He does everything in his projects: he writes the poetry, sings the songs, edits the video, build the programs, the electronics, and (finally) designs the type and posters. Many of his typefaces can be found at the typeshop Emigre.
Another area of edgy typography takes its inspiration from street culture, skate punks, hip-hop, club culture and so on.
Check out the design studio Blk/Mrkt in Los Angeles or the site GigPostersfor funky, cutting-edge poster work.
Many people would argue that the best design is timeless and not vulnerable to cultural change. Simplicity is universal. Others think that fashion and style drive design. What do you think?
Sign of the Times. Anonymous street graffiti.
The Bauhaus was a design school founded early in the 20th century that embraced the use of new technology in design rather than rejecting it.
Different periods or phases in technological evolution can also provide a source of inspiration.
If you're in the thick rainforest of New Guinea or the frozen Yukon territories you won't find much culture. That's because you won't find many people. Culture comes from the things that people make—from tangible architecture and artifacts to more elusive words and ideas.
Cultures are defined not only by places and nationalities but also by different periods of time. Cultures shift with the generations. The culture in which my grandparents grew up is not the same as the culture I live in today.
Cultures can be divided into high culture and low (popular) culture. It's interesting to me that typography inhabits both levels. It can be both artful and mundane, revolutionary and common.
One important intermixing of design cultures happened early in the 20th century. Much of what became modern design in America is due to an influx of European culture-makers.
Sensing the onset of war, many designers, artists, and architects left Europe for America between 1930 and 1940. With them they brought aspects of their design culture that have had long-lasting influences in the United States.
These outsiders from across the Atlantic were not completely embraced by the pragmatic American design establishment. They brought with them the "new typography" of Europe. At the time, American design was rooted in the traditions of Arts & Crafts styles. The Europeans had radical new philosophies of design and brought with them the san serif letterform and asymmetric layout of the page.
European Influence. Designer: Alexey Brodovich with a photo by Man Ray.
For example, it was difficult for tradition-bound Americans to deal with the look of the Brodovich magazine layout for Harper's Bazaar, with its innovative use of sans-serif type, dynamic columns, and use of white space.
Those radical ideas were the results of experimental schools like the German Bauhaus and Russian Constructivist programs.
From the Bauhaus came Herbert Bayer, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and Walter Gropius. Other influential European designers like M.F. Agha, Alexey Brodovich, A.M. Cassandre, and Will Burtin traveled to America where they worked at influential magazines, agencies, and studios.
How long does it take for innovations in design styles to be culturally accepted? When does the underground become the norm?
Come to think of it, where are we today, with globalization and the Internet? With new technologies design—and culture—can be transmitted around the world in an instant. I can design a typeface on my back porch, upload it to the Net, and you can be using it two minutes later in Bangkok. The traditional walls that shape one culture differently from another are quickly dissolving.
Technology of a particular time period has always shaped the mediums of communication. Typographic forms are not exempt from this influence.
The Maryland Day Centennial poster you see below is printed with large blocks of type made out of wood. It's made of wood, instead of the metal used in the printing presses of that day, because the big chunks of metal would be way too heavy to manage.
Wood type was also easier to ornament and customize. And because of new technology (like steam-powered printing presses, hot-metal typesetting machines, and engraving tools) even the design of metal type was becoming more inventive. This period—the early Industrial Age of the mid-19th century—saw an explosion of new letterform designs.
I think the same sort of thing is going on today with computers. We can use type construction software to make our own typefaces without much specialized knowledge. We have the tools at hand, but do we have the visual ability to make good type?
In with the Old...
New design and typography often borrows from the old. That general approach is called "retro" and is very much at work today.
How do the designers do it? Many use the same tools as the originals— wood type, hand-cut illustrations, and letterpress printing. They don't fake the look and feel by using the computer. One example is Hammerpess in Kansas City, MO.
Everything Old Is New Again. Poster design by Hammerpress.
Above you see an example of an album cover from 1999 designed to look "old-timey." Notice the typestyle. It's very similar to the Maryland Day Centennial poster from 1876.
Retro style doesn't try to be high-tech, it appeals more to the simple, low-tech, and blue-collar sense of design.
An example of a type designer who draws on past cultural periods isJonathan Hoefler. His studio has made custom typefaces for publications such as Rolling Stone, Harper's Bazaar, The New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and Esquire.
Many of his typefaces have historical roots and heavy research behind them. For example, his typeface Civilité is based on a 1562 metal typeface by famed typographer, Robert Granjon. Because the face was missing numerals and punctuation, Hoefler adapted some from another font also designed by Granjon.
Quite Civilized. This typeface is a revival of one originally designed in 1562.
But this makes me think: What type designer—consciously or unconsciously—doesn't draw inspiration from history and culture? Can we really start with a clean slate?
The ephemera of everyday life surrounds us. Pop culture sings its songs. Visual ideas are born from your scrapbook of experience, from today and yesterday, from here and there.
Inclusiveness is an issue in currency design—the symbols chosen must be acceptable to, and representative of, a wide range of people.
Cultural Currency Living in a Material World
One very powerful cultural artifact is currency: banknotes, paper money, cash.
It is powerful not only because it is tied to material wealth but also because it carries strong cultural symbolism. It is a kind of national identity.
Ages and Styles. The 50 Euro, revised and simpler than an earlier issue.
Think of the problems faced in Europe when designing a new standard set of banknotes to represent all of the countries in the European economic union.
The European Central Bank put out a call for designs following a central theme of "Ages and styles of Europe". A jury of respected academics, designers, and communications experts was assembled to advise the bank on the selection of the final designs.
Robert Kalina, an engraver at the Austrian National Bank in Vienna, was the winning designer of the money. The designs represent Europe's architectural heritage. Kalina used images of bridges, gateways or portals (doors and windows) to symbolize the concept of passage, change, and unification.
A Bridge to Nowhere. The bridge on the 100 euro note doesn't exist. It is meant only to represent a general "style" of construction and design.
The illustration of bridges on the banknotes depict the Classical, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Iron, and Modern styles of architecture and building. But what is remarkable is that they are not real, existing bridges in any country—they are imaginary.
Editors at the design Web site Core77 write: "Graphically, the bills are well composed; a nice balance of spareness and anti-counterfeiting complexity, a means to erase those pesky national boundaries that inhibit free-flowing commerce. To flow freely across Europe, money had to be uprooted from its local origins."
The United Kingdom does not use the Euro. Hmm. Is the UK part of Europe or not? I'm sure this is argued and debated in pubs across the land. It's a great example of the cultural tension associated with currency—it's an economic question but also one of design and culture. Cool Britannia, indeed.
Currency design is not a frequent job for most designers, but practicing it is a great challenge in typography, cultural research, and layout. Look at how student Yulia Yushina approached a 20 euro note in this Quick Crit:
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Extensive research included a look at the current Euro notes in use, as well as many other proposals for Euro designs. Some were traditional, while others were abstract and modern. Note that some proposals are very country and ethnicity-specific, while others speak to the entire European Union.
Sign of the Times
An interesting typographical note is the design of the euro symbol itself. The mark was designed way back in 1974 by Arthur Eisenmenger. When he first designed it, the symbol wasn't intended for use with currency but for some unrelated, unspecified purpose.
Is it a C with an equals sign drawn through it? Is is a stylized letter E? It was given new meaning by the bankers who proclaimed that it represented E—the first and last letter in the word, Europe. And the two cross marks represented the stability of the currency.
Eurosign. They said "Do it exactly like this!" but did the type designers listen?
The symbol was intended to be much more like a logomark, having a specific shape and exact geometric construction that didn't vary. This is in contrast to the symbols for the dollar or pound which get redesigned to match the typestyles with which they are used.
Despite its intended geometric design, typographers have incorporated the Euro mark into their typefaces just as they would the other currency symbols. It is included in character sets right along with the Yen, Pound, and Dollar.
EuroStyles. The euro symbol as found in Arial, Times and Courier. Notice the style differences and serifs.
Goodbye Guilder, Goodbye
The Dutch guilder banknotes—designed by Ooitje Oxenaar and Jaap Drupsteen—were very highly regarded by designers worldwide for their elegance and visual innovation. Sadly, they were a casualty of the euro and the unification efforts of Europe. Alas, cultural change is comprised of both gains and losses. The move to the euro was a visual improvement for many poorly designed European banknotes, but in the same stroke other currencies like the Dutch guilder were lost.
50 Guilder Note. A stunning and beautiful design that got paved over by progress.
What are some of the design conventions that mark the bank note? In the exercise, you'll explore these yourself, but let's look at some examples first.
Every Dollar Counts
20 Big Bucks. The redesigned U.S. currency.
Overall, the American $20 bill is a typical design and even somewhat bland. Many aspects of currency design are practical and done to enhance the "security" of the bill. But many other qualities are psychological.
The banknote is highly decorated with linework and fancy type. The fine linework prevents counterfeiting but also creates a feeling of extravagance and high value. Before things were produced and reproduced by machines, decoration was a sign of manual labor. Do you think that idea is still with us today in the digital age?
The money also uses seals and signatures to suggest a personal guarantee and trustworthiness. It's a very important psychological factor that money appears valuable—after all it's really just paper and ink.
United States Currency. 50 cent banknote, a fraction of a dollar.
Here is an example of an odd bit of money. We usually use coins for denominations under $1 but this is a paper bill worth 50¢. Of course, it no longer circulates.
I don't know who is pictured on the bill but he certainly looks well-appointed. Maybe a politician or banker or perhaps a General? He's not a farmhand for sure. And, yes, he's the predictable, older, white male.
And the decorative scroll work, type, signature and seals you'd expect are present. Our current $20 bill follows practically the same pattern as this 50¢ note.
One Designer's Point of View
Several years ago, in my graphic design class at the University of Florida, we did a "redesign the American dollar bill" project. It caused quite a discussion.
The project gets at how one views and values the traditions of the society versus the changes in society, conservative versus progressive.
Redesigned Dollar. Mireille Duiven, student.
Outsiders often have a different perspective on the subject. One Dutch student saw the United States as a feel-good entertainment society. So her dollar redesign features cheerful colors and that well-known mouse from the cartoon films.
I doubt many Americans would hope or expect that their country was seen that way by others.
The dollar bill is highly charged with symbolism. To some extent all currency has a similar symbolic charge. The stronger the charge, the stronger the problem of social acceptance and change.
I hope you agree that the design of currency can be a very culturally-loaded design problem. It involves typography, image, and graphics all communicating a sense of national identity and a sense of value and trust.
This discussion forms the basis for our final Advanced Typography exercise. Let's go!
Share your thoughts and opinions with other students on the Discussion Boards.
Step up and redesign a "new dollar" for today's consumers.