I’ve got a review of the new edition of Josef Albers’s Interaction of Color in the most recent issue of Eye, but there’s also an interesting piece about the future of typography online that collects thoughts from Chester Jenkins, Jonathan Hoefler, and Stephen Coles that’s a good overview for those new to the subject. Titled “The End of Default,” this bit from Simon Esterson and Jay Prynne’s introduction caught my attention:
Clients such as corporations and publishers who were accustomed to branding every visible square inch with their custom fonts had to accept the default nature of the Web, and many designers have long resigned themselves to living through the typographic equivalent of the dark ages, relieved partially by the advent of Cascading style sheets (CSS) which allow much greater control over the styling elements of a website, including the size, weight and style of the (still limited range of) fonts.
For a significant minority of designers, the limited type palette became a signifier of authenticity, a cool hair shirt they could wear with pride. The “default look” of non-Flash websites has spilled into books, magazines and music design as a conscious style choice rather than necessity.
Back in 2003, I wrote a piece about defaults for Emigre that tried to present them as the thorny, complex topic that they still continue to be. Defaults still serve to self-reflexively critique their own making (as diagnosed above), but they also extend Modernist concepts into the present and update them. I wonder if they will continue to be a productive area of critical inquiry. Historically, they were an intriguing response to the ’90s debates about the possibility of designer-authors. Where once the question was, “How do designers assert themselves as authors?”, defaults countered, “What if you take designers out of the system altogether?”
While the Eye quote above has a slightly skeptical bent about this work, I see it today with more positive eyes. Rereading “Default Systems in Graphic Design” now, I feel increasingly distant from my point-of-view then. That tends to happen with certain kinds of critique; they become dated faster than the work they describe. My goal these days is to write things that, whenever possible, are slower, richer, and hopefully more enduring.
As a kid, I used to wander these stores with absolute delight. ESPRIT was perhaps one of the earliest brands I could pick out of a lineup. It still looks energetic and fresh today — the sassy, flirty sister of Memphis, decked out in its patterns, colors, and offbeat esprit.
MoMA acquires the @ symbol. NYT:
No one knows for sure when it first appeared. One suggestion is that it dates to the sixth or seventh century when it was adopted as an abbreviation of “ad,” the Latin word for “at” or “toward.” (The scribes of the day are said to have saved time by merging two letters and curling the stroke of the “d” around the “a.”) Another theory is that it was introduced in 16th-century Venice as shorthand for the “amphora,” a measuring device used by local tradesmen.
Whatever its origins, the @ appeared on the keyboard of the first typewriter, the American Underwood, in 1885 and was used, mostly in accounting documents, as shorthand for “at the rate of.” It remained an obscure keyboard character until 1971 when an American programmer, Raymond Tomlinson, added it to the address of the first e-mail message to be sent from one computer to another.
It was acquired formless—purely as a concept—and from the public domain:
[…] “MoMA’s collection has always been in touch with its time,” Ms. Antonelli said, “and design these days is often an act with aesthetic and ethical consequences, not necessarily a physical object.”
That’s why MoMA decided against adding a specific version of the @ to the collection in favor of using it in different typographic styles and sizes. Ms. Antonelli likens it to the museum’s acquisition of “The Kiss,” a performance art piece by Tino Sehgal, in which a couple embrace for several hours. Just like the @, each performance can take a different form with new protagonists — though there is a difference. MoMA reportedly paid $70,000 for “The Kiss,” while the @ is joining the collection free.
When it opened at the Walker Art Center in 1989, “Graphic Design in America” was one of the first serious surveys of its kind. It’s tempting to say it was ahead of its time, but I think it was probably more like a little bit late. The relationship of design to art has always been a difficult one, and displaying design in a contemporary art museum didn’t simplify things much. Here’s what NYT thought back then, which makes for interesting reading now (via Unbeige).