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Typefaces of their times

There has been much discussion in recent years about the typeface Helvetica, prompted by the book made by Lars Mueller and now a film by Gary Hustwit. In this connection, Erik Spiekermann has been active. Much of Erik’s work has been a wonderful effort in surpassing the unthinking, formulaic and bureaucratic approach that often entails the use of Helvetica. In 1991 Erik brought out his typeface Meta. With the great success of Meta, it came to be some sort of alternative to Helvetica: more subtle and humane than the essentially regularized-industrial forms of Helvetica. The tag ‘the Helvetica of the 1990s’ has become attached to Meta, and has sometimes been attributed to Robin Kinross.

The truth behind this phrase is more complex. I do not know who described Meta in this way. I do know that it wasn’t me. For one: I dislike the attempt to carve up the passage of human time into decades. That’s too easy, too fliply journalistic. (And then, for an adequate description, as well as a temporal determinant you also need to bring in a geographic factor: what is true of London or Berlin won’t apply to Beijing or Delhi.) Recently Erik asked me if I did ever utter these words. The answer: no. But I did write something that may be a truer description of the typeface Meta:

If one had to nominate the face of the time – as Futura was, circa 1930 – this could be Meta, designed by Erik Spiekermann and released first by FontShop, of which he is a founder and chief partner. Meta is the latest manifestation of the typeface Spiekermann has always been designing: the Deutsche Bundespost letter and ITC Officina were steps along the way. As a thoroughly articulated sanserif, it meets the hard requirements of information design: signing, forms and tabular setting. But Meta is more than just an information-letter: witness its rapid adoption in other contexts, to the extent that almost every new and re-designed magazine has used it. [‘The digital wave’, Eye, no. 7, 1992, p. 39.]

So, you might distil this into: ‘Meta in 1992 could be like Futura was around 1930’, which is not so memorable as the ubiquitous quoted words.

For more on Meta, see Fred Smeijers’s discussion.

Robin Kinross