Hyphen Press

Is it possible to determine what typeface of the 1990s will become a classic in the future?

With its issue of April–May 2006 (no. 70), the magazine ‘Tipográfica’ entered its twentieth year of publication. Published from Buenos Aires since its first issue of May 1987, the magazine is now established as one of the liveliest and most internationally minded design magazine: though rooted in typography, most issues contain pieces on graphic design and design more generally, with a strong interest in the social and philosophical aspects of the subject. More than most design publications of the moment, ‘Tipográfica’ puts European and North American preoccupations into salutary perspective. For this anniversary issue, ‘Tipográfica’ asked twenty ‘prominent personalities’ to write brief pieces in response to questions posed by the magazine’s editorial group: a different question for each respondent. Among respondents were Robert Bringhurst, Christopher Burke, Matthew Carter… and on to Hermann Zapff. Perhaps the most entertaining contribution came from Fred Smeijers. We reproduce it here, with kind permission of ‘Tipográfica’.

Typefaces that will be in large-scale use forever do not exist. Even the Garamond category, the spine of our most common text typefaces, has its ups and downs. There are of course typefaces like Univers, which has already been in use on a rather large scale for several decades, or like Times, in use for the best part of a century. You might refer to them as classics. I often call them evergreens.

Predicting which type design from the 1990s is going to be one of the evergreens in the coming decades is both easy and, at the same time, very difficult. One might assume that typefaces which are very popular today will still be used in the thirty years to come. This would be logical, but also a bit too simplistic. In fact, it is easier to kill a potential evergreen than to create one.

I think it’s much more interesting to consider just some of the potentially threatening factors than to say ‘well, a typeface like Meta is going to be a classic, because everybody likes it today and therefore probably tomorrow and next week as well’.

Trying to guess which typeface will survive is a prediction, and since predictions are always fictitious, let me tell you a fictitious story of what could happen with a successful typeface from the 1990s. What will happen for example to Meta without its creator and promoter Erik Spiekermann? What if there is no public-Spieker-Erik anymore to remind us of this typeface at ALL the type- and design-conferences, no more articles here and there, books and illustrations, etc. Will we forget Meta?

No. Because Meta is so widely used that it will be there with or without Spieker-Erik. Very plausible, indeed; but foundries, just like their typefaces, do come and go. So, just imagine that Spieker-Erik is no longer there and meanwhile FontShop International runs into serious troubles and therefore has no financial margin for enough publicity. In ten years time FontShop loses its leading place among the most influential foundries. (They became big and influential in their first ten years, so why should a reverse process take any longer?) This alone could have a serious effect on the popularity of Meta.

We have arrived now in 2016. Ten years is a long time nowadays. Suppose also that design trends are such that they do not much favour designs like Meta and related typefaces. There’s a good chance that Meta is still there in the minds of people, but these people are just the designers who used it heavily fifteen or twenty years ago. Meta is not really present in the minds of the younger designers of 2016.

Let’s say that these trends rule for at least five years. So we arrive in 2021. In the meantime FSI has to survive and has therefore no other choice than to follow the trends, to spend its energy on all those things that do bring money. But this is not Meta. In another five years Meta becomes a nice memory of the ‘good old days’. We have arrived at 2026.

Still, there is a good chance that Meta will come back, because not only foundries and typefaces, but also design trends do come and go. And while the memory of Meta is slumbering deep down in the consciousness of active design minds, the trends are such that they actually now favour designs like Meta.

Alas, as I said, type foundries, type designs and design trends come and go, but so does technology. Just at the moment when Meta had a chance to make a comeback, some technology – for example a new font format – blocked the way, and this is just too much for FSI. The organization cannot perform the conversion of its library in time and since it has been struggling already for quite some years, FSI realizes that this means the end. There is no other solution than to sell itself to another company. Fortunately, FSI has a lot to offer and some serious bids are made. In the end, FSI is taken over by the new company. The old owners get a good price and a large part of the current FSI staff keep their jobs – a promise made by the new owner, company X. Although it all developed into a crisis, everybody is happy with the outcome. Settling legal matters with the FontFont designers (or their heirs, because just a few designers are still alive) takes another three years. Now we live in 2031. This all sounds good, but not for the typeface Meta. Its new owner, company X, has some very experienced people like the influential type manager Mr Z, who has been waiting for this moment. Mr Z remembers Spieker-Erik very well, because years ago, when he was himself still a young fanatic in the field of type design, Erik made some nasty (but probably justified) remarks about his work, and he has never forgotten that. Mr Z simply hated the man and is absolutely not in favour of Meta. He has managed to convince his superiors that there is a lot to do, but putting Meta on the list of priorities now would be a mistake. So, instead of restoring Meta, it is put – so to speak – into the freezer. This means a coup de grace for the typeface and many others that are not on Mr Z’s priority list.

Time now simply passes. It takes years before the consequences of these policies of company X become clear. Let’s say another five years pass. So we arrive in 2036. That means that I am already 75 years old and hopefully still very busy, but not so much with type design. True, it still has some nice echoes, but I am also tired of it. I devote much of my time to the making and restoring of forte-pianos. So, I finally decide to sell part of my library: the books about type. They go to the right hands, which means to some good old students of mine, who have made their own way in the field. Of course, this sale results in a nice gathering with a lot of speculation of all kinds concerning type. Somehow Meta pops up! We all wonder what happened to it and why company X never did anything with the typeface. So, the idea of bringing back Meta arises, but a real revival cannot be done since company X has all the rights. That’s no problem for my old students: they will use Meta merely as a source of inspiration. A new typeface inspired by Meta is born and it is called Mucho. For some mysterious reasons (you know, the ones that nobody seems to understand), Mucho became a bestseller right away.

Fate takes a rather cynical turn here. The successful Mucho attracts a lot of attention. It does not take very long before our friend Mr Z has to explain to his company X bosses ‘why the hell they never did anything with Meta?’ Mr Z is of course a very experienced company man and apart from raising some mistrust, his superiors cannot do much except consider this as a rather unfortunate misjudgement. But by now simple orders have to be given. The message is clear: ‘Mr Z, get our version – the real Meta – back on the market as soon as possible!’

I am glad that this slightly morbid fantasy ends in favour of Meta. Which, instead of becoming a classic right away, had to die off first. Thirty years later it makes a comeback, with a chance of becoming a real classic again.

Personally, I think that staying alive is the best thing one can wish to happen to any typeface. But my story also makes clear that there are too many unknown factors to allow safe predictions. It would be good if some successful designs from the 1990s make it to 2040. On the other hand, it would not surprise me at all if none of them got there. Now you know why.

[Postscript: Tipográfica ceased to publish in January 2007, with its issue 74. In a letter to contributors, Rubén Fontana wrote: ‘Our magazine ends its cycle … in the belief that it has achieved its objectives and maintained total independence of opinion throughout its lifetime.’]

Fred Smeijers / 2006.09.26