The Politics of Typography

Graphic designers will already appreciate the important role of typography in delivering a message, and that throughout the ages the character and form of typography has often reflected the historical and political spirit of the epoch in which it was created.

The Politics of Typography

While the use, context and meaning of different typefaces often changes over time, we would be doing a great disservice to the pioneering typographers of the past if we forgot the true origins and aims of the influential forms of type that have become milestones in graphic design’s rich history.

There has always been a profound historical and political dimension to typography. From its very inception, the Blackletter Johannes Gutenberg used for his 42-line Bible (c.1455), typography had a seismic historical and political impact. Gutenberg’s press later enabled the writings of Martin Luther to be disseminated, changing the religious and political contours of our world forever.

The following examples demonstrate how the combination of typographical innovation and historical and political perspectives gave birth to new typefaces delivering important messages that arose from the complex zeitgeist of each given period.

Typography doesn’t exist in a vacuum, the letters often powerfully evoke specific times and places and can help us come to a clearer understanding of significant cultural changes. Tracing their unique forms can provide a picture of the historical and political chapters that collectively tell our story.

Restyling the Underground: Edward Johnston’s Iconic London Letters

Typography plays a vital role within the urban landscape, informing the citizens of major cities where they are and need to go, delivering a message through type that often captures the character of the city. A strong example of this form of typography is Johnston Sans, or Underground Railway Block-Letter, created by Edward Johnston for the London Underground system during the Great War of 1914-1919.

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In 1913, Frank Pick of London Transport decided the London Underground required an integrated design scheme that was both radical and wholly of the time. Pick turned to Johnston and the typographer delivered, creating everything from the innovative typeface to the now iconic visual form of the signage, a blue route bar travelling through a red circle. Unveiled in 1916, the new look Underground signs were a resounding success, but what exactly were the political dimensions of the typeface?

To answer that, we must look closely at the influences Johnston drew upon to design his typography and the historical context of its creation. Everybody during the Great War was called upon to join the war effort and Johnston did just that. Imperialist expansion and industry were the two key causes of the war and Britain felt a pressing need to stay ahead of German innovation.

Rival German designers were creating groundbreaking designs the British feared would infiltrate their industry as a form of clandestine cultural invasion. Is it merely coincidence that Johnston designed his san serif lettering using stone cut Roman lettering on Trajan’s Column as inspiration? Johnston Sans is built on Imperialist foundations of the past, bolstering the strength of the British Imperialist identity of the time.

Distinctively modern, the new London Underground typeface was a strong reassurance to the citizens of London that the British Empire would prevail in the tumultuous global conflict. Talk of Imperialism is obviously unfashionable in our time, but taken in context, Johnston Sans can be seen as an important contribution to the national cause.

Establishing the popularity of sans serif typefaces in modern typography, Johnston’s work is an important milestone in 20th century design. Its iconic strength, still visible in original signs dotted around the Underground system, was a typographical contribution to the war effort. While sans serif has now been assimilated into corporate typography, Johnston’s type still evokes the embattled Imperialist epoch that engendered it, reminding Britons of a time of lamentable national loss and admirable national resilience.

Dangerous Designs: Paul Renner against the Third Reich

It’s hard today to imagine a time when a typographer’s aesthetic principles and designs could result in their life coming under threat. However, when Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party seized the reins of power in Germany, Paul Renner found himself in that dangerous position, but he held fast to his principles in the face of murderous intolerance.

The years between the Great War and Second World War saw a cultural blossoming in Germany spearheaded by the Bauhaus art school established by the architect Walter Gropius in Weimar. Seeking to forge a creative alliance between human craft and modern mass production, delivering affordable quality works, Bauhaus had a profound effect on Paul Renner and art and design at large.

Blackletter was synonymous with the German national identity and could trace its origins back to the first printing press created by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century. However, Bauhaus rejected Blackletter in favour of Roman characters and sans serif in particular. Inspired by this, the owner of a publishing and printing business named Jakob Hegner commissioned Paul Renner to create a new sans serif in the modernist style. The hugely successful result was Futura, one of the most enduring typefaces of the 20th century.

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Drawing upon his skills as a painter, Renner succeeded in creating a striking geometric font, combining straight lines and circles in a wonderfully legible type. Now seen as one of the classic examples of sans serif, the typeface was entirely modern without being obscure. However, German typographers who still viewed Blackletter as the proper German type were critical when Futura was unveiled in 1927.

Becoming a close friend of Jan Tschichold, whose classic 1928 book The New Typography argued the need for clear unadorned type without ornamentation in the manner of Russian Constructivism, Paul Renner continued to argue for a reformation of typeface design, which soon led to him and Tschichold being singled out as traitorous Bolshevists poisoning the heart of Germany.

When the Nazis sought to cleanse Germany of what they believed was degenerate art, Renner and Tschichold were obvious targets and they suffered at the hands of state-sponsored prejudice. In an act of moral courage that staggers belief, Renner published his anger at the blinkered racism of the Nazis in a booklet entitled ‘Cultural Bolshevism?’

The Nazi reaction was swift. Tschichold and his wife were imprisoned in a concentration camp, but were soon released, after which they fled to Switzerland. Stood in defiance, Renner was stripped of his position at the Master School for Germany’s Printers he had helped build and denied any means to earn a salary. Thankfully his work, once deemed anti-German, outlived the Nazis and enjoys wide recognition for its brilliance. Renner himself lived until 1956. Look upon Futura and Renner’s other work and you can’t help feel reverence for design principles so strongly held that the designer defied the Fuhrer.

Tranquillity after the Storm: Helvetica as a Post-War Font

What is the secret of Helvetica’s success? Perhaps the most ubiquitous typeface on the planet, adopted by countless corporations for their advertising, Helvetica continues to go from strength to strength, despite a number of detractors. It’s clear, simple and unobtrusive style stands out for not trying to stand out, possessing pleasing neutrality. Is this why it rose to prominence in the post-war period?

Helvetica was created in 1957 at the Haas Type Foundry of Munchenstein, Switzerland. Developed by typographers Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffman, Helvetica was originally named Neue Haas Grotesk and from the outset was designed to be without inherent meaning, simply a widely adoptable sans serif with admirable clarity of form.

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We must consider Helvetica in the historical context of its creation before attempting to get to the bottom of its unparalleled success. The Second World War had ended in 1945 after years of horrific conflict, leaving an indelible scar on human history. People rejoiced that fascism had been overcome, while shuddering at the destructive power of the atom bomb, which played a significant role in ending the war.

The seeds of the Cold War had been sown. While the threat of the Third Reich had been eradicated there remained paranoid suspicion among nations. And yet, these nations were expected to conduct business with each other. Is this the reason Hoffmann chose Helvetica, meaning Swiss, over Helvetia, the original name meaning Switzerland, to make the typeface more internationally acceptable and marketable, a style and not a nation?

Was it the disdain for nationalism intrinsic to Helvetica that led to its popularity? Following the preceding epoch of nationalist propaganda, this would certainly make sense. To create a typeface free of ideology, an apolitical font, was a stroke of genius born out of laudable consideration for a shell-shocked world.

To date, Helvetica has been adopted by numerous nations and corporations. Passengers will notice it on American and Philippine Airlines, as will consumers purchasing a Japanese Panasonic TV or US Apple iPod or iPhone. Those who criticise Helvetica for its unambitious style fail to realise the ambition behind Helvetica. After a period of great unrest, of Earth shattering turbulence, Helvetica represented a safe and reliable typeface to a world eager to embrace a symbol of stability.

While today Helvetica’s lack of personality is sometimes criticised, in context the creation of a post-war typeface open to all can be applauded as a democratic gesture within a design industry desperate to evade being co-opted into national service and striving to overcome barriers to a global economic market.

Punk Design: Brody’s New Style

An outspoken critic of Helvetica’s bland uniformity, Neville Brody developed as a designer during the seismic social and cultural upheavals of the British punk era. Excitingly iconoclastic, Brody took a stand against the stifling effect of corporate typography, creating wonderfully modern and distinctive fonts like Arcadia, Insignia and Industria. Emerging in the Conservative Britain of the 1980s, his work is of great importance as a rallying revolt against tired tradition.

Just as the Sex Pistols had famously caused an upset during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 with their irreverent single God Save the Queen, Brody’s typography seemed to lash out at the demand for order, corporate selfishness and Conservative conformity of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s reign. Despite always being knowledgeable of its history, Brody largely rejected traditional typography, always seeking to break free from convention.

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Brody became a household name through his striking typography for The Face magazine in the early 1980s. Gaining a position on the design team, Brody quickly became a guiding force on the publication whose innovative editorial content, photography and typography established it as a veritable style bible for its culturally conscious readership.

Brody enjoyed a freedom few typographers were ever granted, playing with page composition and lettering, celebrating experimentation and abstraction over easy reading, challenging the reader to keep pace with his innovative designs, which clearly contained an element of punk’s playful self fashioning and wilful scorn for the norm.

However, Brody’s most famous typeface was designed for Arena magazine in 1986. Appearing on the magazine’s banner, Arcadia borrowed from Art Deco but made it seem excitingly new through its tall geometry and condensed spacing. Quickly becoming something of a cult classic, Arcadia was embraced and widely imitated by the design industry, who recognised the modern serif as the perfect font for the post-punk new age.

Brody’s typefaces Insignia, designed for Arena magazine in 1986, and Industria, designed for The Face magazine and released as a font in 1989, both tapped in to the prevalent spirit of technological advancement, particularly the new computer age, but also asserted the importance of independent stylisation. Both typefaces capture the 1980s zeitgeist, but are unmistakeably Brody’s creation, highlighting the importance of the individual artist over mechanical reproduction or corporate directed graphic design.

Ultimately, Brody’s rebel ethos sat uneasy with the evolution of the lifestyle magazine genre, particularly in the case of Arena, which seemed a little too aligned with company brands for a designer whose young work consisted of anti-establishment fanzines during punk’s heady heyday. It’s perhaps inevitable for a designer synonymous with a style, no matter how iconoclastic it is, to one day be subsumed and accepted within the design canon.

Nevertheless, Brody’s early body of work is an important reminder that style can be a stance and one artist’s style can be an effective challenge to presiding political powers and stultifying cultural conservativism. There is no doubt that Brody’s star status elevated the standing of designers as artists throughout the UK.

Foundations of Hope: Obama and Gotham Type

Few presidential campaigns have been as successful or memorable as Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. Resulting in a history making victory, the election of the first black US president, Obama’s campaign posters featuring the Gotham typeface drew upon a moment of crisis in American history and promised a phoenix-like ascension from the ashes for a nation in turmoil.

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Associating Obama’s progressive democratic policies with a typeface synonymous with a city searching for hope among the rubble of one of its country’s most recognisable landmarks was a clear stroke of genius. While Obama has come under heavy fire in recent years, his road to the White House was paved with the hopes of a nation desperate for radical change and a political figure to hold a torch amidst the darkness.

When two passenger planes manned by Islamic terrorists flew into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, altering the Manhattan skyline forever, the nation rallied to support each other in a time of tragic loss. When a 20-ton cornerstone for the future Freedom Tower was laid, the inscription was made in the Gotham typeface designed by Tobias Frere-Jones in 2000. It read:“TO HONOR AND REMEMBER THOSE WHO LOST THEIR LIVES ON SEPTEMBER 11, 2001 AND AS A TRIBUTE TO THE ENDURING SPIRIT OF FREEDOM – JULY FOURTH 2004.”

Originally, Obama’s campaign materials featured the serif Perpetua, but the Gotham typeface was eventually adopted and it’s easy to understand why. Strong, unfussy and trustworthy, Gotham had been used in the declaration of resilience and enduring belief in the American ideals of democracy and freedom made on the Freedom Tower cornerstone, the foundations of hope and a new beginning.

Obama aligned himself with the idea of a new beginning for America, which he promised his political policies would usher in. Perhaps the most iconic of Obama’s campaign materials, the Barack Obama ‘Hope’ poster designed by artist Shepard Fairey, featured a stylish stencil of Obama in America’s red, white and blue above the word ‘HOPE’ in the Gotham typeface.

The poster’s Gotham typeface symbolised the tide of reenergising and recuperative national feeling Obama pledged to carry into office, a sense of rebuilding the nation from the ground up, constructing a radically new democratic government better equipped to realise the needs and desires of US citizens in all their diversity.

Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, winning the hearts and minds of the US population, is an example of the profound and powerful emotions that can be invoked through typography that bears a message of hope. Whether Obama has delivered on his promise is a separate argument.

Research and Further Reading

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15 Comments

  1. The line from London Underground to Gotham is clear enough to deserve note, especially if Keep Calm and Carry On is add in.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Scan-of-original-poster-1939-300px.jpg

  2. Helvetica has`nt changed during the many years of its existence, an still considered the most popular font that there is around.

  3. Really deeply details about typography :P i enjoyed alot your article :) nice and great details :)

  4. nice tnx for sharing

  5. Great post about typography… Really well written, you have great info.

  6. That’s way the betsset answer so far!

  7. Really deeply details about typography i enjoyed alot your article nice and great details

  8. I wonder if he will win again this time around…?

  9. tnx for share

  10. tank you fantastic

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