Erik Spiekermann | Essays

Should Architects Understand Type?

Demi-gods in black, some architects treat type as a redundant tool and graphic designers as inconsequential. But the relationship between architecture and graphic design has deep roots.

Doctors, especially surgeons, always top the list when people are asked what profession they respect most. In Germany, we call doctors “demi-gods in white” as they often have the final say when it comes to life and death. Many architects, meanwhile, consider themselves masters of everything not made by God. There are those who simply supply buildings designed to the width-by-height-by-dollar brief, and there have always been architects who are humble in their approach to providing a built environment that most of us cannot escape from. But I have come across many who seriously believe that they have all the answers to all the design questions, anywhere. This makes them the most impossible clients I have ever known.

As architecture is considered to be the master of all the design disciplines, these “colleagues” have very strong views on graphic design as well. I once heard an architect say, “I don’t know graphic designers, I only use them.”

I have often tried to work for architects. I still do, but these days I lay out the rules of engagement right at the start: they can either be proper clients and interfere, redirect, reconsider and generally act like know-it-alls, in which case they pay for all the detours taken and extra hours spent before the job finally looks like they did it themselves. Or they can let me do the job to the best of my knowledge and abilities. In that case they do not pay anything. The latter method works best; things actually get done, and not all type ends up set in capitals to an insanely wide measure and justified to the same width. Letters are not bricks and sentences are not walls, but as soon as I point out subtleties of type and layout, many architects will call me a soppy romantic.

Architects used to need to know about type, of course. Lettering on blueprints, being an integral part of the drawing, had to be legible while conveying a sense of style. Those architects who considered themselves engineers rather than artists welcomed the introduction of stencils for lettering. They considered type a necessary tool for instructions that should be as neutral as possible. It should not be necessary to point out that the buildings perpetrated by these people often looked like stencils themselves.

The penchant for geometric type and rigid typography goes back a long way. John Soane studied classical Roman and Greek inscriptions and was inspired to create his own geometrical and rational lettering, which seemed primitive to his contemporaries. Early sans serif letters were known as Grotesque or Gothic, in reference to the architectural revivals of the time. Today we have gone from stencil type and cookie-cutter buildings to copy-and-paste architecture and digital type. Architects can now use all the choices available to the rest of us designers. They have websites, print catalogues and brochures, and they may even advertise their services. But all this output hasn’t really expanded their graphic design repertoire.

There are still the usual suspects — lines in all-caps Futura that look like the Bauhaus never closed, even though the Bauhaus architects couldn’t actually use that typeface. (It was not released until 1928, and the typesetting department never had it in their cases.) Futura does look good in all caps, generously spaced, because Paul Renner’s letters were very closely modeled on Roman inscriptions, reduced to their essence. Then there are those who deny that type has any expressive qualities at all. They use Courier or Letter Gothic, as if letters were still typed on their IBM golfballs. Or they just pick whatever Microsoft has included in Windows. That way, they can always pretend that type is just another redundant tool that architects don’t need to know, they just use it.

And finally, we have the architectural typeface that was supposed to end all typeface design: Otl Aicher’s Rotis. Considered by all living professional type-designers to be a collection of beautiful letters that never combine to form legible sentences, Rotis is a mannered expression of a graphic designer’s theories that sound good but simply do not work. Norman Foster prescribed Rotis for all his projects, regardless of their function. The architectural crowd followed quickly. The typeface has become a classic, but in a sad way: it shouts Architect! so loudly as to be embarrassing.

There is hope, though. When an Anglo-German firm asked me to help design their catalogues, books and stationery, everything looked so good that I didn’t know how to help them. Perhaps there is a growing appreciation among architects of those design disciplines that have long been considered beneath them. Cooperation could be fruitful. While some architects would have to come off their high horses, graphic designers would also need to actually understand what architecture is and can be. The intellectual capacity of most graphic designers might also be worth a dedicated article, just to even the score.

This article was originally published in Blueprint in November, 2008. Image from Brian W. Tobin on Flickr

Posted in: Architecture, Typography

Comments [2]

Speaking from an architect's point of view I really want to be offended, but you pretty much nailed it. I will say that we often have to share our backgrounds with engineers and other consultants who appreciate being able to read our notes without having to install fonts. It's a flimsy excuse for using only Arial or whatever else Microsoft has included with Windows, but considering a large fraction of engineers still draw to scale in AutoCAD it's a big time saver.

Actors want to be musicians and musicians want to be actors. But that shouldn't stop some from trying--for every hundred Eddie Murphy's there are a few Chers. Either way, let's call a truce--architects should seek help from graphic designers (if they are ignorant of type) and graphic designers should not produce these supergraphic / large type abominations seen here: http://www.randomhouse.com/book/226363/lettering-large-by-steven-heller-and-mirko-ilic or http://www.mmmm.tv/enindex.html
Prince Steve

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