Rick Poynor | Essays

Unnecessary Revival

I am no typophile, but there was certainly a time when I was preoccupied with type. In the late 1970s, bumming around, I took a job at a company that produced books for academic publishers. I already knew how to touch-type – first step, I thought, to becoming a writer – and I persuaded my employers to let me learn to use their Compugraphic photo-setting equipment. It was a new world. I was fascinated by the differences between Times, Bodoni, Bembo, Plantin and all the rest. I typeset several books, including one titled The Hollywood Musical, published by the British Film Institute. The title, back cover blurb and chapter numbers were set in American Typewriter Bold. For me, learning about type, the face was the last word in coolness. I loved the reference to manual typewriters – I’d learned to type on one. In 1980, I used American Typewriter Bold on a record sleeve that I put together for a friend.

As I now know, American Typewriter was designed in 1974 (by Joel Kaden and Tony Stan) but perhaps things moved slower back then because in the late 1970s and early 1980s it remained a highly fashionable display face. Eventually, though, like any typeface that comes to represent its time, over-use turned it into a cliché and out it went.

Now, twenty years later, here it comes again. Check out the November/December issue of Frame, the interior architecture and design magazine, and there it is: American Typewriter cover lines, headlines, intros and body copy. I have no idea how it will strike someone who has never noticed it before. I suppose it looks “seventies” in a funky retro kind of way. The typewriter reference must be obvious, even in the bold versions, but if you’ve never watched the letters hit the paper as you pound the keys, this must seem quaint. Is the face’s roundness, softness and unthreatening air of friendliness a factor? The other day I saw it used for the headline on a police poster in the London Underground, advising against giving money to street people, who will only use it to buy more of the alcohol and drugs that are slowly killing them: kid gloves for a tough message. I’m not sure we have a trend yet, but the meme is loose.

As a first-time enthusiast for American Typewriter, I was happy to see it pass into history. It’s a bit like flared trousers: you only need to do it once. There was a time when American Typewriter was the height of sophistication, a way of saying both “intellectual” and “pop”. To my eyes it never looked smarter than it did paired with a photo of Jane Fonda in her “Hanoi Jane” phase on the cover of Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics (1980), designed by the masterly Richard Hollis. When the typewriter was still an everyday appliance, the appearance of a proper, proportionally-spaced, typewriter-like typeface was rather thrilling. Resurrecting it now that the technology has given way to digital alternatives is just nostalgia – soft at the core.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Typography

Comments [29]

Just today, I had my own sighting. On Friday, the organizer of a contest to redesign Jakob Nielsen's site announced the winning designs. The top pick uses American Typewriter prominently. I actually think it works well here. Nielsen's site is, after all, a long-running rant for friendlier, more usable interfaces and devices. In this context, the child-safe, rounded edges don't strike me as nostalgic for an era of fashion, but perhaps for a mythical time when machines worked the way you thought they would. Misleading as it is, this is not inappropriate. Usability should look and feel easy, concealing the engineering behind it.

Of course, here in the US, the classic, frozen-in-amber application of American Typewriter remains the three black capital letters that surround the red heart in Milton Glaser's "I Love New York" logo. Any attempt to rip it off (and would anyone even dare to guess how many there have been?) doesn't quite work unless it's set in American Typewriter.

One of the funniest things about it, in retrospect, is that in true late Seventies/early Eighties fashion it was almost always set incredibly tight, rendering the reference to (monospaced) manual typewriting very remote indeed.
Michael Bierut

I have a running joke with friends that my current project involves writing A Unified-Field Theory of Transvestism.

This is only a postmodern symptom of the dissolution of the Self -- where an apt metaphor of identity construction is found in radar. Self no longer springs totally from experience and one's nature, but is found, appropriated and evaluated against others. Identity becomes something to be inhabited.

I admit this is a well-worn construct better explained in Fredric Jameson, but it does help explain current personal observations like:

How pop musicians no longer bother to sing.
How Stella McCartney doesn't bother to design clothes.
The ongoing popularity of retro graphics.
"Designer" products found at Target which are nothing more than regular toasters in Michael Graves "drag".
"Blade Runner's" appropriation of 1940's film noir style.
Why so many people are wearing Uggs boots.

I'm happy to include the appearance of American Typewriter into my imaginary project.
M Kingsley

Not that I want to go down in history as Rand's biographer, but this discussion reminds me that years ago, in his graduate studio at Yale, which in my case corresponded to about the time that hundreds of fonts were becoming readily available to civillian designers, Mr. Rand gave an assignment in which students were asked to design a 16-page book: he restricted the font choices to Caslon and American Typewriter. Go figure.
Jessica Helfand

I like the transvestism theory (though the title choice eludes me). It seems like designers are pilfering the past in an a la carte manner (maybe like sampling in rap?), where elements like typefaces, imagery and styles are employed regardless of their historical meaning. Many of these people weren't around in the 70s, so they miss the cultural context? I personally find American Typewriter kind of cute, but hard to employ without an ironic wink--and ironic winks are really tired nowadays.

"Resurrecting it now that the technology has given way to digital alternatives is just nostalgia - soft at the core."

I don't think this is about nostalgia. After all, many of the designers employing American Typewriter nowadays are too young to remember its original popularity (let alone the actual typewriter that inspired the typeface's design in the first place).

I feel this is part of a growing trend to reconcile digital and analog aesthetics (which, you could argue, is an attempt to reconcile digital and analog cultures). Young designers have grown up in a world caught between the last gasps of analog technologies in the late 70s and early 80s and the kicking-and-screaming birth of digital technologies.

All across the web, sites are employing analog trends: wood grain textures, weathered pages and typefaces, hand-drawn illustrations, etc. These trends are seamlessly integrated with overtly digital trends: ASCII art, 3D modeling, pixel art, etc.

As a digital typeface that blends the analog aesthetic of the typewriter with conventions that suggest technological innovation (automatic kerning, for instance), American Typewriter is a natural choice for contemporary designers.
Justin Cone

omit wrote:
I like the transvestism theory (though the title choice eludes me).

It's a tounge-in-cheek reference to Einstein's desire to create a theory of everything which went beyond his Theory of Relativity. It was known as a Unified-Field Theory...

It seems like designers are pilfering the past in an a la carte manner (maybe like sampling in rap?), where elements like typefaces, imagery and styles are employed regardless of their historical meaning.

Jameson calls this "the waning of effect". In the practice of Graphic Design, I call it 'comfort food'.

I agree with Justin Cone in that this is not merely nostalgia. Yet it also is not an attempt to reconcile digital and analog aesthetics/cultures. Designers may say that; I think it's presentation hokum.

The reuse of historical or vernacular styles is a shorthand method of adding 'content'. Everyone gets it: clients, consumers, award show judges...

Still, I'm worried about the gnawing emptiness of such a strategy. Twenty years ago a friend mentioned they were going to typeset their thesis in American Typewriter -- a slightly funny joke then; but now?
M Kingsley

OK I CONFESS: 1. I just bought fake Ugg's at Target. 2. A side door: several weeks ago I sent DesignInquiry's ad for the summer '04 program into EYE for the next issue -- set in Courier New (drawn by Adrian Frutiger for the IBM Selectric series) -- a font chosen to side step a content-field for a non-design, non-digital and non-analog message, but of course inescapably adding it's own story. Apparently it's time to hold up these mirrors to articulate this history that is locked in with (some of our) memories of that real bell that tinged at the end of each (single or double spaced) line.

Or, maybe we just miss Mr. Rand...
Margo H

Isn't an attempt to reconcile digital and analog aesthetics/cultures a manifestation of nostalgia? I'm 21 and I can barely remember having used cassette tapes, much less LPs that are so popular now. Making an effort to understand something before your time essentially involves nostalgia, or cultural-historical tourism. ('If you could live in any period of history, which would it be?' This is usually one of several questions such as 'If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?' or 'If you could have dinner with anyone from history....') Isn't this presentation hokum 'adding content' and some appeal by the means Kingsley outlined (identity, appropriation, Jameson and all). And isn't everyone, old or young, a participant in these behaviors? If you aren't nostalgic, what are you?

On second thought, I should probably add "Who are you?" as well, since people try to inhabit identities, instead of being the bottomless craptitude of themselves. But 'what' is still more important.

Azian -

It's all about approaching things with a conscious intent.
It's all about what's truly appropriate for the project.
It's all about hard, elusive answers rather than easy, instant solutions.
Everything else is details.

I don't know about you, but I've certainly heard my share of designers give rationales that were more about them than the project.
M Kingsley

American Typewriter represents lo-fi integrity. So it is a lot closer to jeans than bell-bottoms. And like jeans, may mean many things to many people while still signifying something generally agreed upon. Style is a language that can be vague and elastic while still being direct. And, like words, can be freighted with varying amounts of association.

Probably certain styles buoy back to the surface because we need to use that language again, to borrow some of it's old meaning even while we help provide it with a new one.
trent williams

If designing is all about that, what does it mean concerning nostalgia? Be intelligently nostalgic? That just doesn't seem to be enough.

Trent, it's funny you just mentioned clothes. I've been looking around for jeans and the thought struck me that Akzidenz Grotesk and Monotype Grotesque were mostly used as 'vintage' Helvetica, while Helvetica Neue was the glossy, glammed up Helvetica.

Is '[borrowing] some of it's old meaning (meaning ages?) even while we help provide provide it with a new one' some sort of innate human quality? Because otherwise that's not much of an explanation. It doesn't say anything about how or why the revival is carried out the way it is.

"It's a bit like flared trousers: you only need to do it once". It is this outdated cynicism, this thinking in trends and fashions, that is the real nostalgia. You can't get much more softcore than that.

Good design is either about telling a new story using old forms, or telling an old story using new forms. Without this paradoxical quality, design would lose its dialectical edge.
Fritz Bahnhof

I don't get called cynical very often. It's kind of fun. What I was getting at here is that there is something dispiriting about seeing cultural forms which were fresh first time around return later for no very pressing reason. You invest in something sincerely enough, you tire of it, you even wonder how you could ever have taken it so seriously - it now looks so dumb. Haircuts and clothing provide the richest examples. Then you see the thing revived by a new generation. Of course, you can't go back yourself - it would look silly. (Actually, though, I still admire American Typewriter, but for what it was.)

If you are familiar with the face and you've lived through its first rise and fall, then its revival isn't very interesting. If it's new to you, it might carry more meaning and be more of a "story".

Like they say, pop will eat itself. Design will eat itself. Everything will eat itself. And we've only had this kind of continuous media recycling for a few decades ... just imagine the endless chain of revivals in centuries to come. Revivals help to reinforce our dependence on the idea of trends.
Rick Poynor

So what happened in the decades before? Could any reform that takes place now to get out of this constant recycling be something other than a revival itself? What's the cure to the sort of cynicism I'm feeling right now?!

I didn't call the writer cynical - just the comment.

Revivals are in the eye of the beholder (the critic, the cynic, the trendwatcher, etc.). Truth is, American Typewriter never went away. Off the top of my head, I can mention at least three designers who used American Typewriter extensively in the nineties: Jop van Bennekom, in his excellent fagzine Butt; Goodwill, in this amazing art book SOH (States of Humanity - see www.syndicaat.org/soh/sohbook.html); and Experimental Jet Set, who used it in a project they designed for NYC artist Miltos Manetas.
Point is, the fact that the critic looses interest, doesn't mean the typeface vanishes. And the fact that the critic suddenly comes across
a typeface again doesn't mean there is suddenly a revival.
It's apparently hard to accept that some things enter the vocabulary without the critic's approval.

For a writer, it's totally normal to use words that are older than 30 years old. But when a graphic designer uses a typeface that is older than 30 years, it is dismissed as retro, nostalgia or emptiness.
(Only when a typeface is much older than that, and beyond the reach of the critic and his bellbottom-trauma, only then the designer is allowed to use it).

So maybe some things are "fresher" the first time around. Maybe some things can become "tiring". Maybe some things look "dumb". But what sort of criteria are that? It's the jargon of style magazines, where stuff is hyped up just to get burned down. Where things are "hot" or "not". Where everything is aimed at the next big thing, the new thrill, and god forbid when it's boring. (In a statement at the time of the first progroms, Goebbels boasted that at least the National Socialists weren't boring).

There are so many ways to put a phenomenon like this in an interesting context. It could be seen in a Hegelian context: as "the gradual self-realization of the spirit of graphic design" (or something like that; I wouldn't know, I'm no theoretician). Or one could think of what Borges wrote about history: the ever-changing intonation of just a few metaphores; which is the complete opposite of Hegel's view. Just to mention two very at random examples. But really, everything is better than this vulgar, populistic mantra of "pop will at itself".

When these critics would've been around during the Renaissance, they would've dismissed it as a retro-movement. And they would've used haircuts, skirt lenghts and bellbottoms as arguments.

Fritz Bahnhof

Dismissing a particular philosophical concept simply because it has achieved some currency in the realm of popular media strikes me as a dangerous practice.

Personally, I'm grateful to RP for his original post, and entirely untroubled by distinctions between 'critics', 'writers', and 'designers'. To my way of thinking, we all share the same goal: 'hard, elusive answers".
Christopher Turner

"Dismissing a particular philosophical concept simply because it has achieved some currency in the realm of popular media strikes me as a dangerous practice".
Really? Well, then you would agree with me that dismissing a particular typeface simply because it has achieved some currency in the realm of popular media is equally dangerous.

Point is, nowhere in my post I dismissed the phrase "pop will eat itself" for the reason you mentioned ("because it has achieved some currency in the realm of popular media"). If I had to give a reason why I dislike the phrase it would go something like this: it's a phrase that suggests that there is something morally wrong when a system (such as pop culture) refers to itself. It's a phrase that starts from the "transcendental" position that a system is only a means of contact with what is external to it, and condemns the possibility of a system pointing also to itself. The fact that the act of "referring to itself" is sometimes critically dismissed as "masturbation" already shows the hidden Christian morality that is behind this kind of thinking. Anyway.

"Hard, elusive answers". Sounds quite macho, in a Henry Rollins kinda way: hard answers, cold facts, no mercy. Truth is, even if I were as interested as you seem to be in these hard answers, I wouldn't find them in the above article. Even though it is titled "Unnecessary Revival", it doesn't answer why we should see it as something unnecessary, and it doesn't give hard evidence why we should see it as a revival. It doesn't even try to answer that; it's more interested in easy judgements and unimaginative associations (old typeface = bad nostalgia).

I wouldn't even call the article critical; if anything, it's a blatantly affirmative, positivist article. It only affirms the hugely popular, superficial notion of a culture in crisis, of a culture lost in a constant loop of revivals. It doesn't do anything to challenge that view. It's criticism robbed of its dialectical imagination; it's cultural pessimism as a heroic stance.

Personally, I'm grateful too for RP's article. It confirms what I already suspected: that it's not graphic design that is in crisis, but that it is graphic design criticism where the crisis is at.

Fritz Bahnhof

Fritz, would you argue that this is a culture not lost in a constant loop of revivals? Do you have any evidence that this is not a revival? I mean aside from us not proving that it is. If I could talk to the designer about how he came to this design, I could probably find out if it is or isn't, but until then, I only have the object and ideas on what its features mean to go on. I'm sure you have different ideas in your head when you look at it (like what?).

As for "unnecessary", theory would say it is very necessary for political, economic, and social functions; this word is used more as a wish that this sort of revival's necessity wasn't the case. What evidence do you have that this sort of revival is good for us? That its mode of revival isn't cynical? Or that culture at large is actually optimistic? Because it would suck if you're being optimistic and don't acknowledge the buttresses of a "pessimistic fashion" just to set yourself apart and above.

And just because we don't critique ourselves all the time doesn't mean we aren't critical. You can't navel gaze or masturbate all day long. Trust me, you won't finish anything, and you might restrict the possibilities of other activities. After the word, like now, is good.

You're totally correct in saying that graphic design isn't in crisis, but its criticism is. Graphic design is chugging away nicely, aside from the momentary economic troubles. Graphic design criticism, however, is trying to expand and remold graphic design's self-awareness, with unfamiliar and hopefully some novel tools of our own, so of course it's in crisis. Isn't figuring out these new ideas, developing new ones, and testing them out on case studies what we're at this site for? Out with it, show us what you got since you seem to know all we've got.

Aizan, this will not answer your questions at all (but really, I was not the one that was into "hard, elusive answers" - others were) but let me say this:

What I dislike about revival-thinking (dismissing cultural phenomena as revivals) is the sheer nostalgia of it; the longing for a mythical time when things were still original. A time that simply never existed.
The idea that most of what we experience is mere revivalism is an almost Platonic idea; it fetishizes the first, original Idea (with a capital I). Maybe that's what I meant when I talked about Christian morality.

In this case, the first, "pure" use of a typeface is idealized, only to vulgarize the current use of the typeface. (Which is of course really ironic in the case of American Typewriter, which itself is nothing but one big historical reference).
Fritz Bahnhof

While many valid points have been brought to light, I've dared to ponder how the original typographers of many great fonts would suffer to know that their work should be left in the confines of an era.

If you can't help but think of one of the thousands (or more) of terrible fonts that have haunted our trade—then, yes—some fonts not only deserve the timeframe lock-up but may even deserve to be forgotten. This thinking may explain the title of this discussion. On the other hand, when considering not just fonts, but concepts, it seems difficult to forcibly confine them, mould them, even order them to stay put.

It's easy to say that Art Deco is confined to a time period, though I'd be the last to claim an artist was going retro for furthering the effort.
Paolo Pace

I agree with Aizan that graphic design criticism is in crisis--the crisis of graphic designers continuing to go into astounding rhetorical gyrations to place themselves beyond any criticism.

I want to be the first to proclaim the rise of a neo-(anti)criticism in design, one which parallels the neo-Modernist design treatments we've been seeing for a while. Like the formal stylings, this anti-criticism apes forms but is substantively empty: it refers to intellectual substance (let's talk Hegel!) not to expand debate but close it off. The end point is the same as in the bad old days when the original anti-criticism sneered at any intellectual engagement: your ideas are irrelevant, our work is beyond any yardsticks you try to measure it against, we stand apart from history/trends/styles.

The new twists are: we're young and vital, you're old and out of it. And to proclaim a "new criticism." When the concerns of this new criticism are described, they're ideas that have been in circulation for more than a decade.

And this is the tragedy: design is getting these young, vital thinkers, unafraid to engage a broader world of thought--but they use it to support careering. As Lorraine Wild sez, still nothing ever goes away...
Kenneth FitzGerald

Someone asked:

"then you would agree with me that dismissing a typeface...[edit]...is equally dangerous."

I think - provided there's a proper inspection ahead of time - dismissing a typeface is a remarkably safe thing to do. I also believe three paragraphs may constitute a 'proper inspection.' His conclusions are his own, but the experience RP describes - seeing a design element float up to the top of the media soup for the second or third time - is one that I've been thinking about for a few weeks. So I was grateful to the guy for writing about it.

Christopher Turner

"I want to be the first to proclaim the rise of a neo-(anti)criticism in design..." This is what I meant when I talked about cultural pessimism as a heroic stance. In the mind of some, there is apparently something quite triumphant about being the first one to spot a revival. There's something quite ridiculous about it as well, believe me.
Fritz Bahnhof

I know it's ridiculous. It's fun to think of something on your own, makes you feel neat. But you're not that special. I assume anything I think has been thought by someone else recently or a while ago, but not very soon. That's too competitive and newsy.

Fritz, I think I understand how you think Platonism and Christian morals fit into this. So, everyone's waxing nostalgic in some way or another, from designers and critics to the audience. What I'm having trouble with is why it's bad for critics to be nostalgic in their reasons for condemning the designer's and audience's nostalgia. Sure, the critic may be hypocritical for also being nostalgic, but it's toward different ends. The designer and audience's nostalgia is often leisurely and callously regards the past and continuing concerns of the time and/or place's people (whether it's someone else or their previous selves, which is sort of the same thing).* I think the critic is less harmful, whose argument stands even if dubiously motivated.

Changing topics now, I haven't heard much about designers trying to evade criticism. It seems an obvious response to the threat of impending critique. But how do they use theory to support careerism? I wouldn't have thought of that. Are there any recently published articles that discuss things along the lines of neo-(anti)criticism? Where's that Lorraine Wild quote from?

As for typeface designers hoping the best for their work, there're sure to be reasons to like and dislike anything that happens, whether it's continuing use, going out of use, or coming back into use. It depends on his or her character, but I really wouldn't worry about that. What's the point? They got paid and had the satisfaction of making something. Let other people decide their legacy (yeah, I watch Star Trek).

* I'm guessing this is not always the case, as 'everyone's a critic' and some designers and audiences wouldn't go for that. But what they do regarding the past or whatever, that's what I want to know. I can't say they're the main people doing 'new', 'pure' , or even 'contemporary retro' work. I'm not feeling anything. Blargh.

Hey Aizan,

Like I wrote a few posts ago: I simply don't consider the use of historical elements in design automatically "nostalgic".
For me, good design is either about telling a new story using old forms, or telling an old story using new forms. So I think this intrinsic paradoxical tension between the old and the new is necessary to give a work its dialectical, subversive edge.

This is not only the case in design, but also in art, and music.

Punk rock, for example, is based on very basic rock 'n roll that had been around almost decades before '77. But the way these old musical forms were used, and put into a new context, was very new. Because of that punk rock vitalised/modernised rock music as we know it.

Or take the Beatles, four English white boys who started out playing American black R 'n B music that was made decades before they were born. But the way they contextualized it was truly modern. Later on they added references that were even more historical, but despite of these references (or, in my opinion, because of these references) Sgt. Pepper became a groundbreaking, revolutionary album.

For me, these two examples show how historical references can be used in a totally non-cynical way, without post-modern irony. It's usually the post-mod crits who then try to vulgarize this kind of referring, and try to alienate the artist/designer/writer from his/her living history (let's talk bellbottoms!)

Anyway, about this "neo-anti-criticism" someone mentioned above: I wouldn't take that too seriously. First, something "new" is invented ("neo-whatever"). Then, this new movement is accused of being not new at all ("...they're ideas that have been in circulation for more than a decade."). No wonder, it wasn't a new movement in the first place.
What remains is criticism in its most empty form.

Fritz Bahnhof

Thanks Fritz, that's what I've been wondering about. Why do you say "this intrinsic paradoxical tension between the old and the new is necessary to give a work its dialectical, subversive edge" (emphasis mine)? Why is this subversive?

Also, I've read music reviews where some critics dismiss "electro-clash" or whatever it's called as nostalgic, but others praise it for the reasons you described, i.e. non-cynical. How do you tell the difference?

I used the word "subversive" to clarify in what sense I used the word "dialectical".

But to answer your question (how can music, art, design etc. can be subversive?) let me quote Marcuse: "Literature can be called revolutionary in a meaningful sense only with reference to itself, as content having become form. The political potential of art lies only in its own aesthetic dimension. (...) In this sense, there may be more subversive potential in the poetry of Baudelaire and Rimbaud than in the didactic plays of Brecht".

Even as a non-theoretical designer there are critics that I do admire. And at least Marcuse never mentioned his bellbottoms

Fritz Bahnhof

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