The evolving nature of typographic control

In the beginning there was the printed letter. (never mind the handwritten, hand-scribbled, hand made and other such off-hand instances of total control since the age of cave paintings) It gave the person in charge of composing printed matter a fair degree of control over how the output looked, for more often than not, the same person was in charge of designing the wooden typefaces to be put in the wine-press contraptions of Gutenberg-era.

As the printing industry grew, the typographer and the printer got separated, each blaming the distant other about why the printed stuff did not look like what was intended. Type designers said their intentions were lost in translation and printers were too busy keeping the presses profitably running to worry about employing a full time typographic overlord.

But then came the age of Letterpress, Linotype and other machines cleverly closing the gaps in mechanical spacing. Typographers cried with joy and declared that they had regained their freedom. This continued and was enhanced by the entry of the blessed machine called the Computer. Now there was complete control over typography as it was no longer bound by the laws of physical space. The letterforms could align themselves to whatever shape the designer chose, or dance on any path that the Mouse had drawn onscreen.

What everyone forgot in the midst of much champagne uncorking was the fact that it was the ‘medium’ which had placed the typographers in the driving seat and not the tools of creation. And the medium was called the printed page. Physical. Unmoving.

Even the ones with a little philosophical bent of mind dismissed the thought by saying “If not paper, what else is supposed to convey the typographic intent? huh! Guess I need a refill”.

“But the medium is the message”, cried a Canadian professor. Television was giving a new dimension to how typography was conveyed. There was a limit on space but no limit on the dimension called ‘time’. The letterforms could be animated, twisted, turned in time. Control? Yes, typographers got it. with a few exceptions such as pixels, screen noise and remote control.

In the television era there was one typographer at the source, one message, one design, but millions upon millions of television sets across the world. With different physical size, brightness, contrast and colour settings. Yet in a strange way, there was some typographic control. The pixel dimensions remained very much the same. At least in the same geographical territory. There was a small learning curve when it came to PAL, SECAM, NTSC and frame rate and underscan dynamics but it did not pose as tough a challenge as the one internet presented.

The beginning of the great Internet era! This was when the typographer almost gave up. The web delivered the intended design to the whole connected world. And the world received it – in different physical screen sizes, pixel depths, colour settings, operating systems and horror of horrors – in system fonts. Only! Not to mention the restrictions on alignment.

“What!”, cried the scores of print designers, “This internet thingy is a passing fad. Let us stick to print. Let us talk about the complete control that we always had over the printed page. Let us speak of the days when we fought to kill every single ‘widow word’. Let us bury our heads in newsprint. Hey, this way the world looks much better!”

But the world was changing its ways. Bits were faster and cheaper to move than atoms. Clicks replaced Bricks. Designers and typographers (at least some of them) had to pull out their heads from the sand and take up the new challenges of designing web presence for the commercial world.

Until the invention of web fonts designers pretty much had two choices – either design with universally available fonts or make images of their typography. In a low bandwidth world that was, headlines set as jpeg or gif images sparked small wars between the designers and developers (and created a rift that will put to shame the warring factions within advertising agency disciplines such as servicing vs creatives and art vs copy!).

The bandwidth problem was solved. so was the problem of system fonts. Now typographers thought they finally had control over how the letterforms looked – on any screen. Enter ‘Responsive’ design! Now the design could rearrange itself to suit the conditions on the user’s computer! (even if it was a phone and not a computer – which is pretty much the same thing now). Type changed size and placement on different devices but conveyed the typographer’s intentions perfectly.

Processor power continued to increase according to Moor’s law. Pixel and colour depths soared. Retina displays took away the jagged edges of serif typefaces. The designer could be in total control again! And yet, somehow, things are set to change again.

User preferences on devices and browsers can alter the typography on a web page or inside an application window. The user can change the alignment, font size – and some typographers may find this unsettling – decide if the font should be serif or sans serif! (Okay, before you launch an argument about the virtues of sans serif fonts on screens, let me assure you, that at the time of writing this post there is no conclusive research that proves either provides a better reading experience onscreen). See the few screens shared below of the Pocket app (formerly Read it Later) where the user gets total control over the typography onscreen.

Technology will continue to provide ever greater control to the user, not the designer. Perhaps the way forward for typographers (or any designer) is to design for possibilities. and not for one single instance of presentation. If we as designers are sensitive to the user and curb our desire to dictate every single thing, we can create meaningful user experiences.


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