Rejecting Infill-ism and Waterfalls of Mediocrity

Two recent interviews touch on a perceived degradation of quality and originality in type design.

“It has become a lot easier to come up with a design that looks acceptable at first sight. But this does not mean that new things are automatically genuine or authentic. The type design community fails to be critical enough towards itself; we seem to welcome everything … this attitude will ensure a waterfall of mediocrity.” —Fred Smeijers, Eye no. 90 vol. 23, 2015

“In terms of new typeface designs, we believe we’ve reached a point that we refer to as ‘Infill-ism’, where designers are simply filling in the few remaining options left. Which begs the question, how many more Helvetica or Futura inspired designs do we really need?” —Rudy VanderLans, Fontstand feature, June 9, 2016

I have mixed feelings about such sentiments. On one hand, Smeijers and VanderLans make sound points, informed by plenty of relevant experience. With the aid of accessible tools and sales platforms, the rate of new fonts released increases every year; many of them are half-baked, landing on the shelf with gobs of hyperbolic promotion and no critical commentary. There is a tangible vacuousness about the current type scene. On the other hand, if limited to just these interviews, the two could come off like elder statesmen bemoaning the superfluous work of a new generation. Taken alone, this talk comes eerily close to “Kids these days don’t appreciate…” and “They just don’t make ’em like they used to.”

But Smeijers and VanderLans are not grumpy old codgers. I have deep respect for both of them as champions of new ideas, of reinvention. Smeijers continues to see fresh typefaces worthy of his foundry, lots of them created by students; and many of Emigre’s latest releases come from young external designers. Still, their statements about widespread mediocrity ring true. They fire a warning shot we all need to hear. I’m not so sure, though, about these points of view:

“[T]here are fewer type design options left to explore, since type design is restricted by the structure of the alphabetic characters. And, although the options are technically infinite, it becomes increasingly difficult to see the differences between designs.” —Rudy VanderLans

Yes, many of us see that the proverbial pie is continually sliced thinner. But have we really seen the whole pie? Are there pies we haven’t even imagined?

“Today there is a peak in type design, yet we have few Calypsos [innovative/artistic/display] or Garamond Premiers [fit-for-purpose/workhorse/text] to show for it.” —Fred Smeijers

That’s a tad gloomy. Our annual reviews make a strong case that there is still innovation and authenticity in type design, and that it has not subsided over time.

Infill-ism and me-too-ism have always been present in the field (see the countless Futura followers of the 1920s–30s, or the phototype clones of the 1960s–80s). There are more copycats now, and they come at a faster pace, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t also as much “original” work as well. There is more of everything. It’s just increasingly difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff.

One can be both a skeptic and an optimist. Some days, I am annoyed by the constant churn of unimaginative releases and empty praise. On other days, the typographic landscape seems wide open with possibility. With the rise of an authorship culture and independent publishing, with the introduction of new substrates, platforms, formats, and media, a blossoming of new font uses and users echoes the output of new fonts. And there are future needs we cannot fathom today. So, yes, we still need new fonts. We also need tools for judging the quality of these fonts. We need type labels and sellers who place a stronger emphasis on curation than promotion. We need critical eyes and fearless voices. Today, count me an optimist: I see all of this on the horizon.

Stephen Coles publishes Typographica and Fonts In Use, and is working on something new. He is author of the book The Anatomy of Type and serves on the board of the Letterform Archive. He lives in his girlfriend’s home in Berlin and his cat’s home in Oakland.

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