Trendsetting Type: Typography as a Reflection of Culture

Written by Marisa Sloan

Discovering a new typeface is like uncovering an unsigned Van Gogh while cleaning out the attic. The thickness of each stroke, the angle of each serif and even the height of each letter is a buried treasure. While working as an apprentice in a letterpress shop, I have spent hours sorting metal type, little pieces of nostalgia, into their respective cases.

Despite the accessibility of modern technology, most of these typefaces seemed foreign when I started sorting them. As I studied their forms, however, I could envision their cultural relevance. French Clarendon looks like it could have been nailed on the walls of a Western saloon. Bradley echoes the bold and meticulously crafted Blackletter fonts. The fishtailed serifs on Tuscan Ombree evokes a carnival setting (Fig. 1). Considering how decorative and fitting these letterforms are for certain occasions, how did they fall into obscurity?

In order to explore the contextuality of typography, I interviewed Dr. Brianna Mauk, an English professor at Ball State University that teaches visual rhetoric and document design. She possessed an optimistic view of how technology and traditional media will influence the aesthetics of graphic design.

Dr. Mauk said that typography has “changed with each culture, and developing technology has no small influence on that either.” That observation certainly applies to the general public’s view of typography. Prior to studying graphic design, I couldn’t identify many fonts that weren’t in the dropdown menu of Microsoft Word, and most millennials likely have had a similar experience. Although they are not sole determinants, media and devices that dictate large portions of our time are in a position to control the breadth of our knowledge as well.

  As an example of the cultural fluidity of typefaces, Dr. Mauk showed me the decorative font ITC Aftershock, which imitated linocut lettering (Fig. 2 ). “The ease of digital composition has made this possible” she said in regard to the creation of the font.

The irony of this generation’s typographic mark is that we are using technology to break away from technology. Just as Gutenberg imitated the medieval scribes with Blackletter fonts, Adobe released the Adobe Originals collection in 1994 to revive Old-style and modern typefaces. According to the Adobe website, these versions “captured the essence of its models while offering all the advantages of contemporary typography.” This package contains reimagined versions of the Garamond, Jenson and Caslon type families to name a few (Fig. 3-5).

In addition to the revivalism of fonts, designers and marketing teams have responded to this pre-industrial, handmade demand with a bloom of handwritten and watercolor fonts (Fig. 6 ).

Letterpress-inspired fonts such as Veneer that simulate distressed ink are also immensely popular (Fig. 7). With its grunge texture and slightly uneven lines, Veneer projects this vintage and hand-crafted appearance.

But letterpress fonts do not fully encapsulate traditional letterpress printing.

Kim Miller is the owner of Tribune Showprint, the oldest continuously operating letterpress shop in the United States (Fig. 8). Unlike some of her contemporaries, Miller is devoted to keeping letterpress close to its industrial roots. “They’re still using the same equipment,” Miller said in regard to younger printers, “although letterpress is evolving more into an art form with this generation.” The primary way Miller adheres to the heritage of printing is by using the centuries-old type produced by foundries rather than designing her own. Although letterpress is no longer solely regarded as an industrial art, Miller is glad to see it being kept alive nonetheless.

In terms of text, Miller generally uses Poster Gothic for wood type and Franklin Gothic for metal type, both of which are sans serif (Figure 9-10). This business mainly designs posters so the typefaces must be large and legible enough for someone to notice as they’re driving down the road. As for printer’s cuts, the ones that Miller inherited from the previous owners are geared towards carnivals and festivals. For events outside of this sphere, Miller devotes a lot of attention to the letters to capture the nostalgic aura of Americana.

Miller’s posters are timeless with their beautiful tri-color gradients and type, and it’s ironic how her typefaces, which were once so widely used, now project this aura of rarity. However, an era’s political and cultural climate has proven to be stronger influences on typeface popularity than time.

In his article “Freaks of Fancy, Revisited: Nineteenth-Century Ornamented Typography in the Twenty-First Century,” Arden Stern delves into the contextuality of typography. Stern uses the example of the Rosewood font, which was released by Adobe in 1994 (Figure 11). This fun, carnivalesque display font resembles the technique of printing different colors on top of one another to create a three dimensional-effect. As Stern explains throughout the article, Rosewood is based off Ornamented Clarendon, which was released in 1859.

Outside of the design sphere, the colorful Rosewood simply looks a fun, celebratory font. However, Ornamented Clarendon has a historical stain that has been obscured from the general public. Stern writes that ornamented typefaces were “once associated with cheap, mass-produced commercial ephemera.” To put that into perspective, the mid-nineteenth century was surging with Marxist and anti-industrialization ideologies. With the controversy over the dehumanization of machinery raging on, any typefaces associated with advertising would not have been held in high esteem.

In that case, how did commercial typefaces, the nineteenth-century Comic Sans, weave their way back into public approval?

Perhaps the answer lies in that fact that digital prints have the universal quality about them that used to plague commercial typefaces. Miller said that a lot of the allure of letterpress was derived from the fact that “you can just tell that someone put a lot of time and care and effort into them. Even if you do that digitally, it’s harder to see and get that feel from it because we’re used to seeing it all perfect.” Rosewood echoes the pre-digital era and its imperfection, and that romantic narrative overrides its ridiculed origins.

While some might criticize these typographic reaches into the past as pastiche, this marriage of contemporary and historic design is poised to dominate our cultural landscape. Typography is no longer the domain of the designer or pressman, and this democracy of letterforms reflects in our abundance of fonts. I think of this as I’m sorting through hundreds of pieces of metal type in the shop. These steel-punched letters are so much more than decoration. They are generational artifacts that can’t be fully resurrected but always respected by the seekers and conservators of linguistic beauty.


Fig. 1 French Clarendon, Bradley, and Tuscan Ombree.

Fig. 2 “ITC Aftershock”. Identifont, Indentifont,              

Fig. 3 “Adobe Garamond.” Identifont, Identifont,

Fig. 4 “Adobe Jenson.” Identifont, Identifont,

Fig. 5 “Adobe Caslon.” Indentifont, Indentifont,

Fig. 6 “ Bonjour Brush Script.”, Jeff Hendrickson Design,

Fig. 7 “Veneer”., MyFonts, Inc. 

Fig. 8 Custom posters at Tribune Showprint.

Fig. 9 Wood type at Tribune Showprint.

Fig. 10 Franklin Gothic metal type.

Fig. 11 “Rosewood”. Identifont, Indentifont,

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