Type Only Celebrates Typography As Standalone Graphic Device

In a mere four years since their emergence with Studio Culture Unit Editions have become a staple in the design world. The progressive publishing venture founded by Adrian Shaughnessy and Spin’s Tony Brook and Patricia Finegan produces high-quality, affordable books on graphic design and visual culture, and their releases are closely watched. The announcement of their latest book Type Only caused such a pre-ordering frenzy that the Unit Editions website crashed. No wonder – several of their publications including the absolutely magnificent monograph Herb Lubalin, American Graphic Designer – 1918–81 have sold out. This is not (yet) the case with Type Only: it can still be pre-ordered at a 20% discount (£36 instead of the £45 retail price) with free p&p until the end of August when the book will start shipping.

Type Only celebrates a current trend in typography: type unsupported by illustration or photography. In other words, typography and letterforms on their own – solus. Through the work of around 100 graphic designers from around the world, Type Only explores the communicative and emotive power of type when used in isolation.

Let’s get this out of the way first – Type Only is a comprehensive, well-designed, beautifully produced compendium of contemporary typographic art. The book opens with an introduction by Tony Brook who co-edited Type Only with Claudia Klat and Adrian Shaughnessy. In it he defines the scope and intent of the book, clarifying that

[t]his book is set in the new world of open access and anything-goes experimentation. The ever-broadening use of type has resulted in innovative, occasionally bewildering designs – from the refined and cultured to the irreverent, bizarre and downright ugly.

The next twenty pages show a selection of classic typographic posters from the last six decades, providing a historical lineage against which the works presented in the book can be evaluated. The opening section is rounded off with The Text Is The Image, a splendid essay by Marc Sinclair, deputy editor of Creative Review magazine. Sinclair retraces the evolution of typographic art from its very beginnings at the end of the 19th century until today’s digital ecclecticism.

The lay-out of Type Only is appropriately subdued for this type of publication. Most of the work is presented one full-page reproduction per page with simple, systematic credits at the top. The succession of designs is punctuated by interviews with Rejane Dal Bello, David Keshavjee & Julien Tavelli, Michiel Schuurman, and Vier5. The size of the book – a little larger than A4 – allows the designs to shine. As I can gather from Tony Brooks introduction Type Only aims to give a good overview of the current state of typographic design and art, without being too concerned with showing only “beautiful” work. Tellingly he concludes his introduction with

(…) one fundamental thing is clear, communication is not the same thing as legibility.

It is with this basic premise in mind that I examined the work collected in its pages. While the presentation is excellent, I am a little ambivalent about the relevance of some of the projects shown throughout Type Only. I don’t know if this is due to the current state of ‘type only’ design and where it is headed, or how the collection was curated. I guess the selection of works unavoidably expresses a certain preference from the editors and researchers.

A couple of things struck me while browsing the book. For one I was often surprised by the creation date. A few designs looked typically late eighties and nineties, and it took me a little while to realise the work presented in Type Only spans only the five or so past years. Although I appreciate historical references in contemporary design, I feel contemporary work has to substantially add something when quoting or paying tribute to previous styles and eras. It needs to interpret and re-imagine those design trends, not simply rehash them. Yet those works that confused me seemed almost literally lifted (without actually copying any existing design, mind you) which left me feeling duped.

The major thing that bothered me was that I had the impression some designers presented in the book pretend to be far more clever than they actually are. They remind me of the Emperor’s New Clothes – they are “so cutting-edge” that anyone disagreeing with them is dismissed because they simply “don’t get it”. Or they adopt irony as a means to stop dead in its tracks any critical evaluation and discussion of their work – read the superb How to Live Without Irony by Christy Wampole for context. There’s nothing profound or avant garde to the appropriation of MS Word styles and empty placeholder symbols. It’s a lazy gimmick, nothing more. I hate to admit it, but underlined Times Bold and crossed boxes on pastel backgrounds make me want to punch someone really hard. Distorted Arial with thick outlines? Find a decent geometric typeface that better lends itself to this, for crying out loud. I never understood why “artistic typography” often equals inane type choices, and why “conceptual typeface” means badly constructed, amateurish letter forms. Also, if you are going to start tugging at Bézier anchor points of existing fonts, please make sure the end result looks the least bit interesting or even makes sense. And applying a simple Photoshop effect on a default typeface on a plain background… what’s the point? Now if there were any discernible conceptual links between choice of type, typographic treatment and thematic content of the poster I would applaud all this. Sadly in all of these cases I failed to find them, which made them seem gratuitous.

Fortunately there is enough interesting work to be discovered in Type Only. Nevertheless I only rarely felt the same excitement I did when I originally discovered the typographic work coming from CalArts, Cranbrook, Emigre, Jonathan Barnbrook, Why Not Associates, David Carson, and so on and so on. Much of the work in Type Only is indebted to previous designers and styles, and often pales in comparison to the classic works presented in the opening section. I also missed a couple of world-class designers who had been omitted, like Philippe Appeloig or Pierre di Sciullo to name but two.

As is customary for publications by Unit Editions the production values of Type Only are immaculate. The light-weight blind embossed cover is wrapped in an oversized folded dust jacket printed in black on silver. Its flexibility makes the book open comfortably and sit perfectly in the reader’s lap. The soft uncoated paper feels very nice to the touch and lends a unifying artistic feel to the reproductions of the works.

All text is set in b+p swiss typefacesSimplon BP Mono, the fixed-width sister of Simplon BP. Although the choice of typeface is conceptually sound and aesthetically pleasing, I am not such a fan of monospaced text. Furthermore, the inexplicable presence of fi- and fl-ligatures occasionally made me trip. Like Hannes Famira correctly observed on Twitter proportional ligatures in fixed pitch typefaces need to be featured as discretionary ligatures, not standard ligatures, if at all… Personally I think they make little sense as they contradict the very essence of monospaced type.

Unit Editions have expanded the original scope of the book by launching an accompanying Tumblr. As they explain in their call for submissions on the Unit Editions Blog,

(…) there are many more examples of this ‘type only’ approach than we could fit in the printed book, and that’s why we are starting an online archive.

They encourage their readers to submit own projects that qualify as ‘type only’ – even unpublished, experimental work – or to put forward someone else’s work. The gallery starts to looks interesting and is bound to become a great resource for typography-based design.

Despite my very personal opinion about the work selected for the book, Type Only is definitely worth having if you want to explore contemporary typographic art and design. Pleasant to browse through, very well-designed and beautifully produced, this is a nice addition to the Unit Editons catalogue.

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