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Issue 59 May 2001 RSS

Funny Face

Design

Letterror's mutating fonts

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The defining movement in graphic design of the end of the last century was not aesthetic but technological. If design was dominated until the late 1970s by the cult of personality and national movements (Swiss Modernism, American New Wave, Russian Constructivism ...), its more recent history has been dominated by engineers and their soft- and hardware. What graphic designers actually do is no longer just a question of form and function, but of what their software allows them to do. Against this constraint the Dutch duo of Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum (known collectively as LettError) have redefined the possibilities of contemporary graphic design by learning how to programme, allowing them to write the complicated routines needed to make the computer do what they want rather than follow the dictates of commercial software products.

During the early 1990s LettError (http://www.letterror.com) produced a series of typefaces that are still unique and truly radical. First was Beowolf, a typeface that forever mutated, then Kosmik, a typeface that kept on changing throughout a document, and then Bitpull, a bitmap typeface where each individual pixel could be bent and stretched at will. What made these typefaces so unusual was the fact that through the designers’ programming skills the fonts took on a new life - they had minds of their own. Many typefaces today look as if they were created by a computer, but they weren’t. They were laboriously crafted on computers, but they could exist equally well in other technologies. The designs of LettError were uniquely of the age in that they could only exist in digital form.

If Dutch graphic design is often categorized as radical (from the work of Piet Zwart and Paul Schuitema through to Studio Dumbar), it can also be identified by a quality derived from traditional craftsmanship. With their radical agenda, it is often easy to forget that LettError’s work is founded on the solid values of good lettering, learned from the father of Modern Dutch type design, Gerrit Noordzij, who taught the duo back at the Royal Academy for Fine and Applied Arts in The Hague.

LettError’s latest typeface, Federal, designed by van Blokland, on first inspection appears to be another 19th-century revival, specifically of the lettering used on America paper currency. However, a closer look makes one realize this isn’t another simple retro design but exemplifies the processes of artistry and technology in unity. The characters aren’t direct copies, but seem to be remembered from a dream or a brief encounter with Victorian lettering; they give the impression of a past era without actually being plucked from it. In fact, the complexity of Federal couldn’t have existed in a previous age. The programme Layer Player that comes with the font allows the user to control and add various levels of engraving and drop-shadowing with ease. Federal has even overcome the problem of optical sizing: the larger the size of the letter, the greater the detail of engraving.

All their work of the last six years has been aided by the development of another typically LettError item: Robofog (with Petr van Blokland - http://www.robofog.com). This application (written in the scripting language Python, brainchild of Guido van Rossum), allows the user to programme particular commands (such as increasing weight, adding hatching, distorting outlines, making drop-shadows ...) that can then be universally applied to a font. By entering new parameters, additional designs can be quickly created and then perfected. With the development of small applications such as Layer Player, previously complicated and time-consuming tasks can be automated for the end-user, leaving them free to concentrate on more creative pursuits. As Erik van Blokland says: ‘Anything that can be automated should be automated, the rest is design.’

Paul Barnes


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First published in
Issue 59, May 2001

by Paul Barnes

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