One of the questions at the Sunday session of the Silvermine conference that I enjoyed most was, “What is typography?” Mr. Spencer, who obviously knew very well what typography was, answered the question civilly and with admirable self-control. I am not sure, though, whether the question was meant to be facetious.
I never dreamed that I, for example, was a typographer. I thought a typographer was a man who worked in a composing room and knew everything there was to know about type.
Now, I know he’s a compositor and not a typographer, and that I, who know nothing about type but have designed thousands of magazine pages, am a typographer, for typography has been roughly defined as the arrangement or organization of text and other visual information on a printed page.
In the fashion world which was my own training ground, nobody looked for definitions. They only looked for an effect. I don’t think the definitions came to America until after the war―after conferences like these. That’s when I learned that I too, was a typographer.
When I want to select a new typeface for a magazine, I have a very sure guide for my choice: I ask my husband. “What type shall I use for Seventeen Magazine, Bill?”
This is not just a demonstration of wifely deference, but also a sincere recognition that Bill knows type and I know fashion; mode; style; rage; craze; fad and vogue.
I should, I worked there and learned there. That’s why I don’t know type.
The art department had drawers full of proofs of body type, plenty of pictures and layout sheets and it was not uncommon to make half a dozen versions of a single double page editorial layout. The arrangement of pictures and text on the spread was an exercise in lack of self-control.
Photographs were not always cropped, sometimes we tore them, sometimes we burned the edges, perforated them, pinked them, curled them. When I made a layout for “How much do American women spend for beauty,” I tore a beautiful photograph of a nude into bits and put a price tag on the pieces.
Body text, the necessary evil, we cut into shapes. Very long and skinny, very short and wide on a layout for “How to take off and how to put on weight.” We cut the gray body text sheets into circles, triangles, vases, leaves, paper dolls.
But where we really went to town was in hunting up, inventing and torturing typefaces for headlines.
Since each editorial spread worth its name was designed to create a new surprise within the magazine, a shock, a change of pace from the preceding one and following one, each double page needed a different typeface to suit its subject matter, its mood, its caprice.
And since I was required to make many versions of each spread, I had a colossal chance to gobble up as many types as I could find.
But type books were useless to me. They didn’t have enough variety. Often, the name of a type sounded good and intriguing.
Spartan, for instance, sounded just right for those noble looking fashion photos on my table. But when I looked inside the type book, I screamed: “Spinach—Futura!”
So we invented more luxurious and more varied title styles. We made Onyx look pale and squat with our longer, skinnier, blacker version.
Black as hell paled before our ultra version of Ultra Bodoni. Piggyback Gothic had nothing on our Mutation Mondial. Futura Light was coarse and clumsy compared to our hairline letters, and an accidental stencil led to a string of elegant stencil innovations which gave our designs the casual look. Piggyback Gothic had nothing on our Mutation Mondial.
There was a portfolio of bathing suits photographed under water which started an epidemic of Blurry Bodoni. We used blotters, mirrors, match sticks, sable brushes, camelhair and wrong ends of brushes.
One layout I particularly remember had a headline, “The most chichi thing I ever saw” and the experts who were doing the seeing were the Elsa Maxwells, the Dahlis, the Wallis Simpsons. Not to be outdone, I used a herringbone, knock-kneed Bodoni for this layout.
An English art director who was being screened for English Vogue, was asked to redo this layout. After a few days he returned to say that he couldn’t redo it―it was the most chichi layout he had ever seen.
Then we abandoned attempts at type altogether and went into a stretch of brush lettering. The brush letter influenced by Matisse Schnorkels was very loose, very brushy and had we felt a particularly stylish effect with square-cut photographs, like the mink stole on a tailored suit.
The test of a good brush caption was its spontaneity and offbeat rhythm. I would cover sheets of bond with a phrase like, “Vogue says.”
Some sheets backhand, some straight, some slanty, some very slanty, some a combination of all directions. At the point where I was too groggy to see, I knew I had exhausted the possibilities and let someone else pick the spontaneous one.
I also tried my hand at writing with a pen, and my favorite one, and the envy of my playmates, was a pen I found with a double point.
We placed these varied headline styles anywhere on a double page, though never straight and never at the top of the page. I had a hit with a layout in which I put the heading upside down, and the copywriters indulged me and wrote an upsidedown type headline to go with it.
Mirror writing was another favorite and when Vogue got a letter from a lady wanting to know the proper way to announce her daughter’s secret elopement, we came to the rescue with the suggestion she print the announcements in invisible printers’ ink.
We headline designers became strong forces on the editorial staff and made outrageous demands on the copywriters. They were ready to comply with our latest extravagances and there was only a small protest, once, when we designed a page with a title that called for three words, 14 characters wide with no ascenders nor descenders.
In this industry, there is no room for a designer to fall in love with his typographic design, and anyone who was tempted to use his tricks over and over again got fired.
This way of working was not quite as imbecile as it sounds. It had a real relationship to the International world of fashion which it expressed. It was a world of constant change and our magazine pages were designed to reflect this change. It set a fast pace in graphics, too. Its pages influenced the advertising world, particularly fashion advertising. In fact, Dr. Agha, who set the pace in those days, laid down a strict rule that as soon as one of our typographic fashions appeared in the advertising pages, it must be dropped editorially, and a new one invented.
As irresponsible as it might seem now, we did try to communicate an idea―a fashion―an emotional attitude. And we rejected every layout that failed to do it with sufficient clarity or conviction.
When the war broke out, the fashion magazines changed their face again. It was uncomfortable to be chichi and gay and extravagant while serious articles began finding their way into the pages of fashion magazines.
Fashion photographers like Lee Miller were taking pictures of American and Russian troops meeting in German dugouts. Society photographers like Cecil Beaton were photographing survivors of Auschwitz and Belseir. Our format had to accommodate this new content. The pages became more restrained. The use of the same typeface throughout the major section of editorial pages became fashionable. In a period of austerity, anything else might have been offensive. Of course, it was cheaper and simpler to use type than handlettering, but whatever the dominant reason was, the new “sensible” typography became a fashion—a fashion that we thought of as perhaps an ultimate solution.
It is natural, I think, for artists and designers, or anybody else, for that matter, to feel convinced that the solutions they have just discovered are really final solutions. From the catalogs of the last two exhibitions of your organization, it seems to me that you have decided that Piggyback Gothic is here to stay.
Just as we in the fashion world once seem to have decided that everything but handwriting was obsolete. That lasted quite a while, too. Longer than your Piggyback Gothic will last, I’ll bet.
I don’t really mind that line of thinking. I just mind it being considered so new. I have a feeling it has been here before. If it wasn’t tried in the fashion magazines, it was certainly tried by Bracque and Picasso.
If I wanted to be sure of having something of mine shown in your exhibition, there is another old hat that I would use that now seems to be news. I would use the shortest word that I could get away with and make it large―in gothic, of course. And if there should happen to be some text that for some unreasonable reason had to be included, I would set it in 5 point. I would try to resist using a photographer drawing, but if I were forced to, I would use it small within the white space of one of the large letters.
If I wanted desperately to be in the exhibition, I wouldn’t use a word at all. I’d use that sure-fire stopperoo of 1958 ―an ampersand! It must be surefire, because it was a stopper in 1938, too. Or was it an exclamation point then?
In some segments of the design world, this solution is the modern equivalent of another surefire American formula: A magazine cover with a picture of a baby, a dog, and a pretty girl―or preferably all three. When I walked through the International section of the exhibition, I found that it was difficult for me to decide whether a “big word” poster or booklet was good unless I knew the language; unless I knew more thoroughly what was being communicated to me.
And the thought sent a chill up my spine. Because it occurred to me that conferences like these, which I imagine are designed to prove to the business world that designers are people who can also read and write―may be proving just the opposite.
Do you remember the days when under the impact of modern art we used to turn a layout upside down and announce with triumph to some poor philistine of an editor that it looked even better that way, therefore it was good right side up? I remember very well seeing those wonderful French text pages in Arts et Métier Graphiques, which ran the full width of a wide page with barely any leading at all. I also remember setting a magazine section that way―only to find that in English it had lost its glamour―and was impossible to read besides.
Could it be true that some of us have been looking at those European posters in this way? That the big four letter word may have meant something sensible in the foreign language―may have had a logical reason for being so big, but when we copied the pattern without being able to understand the meaning of the word, it came out sort of silly.
The success of any form of visual communication must obviously be based on how well the intent has been communicated. But there is also a determination to ignore whatever content there is and to make it subordinate to design.
Since the last war ended, there is one generation that is confused or disillusioned by the strange peace it brought. And there is another generation that finds it difficult to be interested in what principles were involved in the war to begin with. The painters who tried to say something about the war in their paintings have all disappeared, the abstract boys who wouldn’t be caught dead saying anything have inherited the galleries, and we all seem to be determined not to talk about it. There isn’t any question about the strength of the influence of the abstract painters on modern graphic design. And it is probably strong. It has been the fashion for some time now, not to talk. And abstract painting is certainly fashionable.
Mr. Webster defines fashion as a way of conforming. It might offend the painters to be labeled conformists. It might even offend the graphic designers. But that isn’t by intention here―I think any visual manifestation can―and should―serve as inspiration to a designer.
But I think we ought to feed on abstraction with care. It can be pretty indigestible. Graphic design is useless if it communicates nothing. But there may be a ray of hope in what I privately call the new world of Will Burtin.
I am talking about the Scientific Age―Will seems to have been aware of it even before Sputnik. Apparently, the scientists have something to say. And it is important that we understand it―and communicate it to others.
The electronic machines are able to communicate with each other pretty well, but I’m still having trouble trying to understand how synthetic fabrics in 28 gorgeous colors are just as good as the old-fashioned, natural ones. Surely, those designers who are crying out to work with more important content—designers who feel that they are stuck in the rut of outmoded fashion, who fight against convention only to find they too are conformists―will welcome the Scientific Age.
I don’t mean to imply that modern typographic habits are bad merely because they have been borrowed or because they are not new. I mean that they should not be taken so seriously; no one specific fashion should be considered a permanent solution.
They can be fun while they last, but please let’s not make them last so long. And if it makes you sad to see them go, maybe it will cheer you up a little when you remember that another generation will discover them. Just as we have discovered the Chemise of the 20’s.
- Cipe, the prototype by Amelia Hugill-Fontanel
- ‘Couldn’t they find one token woman for this?’ by Paula Scher
- Everyday life as well as fashion and glamour by Chandler O'Leary
- Hand-written, eye-popping, colorful—before its time by Ilene Strizver
- A role model peering over my shoulder by Louise Fili
- The chemise in typography by Cipe Pineles