Type surrounds us, from street signs and subway maps to cellphone interfaces and the tags tucked behind our shirt collars. Yet, until relatively recently, many of didn’t take notice of the decision-making and craft behind the design of those letters—not until, that is, computers gave us the choice between hundreds of fonts and the possibility to design our very own. So how do the pros define their work? A new short video titled Type, from PBS Arts’ Off Book series, brings together some of today’s bold-faced names in typography to talk how they arrange typography into systems of information.
And one quickly gets the sense that their approaches are radically different. For Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones (the team behind such typefaces as Tungsten, Requiem, and Gotham), the type speaks at a sotto voce, whereas Pentagram’s Paula Scher adjusts the volume to whatever the audience can tolerate. Most impressive, to my mind, was Eddie Opara’s explanation of how he used type to create a textured poster for Studio Museum Harlem that visualizes the African-American experience of being both noticed and unnoticed, as popularized by Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Here the type plays an active part in conveying the message, present but revealing itself only from certain angles on a poster that unfolds into a sculptural object resembling a Stealth Bomber.
The video’s a fun Friday primer on the many applications of type—tools that, as Frere-Jones bluntly says, we need "again and again and again to get through the day."