At 72 years old, Print magazine is an established voice on highbrow visual culture and design. When Michael Silverberg took over as Editor in Chief this spring, he chose a theme–trash–that isn’t often broached by the magazine. “Environmental issues are vital, especially to people whose jobs are bound up with branding and selling,” says Silverberg. “But it’s really easy to be too glib about them.” Choosing to address sustainability through trash, failure, and waste was a “more honest” way to broach the topic. To give the issue a unique visual identity, Silverberg invited Sulki & Min Choi, two Seoul-by-way-of-New Haven graphic designers, to guest design the issue.
“We immediately thought about Ecofont,” explains Min, referring to the 2009 typeface designed to save on ink, using blank bubbles within each character to reduce the amount of printed surface area. “We thought that it would be interesting to take the idea and change the shapes of the ‘holes’ so they could have some meanings as well as save the ink.”
The duo began to explore the idea of a Ecofont redux–a custom typeface based on the same concept, but with symbols or letters instead of Ecofont’s generic bubbles. They toyed with replacing Ecofont’s hole system with recycling symbols, or repetitive text, but found the results boring. “We wanted to have a story about something really big. Something grand. Something that is clearly contrasted with the noble but somehow sad and feeble idea of Ecofont,” remembers Min. Print’s standard font is Galaxie Polaris, a 2002 sans serif typeface designed by Chester Jenkins that like its peer, Univers, hints at a cosmic theme. One day in the studio, they came across a Korean translation of Carl Sagan’s classic Cosmos. “We couldn’t miss it. It was a coincidence, but many of the cosmic events are, too.”
What about the Comic Sans, you ask? Why, you ask? Well, for one thing, it’s the most polarizing typeface out there. This website named it one of the “eight worst fonts in the world,” and damned CERN scientists for using it to present their findings last month. “Comic Sans has been regarded by many designers as a ‘trash,’” says Min. “But we always thought the charge was a bit misguided. I mean, we are graphic designers but, come on–who cares?” Reappropriating every graphic designer’s least favorite typeface is definitely a tongue-in-cheek move, but there’s also a practical explanation. Font Lab, the program used to design custom typefaces, distorts small details because of the strict grid system it bases fonts on. Comic Sans, with its balloon-ish features, was “very forgiving.” Plus, Min adds, “Higg’s spin value, denoted as S, is zero. I don’t think all these are mere coincidences.”
Framing a discussion about trash and recycling through a typeface isn’t an obvious choice. But the two topics are more closely related than you might think. Ink is more expensive than human blood, penicillin, and crude oil combined, to say nothing of the environmental costs of paper. By reversing the value system we typically apply to typography, a “trashy” font becomes efficient and valuable, and style becomes a byproduct.
“It’s an attempt to reflect one aspect of the theme of trash,” says Min. “It’s always around us, lurking behind clean, ordered surface, whether or not we recognize it. Silverberg agrees. “In the end, it also led us to other topics, like nostalgia and failure and trashiness and loss, not to mention the endless recycling of the aesthetic world,” he says. “What’s so brilliant about Sulki & Min’s typeface is that it fires on all those cylinders and looks gorgeous to boot.”
Check out Print‘s August issue here.