More than words: 6 typefaces that changed how we see the world

Updated 20th December 2017
CALI, COLOMBIA - JUNE 2: Letterpress types, made of wood, placed in a tray in the vintage print shop on 2 June, 2012 in Cali, Colombia. Letterpress printing, invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century, remained the primary way to print and distribute information until the second half of the 20th century. The process of letterpress printing consists of composing movable types into the bed of a press, inking it, and pressing paper against it to create an impression. Nowadays, due to the offset printing expansion, there are few commercial print shops in the world keeping this traditional craftsmanship alive. (Photo by Jan Sochor/Latincontent/Getty Images)
Credit: Jan Sochor/CON/LatinContent Editorial/LatinContent/Getty Images
More than words: 6 typefaces that changed how we see the world
Written by Paul McNeil
Paul McNeil is a typographic designer with experience in brand and corporate communications. He is co-founder of London graphic design studio MuirMcNeil, and currently works as a Senior Lecturer in Typography at the London College of Communication. His latest book, "The Visual History of Type," published by Laurence King, is out now.
I've always been fascinated by type and typography as the central pillars of communication, rather than merely as part of a design toolkit, and have been studying them throughout my career.
A few years ago, I became aware of the absence of any definitive histories of type and, working with design students on a daily basis, I was also increasingly aware of their comparative lack of knowledge of the subject.
My intention for "The Visual History of Type," my new book, was to fill those gaps, not solely because of the usefulness of helping designers understand how and why type works, but also because of the exceptional richness of its historical connections to technologies, to the aesthetic milieu of different eras and to social and ideological evolution. Type is a microcosmic representation of culture.
Here, I've picked 6 typefaces that I regard as either ground-breaking, influential or interesting.

Baskerville (1757)

Courtesy St Bride
In 2012, the documentary maker Errol Morris conducted a survey in which New York Times readers were asked whether they were optimists or pessimists. The covert objective of this experiment, which drew approximately 45,000 responses, was to discover if the fonts in which its statements were typeset had any impact on a reader's willingness to agree with those statements.
The result proved that Baskerville, a 250-year-old serif, was more credible than other typefaces as it was proven to positively influence the responses of readers. Designed and cut by John Baskerville in the 1750s, the character set is sharply defined with wide, regular proportions, open counter forms and a graceful curvature.
However, Baskerville's type was not regarded as readable, let alone trustworthy, when it was first used in 1757, one of his British competitors accusing its designer of "blinding all the readers in the nation; for the strokes of your letters, being too thin and narrow, hurt the eye."

Johnston (1916)

Courtesy St Bride
Just before World War I, England's foremost calligrapher, Edward Johnston, was commissioned by the London Underground Electric Railway Company to design a new typeface as part of a major program to renew the company's image.
The work of a master craftsman, Johnson's Railway Type demonstrates the beauty and power of typography as a communication tool. A combination of letters with the proportions of classical Roman inscriptional capitals and radical new forms, it embodies an understanding of the history of letterform in every detail, reconciling humanistic and geometric attributes in ways that are without precedent.
Johnston's humanist, geometric sans serif was the original expression of the idea that a typeface could be a deliberate representation of its own time and place. Its many innovations had a galvanizing effect on the direction of type design, influencing everything that came after it.

Vormgevers lettering (1968)

Vormgevers exhibition poster, Total Design for the Stedelijk Museum
Vormgevers exhibition poster, Total Design for the Stedelijk Museum Credit: Courtesy Stedelijk Museum
Wim Crouwel, renowned for his use of grid-based typography, once said: "The grid is like the lines on a football field. You can play a great game in the grid or a lousy game. But the goal is to play a really fine game."
At Total Design, the studio he co-founded in 1963, Crouwel directed all printed matter for the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam after 1964, with every item designed systematically on the same invisible squared grid. In 1968, Crouwel's poster for an exhibition named "Vormgevers" made the grid visible, exposing a fundamental design tool that is almost always hidden from view.
The "Vormgevers" poster marked an advance in the use of constructed letters, becoming the core element of the design and a product of their own systematic construction method. Drawn by hand with a pen, a straight edge and a compass, the monolithic geometric shapes of the Vormgevers' imposing black and white binaries anticipated the bitmap, dot matrix and LED typography of early computer displays.

Frutiger (1976)

Courtesy Paul McNeil
During the early 1970s, sans serif typefaces like Helvetica had become so ubiquitous that they were beginning to seem vapid, dated and dull.
In the design of his eponymous face for Charles de Gaulle Airport, Adrian Frutiger sought to breathe new life into the sans serif by merging the rational, stripped-down features of his earlier Univers typeface with the calligraphic principles found in older humanistic faces from before the advent of the sans serif.
Although it is not hugely fashionable today, Frutiger has been in the bestseller lists ever since its release in 1976. In 2008, asked to reflect on the phenomenal success of his eponymous typeface Frutiger said: "It has already become to some extent a stylistic expression of the 1970s and 1980s. All media have adopted it spontaneously. It was simply a face which could be read comfortably. It was the 'other one' between Univers and Helvetica."

Chicago (1984)

Courtesy Paul McNeil
As an undergraduate student in the 1970s, Steve Jobs would occasionally attend calligraphy classes simply out of interest: "I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces," he said, "... about what makes great typography great ... Ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer ... we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography."
This was largely due to the groundbreaking work of Susan Kare, who designed Chicago, the first Apple Macintosh typeface, in 1983. Intended for use on-screen in one size only, 12 pixels high, Chicago was robust but exceptionally user-friendly and it remained integral to both the Mac interface and to Apple's identity for over a decade.
Chicago is an object lesson in aesthetic and technological restraint. Working only in pixels on a limited grid, with no references other than the raw computer bitmaps of the time, Kare achieved a well-modulated typeface with subtly contrasting stroke widths and proportional letter spacing, making it easy to read even on the low-resolution Mac computer screen.

The Alphabet (2001)

Courtesy MM Paris
The Alphabet, first published in a fashion magazine in 2001, is not a typeface in a conventional sense. Cut into photographs of fashion models, Mathias Augustyniak and Michael Amzalag of M/M Paris created a rudimentary all-capitals alphabet that loosely followed the contours and tonal structures of the images.
The result is a striking abstraction of both feminine and alphabetic forms that is at once primitive, sensuous and dramatic. Its historical significance lies in the ways it refers to the potential for typographic design in the 21st century to migrate mechanized language from its fixed limits in print towards virtual, moving and physical environments.
It also speculates playfully on the cultural reception of signs that can be understood by being looked at and read interdependently, raising open questions about the ambiguous nature of representation and about the convergence of words and images in 21st century culture.
"The Visual History of Type" by Paul McNeil, published by Laurence King, is out now.