no.25 vol.7 summer 1997

Faces on the edge: type in the digital age
Steven Heller and Anne Fink
Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1997
review by Max bruinsma

Trawling through the critiques on graphic design and typography by Steve Heller, one used to find a high degree of contempt toward designers who mistake personal expression for viable visual communication. Heller's article in EYE no.09, 1993 is a now almost classic rant against this 'Cult of the Ugly'. With this in mind Heller's contribution to 'Faces on the Edge' (with Anne Fink) may come as a surprise. The small book contains an overview of the kind of typographic design that in Heller's earlier pieces epitomized the designers' dedication to 'the cause of ambiguity and ugliness'. Now it stands for a change in attitude that aptly accompanied the new computer inspired ways of expressing contemporaneity through type. Even the fact that a lot of these letters cannot be read easily has now become a problem for the reader: 'Today's optically manipulated digital alphabets demand that readers ignore preconceptions and focus on the form. Once the adjustment is made, the reading is simple.'

It's interesting to see how this change of bias reflects the changed  acceptability of expressiveness in typographic design. Once more a religious faith than an objectively argumented set of principles, the 'eternal rules' of typographic functionality and neutrality have been radically challenged by 'fontographers' who are more concerned with the letters' image than with their readability. 'Type has become an artistic medium in its own right', states Heller, 'Experimental typefaces are the nexus where art and commerce meet, where a commercial tool becomes a means for pure expression.'

'Faces on the Edge' focusses on experiments with what a computer can do to a letter, or what a fontographer can do with notions of language and idiosyncrasy. It is, as Heller concludes,  an 'interim history of type and of the individuals who command a new medium and have created a design ethos that is of and about its time'.

max bruinsma