Mad Dog 21/21: About Face
February 26, 2018 Hesh Wiener
There was a time when a typeface was made of metal and its characters, called glyphs, physically transferred ink to paper. Today, a typeface is a set of symbols that may be used to transfer ink to paper or to paint text on a screen or to inform a heads-up display. Beginning in November 2017, IBM put its corporate clout behind a signature family of typefaces called Plex. Plex will also be a signature for Ginny Rometty and IBM’s paean to Johannes Gutenberg.
Gutenberg, born about 1400, developed technology that enabled the industrial production of printed matter, including the use of movable type and surrounding devices. His work led to the development of the printing press, a machine based on agricultural presses of the day. Printing based on movable type quickly replaced prior technologies, principally the use of individually carved wooden blocks, one or a few of which were used to create each page. The most prominent book manufactured by Gutenberg was the 42-line per page Bible. This book sparked a revolution, making the spread of printed works both possible and practical. The outcome was a vast spread of literacy and knowledge across Europe and soon the entire civilized world.
While Gutenberg’s print works were in and around the German city Mainz, the publishing industry took off elsewhere, too. Notably, Venice, a wealthy and lively crossroads for commerce and information, became one of the capitals of European publishing. By the time Gutenberg died in 1468, Aldus Pius Manutius was growing up. He would stand on the shoulders of the German giant, creating superb editions of classical Greek and Latin texts in his Venetian studio, which boasted artisans and scholars from Italy, Greece, and elsewhere. His studio’s efforts created vast improvements in typography, including the invention and deployment of italic type, yielding books that multiplied knowledge with beauty in ways that gave them extraordinary influence.
By the end of the 15th century, printed publications were fueling social and economic changes that would permanently enhance education, politics, economics, aesthetics, and religion. Nevertheless, some of the most powerful forces unleased by Gutenberg and his heirs would not appear for centuries. It would take the development of steam-powered rotary drum presses, created in New York City during the mid-nineteenth century by Richard March Hoe, to equip a modern newspaper industry and subsequently all its mass media descendants. The rotary press became the mainframe of printing, and like the IBM mainframe, it has continued to evolve.
Originally, rotary presses, like contemporary sheet-fed flatbed presses, brought images to paper via metal plates that carried ink. Much later, offset printing technology, in which a rubber blanket or roller serves as an intermediate carrier of ink between plate and paper, led to improvements in clarity and consistency not possible with metal plate technology. Subsequently, laser printing technologies arose that further improved the versatility, clarity and consistency of mass media printing. Along the way, newspapers that were once all monochrome enhanced their production technology to embrace color in type and imagery.
As high speed printing press technology evolved, so, too, did closely related components of the publishing system. Papers and inks have changed a lot over the years. Notable improvements have led to newspapers that reach the reader quite dry; formerly a fresh newspaper was likely to give a reader inky hands. Paper and ink have no toxicity; formerly this was not always the case. And typo design itself, the art or perhaps craft of shaping glyphs, continues to be a dynamic part of the publishing universe.
What are arguably the most popular typefaces in Western cultures, Times New Roman and its cousin Times Roman, are not yet even a century old. They date from 1931, when the Times newspaper of London migrated to the eponymous typeface. Compared to other newspaper typefaces previously used by the Times and other publications, the Times and Times New Roman faces provided improved clarity and type density at type sizes used in the bodies of stories.
These days the Times and other newspapers are back on the move, testing variations of the Times family of typefaces and other, quite different, symbol sets. But Times Roman and Times New Roman remain at the heart of printing as done by the two most influential companies shaping end user computers, Apple and Microsoft. Still, the power of the Times typefaces may be fading, at least in some circles. Consequently, IBM, which has offered a new style of type in the form of the Plex family, could well create a lasting imprint on the culture of publishing. What gives Plex a chance to catch on is its creation in a world that no longer seems to care very much about the physical smashing of ink into paper, the subsequent spreading (if any) of ink as it is absorbed by the printed page, or the rules of type density imposed by older publishing technologies.
Today’s presentation of texts and illustrations is so often done on a display screen powered by adaptable, flexible presentation hardware and software that formerly important concerns, the result of physically fixed ink shapes placed on a reflective surface, are no longer irresistible forces defining typography. Even if Plex fails to catch on, IBM is probably on the right track seeking new solutions. So, if Big Blue loses out to some other organization’s typographic inventions, it will still most likely earn an important place in the history of printing, publishing and information display.
Long before there was Times Roman and Times New Roman, printing technologies that long preceded rotary press newspaper manufacturing rose to prominence in the publishing of books and manuscripts on flatbed presses. One example still in use today is a typeface called Caslon developed during the first half of the eighteenth century. The designer of this face, William Caslon, was, during his lifetime and afterwards, regarded as the foremost typeface creator in England, the Brit whose work rivalled the popularity of Dutch and other Continental typefaces of the time. Caslon’s work enjoys periodical revival in England and elsewhere. For example, Caslon’s type was used to print the U.S. Declaration of Independence. And during the second half of the nineteenth century Caslon type figured prominently in the graphic arts revival of the British Arts and Crafts movement.
Nevertheless, Caslon is one of many typefaces considered old-fashioned, suitable for crafted books and other manuscripts but inappropriate for mass market periodicals. It just doesn’t look efficient enough to bring the power and immediacy of a freshly printed newspaper into focus for a reader. For that kind of a look, a reader is likely to be drawn to one of the many typefaces that the publishing industry refers to as modern.
Among the many prominent type designers whose work defines what is called the modern era of typography is Giambattista Bodoni, an Italian born in 1740 that some say was inspired by the English typographer John Baskerville. Bodoni’s work helped form a foundation for typefaces that that eventually included Times Roman. But the technical requirements of Bodoni’s time did not include the advantages and restrictions of the rotary press. As a result, Bodoni’s type looked great in documents of his era and for quite a while afterwards, but it did not work as well in the higher density text printing that would become an aspect of the mass market newspaper trade of the rotary press era. In very small sizes, Bodoni type was hard to read and the limitations of printing technology of the day caused serious visual damage: Some of the thinner lines in various letters became broken, tripping up readers. In larger sizes used in most books, however, Bodoni provides an excellent reading experience. Nevertheless, Bodoni’s type faded from popular use. The fate of his faces might befall currently popular fonts like the Times cousins or even the widely admired and extraordinarily popular sans-serif typeface Helvetica, developed in 1957.
It is likely to turn out that the typefaces currently called modern will soon no longer be truly modern in key ways. They might well be superseded by newer developments in typography including IBM’s Plex, particularly if IBM evolves into a provider of publishing and data distribution services aimed at humans, a sharp contrast to IBM’s recent moves that seem to be concentrated on cloud computing and other activities that seem to be more concerned with feeding data to machines than to people.
It is possible, as the debut of Plex suggests, that Ginni Rometty’s IBM may sense a fresh opportunity to gain prominence and visibility in the computing universe by catering to the needs of individuals using computers, tablets, smartphones and intelligent devices. If this is the case, IBM’s offering an identifiable look and feel, something a family of typefaces like Plex could provide, would provide a way of branding services offered by or otherwise dependent on IBM would help restore Big Blue’s prominence.
IBM might be wisely envious of the mindshare occupied by Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and other ultra-visible tech companies. To rise to the heights of these companies, IBM not only has to offer compellingly attractive services at winning prices. It has to put the best face on the whole effort.