Early History

Throughout the Modernist era, it was generally accepted that the purpose of type was to communicate linguistic information. As Beatrice Ward’s Crystal Goblet metaphor suggests, “printed words on a page are barely noticeable. As soon as reading begins, our perception of typography ends”. This would suggest that variation in typeface is irrelevant. Indeed, many Modernist typographers regarded visual characteristics as insignificant to the meaning of a word. According to semioticians such as Ferdinand de Saussure, the same word in different font, or different handwriting, could be interpreted as the same sign. Saussure felt that “the actual mode of inscription is irrelevant”, being unimportant for the meaning of a word.

Bauhaus typographers, such as Herbert Bayer and Jan Tschichold, felt that the success of a typeface could be judged according to its legibility. It was felt that type ought to be a simple, and clear as possible so as not to interfere with the linguistic message. Tschichold even went so far as to suggest that serifs are unnecessary ornamentation, and detract from the linguistic message.

While many Modernist-era typographers chosen to deny the influence that visual characteristics have on the meaning of type, it was already becoming clear that type could function in two ways simultaneously: as type and as image.

Guillaume Apollinaire, Calligrammes, 1913-1916.

In much spoken and written language, the word refers to something beyond itself. It describes subjects or events elsewhere. Poetic language, however, draws attention to the word itself. Audiences of poetry are expected to focus attention on the sound of a word as much as (or more so than) the final referent. In the many forms of pictorial poetry, the word itself is emphasized even more than in traditional poetry. Its appearance becomes significant to the meaning of the poem.

Guillaume Apollinaire's picture poetry (and later, from the 1960s, concrete poetry) functions simultaneously as type and image. In some picture poetry, the pictorial meaning corresponds to the verbal meaning, thereby reinforcing it. In other examples, the image interpretation contradicts the linguistic meaning.


F.T. Marinetti, Zang Tumb Tumb (Parole in Liberta), 1914

Futurist typographer F.T. Marinetti sought to represent the spoken word through visual characteristics of typography. Although Marinetti did not aim to create images with type, his experiments demonstrate the contribution that visual features make to the meaning of printed type.


Theo van Doesburg, De Stijl (journal cover), 1917.

The De Stijl movement helped to distance the printed word from the perception of type is a mechanised version of written script. De Stijl type was not constructed from strokes, but from geometric forms. More significantly to this investigation into the typed image, the geometric primitives were the same as those used to construct images. Designers including Theo van Doesburg used an interchangeable array of polygons to construct text and image, proving that, at least at the point of construction, type and image can be considered in the same terms.


Postmodernism and the 'Cultural Shift from Words to Pictures'

From the 1970s onwards, Postmodernim challenged established notions of the purpose of type. Advances in technology (such as the introduction of the Macintosh computer in 1984) allowed designers to integrate type and image, and to experiment beyond the contraints of earlier machines.

Charles Hoel, Stajl by Malmo, c. 2007.

David Carson, famously quoted as saying "don't mistake legibility for communication" may be considered one of the foremost typographers of the Postmodern era. Carson shocked commentators by abandoning the established 'rules' of typography. In his publications, 'Ray Gun' and 'Beach Culture', type slipped off the edge of the page, was slanted, reversed, or even printing in Dingbat fonts. Carson's type proved the printed text can as communicate expressively, as artist's brushmarks.


Neville Brody, Fuse (magazine cover), c.1994.

When he took control of 'The Face' magazine in 1981, Neville Brody replaced the 'a' in the title with a triangle. By juxtaposing type with abstract shapes, Brody demonstrated that a form can operate as either type or image depending on context. In many of his later works, Brody sliced and distorted letterforms so that they were no longer legible, operating as texture, pattern or abstract image.

Carson and Brody's work emerged alongside a "cultural shift From words to pictures". Messages that were formerly communicated through text are now conveyed largely through image. Even text itself is becoming more image-like. The divide between type and image is becoming increasingly blurred, to the extent that the word 'typography' is often not adequate to define typographic artefacts. Type is used freely and expressively, like painterly marks, as texture, as pattern, as image. Type has also escaped the page. Type now exists in the form of objects: as sculpture, as architecture, and as product. The contemporary examples displayed on this website represent just a few of the new forms and functions that take type away from its traditional role as communicator of linguistic information.

All of the above images link to sources.

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