For this volume in their trendy I Love Type Series, Lupi Asensio and Martin Lorenz had invited two authors to write forewords. Monotype’s Alan Haley had written a historical introduction. This gave me the opportunity to look more closely at the typeface’s digital history and its contemporary reception, and speculate a bit.
To all probability no typeface has ever been in the same position as Times (or Times New Roman) is today. There have been other popular typefaces that became something of a default choice to their users, printing and typesetting shops; but that was before computers replaced the pen and the typewriter, before composing and printing text became something everybody can do. Since the advent of personal computers, Times has been used to design everything and anything: books, art journals and catalogues, scientific papers, memos, letters, lost-dog leaflets, tart cards, shop lettering. It was also the default serif font for websites for over a decade. Consequently, for designers and non-professional users alike, Times has become a kind of “non-choice”.
Times’ sans-serif companion as a standard system font is Helvetica, but Helvetica’s story is a bit different. For one thing, on many computers it was never the default sans-serif because of its competitor Arial, which was designed for Microsoft as a cheap Helvetica alternative. More importantly, the real Helvetica has always remained a classy choice among highbrow designers, especially for corporate identities; and it regained an undeniable hipness after Neville Brody chose it for his design of the magazine Arena it the late 1980s. Times, on the other hand, went through a period in which it was neither fashionable nor an obvious option for mainstream designers (except for those making safe choices for a newspaper redesign). Its very ubiquity made it a face that was tolerated rather than loved.
Then, slowly but surely, the blandness of Times became part of a design strategy — or should I say: a non-design strategy? I noticed this first when working in the cultural field in early 1990s Belgium. Contrary to their Dutch neighbours, Flemish cultural institutions had very small budgets for publications, and not much of a design tradition; consequently, catalogues were often laid out by artists, gallerists and even museum curators. The consensus seemed to be that these books and brochures had to look as “undesigned” as possible; any fancy typography would have been seen as an attempt to steal the show from the works of art. Times New Roman became the typeface of choice. When a Flemish art foundation began publishing a highly intellectual and subsequently very influential magazine called Witte Raaf (White Raven), it followed suit with an austere design using exclusively Times.
In the course of the 1990s, ever more people became interested in digital type. Type design first became an area of experimentation, almost an art form in itself, with designers adapting postmodernist principles to their craft: citation, appropriation, sampling, parody. Soon, these same designers and their younger peers embraced tradition and honed their skills, coming up with serious fonts that were increasingly refined. In a rebellious reaction to all that typographic sophistication, cutting-edge graphic designers began to turn away from contemporary type design. They abandoned the quest for the ultimate new, well-wrought typeface for a much more elementary desire: they wanted type without a face. Their approach wasn’t new; designers in the 1920s had argued in favour of “impersonal” and even ”uninteresting” typefaces; post-1945 functionalism had used terms like “neutrality” and “objectivity”. But invariably, these ideological motives had always led to a choice of technical sans-serifs: Akzidenz, Univers, Helvetica, or the somewhat more romantic geometry of Futura and Kabel. When, around 2000, the design avant-garde embraced Times, the unassuming system font, as a typeface for contrary graphic statements, this was quite a new way of defining objectivity and neutrality in type selection.
Slowly but surely, Times became a major typographic tool in what is now often referred to as “hipster design”. This was and still is a graphic approach that makes deliberate use of certain characteristics of non-professional, vernacular digital layout that academic modernism likes to renounce as bad practice — centered text, double, triple or quadruple emphasis (e.g. bold italic capitals, underlined), black ink on pink or baby-blue stock, etc. The use of Times completed the picture perfectly: a typeface that serious typographers had all but abandoned, but which amateurs liked to use because it looks familiar and serious — and is free. The effect has been rather astonishing. In the course of about ten years, in the young designer’s subconsciousness, using Times went from being an ironic non-choice (or even a decision to embrace ugliness) to an option that connotes hipness and contemporary sensibility. What was initially anti-design — a mischievous, dada-like refusal to make any typographic statement at all — gradually became almost the opposite: a shortcut to stylishness.
Like other media in art and design, typefaces go through appreciation cycles. In postmodern times (i.e., since the early 1980s) these cycles have become increasingly complex and subtle. One factor that confuses the issue is that there are so many graphic subcultures that have conflicting habits and codes. The exact same design decision — a colour, a certain arrangement, the choice of a typeface — may have opposite meanings in different contexts. There is a kind “contemporaneity of the non-contemporary” that causes certain stylistic means to look old-fashioned or soulless to one person or group, and totally cool to another. As for Times, perhaps the joke has worn thin, as it had some years ago with OCR typefaces in an artsy context. On the computer, Times is being replaced by standard fonts of a different calibre: On the web, Georgia is far superior to Times, and is still gaining in popularity; Lucas de Groot’s sans-serif Calibri has been designed to roughly follow Times’ metrics, so that it can painlessly replace the rather skinny oldstyle face that was so unfortunately chosen, twenty years ago, to be an internet star.
So, Times New Roman will soon shed its aura of blandness and banality, and be able to reclaim its rightful place among classic oldstyle fonts. It’s not the most elegant or harmonious family but it has an unmistakable charisma that is most obvious when seen in its earlier incarnations as a metal typeface. Perhaps there will be revised digital editions that bring back that sparkle. Discerning typographic designers will be able to have a fresh look at the hybrid structure and ambiguous detailing of Times New Roman, and say: Yeah, it’s actually a pretty interesting typeface.