Articles

Serapion ‘a’

 
 

To choose one character from a typeface is like choosing one colour plane from a Mondrian painting, or a single flower in an Arcimboldo. Type design is not about single glyphs. It is about creating elements to form a whole, about creating (or anticipating) a modular landscape with a purpose. Pretty details are a by-product. Admittedly, the details can be unbelievably pretty. Much of the font fetishism we’ve seen since type became cool is about details. But too much attention to detail can make a font fall apart. When each wacky ‘g’ screams out from the paragraph: ‘Look at my ear! Look at my tail!’, we may be distracted by spectacular g-ness and stumble over the word which that ‘g’ is supposed to help form. So apparently we need coherence for a typeface to function as a reading tool – and maybe restraint in applying detail.

Functionalism tried to convince us that responsible form-giving is about the elimination of any arbitrary detail; that functionality is best helped by objectivity, and that objectivity equals predictability, modularity, uniformity. Yes, but – and here I paraphrase Erik Spiekermann, talking about Helvetica in that movie – when the general dress code is uniform, you don’t get a typeface. You get an army. And a pretty bland one at that. So we want to find a different kind of coherence. Maybe we do need the details after all.
Typography is not merely about communicating content. Let me rephrase that: setting and laying out text is not merely about creating an invisible interface for immersive reading. Type is more than a channel to convey language. It also provides the text with a cultural context – time, place, circumstances – and must draw, keep and guide the reader’s attention. A typographic design (a page) that does this successfully is not about uniformity, it is about diversity. It may also be about attitude, dignity, history, humour, resistance, confusion, even illegibility. Typefaces can be called in to support or willingly sabotage the author’s/designer’s strategy.

Which takes me to the typefaces of Prague designer František Štorm. Štorm’s typefaces are seldom neutral. They are expressive and personal. They refer to tradition in a number of ways: respectfully, irreverently, or tongue-in-cheek. They are too picturesque for some people’s tastes, while others see Štorm’s typefaces as the ideal tool for conveying emotion and atmosphere. It wouldn’t work if his fonts weren’t very well drawn and fine-tuned to function in a page of text. While many of his alphabets abound with unexpected details and unusual changes of direction, the overall impression is harmonic: they are consistent in their diversity.
I have chosen Štorm’s Serapion, possibly his craziest serifed roman. I used it for years as a typeface for headlines and intros in the bi-annual cultural listings of the City of Ghent. It was eminently functional: it grabbed the attention and conveyed a feeling of excitement and fun. I picked the lowercase ‘a’, because it’s a beginning, and it makes you feel something special is going to happen.