The last ATypI Conference of the millennium was held October 7–10, 1999, at the Bayside Exposition Center in Boston, Massachusetts. And it displayed both millennial fear and millennial fervor – fear of losing the ability to make a living in typography, fervor for new ways of looking at type and design. Both of these heady emotions, of course, were engendered by the inescapable Web and its interminable Possibilities.
Even before the conference officially started, a forum was held, on Thursday afternoon, to discuss the implications for type vendors of the World Wide Web Consortium’s standard for scalable vector graphics (SVG), the open-standard language that is expected to revolutionize the display of graphics on the Web. Although Chris Lilley, the Consortium representative scheduled to be there, was unable to show up, a crowd of about fifty people held a discussion anyway, the focus of which quickly moved from technical issues of SVG to the intellectual property and encryption issues associated with fonts. Nothing was resolved at the meeting – and in fact, it’s not clear that something as tidy as resolution can be obtained in this matter – but it served to underscore how intertwined the issues of technology and compensation now are to people who make and sell type.
Afterward, attendees put away their torches and pitchforks, at least for the time being, and took up the discussion of typographic art and the pursuit of fine dining (or pizza and beer) that marks the evenings of every ATypI. The hotel’s capacious lounge was full of talkative tablehoppers at midnight, and some were still going strong hours later.
Friday morning, at the civilized hour of 9:30, ATypI president Mark Batty and Boston content-organizers David Berlow and Matthew Carter gave brief welcoming speeches, and sent participants forth into 13 hours a day of programming, schmoozing, snacking, and type-related jollity.
A few of the high points:
Roger Black’s witty tour of typography, and the lack of it, on the Web. “People’s standards have been so reduced by the quality of fonts on the screen that we can get them to read absolutely anything.” Offering some suggestions for improving legibility on screen: “Hinting makes a more pleasing text – still hideous, of course.” Though there were some things to question in his talk – I would have liked to hear his take on Cascading Style Sheets, for instance, and I found his suggestion rather cavalier that, when deciding to use embedded fonts, the benefits of branding outweigh the costs of increased download time – he set a tone of rueful cheer, making it clear that type really hasn’t arrived on the Web, and that GIFs still rule.
Michael Harvey spoke on the confluence of character and type design in a number of significant twentieth-century type designers, illustrating his talk with slides, and commenting in most cases on the character of the designer as well as that of his or her designs. Georg Trump he termed “an artist in type.” Hermann Zapf is “daring, almost wicked. Hermann always does m’s a trifle too wide for my taste, but you know Hermann did it.” William Addison Dwiggins, the patron typographer of the conference, had, he said, a quirky intelligence that gave life to his letters, and Dwiggins’s type design benefited from his other interests, book design and marionettes: “You have to be more than a type designer to be a good type designer.” Harvey then confessed that he used to want to be Eric Gill, and segued into a discussion of his own development as a type designer, and his training as a stone cutter with Reynolds Stone. Stone, he said, had once spent two weeks working with Gill: “which was quite enough.” Character, he concluded, is “a very uncertain thing.”
Ed Benguiat gave a jolly, pun-filled review of hundreds of typefaces that he (and others) designed, proceeding at a breakneck pace and offering his credentials as the Yogi Berra of the type world: “That face was rather successful, but it never amounted to much.”
Gerard Unger spoke on W.A. Dwiggins, who he termed “the greatest and most original type designer of the US, if not of the world.” His interest in making marionettes, Unger said, gave him the idea of using smooth curves on the outside of letters and sharp angles on the insides. (Which bears out Michael Harvey’s earlier comment, quoted above.)
John Maeda of the MIT Media Laboratory presented a fascinating look at the possibilities of non-objective, interactive, animated type for on-screen use, using the work of three of his students as examples. These students obviously view the screen not as a flat surface, but as a window into a three-dimensional space, and through the use of sophisticated programming techniques have produced some amazingly creative work, some of which seems almost alive. Peter Cho grabbed letters and words from email that Maeda sent to him and transformed them into sentences that swirled with meaning, letters that morphed, words that came alive. Ben Fry displayed a Web site navigational graphic that showed movement of readers through a site, forming nebulous networks from the patterns of access; another sequence showed “words duking it out for position in space.” Golang Levin’s animated letters moved like worms, or like banners in the wind. Lettering strokes were mapped to particular sounds, and the music changed in response to the letters. “It’s a musical instrument like any other,” he said matter-of-factly. “I just made it last week, so I haven’t mastered it.” I found this the most forward-looking, the most futuristic, the most exciting of all the presentations at ATypI.
Edward Tufte’s keynote speech, “Visual Explanations,” was interesting enough, studded with epigrams, such as “Good design is thinking made visible. Bad design is stupidity made visible.” It was worthwhile to hear Tufte in person, especially recounting the epic story of self-publishing his books, a tale of the triumph of obsession in the pursuit of quality. But ultimately I was disappointed: he seemed to be merely summarizing points already made in his books. In contrast to the other speakers, he was disengaged from his audience.
In addition to the two-track program of speakers, the conference included a film festival of eight short subjects from the Adobe Film Library and three exhibits: the Kyrillitsa ’99 competition from Moscow, which included 142 entries in the categories of text, display, and pictorial typefaces; TDC45, the 45th annual exhibition of the Type Directors Club; and TDC2, the Club’s second annual typeface design competition. A live Web site, t-party, and a daily newsletter, WAD, each created during the conference by participants, posted news, events, gossip, lively photos, and snarky asides.