Looking backwards, moving forwards


Shoulder pads were trendy, once. So were leg warmers. For decades they’ve been an absolute fashion no-go. But what’s almost certain is that they will be back. (In fact it’s pretty certain that some ‘˜edgy’ fashion student is sketching something that looked like it dropped off the set of Dynasty as we speak).

In music we’ve had nearly two decades of guitar driven grunge/indie rock, even a revival of metal. So it’s no surprise that the newest bands have turned their dials back to eighties synthesisers for something that sounds different.

20 years ago I joined a design company who had just done three huge corporate schemes with the same colour scheme – yellow and grey. It seems ridiculous now (it seemed faintly ridiculous then) but the odds are that within a decade those colours will be an acceptable combination again. Not long afterwards I was wedded to an eighties English trend for beautifully letter-spaced capitals, but only a few weeks ago presented a scheme based on lightly leaded, tightly tracked caps. I think we used to call it ‘˜close not touching’ (as in the instructions to the typesetter on how to set the letters). It’s been a while.

Many graphic designers will try to somehow ‘˜insure’ their work against the vagaries of fashion and the wavering of art directors such as me. But the truth is that certain graphic approaches, especially those deemed shocking and revolutionary, will always have a brief and fabulous burst in the limelight. Then 3 years later they seem normal. 3 years after that, overly familiar, then finally, they fall hopelessly out of fashion. David Carson’s work began the nineties at the cutting edges of layout design and ended it in ads for Coca Cola – an agency art director had selected a ‘˜look’ from what was out there and put it to temporary use to make a brand look groovier just as Carson’s signature style began to wane. And it in many respects it was inevitable.

You can study this most easily by flicking through design books and journals from 10 years ago. Often the approaches look pretty tired. Do the same for twenty years ago – things usually look awful. Oddly though, look at something from thirty years ago (like the U&LC layouts below) and layouts can start to look a little more interesting. They look terrible, sometimes, but somehow plausible, all at the same time.


Don’t believe me? Give it a try. The default typography of the mid to late seventies: Lubalin-esque typestyles, ITC fonts and, of course, American Typewriter. The hippest typefaces of the last few years, having lain dormant in between: our typewriter-based friend, and several of Lubalin’s faces such as Avant Garde and Lubalin Graph (see image at the top of this post).

Wolff Olins developed VAG Rounded for the Volkswagen/Audi Group (hence the name) decades ago, but no-one touched rounded typefaces until (paradoxically) a swathe of music graphics, club flyers and eventually their own Tate scheme caught the wind of a revival of rounded letterforms at the turn of the century. When Jonathan Hoefler recently released a rounded version of his noughties classic, Gotham, it seemed entirely logical.

Blocky, shadowed lettering? It’s coming back. Look at this gem from a Graphis magazine of the late seventies.


The last time counterless or deco inspired geometric typefaces were in? At least thirty years ago. Dig out some Mervyn Kurlansky layouts from the seventies and they look pretty up to date. This Ikko Tananka piece for Hanae Mori looks completely up to date (although it’s from 1972).


Seventies designers were themselves revivalists of deco-style typefaces like Cassandre’s Bifur, and look, there it is again in the recent ‘˜fashion’ issue of Wallpaper magazine. Could be the 30s, or the 70s. Oh no, it’s the noughties…


This may of course suggest that, for anyone creating something ‘˜cutting edge’ and ‘˜new’ it may well be best to start looking at stuff which is thirty to forty years ‘˜old’, then plunder at will. Just look how strong this Nagai layout looks, 37 years later.


This seemingly endless cycle poses a few issues for anyone trying to create anything that lasts any amount of time. Trying to pick, choose or draw a font for a ‘˜corporate’ is fraught with hurdles – you can gamble and pick a typeface on the rise but if it was a false dawn your client is left trying to produce designs with an absolute turkey and muttering sotto voce about ‘˜restrictive and out-of-date guidelines’ (this is assuming that you’re trying to find something that will last at least five years or more).

You can play safe and pick an acceptably classic neutral, a typeface that has proved its mettle, like Akzidenz. Or the ‘˜Almond white’ of the typographers palette, Baskerville. You could gamble a little and bring back an old favourite (such as the recent revival of Plantin). Conversely you could suggest whichever font is currently in vogue, but this has its own drawbacks – when Rotis arrived fully formed at the turn of the nineties it was enthusiastically adopted in the boardrooms of the world, until they realised they’d all adopted the same face, at the same time. There’s a great story that the British Design Council asked 3 firms to advise them on a new house style in the nineties and each one suggested Meta (the ultimate 90s typeface).


Perhaps you could limit yourself entirely to Helvetica, as whole generations of firstly Swiss, then American, now British designers have done. Or ‘˜do a Vignelli’ (see above) and choose from only Univers, Futura, Century, Bodoni (and of course Helvetica). But these can feel pretty limiting sometimes, especially to younger designers. They may have heard adages about the ‘˜most neutral typefaces being the most useful’ but in inexperienced hands the classics can feel dull, not delightful. I once spent an unhappy 2 months at an Australian design firm whose principal was then perhaps a little too influenced by ‘˜Massimo’s motto for font finding’ and insisted that everything be done only in Univers Condensed or Century Schoolbook – at first, incomprehensible, then a challenge, but quickly a chore. I complained. I went off-piste. I got fired.

Certainly drawing a bespoke font can work well – they can take a while for people to adjust to but they can project a unique ‘˜voice’ that can be very powerful, and by definition hard to adopt and copy by others. Again, it has its risks – when johnson banks and The Foundry developed a rounded version of Renner/Futura for More Th>n at the beginning of the decade, we didn’t know how it would date, and we had the obligatory arguments with agencies who felt it ‘˜wasn’t right for their layout/ad/direct mail/door drop/whatever’. But now it’s accepted as ‘˜property of More Th>n’. It’s bedded in. None of the agencies even bother to protest any more.


For years, the only people that could afford the cost of a unique font were the big corporates. Ironically many British corporations over the last decade seem to have shot themselves in the foot by simply copying one another. BT, British Gas, Yell.Com and others have all adopted their own versions of the humanist sans-serif approach that Meta offered up in spades, but all within a few years of each other. So any perceived cut-through is completely lost. (The only people that benefit are those who drew the typefaces). Having spent definitely tens and possibly hundreds of thousands on their own fonts to look different and stand out, they all end up looking the same.

But, are there any rules we can glean from the fine art of picking or creating a font, or looking backwards to go forwards?

My first simple rule is this: any revival will take at least a generation, if not more (ie over 18 years). For the first ten years, everyone can remember what came before, and will react accordingly. St Martins graduates from the noughties hate the idea of doing any deconstructed, layered work (like the college’s nineties alumni) because they feel they would be repeating themselves.

The second rule? After a significant amount of time has past (at least two decades, probably three), all bets are off and anything is fair game. One generation’s pet hate can be just as easily adopted by the next, who aren’t carrying any emotional baggage.

The third rule: examine your own prejudices. My earliest and most embarrassing teenage type layouts involved the likes of Eurostile and American Typewriter, but does that really make them terrible typefaces? (I just replay crumbling letraset sheets and school-disco-poster-horrors through my mind. Eurgh). New graduates never had to re-create headlines by photocopying old ITC catalogues, and might look at them more kindly, with fresh eyes. (I personally vowed decades ago that I’d never use an ITC cut of anything or anyone ever again. I’m sure that will eventually change).


Fourth rule? There are certain fonts that are beyond revival. Souvenir, for example.

The fifth? Someone is proving me wrong, even as I type.


This is an adaptation of a recent article for the ISTD’s magazine, by Michael Johnson