Experimental Typography and the Need for the Experiment

Vormgevers Stedelijk Museum Catalogue 1968

Vormgevers Stedelijk Museum Catalogue 1968

What makes the difference between experimental typography and any other type of advanced typography? Much of the so-called experimental typography is just another form exercise within the frame-work of a certain modern trend; only some of these experiments are fundamental and create a basic discussion on typography. For the sake of well understanding it should be wise to draw some dividing lines. The real experiments in typography started only at the beginning of this century; they came with futurism, dadaism and constructivism. At this time the idea of integration of form and context was expressed in a very clear way. It was when writers and poets tried to 'shape' their texts in order to express themselves more clearly.

Among the earliest (already around 1897) Stephane Mallarme, in his book 'Un coup de des', started to break up the regular typographical sentences in shorter groups of words in order to bring space into the page. The new typographic movement did not start on its own; around 1910 the whole cultural scene changed through a series of important moments in the field of the arts.

Typography, the form of the printed word, is one of the most important and most functional vehicles for ideas, and therefore is always a clear reflection of the general cultural pattern. Before this century however, typography never became an independent form of art in itself, and we may possibly say that what we started to call 'experimental typography' is typography without the primary function of making a text readable. Experimental typography and functional typography are, up to a certain point, opponents of each other.

Experimental typography is not only reflecting a cultural pattern, but gives primarily a self-reflection. As soon as we carry out experiments in order to improve a certain typographical solution, that means as soon as we do research, we cannot speak of experimental typography; experimental typography never results in a solution for a certain problem. Thus, for good understanding, we have to divide experimental typography from experiments of research in typography.

The first leads the way to completely uncontrollable and unknown results, and the second is always carried out to achieve a better solution for a given problem. Therefore experimental typography is never a true carrier of written ideas in the original meaning of the word typography, but is a form of art, a pure means of expression. Experimental typography is closely related to what we call now 'concrete poetry'.

If we look at the work of painters, poets and designers in the first period of the great art revolutions, around 1910-1920, we can clearly divide the experimental typography from primary functional experiments. For example, the works of Apollinaire, Marinetti, Tzara, Schwitters and Van Doesburg, mainly futurists and dadaists, belong to the first interpretation, and the works of El Lissitzky, Rodtchenko, and later Piet Zwart, Jan Tschichold and Herbert Bayer, belong to the second interpretation. These two, basically different directions in typography do exist until today.

A major part of concrete poetry is still pure experimental typography, just as for example the 'Experimenta Typographica' of Wil Sandberg, some of the visual works of John Cage and Diter Rot and, to a certain extent, also the 'scripts' of Hannah Darboven. On the other hand, a much larger group of designers carry out typographical experiments in order to improve typographical solutions. Most striking, for example, have been the experiments of Karl Gerstner who introduced anamorphose in typography and who wrote some very elementary literature, of Brian Coe who eliminated parts of letters in order to arrive at a clear view on legibility problems, and of Van den Bergh who introduced 'capital-twin-typography' with the help of coloured spectacles in order to save space and paper. Possibly also the alphabet from Epps and Evans for machine recognition and my own experiment with a new alphabet for CRT reproduction may be noted. More recent are the works of Wolfgang Weingart and of the editor of this issue, Helmut Schmid; both, however, work almost in between my two interpretations. Their work is partly functional problem-solving and partly it is close to self-expression.

Of course it is sometimes very difficult to distinguish experimental typography from functional experiments; this is quite normal because of the visual nature of this field. There is a natural vice-versa influence between what is visualized and what is to be discovered. We sometimes discover something very elementary through the most individual expression, while very fundamental visual research could lead to an unexpected grade of expression. It is even quite normal that the same individual is active on both sides of the line.

At this point I would like to draw attention to the fact that designers are seldom, or never, aware of the findings of research. By sheer intuition designers often reach conclusions that are just as valid as the results of certain types of scientific research. On the other hand the designer, with his awareness and appreciation for the contemporary cultural atmosphere, is inclined to use overstatement to emphasize his findings. In my opinion this is the case with many of the influential pieces of typographic design. Often the original idea of design that is aiming at improving legibility and comprehensibility is overshadowed by expressive overstatement. But if this element of exaggeration had not existed, the piece would not have drawn so much attention and would not have fulfilled its pioneering role. It is a vicious circle.

Anyhow it is clear that there is always a need for experiment and research, just as there is always a need for overstatement, exaggeration and self-expression; both needs are of great help for future development. However, for the sake of clarity and optimal understanding, I do think that we must try to distinguish expression from research.

(Idea Magazine, special issue 'Typography Today' 1980, pp. 18-26)