What We Talk About When We Talk About Type

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When Pentagram partner Abbott Miller spoke at the TypoGraphics conference at Cooper Union last month, he said, “When you start talking about type, the meeting is nearly over.” That got a big laugh. Mainly because it rings so true. Although public awareness of typography is growing, most people don’t know from anything but Arial, Times, and Comic Sans. And their eyes glaze over when the conversation turns to, say, the more robust proportions and serif shapes of a transitional versus a humanist typeface. Thus Miller’s mockup of a proposed bricks-and-mortar font shop to be located in malls everywhere between Brookstone and Forever 21.


But then there are the rare and valuable clients, Miller suggested, who, like us designers, are more inside than outside the world of type. Often, they’re cultural institutions with interesting typographic histories or opportunities ripe to be uncovered by identity designers and brought to the forefront. Or there might be something about the institution’s collections that suggests a particular, or peculiar, typographic approach that can lead to fruitful conversations about type, conversations that inspire rather than bore the client.

For example, for the graphic identity for the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, NY, the typographic choice referenced the sculptor’s work itself. “The font, Balance by Evert Bloemsma,” Miller explained, “echoes the organically inflected geometrics of the carved and cast silhouettes of Noguchi’s work. The gently concave shapes of the letterforms are reflected in the design of the logo itself.”


In fortuitous circumstances like this, Miller said, the type has stories to tell. It is in sync with the context, the style, the strategy, the truth, of the client’s message. That’s when it’s appropriate to present and discuss the rationale of choosing a particular, or peculiar, typeface. Another example is the Guggenheim Museum. Miller explained how he found inspiration in Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1939 architectural lettering on the building’s iconic facade, which became the basis of Jonathan Hoefler’s font family, Verlag, and the signature typeface for the museum‘s entire graphic language.


He told a similar story about the Art Institute of Chicago. “Topaz, also by Jonathan Hoefler, was well matched to the spirit of the carved letters in the 1879 frieze — with its classic ‘V’ form of the ‘U’ in the word ‘Institute’ — inscribed on the original museum facade,” he said. When a modern wing designed by Renzo Piano was added in 2009, Miller commissioned Hoefler to expand Topaz into a full typeface family, Ideal Sans, for the graphic identity and signage, which integrates the new wing with the historic structure.

ArtInstitute Chicago1
Art Inst of Chicago

The Cooper Union, where the Typo-Graphics conference was held, Miller’s alma mater, ultimately became a Pentagram client. “As a student, I was intrigued by the block lettering above the entrance to the foundation building,” he recalled. “Like letters on technical drawings and blueprints, their t-square and triangle forms suggest the school’s 19th-century origins. In our environmental graphics for the new Morphosis-designed building at 41 Cooper Square, we use Wim Crowel’s 1974 font Gridnik, which follows the spirit of the historic block letters but in a more modern voice.”


On the building’s roof terrace, typography on paving stones honoring donors is highlighted by the feet of Miller’s wife, designer and design educator Ellen Lupton.

These stories, and many more, are beautifully presented in Miller’s 2014 book, Design and Content. A video of the entire talk and the others presented during the two-day conference will soon be available from the Herb Lubalin Study Center at Cooper Union. In the meantime, they may be viewed here on Livestream.


Inspire your type designs with the side-by-side travel photo comparisons in Culture+Typography by Nikki Villagomez. Each image features examples of typography in culture, along with cultural and historical commentary to go with the image. Explore how design choices can be informed by the language of the cultural surroundings, and learn more about type selection, color usage, and more with this inspiring book.