Ken Carbone’s Wonderlust: Confessions of a Type Functionalist

Posted inTypography

Barbara Kruger is in the news again. The seminal work of the graphic designer turned artist was recently exhibited at LACMA and MoMA. Her multimedia integration of sans serif type and black and white imagery results in a multi-dimensional, provocative, powerfully sensory experience.

Kruger’s art always thrills me. It’s simple but not simplistic. Rigorously modern but always playful. Walking through (and on) the installation at MoMA and witnessing its sheer graphic audacity made me more fully appreciate my own “typographic” roots.

I learned graphic design and typography from the disciples of the legendary Swiss master Armin Hofmann who died two years ago at age 100. Teachers such as the late Wolfgang Weingart, Inge Druckrey, April Greiman, and Kenneth Hiebert drilled me on the fundamental rules of type and encouraged me to break them.

Early in my career, another mentor was Fritz Gottschalk, a steadfast Swiss functionalist who deftly balances formal rigor with pure visual poetry. He studied under both Hofmann and Emil Ruder. Trained as a typographer in the traditional sense his experience tracked the technical evolution of the medium, from metal to photo and finally digital. We were once business partners and remain friends to this day. For his 70th birthday, I designed a “very Fritz” poster that embodied my core affinities for modern typography.

However, contemporary culture does not revolve around such a strict modernist philosophy leaving ample room for a world of choice. Today’s, Roman alphabet is amazingly resilient, given all the slicing, dicing, twisting, turning, and other visual somersaults imposed by the ever-restless type designers. Type design is a popular career choice allowing the skilled and unskilled to play with the latest digital tools, including artificial intelligence. While I may question some of the results that border on the insanely frivolous, the creative and commercial demands for novel typefaces suggests a very bright future.

I confess that my approach to type is more about convention than invention, as this stems from a preference for clarity in both image and message. From this perspective, I see letters as the building blocks for words to express ideas placing typography in a supporting role. I am a devotee of words, their history, meaning and power. Words such as jejune, palimpsest or smithereens fascinate me when used at exactly the right moment. I have a long list of words that I love and see them as gems in a literary treasure chest.

While gorgeous type can enhance a message, brilliant writing succeeds regardless of typeface. Oops, I know I’m committing one of design’s mortal sins here but I’m comfortable in this belief when I considering the outstanding work of editorial designers like the late Willy Fleckhaus and his pioneering work for Twen in the 1960’s and Gail Bichler’s weekly type fest in the New York Times Magazine. Both happily marry type and image in courageously inventive ways that elevate the content.

Everyone has their favorite typefaces so when a student once asked me to name my top five, I replied, “Univers 45, 55, 65, 75, and 85.” This snarky response is basically true, but I also think some of the zillions of typefaces available today are outstanding.

I am fond of classic typefaces, especially the incomparable ones such as the original Le Corbusier Stencil. I have frequently used this in my journals and have several sets of metal stencils in various sizes. I have purchased mine in hardware stores when in Paris, but they can also be ordered from online sources.

My fascination for type stretches beyond the intimate design characteristics that proud “type nerds” celebrate. I love the eleven capital letters in the alphabet that are palindromic and, depending on design, reversible. This exists in the OXO kitchen gadget logo and is delightfully expressed in the selfie-ready OY/YO sculpture by artist Deborah Kass.

OY/YO Images above by Etienne Frossard

For a touch of the simply outrageous, there is the Nolde Brother’s Bread Company building signage in Richmond, Virginia. Here’s where creativity, ingenuity, and practicality result in a design solution that epitomizes the beauty of the vernacular. Whether the architect or bricklayer suggested it, I think it is brilliant.

Type specialists are known to be outraged by public “design crimes” such as bad kerning, and one of my favorites is this sign over the door of a Manhattan firehouse. For all of its attempt at 19th-century elegance, its upside down “N” will set off an alarm for any type lover!

P.S. If I have only one book about typography to recommend, it’s this.

Next month: “The Music Issue”

Ken Carbone is an artist, designer, and Co-Founder of the Carbone Smolan Agency, a design company he built with Leslie Smolan over 40 years ago. He is the author of two books, including Dialog: What Makes a Great Design Partnership, a visiting lecturer at numerous design schools, and TED X speaker. A recipient of the 2012 AIGA medal, he is currently a Senior Advisor to the Chicago-based strategic branding firm, 50,000feet.

Header photo by Carla Frank.
Quad 1: Museum für Gestaltung Zürich
Quad 2: Andrei Severny
Quad 3: April Greiman
Quad 4: Kenneth Hiebert