Typography: From Fixed to Fluid

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Typography is a powerful tool that combines language, form, technology, and ideology. It reflects much more than personal tastes or trends.

Designers across eras have asked: How should typography be designed? How should typography be used? Different technologies and ideologies have led to various answers, each reflective of their time and place.

There are many encyclopedic surveys, visual collections, and critical anthologies detailing typographic history. However, there is no systematic summary of typographic ideas and approaches across time.

The Schematic

I have created a schematic to help navigate this history and inspire new ideas, interpretations, and designs. Inspired by the format and clarity of Massimo Vignelli’s 1985 schematic charting changes in graphic design over three decades, it traces the typographic ideological and design developments across the United States and Europe from the last three centuries. I divided the schematic into what I am calling the Fixed Era and the Fluid Era. Within these are different periods made up of a succession of movements—each with its own idea, approach to type design, and its use.

Throughout the schematic, you see a push and pull between movements and countermovements. Ideas and approaches arise, then get rejected or rethought.

The Fixed Era will show us how changes in culture and technology shape ideas about typography, its design, and its use. Then Gretel’s approach will show us how ideas, methods, and typography flex in today’s Fluid Era.

The Fixed Era

Like many other histories, this one begins with rigid rules and absolutes: the Fixed Era.

In this particular era, each movement had a fixed idea about typography and its design and use. Designers worked with the same methods and technologies from project to project. Their work had a set message and format targeted at a specific audience.

Looking closer at a few movements will help illustrate the diversity of ideas and approaches within the Fixed Era. Futurism began in 1910, and while based in Italy, it quickly spread to the United States. An obsession with technological triumphs like the car and airplane led to an aesthetic of speed. Type design was kinetic looking. New faces were mechanically drawn, and familiar faces became radically altered. Layouts were dynamic, and arches and superstructures mixed seeing and reading.

Dada began in 1915. It was based in Zurich but spread to the rest of Europe and New York. Protest against World War I and scissors led to an anti-form used to create moods, sounds, and pictures. Type was clashing. They cut faces from found materials, and layouts were often jarring. Designers utilized rules, stock illustrations, and photomontages without any regard for content.

Functional Typography began in 1960. It was based in Europe but spread to the United States and Japan. The communication needs of large institutions led to practical rules for conveying information building on earlier movements—the New Typography and the International Typographic Style. Type design was focused on technically precise, sans-serif fonts. Layouts were rigid, and creatives arranged bold headlines and light text on a grid without ornamentation or emotion.

Punk Typography began in 1975 and kicked off in London. A youth movement promoting individual freedom and the photocopier led to typography that gave people an expressive voice. Type design was DIY and immediate—cut from newspapers and magazines or drawn in marker. Layouts were collages of clashing type and image.

The Fluid Era & Gretel’s Approach

Today we are in the Fluid Era. Global interconnection and technological democratization have led to flexible typography. In type design, any form or behavior is possible. Layouts adapt to different elements, formats, and audiences as they move across places, platforms, and time.

Gretel’s approach embraces this era. We begin each project without preconceptions. We try to find unique solutions to unique problems, not conform everything to a fixed ideology. We work with flexible methods and technologies—our strategy, teams, tools, and workflow evolve for each project.

We create a unique look and feel for each project. We believe the most interesting work happens at the intersection of opposing forces—like high and low, old and new, order and chaos. These opposing forces inform our ideas about design and typography.

Our designs adapt to their contexts, and they flex across materials and mediums—with changing scales, ratios, and orientations. A signature behavior modulates across motion, composition, and interaction. Designs target a range of audiences across different demographics and different levels of awareness.

This era and approach lead to distinctive designs that respond to each client and context. They are especially effective for building a brand that projects and reflects an organization’s unique purpose and personality—and creating systems that move seamlessly across everything an organization owns, does, and produces.

Looking at two case studies will help illustrate the Fluid Era and Gretel’s approach.

Case Study: VICELAND

VICE decided to take their web-based content to the next level, television. We worked to create an identity that reflected their unique sensibility. They are equally comfortable operating in high or low cultures. These opposing forces led to the choice of typography and layout logic, which were both informed by two movements.

First, we found inspiration in Functional Typography’s matter-of-fact approach. We called this solution “The Unbrand.” It is a translation of VICE’s blunt and raw sensibility into typography, Helvetica Bold, and a rigid layout logic. It’s unstyled, unslick, and unadorned.

Futurism’s dynamic mix of seeing and reading informed our more expressive layouts. They used existing roman typefaces to underscore their rejection of tradition. Our designs were literally dynamic and used Helvetica Bold for the same reason.

These two approaches gave us an expressive range in the layout that we could turn up or down. A large part of the job was dialing down so the content could be the focus—using type to punctuate the imagery. Other times we were able to take it up to 11. The brand can play high, pointing outside the network to culture and events, or low, advertising for interns or local services. The system fluidly adapts and creates a consistent impression without being repetitive or formulaic.

Case Study: Nike By You

Nike wanted to create a unified vision and identity for their customization platform, NIKEiD. It quickly became clear that the NIKEiD experience was about much more than the products themselves. It was about empowering people to express their personalities through collaboration and co-creation between Nike and You. The intersection of these two forces led to the new name, Nike By You, and the system’s structure: two overlapping layers representing Nike and You.

The Nike Layer was informed by Dada’s found typography and jarring layouts. Tongue tags, order forms, and even patent filings can all get used together. This layer is always black over white with outlined elements. It shows Nike as a technical innovator making all of their components and expertise available.

The You Layer was informed by Punk Typography’s DIY approach to self-expression and collaged on top. You are the co-creator, bringing your expression and creativity to the platform that Nike provides. Together, the two layers express the new collaborative world of Nike By You. The system allows for wildly varied expression while being consistently recognizable. Designs fluidly adapt to different formats, environments, and audiences—from a viewer in the subway to a follower on Instagram, a visitor online, or a customer in-store.

Today’s Task

The Fluid Era is not the end of typographic history—it is an exciting new chapter. There are no fixed ideas or single solutions. With today’s tools and this rich history of ideas and designs, anything is possible.

So, how should typography be designed and used today? The answer will be different for each person and project.

Embrace this era by adopting a fluid approach to typography, its design, and its use. Create something new by combining contrasting ideas or aesthetics. Then express them using today’s technology and formats—responding to the message, audience, client, and culture.

That is our task.

Dylan Mulvaney is Head of Design at Gretel. His expertise lies in translating core values, strategy, and voice into striking visual executions for clients like Vice, Netflix, Knoll, and MoMA. His work has been honored by the D&AD, the Art Directors Club, the Type Directors Club, and Fast Company.