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ART : Putting on a New Face : A daring breed of designers--armed with personal computers--create their own versions of type.

June 11, 1993|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is not just the words you read. It is the words you see. It is the shape and size of each letter printed on the page.

No one notices a typeface unless it looks different. Jagged serifs or curlicues, uneven kerning. Radically different.

That's where the design instructors and students at CalArts in Valencia bust in.

Across Europe and America, a new breed of designers--armed with personal computers--are creating their own versions of type, spinning a time trip back to Gutenberg, launching skyward toward the infinite possibilities contained in a single, black letter. It is a cross-your-t's and dot-your-i's party where the guest of honor is the alphabet. And CalArt's graphic design department has crashed the party.

Lushus.

Nail.

Bradbury.

"Typefaces are like voices," Jeffery Keedy, a CalArts faculty member said. "There are so many voices out there that haven't been heard before."

Listen to words of reason: Traditional designers insist that typefaces are not infinite, not so dizzying in potential. Stick to the proven fonts. Function over form. At conventions, typographers wrestle protecting the integrity of their craft.

"There are libraries full of books full of rules about typography," Keedy mused.

A voice in the wilderness: Conor Mangat, one of Keedy's graduate students, has designed a new set of letters and numbers based on California license plates. Margo Johnson, another student, has split her time between hand-crafting traditional letters and creating a computer program that takes standard typefaces and spits them out fragmented and blotchy.

"I call them hybrid digital typefaces," she said. "They use numeric variables and allow for a lot of unexpected possibilities.

"And," she said, "half of them are completely illegible."

*

"Typography is not a fine art."

--Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th Edition

*

In the 550 years since Johannes Gutenberg began tinkering with type, thousands of typefaces have been invented.

Gutenberg's famous bible--the first book printed with movable type--appeared in 1456. Its "black letter" font was used for many years but is, to modern eyes, thick and cluttered. Italian printers eventually lightened these letters to form an early version of "Roman" type. By 1495, a Venetian named Aldus Manutius had cut a stylized alphabet, the first italic type.

That's where the fun began.

For instance: In the 16th Century, Claude Garamond created a French version of a Manutius "Roman" for machine reproduction. In the 18th Century, Giambattista Bodoni refined Garamond's version. Next came Englishman Stanley Morison, who arrived in the early 1900s with a font regarded as the most successful of this century.

Times New Roman was both economical and legible, perfectly suited for high-speed presses. It conformed to Morison's insistence that type exist solely to transmit words and ideas.

This strict philosophy has dominated the modern publishing world. Sure, the Bauhaus designers preferred asymmetrical layout and the Dadaists experimented with typefaces and sizes. But other typographers have fought to narrow the field to a handful of "perfect" typefaces adhering to universal rules: flush left, ragged right, no more than 52 characters and 12 words to a line.

"It's a sad notion that from now on, we're always going to be content with Times Roman," said Rudy Vanderlans, whose Emigre magazine has led the new type revolt.

"That would mean the guy who created Times Roman created the ultimate typeface for mankind. I don't think it works that way."

How typography works:

It's no mastery of science. There is nothing about a serif letter that makes it more comfortable to the eye or simple for the mind. Instead, we prefer typefaces we're used to seeing.

So Frederic William Goudy, an American typographer, took the Roman capital letters inscribed from Trajan's Column to develop his Trajan type. At CalArts, Mangat used the letters and numbers we see on the highway to create his Platelet. And Kaz Matsune, an undergraduate classmate, took an existing typeface and used a computer to cut the serifs off. He was following in the footsteps of faculty member Edward Fella who, as an art student in the pre-computer days, took knife to paper to slice himself new typefaces.

How typographers work:

Men with huge forearms pouring molten lead--that's the old breed. Modern typographers are children of the microchip, sweating over keyboards. They can place a single letter on their screen, twisting and distorting it to their soul's content.

"Being at CalArts, you're surrounded by new and experimental typefaces," said Austin Putnam, an undergraduate student. "I started by using other people's and, after I used them for so long, I started to pick up on what I liked and what I didn't like. Then I started designing my own."

For his Ray Gun font, Putnam decided that less is more.

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