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The Difficult Type : Unlike Tidy, Traditional Typefaces Such as This, the California-Bred 'Garage Fonts' Above and Below Are Messy, In-Your-Face and--Gasp!--Multiplying


Degenerate. International Disgrace. Futile.

Nasty words, those, but then that's by design. They're some of the puckishly post-punk names for bizarre new typefaces that are breaking all the rules: Bits are chopped out of letters or blobs added on. They're blurry and messy. Indeed, fonts are undergoing yet another evolution in design--decades after reaching the peak of classical perfection and then surviving the graphic challenges of psychedelia and punk.

With the harmony of evergreens like Gothic and Roman out of the avant picture, scrappy seedlings like Bastardville and Dead History Roman are springing up in alternative magazines aimed at urban youth. And now they're even beginning to infiltrate the imprimatur machine of pop culture. They're cropping up everywhere, from mainstream magazines to movies.

"There's no question it's filtering in slowly," says David Carson, a magazine designer who's a prime proponent of the new grass-roots typefaces, dubbed "garage fonts."

"MTV had something to do with that. Literally, over 10 years now, people have watched that. They can't do that and not have it affect how they visually take in information."

Funky fonts have also been fueled by the arrival of desktop publishing, which has given designers the ABCs to craft their own letters. But, like many technology-driven marvels, the first blush of novelty has been followed by a second wave of quandaries, both ethical and aesthetic. Since typefaces can't be copyrighted, some font creators have had to grapple with pirates. And while fans hail the expressiveness of the new fonts, some critics assail the trendy designs for being ephemeral and, sometimes, simply unreadable.

"It's the difference between the culture of obsolescence and the culture of refinement," says font critic Massimo Vignelli, a prominent modernist designer. "In the cult of refinement, you don't need to come up with the junky typefaces they're coming up with today. They're junky because they have no style, no background, no depth, no elegance, no history."

Nowhere has the garage font debate simmered more lately than in California, where forward-looking 'faces are born and bred. Some of the flashiest made their public debut in Beach Culture, an alternative magazine that made a big splash in the design world during its brief life. With only six copies published in 1990 and '91, Beach Culture nonetheless garnered dozens of design awards for its "radical typography and design tomfoolery," as Print magazine admiringly described it.

Beach Culture's ruling duo, art director Carson and editor-publisher Neil Feineman, looked toward influences Fabien Baron of Interview magazine and Neville Brody of the British publication The Face in designing their San Juan Capistrano-based journal of surfer style and music.

The idea was that the magazine's look should link arms with its words to express content. To that end, Carson and Feineman used nutty type, overlapped it, shrank it, dispensed with page numbers and literally turned language on its ear. Not surprisingly, Beach Culture developed a cult following among designers, who made up half its readership.

"We wanted to be different," says Carson, who first plunged into the brave new world of eccentric magazine design in the mid-'80s. "We wanted to see if you could, in fact, get away with more things in magazines. It was largely an experiment. We hit some nerve out there. We still get letters almost weekly asking to subscribe."

Print magazine applauded Beach Culture as "a small jewel of experimental design." Key to that success was Beach Culture's use of strange new typefaces. Carson started with fonts developed by Emigre Graphics, a pioneering new font foundry in Sacramento, and began to use designs by students at California Institute of the Arts and Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. Some student designers have come to specify that only Carson can use their designs.

"They feel it's a part of them and they have this fear about this thing just being out there for unlimited commercial use . . . so I have a number of fonts that nobody else in the world besides the student has," says Carson, who now uses them for a new Santa Monica-based magazine he designs, Ray Gun, music + style (bible of).


Rodney Fehsenfeld is a Seattle designer who funnels his fonts to Carson and to Mondo 2000, a San Francisco-based cyberpunk magazine.

"I think the visibility of Ray Gun is right on the mark with what's happening," says Fehsenfeld, who designed the quirky International Disgrace. "I think the focus David has in terms of using letter forms with images is very much a positive thing. And now I see newer magazines trying to emulate Ray Gun."

But even pro-font forces see potential problems with the beguiling designs. "Now the danger is the design is more about the typefaces and the fonts than the whole design and how it's working with the photos," says Carson.

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