The Future of Type

toad42's picture

I was reviewing recently the typefaces used in Star Trek, Star Wars, Space 1999, and other science-fiction seriatum.

They share in common implausible visions of the future of typography. Most of them are impossibly Apollonian, imagining that in the future everything will be decided by reason alone, as if reason hadn't produced death camps and nuclear bombs along with vaccines and rocket ships. They are simple-minded caricatures of type, as Hrant has called Futura; they're geometric and other arbitrary conceptual distortions imposed crudely upon the gross form of the type to shock the viewer with how different and mathematical they are.

In truth, though, as important as science, math, and reason are, much of the joy of life comes from feelings, from passions, from illogical drives and tender irrationalities, like the love of a child, or the discovery of sublime beauty in a new melody. Life reduced to the left brain would probably be quite joyless, undermining the reason for living at all, which is partly why so many science fiction films intended as utopias are really dystopias - the rational, sterile, joyless, overly organized visions of the future depict worlds none of us really wants to live in, not even their authors. They're just as distorted as the ridiculous typeface caricatures.

Looking backward to the development of type, we see that real progress didn't come from fantasizing about the future - the more we focus in abstracto on an imaginary, designed future, the more wrong we usually are about the true shape of the future.

Real progress comes not from these fantasies but from focusing on fixing what's wrong here and now. Minuscule wasn't invented because someone thought the future would look like that, but because monks copying manuscripts as quickly as possible by hand for half a millennium and trying to read each other's results moved more and more toward the quicker and more legible, more readable shorthand of minuscule, reducing the majuscule to an accent character for indicating the start of sentences, the start of proper nouns, and so on. Honestly, no amount of prophesying or fantasizing about the future of majuscule (if genuine science fiction per se had existed in the Roman era rather than just metaphorical analogues) would have concluded that aside from a couple new letters it would survive largely unchanged for millennia but be integrated with new alphabets and be reduced to infrequent accent characters.

The problems with majuscules were always there, but they didn't matter until new conditions stressed the weaknesses inherent in the form (like the identical character height leading to too much uniformity, like the multi-stroke design leading to awkwardness when they had to be written rapidly for hours at a time nonstop by so many people instead of how they'd been used).

This is exactly how very complex software that evolves for decades develops - not by abstract prescription but by solving the real problems at hand until eventually you look back at the history of changes and realize you've profoundly transformed the software in directions you mostly wouldn't have predicted.

So if we apply that principle to typography, whatever honest glimpse into the future of type we can hope for will come not from arguing about serifs versus sans, humanist versus geometric, or any other prescriptive, theoretical, abstract fantasies but from taking a good long look at the problems we're having here and now and thinking about the best fixes. It won't let us look thousands of years in the future, or even necessarily hundred, but it might let us estimate get a glimpse in to the next dozen years or two. After all, anyone struggling to set good type in the early 1980s could have predicted the resurgence of small caps, text figures, and other abandoned typographic refinements just based on how hard it was to set good type without them.

So, what are we struggling with today? What widespread defects in contemporary typefaces are going to have to get solved because we're fed up with them. Likewise, what new type situations are emerging today that are going to increasingly stress today's faces?

I'm going to offer a couple small, tangible predictions based on problems I'm having in my typesetting.

I publish technical works about medical software, which often also involves discussion of federal agencies and programs. I have acronyms coming out of my ears, aside from all the alpha-numeric variable names I need to refer to within the text. Therefore, in the works I publish, I simply have to get figures and acronyms to blend with lower-case text. Further, these situations also come up in the titles of books; when I refer to, say the MUMPS 1995 Workbook, the title of a book we're publishing, in the text of another book, I need small caps and text figures in italic.

Further, my problems are not unique. The modern world is swimming in acronyms. Even a glimpse at Wikipedia, which is by no means complete, shows even many acronyms are not only no longer unique but have many possible meanings. The value of acronyms, in other words, for distinguishing different ideas in as few characters as possible, is already breaking down, and eventually our language and culture will have to adopt new strategies to deal with the problem. Until then, though, we are going to have more and more of them to deal with in text and in titles in many technical fields.

Hence, I predict the importance of small caps is going to grow until most contemporary typefaces will include them, and those without them will be considered old-fashioned relics.

Also, and for largely the same reasons, the importance of text figures will continue to grow, and there will come a time when typefaces without them are seen as crude and obsolete.

The same holds for italic text figures, to deal with book titles and italicized quotes that include figures.

None of that is particularly risky as far as predictions go - though there was a time a few decades ago when it would have been seen as outrageous, flying in the face of the widespread simplemindedness that led us to believe we not only needed only one case of figures but even just one case of letters.

However, when we make use of these features, other problems gradually emerge, which is where my other small predictions come from.

First, there was a brief window in which historically conscious typefaces like Requiem would be released without lining figures - only text figures - but I believe that approach, too, will be abandoned over time because we need lining figures for headings and other all-uppercase settings. Indeed, the Hoefler and Frere-Jones foundry is updating Requiem to add them, among many other things.

Second, although many typefaces that include small caps exclude italic small caps, I believe this too will pass, because we increasingly need to be able to refer to acronyms within italicized text. There will come a time when including small caps without also including italic small caps will be considered as eccentric as including text figures without lining figures.

Third - and this is less about which characters are included than about how they're used - the increasing use of small caps for acronyms is also increasing the number of sentences that open with small caps. Technical people in particular seem bewildered by English's comparatively simple rules for capitalization, to the point that when they discover the use of small caps for acronyms they will allow a sentence to start without a capital letter if the initial word is a small-caps acronym. Surely the basic structure of English writing pretty much requires that first letter be upper case, even if the opening word is a small-caps acronym. I predict we'll see more small-caps words whose initial letter is upper case at the beginning sentences or in titles.

These are small predictions, but they're based on the real typographic problems that come up in my day-to-day typesetting. If it weren't for the peculiarities of the material, I wouldn't see these particular stresses on our writing systems.


I'd very much like to know what little stresses come up in your typesetting, the things that maybe other people aren't as likely to see. If we all share the little problems that come up, maybe together we can get an honest look into our immediate typographic future, or at least something more plausible than the fonts of Star Trek and Babylon 5.

Postscript: No need to refute my little predictions, since I take them all with plenty of salt. I'm just proposing we try approaching the future backward, by focusing on our real problems and how we solve them rather than theorizing.

quadibloc's picture

Science-fiction movies often do show typefaces being used for signage and the like that are unreadable merely because they look "futuristic". The idea is to create a visual look for the show that is understood by present-day viewers - not to show a realistic look into the future.

If one thinks about it, as technology improves, better options become available. So business letters went from monospaced typewriting to (in a few cases) proportional-spaced characters with a 1/32" unit from an IBM Executive typewriter to proportional-spaced characters with a 1/60" unit from a daisywheel to typeset (if poorly) text in real typefaces like Times Roman from a laser printer.

So the future might not see Caslon and Garamond all over the place - but type would be very readable and visually appealing. Instead of Microgramma and Stop and Amelia, if one still wanted something that looked a little "futuristic"... Optima might be an option for the visual look of a science-fiction TV show.

But in the real world, Baskerville would be likelier. Or Goudy Old Style. But a present-day audience just wouldn't react to that the way makers of a sci-fi movie or TV show need.

I wish they would add small caps to ASCII as a third case like upper and lower case, and put an extra key on the keyboards, but right now Unicode is dead set against that... so I see that as a serious roadblock. (In fact, making italics and bold separate characters instead of stylistic variants would help make it much easier for those variants to be used by ordinary software: but the chance of that seems to be nil.)

J. Tillman's picture

I'm wondering if the future of a typeface for multiple acronyms, names, company names, and more acronyms isn't already here. Namely Greta Text, where the capital letters are just slightly bigger than lower case. This might not be the book designer's choice, but it might be the people's choice. I expect to see more text typefaces like this.

SebastianK's picture

I wish they would add small caps to ASCII as a third case like upper and lower case, and put an extra key on the keyboards, but right now Unicode is dead set against that...

That would indeed be nice, but do all languages know small caps, or italics? One of the big reasons for Unicode, as far as I understand, was to end the Latino-centeredness in computing. Accomodating typographic traditions of each script wasn't really (though yes, one might ask why uppercase and lowercase deserve a distinction, then).

I think the discussion has to include other scripts and languages, and it has to include the screen as the new medium on which the glyphs appear, no?

PS: Concerning Small Caps, this font is interesting, by the way

dezcom's picture

The giant leaps for mankind in typography have already happened. We will continue an endless series of hop-skip-and-jumps until such a time as language will be conveyed by thought planting systems which will replace phones, TV and the movies. The internet will be a wifi world where we send thoughts to each other via our virtual "connectivity" to acquire knowledge, get entertainment, and communicate without ever leaving our own mind. So enjoy type while it lasts, soon it will only be seen in virual museaums ;-)

Nick Shinn's picture

I have always preferred small caps that are substantially larger than x-height.
Small caps that are the same size or similar to x-height are too problematic for short acronyms, and historically worked best when tracked out in a way that doesn't work today, when text is set tight with lots of kerning.

So I think that two kinds of face accommodate acronyms:

1. Those with small x height and small caps that are much larger, but still not as big as caps.
2. Those with large x-height and short capitals, generally with ascenders that overshoot cap height: no need for small caps.

It's also worth noting that if one is designing a typeface for Latin and Cyrillic (and many fonts today are multi-script), and providing uniform features across scripts, then a small-cap height notably larger than x-height is a good idea, because that's a necessity for Cyrillic.


For figure styles, it seems to me that Quark and InDesign have provided the "pull" for multiple figure styles, by showing the four major variants in the OpenType palette (the implication being that having all four in a font is the default), and OpenType itself has provided the "push", by making it possible to include multiple variants in a single font.

This isn't just responding to user needs, it's more of a technology/marketplace-driven dynamic.

quadibloc's picture

Greta Text is indeed representative of something I think worthwhile. As Corona or Aurora are based on a more mainstream category of typeface (Century Expanded as against Weiss Roman or Palatino) from the provincial North American point of view, I'm surprised they haven't been taken up already...

Nick Shinn's picture

North America has pioneered plenty of faces with small upper case -- that was the Big Idea with ITC in the 70s and 80s.
Recently, H&FJ's Mercury and my own Pratt Pro, for instance, are both news faces with large x-height and overshooting ascenders.

toad42's picture

Certainly reducing cap size does improve the acronym situation.

Interestingly, Rialto both reduced caps size so they'd blend better with the italics (same caps for both) and included small caps. A very thought-provoking typeface.

toad42's picture

Wow. Greta Text is very interesting. Thanks for the link.

JamesM's picture

> many acronyms are not only no longer
> unique but have many possible meanings

True, although in English there have always been many homophones (words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings), such as to/too/two and caret/carrot, but that hasn't stopped people from using those words, because the meaning is generally obvious from the context. But I agree it can be confusing at times.

As for small caps for acronyms, my general impression (perhaps wrong) is that they are mostly used in publications that have a more sophisticated use of typography, but are seldom used in more "everyday" typesetting (business communications, newspapers, websites, and so forth).

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