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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.