Is typography an Art?

BenBowsher's picture

Hi guys,

I couldn't find a thread for this, although I am quite happy to be re-directed and shouted at if this has already been discussed. I was wondering what people's views are on the idea of typography as an art form. I read a quote (and it's a commonly held belief) that typography is best when it functions without being noticed. If this is the case, is Typography art? Or is it merely functional? I look forward to a debate/being shown where to go to debate this issue.


blank's picture

Typography is a technique. Whether or not it is used to create art is up to the creator.

BenBowsher's picture

I see what you're saying, perhaps I misrepresented what I was asking. Is the design of typefaces and then it's application an art in it's self? I guess it's a skill set or a craft, but is it art as well?

eliason's picture

Some typophiles on what is art:

jwchen's picture

Quick answer:
criteria differ from person to person. It can be as broad as

"The classification of art can be applied by the author or viewer past or present - any object or concept could be labeled art long as anyone anytime believe it so"

or as narrow as
"work by experienced artist with pure artistic intention. Status is determined by peers and general public"

at the end it is just a label.

russellm's picture

What's art, but a means to pigeon-hole and commodify certain activities that don't have immediately obvious commercial value?


I mean, if you have to ask...

Actually, I think it is, but there are others who tend to think art with a "A" is grander than what a nicely crafted set of glyphs can offer.

in the end, art is a verdict.

aluminum's picture

Debating the term 'art' is always fun but rarely results in a conclusion.

Luma Vine's picture

2nd person singular present indicative of be. I hope that settles it once and for all.

russellm's picture

oh thou art a card.

Frode Bo Helland's picture

Type design* is art in it's most basic sense: black and white, positive and negative, mass and void. And yet ... type is most definitely a tool. It can be flawed if it isn't coherent or lacks in technical quality.

*Designing typefaces is not typography.

Bendy's picture

Typography and type design are properly Design rather than Art. Of course at the same time, Art can repurpose any other discipline, and typography can be seen as art by typographers. But for me, type design and typography are responses to design questions, fulfilling a brief or seeking to solve aesthetic questions with elegance; therefore it's based on a slightly different premise to Art, which seems to centre on creating something in itself.

BlueStreak's picture

I think I could agree that typography is more of a science than an art. So much of it is objective with defined rights and wrongs. However type design is very subjective and an art. What is so right today can be declared so wrong tomorrow, but there is never absolute agreement on that by anyone. If type design isn’t an art, there would have never been the extended discussion recently on why so many people hate Comic Sans.

Rob O. Font's picture

How can something with no scientific explanation be a science? And how can the making of something of transient appearance until it is employed, be art?

Frode Bo Helland's picture

Just take the whole readability/legibility discussion. If it’s science, they sure haven’t figured out the basic laws yet.

russellm's picture

Type is a kind of raw material. You could also ask, is making paint art. It is an art, but it isn't art until someone approaches the process with the intention of making art. Then perhaps it could be art. But then by the same token, so could anything.

oldnick's picture

Is cooking an art? When it's done by an artist, it is. Ditto typography...

Thomas Phinney's picture

I consider typography a craft, like most areas of design. The sole reason for that is because they have a functional component as well as an artistic one. So by this same criterion the following are crafts and not art as such: architecture, clothing design, graphic design, furniture design....



oldnick's picture


I consider crafts to be activities which require a specialized skills--such as basketweaving or macramé--which can, at times, produce objects of great beauty as well as utility. By your definition, to be considered Art, an activity must serve no practical purpose (lacks a "functional component"), which seems to me to impoverish both Art and ourselves.

Té Rowan's picture

Do not go to the Usenet or any forum with questions like "is X an art?", for they will say yes and no and a whole lot of stuff that has nothing to do with your question. The only time people will ever agree on art is when it's how-great-thou-art.

butterick's picture

I read a quote (and it's a commonly held belief) that typography is best when it functions without being noticed

Disagree. Of course typography is supposed to be noticed. But in a manner similar to a movie set: it's not the focus of the scene, but it enhances what's happening in the foreground. And if it's poorly made or inapt, you'll definitely notice.

The idea that "printing should be invisible" is most directly traceable to Beatrice Warde's "Crystal Goblet" essay from 1955. While the essay has a few good points to make, its core premise — that "invisibility" is the defining virtue of typography — is flat wrong. (Wrong on metaphorical grounds too: go to a decent wine bar and you'll see crystal goblets of different shapes being used for different kinds of wine.) It's long past time for typographers, and typographic educators especially, to pour concrete into Warde's "Goblet" and toss it overboard.

Some defend Warde by saying that her thesis was not so extreme — that she only meant that typography should be suited to the text. A fine idea, but what part of Warde's essay supports this interpretation? If anything, she goes out of her way to reinforce the "invisibility" theme:

But a good speaking voice is one which is inaudible as a voice. It is the transparent goblet again! I need not warn you that if you begin listening to the inflections and speaking rhythms of a voice from a platform, you are falling asleep.

Does this statement make any sense at all?

Warde's essay mostly illustrates the perils of latching onto an appealing but inapt metaphor: everything you deduce from that metaphor will also be wrong.

BenBowsher's picture

"Do not go to the Usenet or any forum with questions like "is X an art?", for they will say yes and no and a whole lot of stuff that has nothing to do with your question. The only time people will ever agree on art is when it's how-great-thou-art."

I think it's a healthy debate, wherever it deviates and it's an important discussion to keep alive, precisely because it can never be settled.

eliason's picture

I dunno, I still find the "Crystal Goblet" essay (actually from 1932) brilliant, and pretty useful. Yes, "go to a decent wine bar and you'll see crystal goblets of different shapes being used for different kinds of wine," but you won't find intricately decorated gold chalices, which was the alternative to crystal with which she opened the essay. I would only say that perhaps using "transparent" in place of "invisible" might have made her case more compelling. Transparent is, after all, what a crystal goblet is—so my criticism would be that her conclusions were poorly worded, but her metaphor actually spot-on.

Nick Shinn's picture

I don't think the art/not art question is particularly relevant to typography.

Type design is more like Critical Design (as described by Rick Poynor), certainly in the respect that a lot of retail fonts are created not according to a client's design brief, but address issues which the designer finds significant.

Typefaces operate on many levels.
The three main ones:
- as tools for typographer, graphic designers and art directors to make documents with
- providing the visual substance for readers of such documents
- as cultural subject matter

This last aspect: it's possible to consider typefaces independently of either using them to create a document, or reading them as part of a document. Several of the typefaces "acquired" by MoMA are like that. Beowolf, for instance, is almost never seen in commercial work and very few typographers have actually worked with it, yet it is quite significant in the sphere of type and design culture.

All of us here are acquainted with faces which we have not used and have not seen used commercially, only in showings provided by foundries and distributors, and perhaps discussed in trade media and online blogs and forums.

I often kid myself that my real work concerns not fonts, but type specimens, for these are its core substance, where the full scope of typefaces is displayed, and where their deep meaning resides. My library of specimens is a great collection, encompassing vast realms of history and technology, and many of the specimens are exquisite objects, some of which are literature in that special concrete poetry sub-genre.

When I create a specimen for my type designs, I work to perfect the specimen by perfecting the fonts (or is it vice versa?)—that's as far as I can go. Then it's up to those who license the fonts to add another layer of meaning, and surprise me by revealing qualities in them, and uses, which I would never have expected.

Alex Kaczun's picture

Type Design is ART!
Good typography is ART!
Bod typography is ART!
Bad art is ART!
Everything that enhances the human experiment and our collective culture, in any form or in any way, is ART!
Why debate the obvious...

butterick's picture

the "Crystal Goblet" essay (actually from 1932)

Correction noted, thank you.

I would only say that perhaps using "transparent" in place of "invisible" might have made her case more compelling

She does use the word "transparent" a couple times —

… It is the transparent goblet again! …
… Or he may work in what I call transparent or invisible typography. …

Still — how would "transparency" improve the metaphor overall? I understand the semantic distinction. But typography is neither invisible nor transparent. Typography is expressive. People choose fonts for their expressive qualities, not in spite of them.

oldnick's picture

A great poem or a great play is transparent to the extent that its content transcends its form, which is to say that the message, not the medium, is what leaves an impression on us. A well-designed book is no different.

dezcom's picture

Typography is what it is. You may choose to define it as simply any use of type and let the qualitative aspect of how well it was done determine for your own set of values if it is "Good Enough" to be called art. You may also, if you wish, change that name to "typesetting" and elevate "typography" to a particular set of the category "typesetting" that some people deem as so noteworthy in use and design as to elevate it to an art form. Typically,this sort of thing is determined differently depending on point of view. A Job-shop typesetter from the 1950s who makes a living setting type may choose to call himself a craftsman. A distinguished University professor of design or typography may elevate the term to something higher. A typical reader may not care a hoot about the distinction and just read the words. People anoint saints for their own reasons. The people who may have been given that distinction at some point after their death, have just done whatever they seemed fit to do without posing the question at all.

I must admit that I do not see Warde's Crystal Goblet analogy as either correct or at best incomplete. I am in the middle of writing something on this so I will present that viewpoint later when finished.

Richard Fink's picture

In a lecture a long time ago, Stephen Sondheim said he considered the writing of song lyrics for the musical theatre a craft. After all, he said, "it's so small".
By "small" I think he meant "constrained at the outset".
And that's how I judge the diff between an "art" and "craft": what are the range of possibilities when one starts out? Does the finished work have a functional job to do? Or can it simply be whatever it turns out to be?

Designing a typeface versus writing a novel. Designing a typeface versus painting a piece like "Guernica".

If I had to categorize it - I'd have to say "craft".

Nick Shinn's picture

Designing a typeface versus painting a piece like "Guernica".

Painting a picture versus designing a typeface like "Newspeak" (which, as with "Guernica", is politically informed)

Does the finished work have a functional job to do? Or can it simply be whatever it turns out to be?

As I noted in listing the three main ways in which a typeface may operate, it can do either, and even both—which is not something that can be said about most gallery art, although "Guernica" may also be considered propaganda, and is thus a poor example for your theory of art having no function.

dezcom's picture

Painting a "Day-Glo" Elvis painting on black velvet = ?
Designing Garamound =?

as soon as we go beyond that step and compare say Munch's "the Scream" to say Van Gogh's "Potato Eaters" we are lost in the never-never world of endless loop arguments.

At this point, I leave this argument to exactly where it has been for Centuries--in the hands of those who care not to give it up.

oldnick's picture

Painting a "Day-Glo" Elvis painting on black velvet = balls...

butterick's picture

To take it back to the OP's question — "is typography art?" The question is flawed because it presents a false dilemma: either typography is art, or it's "merely functional."

Typography is a medium with expressive capacity. Any medium with expressive capacity also has the capacity for art. Many expressive media started in functional roles. As the medium branches into more purely expressive uses, it doesn't necessarily leave the functional role behind.

For instance, photography. If I said to you "is photography art?", you'd probably say "which photograph are you talking about?" A product photo in an Ikea catalog? You'd probably say no, it's not art. A Cindy Sherman self-portrait? You'd probably say yes. A Richard Avedon fashion photo? Hm, could go either way.

But whether one thinks Ikea vs. Cindy Sherman vs. Richard Avedon deserve to be rated differently is not the point. The point is only that there's nothing preventing typography from being an art medium.

So why don't we see more art typography? It's mostly a practical issue: typography is usually in service of a text, which takes center stage, so the expressive possibilities of the typography are always taking a back seat. Out in the real world, most typography is filling a functional role, not an artistic role. But if you look at the work of Jenny Holzer, Marian Bantjes, Erik & Just, Rudy & Zuzana (& many others) I think you'll find plenty of material that qualifies as both typography and art.

dezcom's picture

The same is true of people you never heard of but most people are too afraid to stick their neck out and say a person's work is Art unless they are already famous for doing that (so there is no danger of looking stupid).

Art is what it is, you may or not agree with that, but that does not change it.

Thomas Phinney's picture

> either typography is art, or it's "merely functional."

Perhaps I'm in a minority on this, but I don't think it is belittling typography to say it has a functional component. I find it much more interesting seeing what can be done within functional constraints.

On the other hand, I agree that perhaps it's a false dichotomy. But I'm not sure I have much interest in debating "Proposed: Anything can be art. Discuss."



BrettR's picture

Typography can be considered both.

A picture constructed of only typefaces that looks amazing is art.
An essay filled with Times New Roman (double spaced of course) is not art.

Nick Shinn's picture

An essay filled with Times New Roman (double spaced of course) is not art.


Renaissance Man's picture

I read a quote (and it's a commonly held belief) that typography is best when it functions without being noticed.

Or as Beatrice Warde said, "Printing Should Be Invisible."

Making it invisible is an art. If if were naturally invisible, either no one would be an artist or everyone with a word processor or a DTP program would be an artist.

John Hudson's picture

Here we go again. I won't retread every path I’ve taken in previous discussions, but I will make a couple of points in brief:

For a very long time, the words art and craft -- or their equivalent in other languages -- were used interchangeably or, rhetorically, to reinforce: ‘in my craft or sullen art’, as Dylan Thomas had it. The word art ultimately implies skilled making, the root of artifice and artefact. Personally, I’m pretty content with this ancient usage, and don’t feel the need to entangle myself in aesthetic theories of expression and response that have to do more with the psychology of the artist and the viewer than with the made thing. The made thing has always seemed more important to me than the thought and emotion that resulted in it or the thought and emotion that is brought to it.

If, on the other hand, one desperately wants to make a distinction between craft and art, then I think the objective ground to do so is in terms of art as an extra-utile quality of the made thing, i.e. that which makes it not merely functional. From this, as I’ve expounded before, flows the observation that almost every human-made thing displays some quality of art, some aspect that a) is other than it might have been (i.e. form not determined strictly by function), and b) is consciously formed to aesthetic purpose (accident or randomness can produce things that are beautiful, moving, inspiring, etc. but it isn’t art any more than a rock pleasingly shaped by the tides is art). All other grounds of distinction seem to end up in judicial debates that seem to me less about what is and isn’t art and more about what is good and bad art.

But most of the time, I’m content to think of type design as my craft or sullen art.

dezcom's picture

"Printing Should Be Invisible" but typography need not be invisible to either function, not function; be art or not be art. Is everyone who owns a brush an artist? Is all art always done only with typically accepted "art tools"? If Michaelangelo's David were done by him using power tools instead of hand tools, would that remove it from being art?
If you see typography in a language and script that is completely foreign to you, it is doubtful that it would completely function as intended in your case. But because it does not function as intended for you, does that mean it is either not good typography, not aesthetically pleasing, or not art?

William Berkson's picture

I like to think of type designers as artisans. I'm not sure what you call what an artisan makes, but I like the term "artisan" because it implies that we're making something for use that has an artistic flair—an expressive, emotional dimension to it as well as suiting its other purposes. Like pottery.

I forget who, but I read someone saying that "pure" art is a mistaken notion invented in the 19th century. I'm more and more thinking he or she was right.

John Hudson's picture

I sometimes categorise myself as an artisan, Bill, but usually only when talking with people who know something about labour history and understand what the term means in that context, as a category of skilled worker. Otherwise, it sounds a bit precious when used in context of digital technology. These days one is most likely to come across the term in the context of ‘artisan cheeses’ or ‘artisan breads’, or people who make e.g. custom shoes or gloves: all of which are very fine things, but not something with which I feel much affinity when producing a font that is going to ship with some hundreds of millions of copies of Microsoft Windows.

dezcom's picture

I call myself a designer but that is yet a whole new discussion but equally doomed to never finding closure. ;-)

Paul Cutler's picture

I don't know what I am. I don't want to know what I am. I really don't want to know what I am. And more than anything, I don't want you to know who I am.

I have made a pledge to live and am attempting to not make a big deal out of it.

Sometimes I classify myself as a person totally out of control, living some bizarre remnants of my youth, and sometimes I feel really good about what I do. Which part of these activities is more heinous escapes me at the moment.

So I guess I'm a:
transgender-sociopath-fixated-sonofanicewoman-flakey- dirt - with a penchant for the untoward moment

i love type and some of the discussion that sometimes occurs here - it's still vibrant


BrettR's picture

If you see typography as something that is beautiful, picturesque, brilliant, etc, how is that any different from a painting?

Té Rowan's picture

"Is building with Lego or Meccano art?" is as valid a question as "Is typography art?" or any other "Is X art?". You can argue about that until your face is purple with pink polka dots, but untimately only you can decide for yourself (and only for yourself) if it is.

Many of those who loudly proclaim something as art are trying to attract punters to sell either that something or their views to.

Anyways, you lot have a new Iceland eruption to get inspired by: Grímsvötn 2011.

William Berkson's picture

John, I think I was misunderstanding the current usage of "artisan", which is indeed as you say, emphasizing manual labor. Creating type faces is undoubtedly design, as Chris says, and as common usage has it—"type designer." So the question of how much type design is art is a question of how much design is art.

"Design" does imply creating a template from which many instances are produced, as you say. This is as contrasted with a one-off, unique product. James Krenoff, a furniture maker I greatly admire, emphasized this difference. He kept huge slabs of wood in his shop, planed them, and examined the grain until he was inspired to make a particular piece bringing out and taking advantage of the beauty of that particular piece of wood. He wanted the piece to show that it was from a particular tree, and from a particular hand. He called himself an artisan, and consciously tried to provide his customers with a piece of furniture that would not be experienced as designed and manufactured, but as one-off and personal. Many, me included, would say his pieces are also works of art.

I just consulted one of my favorite reference books as a writer, The Merriam Webster Dictionary of Synonyms. As the on-line reviews say, this an astonishingly good book, too little known.

I think it clarifies, by going into the history of the usage of the word "art," why the discussions of this are so endless and futile. The word has different, overlapping meanings, which can even be at odds with one another. And this confuses those who try to pin it down to one meaning.

Here is a bit from the article on "artist" and its synonyms, including "artisan":

"The earliest and the abiding implication of *artist* is skill or proficiency (see "artist" under EXPERT); it was in Shakespeare's time, and later, applied to anyone who made or did things requiring learning and skill; thus a teacher, a philosopher, a physician, a scientist, a chemist, or a craftsman was then called an "artist". ...Gradually, however, the word became associated with those whose aim is to produce something which gives pleasure, first with musicians, dancers, actors, and the like, and later with poets, painters, and sculptors. The two ideas of skill and the aim to give pleasure were combined, so that since the early nineteenth century, "artist," (when it does not mean specifically a painter) is usually applied to a gifted person who works in the fine arts, and especially one who reveals his skill, taste, and power to create beautiful things."

I think this clarifies the usage of "art" in relation to type design. When a design is particularly skilled, beautiful, or moving, such as the works of Garamond or Bodoni, we tend to call it a work of art. How to define or explain the aesthetic dimension is a thorny psychological and philosophical issue, but at least this clarifies the usage: When a type face is particularly beautiful or moving, it can appropriately be called a work of art by those who love type.

krispfonts's picture

of course it is, anything that requires creativity is an art

butterick's picture

"Design" does imply creating a template from which many instances are produced

Though there are plenty of fine artists who work in multiples (e.g., printmakers) and plenty of designers who work in singletons (e.g., architects).

Nick Shinn's picture

"Design" does imply creating a template from which many instances are produced, as you say.

That's only one implication.
Industrial design for mass production is certainly design, but so is an architect designing the plan (template) for a one-off building.

Surely the implication of design is that one creates an interim plan or template for a product that someone else may finish.
Or oneself, if one likes to plant and care for one's own garden.

So designing a typeface, one designs and crafts glyphs that will combine nicely with each other, when the font is put to use to create typography. That's what I like best about type design, that the design and the craft (and the art) are so fundamentally entangled. Art used to be like that.

Similarly, a graphic designer creates artwork (a file) that may be output by someone else, even if there will be only one instance—a large sign or banner, for instance, or a presentation book.

Art directors and artists may also work like this.
Rodin, for instance, would make a small maquette, and his foundry (love that word) would scale it up and mass produce it.
Many artists today are not makers. Jeff Koons posed for and art directed his porno series, but he didn't shoot it. Similarly, in a recent exhibit curated as "the artist as celebrity", it was interesting to see a collection of ads featuring Andy Warhol; the concept and art direction (design) of which was created by George Lois—an art director who was something of a celebrity, but not enough to warrant mention by the curator.

A musical score is also design, by another name.

Storyboards, as used in motion pictures and advertisements, are also design.
Filming and editing are more art and craft, when one or more shots are shot and cut (dissolved, etc.) together in such a way as to combine nicely according to the plan. Somewhat like typography interpreting a layout design.

William Berkson's picture

Matthew, Nick, you're right, of course, that design can involve a one-off thing, a building. Krenov was relating to furniture production, where there are many copies involved, and it is impossible to have the intimate relation to organic materials that he had with creating his furniture.

I think that one of the things which normally characterizes design is that the plan is more clearly separated from the execution than in an individual work of art. Of course one of the features of design, probably the defining one, is goals other than aesthetic ones.

In this sense I'm not sure whether "design" fits writing a song or symphony. There the performance is separated from the score, but the goal is often more purely aesthetic. In movies you have "sound design" which is suiting the sound and I believe music to the visuals in a movie. In sound design, the sound and music are clearly subordinate to the goal of telling the story with emotional impact. In a song or symphony there is not usually such subordination.

In the case of type design, the type face is only fully realized later in the work of those who use it in print or on screen. And I agree with you Nick that one of the delights of type design is its mixture of design, art and craft.

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