New Alphabet HELP

scwr's picture

Hi, I am a design student and I am currently writing a thesis on Wim Crouwels, New Alphabet. I have all of his interviews and books needed on his back ground and that of the typeface. However I have to critically analyze the typeface and this is where i have ran aground! Does anybody have any leads on how to 'critically analyze' a typeface or this particular typeface? Or are there any links, threads, sources that i may have missed. Any help at all is seriously appreciated!!

vinceconnare's picture

Earlier this year the Design Museum in London had the Wim Crouwel exhibit there are some videos interviews on the website. If you haven't seen them already.

http://designmuseum.org/exhibitions/2011/wim-crouwel

blank's picture

Does anybody have any leads on how to 'critically analyze' a typeface or this particular typeface?

Do it the same way you critically analyze anything else. And when you need to fill up space throw in philosophical jargon and connect broken sentences with the word discursive.

flooce's picture

A typeface has several components:

The “font” part. Nowadays that is the file and the code of a typeface, the programming, the vector placement, the spacing, kerning, etc... everything technical. In early days it was how metal was carved I guess. A critical analyse of this part can only be from a technical perspective, which is quite irrelevant however for you, dare I say.

Then there is an aesthetic dimension. This is hard, maybe impossible to analyse from a scientific perspective.

The last dimension to a typeface is the cultural dimension: How is the typeface understood by an audience? Where does it have its history? How is it used? This can be analysed.

Nick Shinn's picture

You say you are writing your thesis?
Why not do it with a broad nibbed pen, using the New Alphabet?
(After all, it is an alphabet—unless the name is purely ironic—and so may be rendered in many ways.)
That would constitute critical design, which is the appropriate form of "critical analysis" for designers.
See if you can learn to read and write fluently with it.

**

I too designed a monowidth, unicase alphabet, which I termed the Panoptic alphabet, and executed it in a number of different typographic styles, as the typeface Panoptica.
But I was not influenced by Crouwel's work.
In fact, the "orthogonal" version of it ended up looking more like Doesburg's de Stijl lettering (also revived by the Foundry).

**

Zuzana Licko's Oblong is somewhat like New Alphabet, in that it exploits its constraints in an inventive, decorative/stylish manner, rather than putting a premium on legibility. Certainly in comparison to her earlier, more verbatim transcriptions of the alphabet to the low-res no-diagonal screen.

scwr's picture

thanks guys for all your help. Any ideas for a decent criteria? apparently, 'A Critical Analysis' aint enough for a thesis.

eliason's picture

I don't get it-- isn't this stuff that your teacher should be helping you with?

scwr's picture

yes eliason, it is. However, my lecturer hasn't exactly thrown me bone so to speak. So I'm here lookin for help. Even if she had, isn't it better to more than one iron in the fire! I figured this is the best to come for such help. You seem annoyed? Trust me I'm not looking for someone to "do it for me", having said that, I do need help.

I have done my research on Crouwel and the New Alphabet. Im trying to make the thesis more an analyis and less just information on the guy. Which is obviously what i should do. yet, I seem to have all this information with out any real critical analysis. Maybe all this is completely apparent to you, but not to me. Nonetheless, I am enjoying the process but I haven't written a thesis before and I am finding it difficult to come up with a criteria to hang my contention from, or maybe a more defined contention. As 'flooce' quite correctly pointed out the "technical" analysis on the typeface is irrelevant here and the cultural analysis is where I'm at. Again wasn't immediately crystal clear to me but through this forum and my own research, and hopefully that of my Lecturer, I will manifest a more accomplished understanding and consequently a better thesis.

So yea, it is stuff my teacher should be helping me with but, I am struggling!

I have started Chap 1. I'm introducing Modernism/modernist typography and Crouwel in that aesthetic. I will then talk about the functions of type and type classifications. Legibility and readability probably needs to be discussed and maybe something on ambiguity in typography and reader participation considering the context of 'new aplhabet'.
I will then introduce the New Alphabet and state it's main purpose and discuss it's usage.

This all seems like it's just INFO to me, and that's my point. I know it's only chapter 1, but shouldn't I be forming a more critical analysis already?

Thanks for your response.

eliason's picture

I am not annoyed with you, just puzzled that these "how" questions aren't something on which your teacher would be the clear authority and resource. (I'm a teacher and I see that as maybe the most important thing I do.)

For turning info into a critical claim, you might find The Craft of Research useful. I'm a total disciple of the authors' advice on forming arguments and expressing them well.

scwr's picture

Thanks a lot for the book ref. I just looked it up and it's at my local bookshop.

It's refreshing to hear that explaining "the how to" is the most important part of your job. We need more Lecturers like you.

scwr's picture

Can the New Alphabet be considered a modern typeface even though its illegible?

Joshua Langman's picture

I don't think it's illegible. I think it's perfectly easy to read. However, I also don't think it's a typeface, as Nick Shinn pointed out. I think that even on the original specimen material the alphabet is shown in at least two distinct typefaces: a solid and dotted version.

scwr's picture

BTW Nick, i love the idea of writing the thesis in new alphabet. Learning to read and write fluently with it would constitute time I'm not sure i have, but I like your thinking. Although, if i were to type it, "The Foundry" have digitized it so maybe it wouldn't be so time consuming!

scwr's picture

Joshua, It's completely illegible. Take an "a" for example and place it on it's own. can you read it as an "a"? Also how is it not a typeface, and where did Nick point that out?

russellm's picture

Who reads an 'a' on it's own?
Well, OK. You mightn't be using it to make itemized lists.

In context, it can only be an 'a'. That makes it legible. Not highly legible, but obviously that isn't the point.

Joshua Langman's picture

Nick says:

" Why not do it with a broad nibbed pen, using the New Alphabet? (After all, it is an alphabet—unless the name is purely ironic—and so may be rendered in many ways.) […] I too designed a monowidth, unicase alphabet, which I termed the Panoptic alphabet, and executed it in a number of different typographic styles, as the typeface Panoptica."

Nick, I believe (correct me otherwise), is drawing a distinction between alphabets and typefaces, which I believe applies to the New Alphabet. Just as the Latin alphabet can be rendered in many different styles, so can the New Alphabet (even if it is really a redesign of the Latin alphabet, and thus more like a code than a truly different alphabet).

Even in this image, Crouwel shows two different typefaces for his alphabet.

About legibility: I think that due to the strong resemblance of some letters to their customary lowercase latin forms, in context, the others can be quickly deciphered or assumed, making the text easy enough to read.

scwr's picture

ok great so now im getting somewhere. you think that it is a redesign of the Latin alphabet, this is the kind of critical analysis I need.

On Legibility: I guess i need to delve more into alphabets!

Joshua Langman's picture

Well, it's obviously a redesign of the latin alphabet, because the characters correspond one-to-one with latin letters. I'm not sure that's any kind of critical analysis, though I suppose you need to realize that in order to start analyzing it for what it is.

Why not look at what Crouwel was trying to achieve (or trying to prove) and then try to determine whether you think he succeeded. Maybe look at how others have used his design, and whether these uses fit with his intentions. That could be the basis for some kind of critical review.

Michel Boyer's picture

Here is something that is supposed to come from a chat with Crouwel: “The New Alphabet was over-the-top and never meant to be really used,” Crouwel says. “ It was unreadable.”
(from http://www.design.nl/item/wim_crouwel_on_his_80th_birthday).

Michel Boyer's picture

If you want to hear and see Crouwel saying that (and more), you can go to utube: http://youtu.be/i-HVW-0eoe0

flooce's picture

A sensible approach is to consider New Alphabet as a cultural product and read it as such. The discipline of semiotics is analyzing "signs" and "symbols" and their meaning to us.

The context of the time is important, when there was of spirit of advancing to new forms of how basically everything should be structured, from society, to arts, to science and engineering. The speed of technological development was understood as exponential for the first time, and there was a certain feeling that the most impossible utopia might be just a few years away. The same thing with society, the strict post-WW2 social structures were too rigid, so the pendulum moved in the other direction of exploring which most unthinkable forms of social organisations might be possible too. In every domain you saw an explosion of new things, combined with an unprecedented economic boom. This is my interpretation however.

So based on that context one can read New Alphabet as a cultural symbol. Therefore a semiotic approach seems to be a good angle. To understand it as such, a solid foundation of knowledge on postmodernity, pop culture and its referential approach, and cultural theory might be very helpful.

Aesthetically New Alphabet is definitely influenced by the spirit of the time. The grid outline for example, inspired by the developing computer systems, digitalism, reductionism. It is a referential art piece, that references type history as well as other cultural products of that time, as well as the social conditions of that time.

One probably could even relate its minimalism to the design movement in the first half of the century that was concerned with the function of things, like the Bauhaus movement, etc…

I think the key is that New Alphabet is referential. You can argue that by well established theory work on pop culture, postmodernity, semiotics, and similar disciplines and theories. Now try to tie together WHAT it references and you have your critical analysis. :)

scwr's picture

Thanks Michel and Joshua for your help.
Crowel didnt intend the Alphabet for any use at all. I know his intentions were mainly to experiment. However influential it was...

hrant's picture

I was in that other thread...
http://typophile.com/node/87535
I'll just dump here what I wrote there.

--

It is not illegible. But it is unreadable, exactly because it is Modern.

--

Some of us prefer to distinguish between legibility and
readability; the former refers to the decipherability of
individual symbols, while the latter refers to the actual
facilitation of what some call "immersive reading". For
example a large sans-serif letter is highly legible, but a
lot of text set that way is not readable.

My contention is -and has long been- that Modernism
is not in fact motivated by functionality, but merely
the illusion of functionality via [over-]simplification.

hhp

Nick Shinn's picture

My contention is -and has long been- that Modernism
is not in fact motivated by functionality, but merely
the illusion of functionality via [over-]simplification.

Functionality was one aspect of the Modernist movement.
Your contention is postmodern. As stated by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown in 1974:

“Formalism was more symbolic than functional. It was symbolically functional. It represented function more than resulted from function. It looked functional more than worked functionally.”

hrant's picture

Yes, I'm pretty sure I'm post-modern.
But not the dumb hooliganist stuff of the 90s.

hhp

scwr's picture

Flooce, two words. Thank You

I have learned more from and because of this discussion and the fruits of it in two days than I have in the last 12 months.

William Berkson's picture

Understanding any kind of creative product, I always find it helpful to ask: what problem was the creator trying to solve? Were there other competing solutions around? How did his or her view of the problem, and the solution different from past views and solutions? It the new creation better or worse as a solution?

scwr's picture

great advice William, thank you for that.

scwr's picture

aren't Modernism and Modern Typography two separate movements from two separate era's?

and Crouwel was inspired by the Modernist Typographers, van Doesburg, Bayer, et el but also by Modernsm and it's cultural/societal climate. Hence the characteristics inherent in new Alphabet?

hrant's picture

It can certainly get confusing. For example in Spain there was
a movement called "The Modernism" (think Gaudí) which was
basically an Iberian incarnation of Belgium's Art Nouveau!

Bur Crouwel is/was a Modernist.

hhp

scwr's picture

It definitely can. but am I right in what I'm saying?

Isn't this what flooce has said above?

flooce's picture

What I think is interesting about New Alphabet, is that one
can find two different aspects regarding form and function.

As the creator stated in an interview he did not liked what
we would now call a “bitmap” font, which is composed of
pixel, rather than lines. He wanted to solve this problem
and therefore introduced a system which only needs 90°
angles with a 45° line in transition between to 90° lines.
Actually he wanted a solution that is scaleable! As
computer systems did not know vector lines, anchor
points and that kind of stuff he needed to come up with
such a restricted grid idea. Therefore his solution had a
certain function, but was working within severe
technical constraints.

However, this constraint limited the usability of his
typeface, which is why it was not intended for real use.
Therefore it became more form than function, which in
my interpretation was not the starting point. When it
comes to the actual design process the shape of the
letters can not exclusively be traced to this starting point,
as with the same constraint one could have designed a
different typeface, therefore the letter shapes can be
further analysed too.

Your topic is fun, I find.

scwr's picture

Crouwel was born in 1928 during WW2. Was that a modernist period? WW2 lasted until 1945, after that the mood in europe changed, but was there any movement, was there a title/name on that particular climate in europe that spawned this great change. Or was it not until the 60's that this chnage in europe happened?

scwr's picture

Was he not considered a Functionalist?
I have read somewhere that Crouwel subscribed to the principle of "form follows function"

Do you not think that this principle where the form is based upon it's intended purpose/utility had any bearing on the design aesthetics?

Is this principle in keeping with Modernism or is it more to do with Modernist Typography?

russellm's picture

you should look up some dates.

Nick Shinn's picture

However, this constraint limited the usability of his typeface,

Not much.
He could have produced a much more legible and consistent design, within the same constraints, but chose not to.
For instance, if a crossbar is possible in "e", and a central vertical stem in "x", why not three vertical stems in "m" and "w"?

hrant's picture

You know who started Modernism? The Ancient Romans. I'm not kidding.

hhp

flooce's picture

He could have produced a much more legible and consistent design, within the same constraints, but chose not to.

Thank you for the perspective. This is where I did not think about it too much in detail, but I meant that different designs are possible within those constraints.

Nick Shinn's picture


Illustrations to an article by H.F. Ellis, "Very good kind of folks", in the 1953 Coronation edition of Punch magazine.

eliason's picture

I love that, Nick!

russellm's picture

:o)

You know who started Modernism? The Ancient Romans. I'm not kidding.

hhp

Every single year since - Like forever, has been more modern than the one than came before it.

scwr's picture

isn't new alphabet a typeface?

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