Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Fuse: light touch paper & stand well back

Fuse magazine

The electronic revolution in communications that characterised the last two decades of the twentieth century demanded a new and dynamic visual form. Fuse magazine was at the forefront of these revolutionary times.

Fuse was a quarterly experimental type magazine launched by the designer/editor partnership of Neville Brody and Jon Wozencroft and was produced in association with Fontshop International. Fuse would facilitate a dialogue between the visual arts and design communities internationally. It attracted artists, type designers, graphic designers and art directors to its project of redefining [visual] language for the digital age.

While the Fuse project set its sights firmly on a multi-dimensional, multi-media and digitised future, it pragmatically employed traditional forms of printed communication to inspire and critique. Each issue of Fuse was packaged in neutral-brown corrugated cardboard and contained a ‘floppy’ disk with experimental typefaces and five A2 posters. The editorial team commissioned four leading typographers to design an exclusive font with a poster showing an example of a creative application. A fifth poster provided information about the contributors, typefaces and that issues theme. Fuse was edited by Wozencroft and designed by Brody.

Throughout the 1990s the experimental spirit nurtured by the magazine was further consolidated through its influential annual conferences in the mid-nineties. Conceived as an area free of the commercial considerations of the client/designer/user relationship Brody saw the necessity of the Fuse project in terms beyond mere commercial application. In an interview with design critic Rick Poynor in Design Without Boundaries, Brody laid out the aim of Fuse as, ‘divorcing the look of the word, from what the word says’. At its core, the scope of the Fuse project, while rooted in the creative industries, lay beyond a mere critique of graphic design and looked towards an exploration of the very social relations that give rise to it.

Fuse offered one of the few industry-wide international forums for disparate, like-minded, experimental type designers. The interface between the individual digital authors and the majority of their users would remain the printed poster. Brody saw this conundrum as ‘a platform to promote a dialogue on the extent to which the digital code alters communication’.

Over the next decade, Fuse offered a multi-layered and multi-dimensional aesthetic that would attempt to employ type as image and image as story. This use of type and graphic marks as complete, story-telling devices, implicated the type designer as central in the creation of a new visual language. Brody proclaimed, ‘I’m divorcing the look of the word from what the word says’. In its new digital form typography had to be more than an invisible form in the service of the written word. Beatrice Warde’s analogous Crystal Goblet would be smashed on entry to the brave new digitised world. Fuse employed abstract and organic architectural forms in its type designs. Little distinction was made between image and type. The new visual language would reject this hierarchy in favour of a more harmonious and equal value relation between word and image in future-oriented digital communications.

The premier issue featured four British designers, Phil Baines, Malcolm Garrett, Ian Swift and Fuse founder, Neville Brody. The paper engineering of the understated branded packaging that safely delivered each issue of Fuse gave only a glimpse of what was waiting inside. The magazines editorial poster, also designed by Brody, set the authorial design and editorial tone for subsequent issues. Fuse employed the language of revolution, but with some contemporary prejudices. While speaking of breaking with convention it did so with a spiritual and sometimes irrational timbre, where ‘typography [is] practiced as an occult art’. It attempted to rally the troops behind a new visual language that would kick against the established design and typographic leadership by ‘liberating typography’. The design aesthetic included layered, bold and blurred typography, creating a sense of depth and space. The steely blue background colour evoked a modern, architectural digital aesthetic.

FF Stealth, Malcolm Garrett, 1991
Fuse 1 ‘Invention the trouble with type’ saw editor Jon Wozencroft aim his initial volley of intellectual firepower at typographic convention and tradition and ‘the impossible pursuit of the “classic” typeface’ instead, arguing for the creation of ‘type for the present environment’. While the editorial poster design set a creatively professional but radical tone, it is the contents of the disc that offers the challenge and contemporary critique. Malcolm Garrett’s ‘Stealth’ offers semi-abstract, but still individually recognisable type forms, reversed out of black squares. An overt critique of the traditional typographic notion of the legibility of words, formed by upper and lower case letters, being read as complete shapes and not as a collection of individual letters. ‘Can You (read me)?’ by Phil Baines, hints at classical proportions, while removing as much of the individual character as he dared, and then a little more. Ian Swift’s more sharply angular, ‘Maze’, attempts to lose the viewer in their attempts to ‘read’ his designs. Brody’s own design, ‘State’, gives equal weight to the positive and negative space of his characters, creating a visually sharp, cutting and slashing, but conjoining face.

The first issue launched us into the murky, highly contested waters of typographic legibility and demands a response. The critical force behind the Fuse project was not simply about challenging typographic convention in its function and its form, but required a reassessment of how we communicate, both as designer/users and as receiver/users. As Wozencroft would have it, ‘Producers and purchasers are urged to experiment with digital language in a context liberated from client/commercial constraints – contributors are briefed to push the boundaries of both the printed word and its fusing into electronic language so that typography’s professional representation in graphic design is revolutionised’. Practically this was no empty gesture from the new electronic publisher, at least technologically speaking. Subscribers to Fuse were encouraged to not simply visually interpret the ‘fonts’ but actually redraw them using widely available software as they were free from industry standard, copyright restrictions.

Fuse 2 ‘Runes: wind blasted trees’ saw a further push towards abstraction. Contributions by innovative Dutch typographers included ‘Niwida’ by Erik van Blokland; Gerard Unger’s ‘Decoder’ font with ‘Fixel’ and ‘Linear Konstrukt’ by Just van Rossum and Max Kisman respectively.

With the arrival of Fuse 3 ‘Disinformation: point to line and plane’ the experimental editorial line, while still questioning, could be said to be on more conventional ground with its concentration on information design. Designs of a more familiar form were offered by German designers Erik Spiekermann’s ‘Grid’, Martin Wenzel gave us ‘InTegal’, Barbara Butterweck’s offered ‘Dear John’ and Swiss designer Cornell Windlin added ‘Moonbase Alpha’.

Following on from what might have been considered more recognisable fonts came representatives of the American ‘new wave’.

Fuse 4 ‘Exuberance: a type of death’ announced ‘Caustic Biomorph’ by Barry Deck, ‘Lushus’ by Jefferey Keedy, ‘Uck n Pretty’ by Rick Valicenti and ‘Yurnacular’ by David Berlow and rounded off the first year and 4 publications of Fuse.

The Fuse project had a mission to bring together type designers conversant in the new digital technologies with a background in experimental design. Attempts at challenging notions of language and how we communicate was evidenced not only in the professionals attracted around it but also the number of designers engaged with it through the publication and its conferences. Three Fuse conferences were held, in London (1994), Berlin (1996), San Francisco (1998) and a special event in Tokyo, 1999. The conferences brought together speakers from the creative disciplines of design, architecture, sound, film and interactive design and the web. The conferences played an important role in broadening the appeal of the project to new audiences.

Through the development and application of new digital technologies under the initial authorship and guidance of leading, international designers, a fledgling visual language arose through and on digital technology that promised a dynamic visual alternative to a new generation of designers. It was a visual language that spoke of revolutionary change at a time of social and cultural flux. It was a visual metaphor that favoured the new and struck out in favour of changing the way we see and how we communicate.

Fuse nevertheless attracted it share of critics, most vocal among them was the designer/critic Michael Rock who, after 10 issues countered, ‘Perhaps the most curious aspect of the magazine is the poster collection that serves as a showcase for each issue’s assembled talent. But next to the lively type design, the compositions seem loose and unfocused. Each is a two-colour font specimen demonstrating one of the featured alphabets, although most of the posters seem to shirk that feature of their job. Rock’s criticism exposed the limitations of experimental work whose founders saw their role as disconnected, if not hostile, to the commercial world. Many of the contributions by Fuse designers further suggested the anti-commercial strategy was problematic – as illustrated by their rejection of Brody’s request to further abstract their type forms towards illegibility.

Historically, typographic experimentation has played a crucial role in the development of language and its graphic representation. In the last century typography has been a central factor in the way we see and read the world. The Futurists used typography to uncover the ever-increasing speed of early twentieth century society, while the Modernists searched for the universal typeface. Herbert Bayer’s phonetic alphabet carried on the work of his predecessors well into the 1950s. The 60s saw further experimentation with a new alphabet by Dutch designer, Wim Crouwel. All put language and typography under the spotlight, and in the service of better communication.

New Alphabet, Wim Crouwel, 1967

The Fuse magazine project similarly asked some fundamental questions about the way we communicate and the visual language we employ to further refine and illuminate the process. But its rejection of commercial considerations – a contemporary impulse – that would necessarily restrict its potential and application and would consign it to the radical art ghetto. Nevertheless, it highlighted the need for a new approach to an unfamiliar mode of communication and certainly contributed to an emerging new media aesthetic.

Rehabilitating Blackletter

Bastard – Even Fatter, Jonathan Barnbrook,1995

The contemporary use of Blackletter [aka broken script or gothic] is far from ubiquitous, it nevertheless occupies a prominent and important place in the post WWII British counter-cultural landscape.

Blackletter is a visual identifier of the ‘outsider’ status of many counter-cultural groups – it has been adopted by ‘anti-capitalist’ protest groups and ‘alternative’ musicians from punks, metalheads and rappers, and by the ‘street’ sports of skateboarding and BMX as well as ‘Hells Angels’ motorcycle clubs in multiple visual forms like tattoos, logos, artwork and apparel. It has also been co-opted by more mainstream associative, consumer brands from Nike to Paco Rabanne in their attempts to appeal to alternative sub-cultural consumers.

The use of Blackletter in counter-cultural visual matter symbolises an anti-establishment sentiment that has a peculiar resonance in Britain – one that is inextricably linked to Britain’s war with Germany.  For a short time, the Nazi regime in Germany promoted Blackletter forms as the true German typeface. At the time of their rise to power, half of all German books were still printed using Blackletter – and it was the only country left that still used it for continuous reading text [1].
By the time war broke, the Nazi propaganda machine seized on this cultural anomoly with customary zeal, as was evident in an early piece of Fascist print communication; ‘Feel German / think German / speak German / be German / even in your script’. The idea that Blackletter is particularly Germanic seems to have some historical credibility.

Johannes Gutenberg’s 42-line Mazarin Bible, [c. 1454-55]

Blackletter was immortalised in print by Johannes Gutenberg’s 42-line Mazarin Bible [c. 1454-55] that used the Blackletter typeface, Textus Quadratus [or Gothic Textura] throughout. Bible’s printed thereafter would use Roman letterforms. Nicholas Jenson’s Veneta in Urbe [1470] and Aldus Manutius’s De Aetna [1495] were set in Jenson-Eusebius and Bembo respectively.

The spread of roman letterforms in print throughout fifteenth and sixteenth century Renaissance Europe marked the demise of Blackletter [2]. Although some exceptions, such as Martin Luther’s New Testament [1522], set in Schwabacher Blackletter, would serve to cement the association of Blackletter and Germanic-speaking countries. By the end of the eighteenth century Blackletter was perceived as a German provincialism [3]. Germany’s cultural association with Blackletter was more a case of historical accident rather than Blackletter possessing inherently Germanic characteristics. The emergence of a modern, and increasinly connected, Europe cemented Blackletter’s decline.

But for all the Nazi regime’s rhetoric around Blackletter their reading of its history was as selective as their support was pragmatic. When it served propagandistic purposes, Blackletter was used to evoked the spirit of the German people or ‘volk’. But when more important national needs demanded it, Blackletter would find itself consigned to the dustbin of history. In 1941, Blackletter was outlawed by decree as a ‘Jewish’ typeface. As Hitler’s armies invaded and occupied European countries their need to communicate clearly superseded notions of cultural histories [4].

For post-medieval Europe, the story of Blackletter has been one of contestation and demise. The needs of modern European countries had cast aside a letterform that was of the past and had found new letterforms more suited to its expanding economic, cultural and technological challenges [5].

So with its recent history apparently conspiring against it, it is somewhat surprising that Blackletter would have anything other than a negative cultural significance in Britain today. Irrespective of the Nazi Party’s abandonment of Blackletter it would become synonymous with Germany and with Adolf Hitler and fascism. As Nazi propaganda used Blackletter against Jewish people, so Britain would in turn use it against Germany. These conditions would persist as long as the moral and ideological imperatives, formed through the collective experience of WWII, remained intact.

By the 1970’s, Britain’s post-war political and cultural landscape began to unravel and found its cultural expression, most visibly at least, through punk rock. Punk embodied a wider social malaise that was fearful of the future and contemptuous of Britain’s post-WWII past [6]. It was a visual expression of a new cultural elite that would go on to cohere around the theory of postmodernism. An elite that had lost faith in the enlightenment project of continuous human progress and scientific reason, as expressed in modernism [7]. In its form it was anti-establishment, anti-royalist and anti-future. It was an aesthetic that mirrored the collapse of relative economic stability and post-war Victorian values. It set its sights on the last British taboo – fascism [read Germany], and subverted it by utilising its symbols, in particular the use of the swastika and Blackletter type.

Past historical type revivals of the late nineteenth century – by the Arts & Crafts movement in England led by William Morris and in Germany by Rudolf Koch – were marginal in their influence of political life [8]. What distinguishes them from contemporary postmodern revivals is best measured by their ideological influence. The rise of modern industrial Europe meant a Europe in political and economic flux. The expansion of markets and technological innovation found a conservative cultural reaction in the Arts & Crafts movement. Its influence was, however, largely ineffectual and limited to the margins of the cultural sphere in Europe. Today their template has been adapted for new times but has a broader mainstream appeal.

Where the rehabilitation of Blackletter is concerned, the postmodern cultural reaction is a degenerate, backward-looking one. It possesses little of previous revivalists concern for ‘higher quality … [and] aesthetic standards’ [9]. The Postmodernist plunder of Blackletter in Britain serves only to regurgitate propaganda and myth and further discredits the very thing it seeks to rehabilitate, by perpetuating its bastardised, outsider status.


[1] Burke C, Paul Renner: the Art of Typography, Hyphen Press, London, 1998
[2] Bain P & Shaw P, Blackletter: Type & National Identity, London, 1998
[3] Burke C, Paul Renner: the Art of Typography, Hyphen Press, London, 1998
[4] Garfield S, Just My Type, Profile Books, London, 2010
[5] Spiekermann E  & Ginger E, Stop Stealing Sheep and find out how type works, Adobe Press, 2003
[6] Savage J, Ehgland’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock (second edition), Faber, 2005
[7] Poynor R, No More Rules: Graphic Design and Postmodernism, Yale, USA, 2003
[8] + [9] Heller S & Fili L, Typology: Type Design from the Victorian Age to the Digital Age, Chronicle Books, USA, 1999