This essay was written not too long ago (in April of 2016), but it’s interesting to see just how much the landscape of digital typography has changed since then. Five months after the publication of Ellen Lupton’s “The Making of Typographic Man,” the specification for a new OpenType feature, variable fonts, would be announced in a joint effort by Adobe, Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Since then, people have sung its praises and expressed their doubts, but most importantly we’ve seen some very impressive and interesting applications.
That being said, while I do think that technological advances in typography are interesting, I can’t help but think that Lupton’s essay, which borrows the subtitle of Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy, misses the mark when it focuses on typography.
McLuhan’s original book was not so much necessarily concerned with typography itself, but with the book. It was the reproducibility and ease of distribution of the book (which admittedly would not have been possible without movable type) that fundamentally transformed the way people understood and interacted with the world. For many people, this was the moment when their sense of sight became the dominant way of obtaining information.
There’s an obvious through-line we can draw to the modern day as well. Books, which were the first mass-produced manifestation of information, have ceded their information-holding capacity to disks and flash storage. Our culture today is still predominantly visual, but the things we’re looking at have changed. Screens now allow for many different pieces of information to be represented on the same display through time.