Another piece published during the “Typography Wars” of the late 80s-90s, here Michael Rock talks about some of the interesting work that took place when people started to realize that software (in particular desktop publishing and font design software) provided opportunities to do things which previously had prohibitive barriers to entry.
Of course, the first (and necessary) stage of a new technology is a child-like exploration. The old ways, the traditional ways, of doing things are eschewed in favor of novelty. But in many cases, as it was in this, the exploration is not a meandering: the designers working with these technologies in the 90s were interested in more than just making new things—they wanted to make things that challenged a lot of underlying assumptions we had about how our world looked and what it said. Thus, there were some incredible thought-provoking projects liked Fuse and Emigre which pushed the conversation around design and type. In the process, Rock points out, we come to understand what it is we’re changing in a deeper way:
But the alphabet poses a unique contradiction to the quest for originality and the neomania that marks the modern movement. The alphabet — not unlike the grid Krauss points to as the foundational metaphor invoked in modern painting – is inherently originless. The alphabet is a given it predates all who come to it. And so every designer that works in the grid provided by the conventional forms of the alphabet is condemned — to use a degraded term — to endless repetition of those accepted forms. The designer can manipulate them only insofar as the constructed form is still within the realm of what is known to be the letter. Once that boundary has been crossed, the designer reverts to a skillful maker of plastic form but can no longer claim to work in the domain of the linguistic.
P.S. This essay, while very good in its own right, is worth reading for its incredible ending alone. Who knew there was poetry in typography.