Mexico 1968 / Rotterdam 2003
(A Footnote to ‘History of a New Font’, DDD6)
DotDotDot 7, winter 2003.
author: Peter Bilak

Type design is one of the most abstract arts, creating letterforms with only black and white. Typography takes those letterforms and rearranges them in space and time, guided by a set of conventions established over hundreds of years. Typefaces have often been used to represent the ‘voice' of a writer, or mood of a text, but can typefaces have their own identity as a human voice has? Can they communicate specific values? For example:

These labels are often attached to typefaces by type foundries for marketing reasons, hoping to associate specific values with particular typefaces. Typefaces do acquire some significations, but only very slowly, after a repeated use in similar situations. It is questionable though, if a choice of a typeface can function more as an adjective attached to nouns.

The communicative power of typography has been recognized by some major companies and many have commissioned type designers to create proprietary fonts.

These fonts function on the basis of exclusivity and are not available publicly. An unusual example here is Microsoft's initiative, which in the mid-1990s led to the creation of a series of proprietary fonts, for example Verdana and Georgia , optimized for the computer screen and to be used within the operating system. Users of their software are allowed to use those typefaces for free and can benefit from Microsoft's generous investment in type design. Verdana and Georgia are not really corporate fonts made for the purpose to reinforce the identity of the company, nevertheless, when writing, when writing one's own message the user is quietly but insistently reminded that it is done with the voice of Microsoft. Other companies (KPN, Siemens etc.) use their corporate fonts as a sort of signature to give publicly published messages their seal of authenticity, and to prove that they do not rely on the existing archive of available typefaces. Their exclusive fonts are integrated into complex corporate identities, and the type then aligns closely with their desired values.

The typeface is strongly reminiscent of font used for the XIX Olympic Games in Mexico City, 1968, designed by Lance Wyman and his team. Composed of multiple lines to form letters, the alphabet echoes design motifs from early Mexican folk arts. The typeface was expanded into a display typeface applied to wide range of graphics ranging from tickets to posters and infographics.

The Boijmans fonts are applied in similar situations: both inside the Museum as a part of the information system to guide visitors, as well as on printed matter. So what exactly is the difference between Wyman's font from 1967, and MvD's typeface from 2002? Looking purely at the form of the typeface, there is little difference: both are modular typeface composed of three identical-width lines, with open endings. The new version is slightly lighter, some characters have been modified, and, with it has a more complex extended family of variants. However, because of the differences in content, time and context, there is great difference in the final effect of the project. Wyman's work was a pioneering corporate identification system, fostering the idea of comprehensive communication while reflecting the national heritage. According to design historian Philip Meggas, ‘Wyman's goal was to create a design system that was completely unified, easily understood by people of all language backgrounds, and flexible enough to meet a vast range of applications'. MvD's typeface, on the other hand, stands at the distance from its subject matter, appropriating graphics from more than 30 years ago, fragmenting the fonts into separate leyers and using them in unexpected ways. This way of working can be conveniently classified as postmodern.

MvD acknowledge that the font is directly developed from the Mexico Olympics typeface, but are quick to add that it is used very differently. The project understands history as a dynamic, non-linear process where now and than coexist. Based on non-dogmatic plurality, this design strategy involves building directly on existing solutions rather than chasing novelty. It reminds me of Jorge Luis Borges's story ‘Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote is ‘infinitely richer'. Why? Because it was written hundreds of years after Cervantes, because of its new associations, and because it renders history as cumulative, including all contemporary references that Cervantes could not have included.

If a typeface can affect the content, can the situation be reversed, and can a specific content change the meaning of the typeface? This is what MvD's project implicitly suggests. Typefaces are semi-products intended to be used, incomplete until they find their proper context. Once context is defined, both the typeface and the content are then interdependent.