TYPEFACE BELL CENTENNIAL: Can architects really moonlight as graphic designers and landscape architects?



Ink Traps and Dot Gain

For years I had assumed that I could be a graphic designer. Never mind you that I’ve never had any training in graphic design nor worked professionally as a graphic designer, I just knew in my fingers that what I was doing was as good, if not better, than a lot of what was out there. While this is absolutely true, today I’m here to say—once and for all—that I am indeed, not qualified to be a graphic designer.

Like a true-blooded architect, I like to make fun of graphic designers behind their backs:They actually want to shrink my drawings hairy nary and they really can’t expect to charge so much for just picking out Helvetica, can they? Yet, beyond the standard quips, over the years I have developed a deep respect for the talents of a well-trained and well-educated graphic designer. I have no idea what a ligature is or even if it’s all that important, but when I read a bit of background about the Bell Centennial typeface, I thought it would be a great example of why, nine times out of ten, it’s a better idea to hire a graphic designer instead of treating your indesign layouts as if they were a site plan. (Yes, we have great composition skills, but how many of you actually know what the baseline grid is and how to dimension it?)

In 1976, forty years after adopting the Bell Gothic typeface for use in all of its phonebooks, AT&T commissioned the redesign of the typeface. Bell Gothic had worked perfectly on the older linotype machines, but the introduction of new technology, in the form of much faster offset lithography machines, meant that the san serif typeface, which echoed elements of Helvetica, was literally breaking down under new production methods. The process of redesign, named Bell Centennial, is outlined really well by Nick Sherman:  http://nicksherman.com/articles/bellCentennial.html

In his article, Nick explains how type designer Matthew Carter anticipated cheap paper, tiny font size (the smaller, the less paper, the cheaper for the phone company to deliver), as well as the faster machines in the formal design of the Bell Centennial.

If you can find the time, check out Matthew’s article. While I will never be qualified to design my own typeface, I’ve been grappling with the always annoying problem of realizing that graphics aren’t always just what I see on my computer screen. Architects have an ever-expanding toolkit that’s morphing all time and always within reach. Is there the right way to do anything? Is it even possible to answer such a questions nowadays?

Keep in mind that up this next fall and spring at the Keller Gallery are two shows that explore the do it yourself nature of things that were once considered high technology: space travel and manufacturing.






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