Forwarded from Richard (radical typography)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Aug 8 16:16:35 MDT 2000

(I received this private communication that Richard from Canada gave me
permission to forward to the list.)

I am not sure what you mean by "radical typography". The
Bauhaus were certainly exemplars of European
"left-modernism", but is their typography (specifically,
Tshichold's) intrinsically "radical" in a political sense?
Perhaps, if a reaction against inhibition, a search for
innovation, "thinking outside the box", a questioning of all
accepted forms and practices, etc. are seen to lead to
left-wing views and praxis. But Tschichold seems more
tentative in your excerpt (which is admittedly describing a
Bauhaus precursor, an incubator of the "new typography"):
"The tendency of this [Dada] movement... was negative. ...
Overheated impotence against the capitalistic war found
literary expression in political circles.... The external
form of the paper [Neue Jugend] reflects the chaos of the
period. In France... Dada took on a more lyrical character.
It made propaganda for ‘L'Art abstrait,' Abstract Art; it
had no political aims."

My skepticism is inspired to some degree by the facility
with which capitalist advertising appropriated the Bauhaus
display styles (as so much else!). The art form itself had
no social content; it was the artist who gave it social and
political meaning. In our society it is the advertising
industry above all that drives typographical trends. And
advertising is designed not to persuade or convince, but to
shout for attention, to dazzle and seduce.

Function or purpose is what primarily dictates the choice of
an appropriate typeface. Assertive artistry is fine for
poster art, but when it comes to literary text, legibility
is key. As one of my favourite type design books states: "It
is not enough that the typeface you choose be esthetically
pleasing; it must also be comfortable to read. The type
should be ‘invisible', that is, it should not intrude itself
between the reader and the thought expressed on the printed
page. This applies especially to sustained reading, such as
books, magazines, and newspapers. People are very
conservative in their reading habits, regardless of how
radical they may be in other areas of their lives...."
(James Craig, Designing with type, rev. ed. 1980, p. 123).

Hence Tschichold's comment that the New Typography "can only
be appreciated in a purely painterly sense: most genuine
printers, unaware of its strong painterly qualities, which
of course are utterly untypographic, can only view it with

Sans-serif types (uniform weight, no serifs, somewhat
impersonal) are particularly well adapted for display
purposes, but I find them tiresome for lengthy text
passages. But you are quite right, serifed types are widely
perceived as conservative. For many years the French
Trotskyists (and their cothinkers throughout Europe) used
sans-serif typefaces almost exclusively in their weekly
paper Rouge, probably out of similar ideological concerns!

This is to say that I think your use of sans-serif on the
home page is appropriate, but I would not recommend it for
longer texts. As for "skipped lines" between paragraphs,
these are unnecessary so long as other devices are adopted
to indicate paragraphing, such as indented first lines.

Typography is a function of technology: Gutenberg's
invention of movable type, the creation of the typewriter
and the linotype, and more recently phototypesetting and
computerization. Of course, all such developments have their
origin in social needs (a literate workforce, the
propagation of religion or other ideologies, etc.). But as a
technological form, typography can serve any social purpose
or interest. If we associate particular ideologies with
particular typefaces or schools of design in general, it is
because of the way in which artistic styles tend to reflect
— albeit only indirectly — particular modes of political
thought or expression. The stadium at Nuremberg or
Mussolini's monuments (e.g. the railway station in Milan) we
now instinctively associate with fascism and repression,
while Tatlin's Monument to the Third International and
Lissitzky's Lenin Tribune (neither realized, appropriately)
remind us of the liberatory promise of the Bolshevik

One of the great attractions of typography as an art form,
of course, is the way in which it combines design with
technology, not to mention its association with literacy,
our greatest accomplishment as humans. It almost epitomizes
the transition from ape to man!

Interestingly, the creation of the personal computer, and
with it the phenomenon of desktop publishing — and the ease
with which new typefaces could be created electronically —
created much new interest in the use and design of varied
fonts and typography. But no sooner had this process got
under way than the arrival of the Internet, with the
corresponding need for universally recognizable typefaces
and legibility cut the other way, and led to a temporary
decline in interest in typography among many internauts.
Most texts published on the net do not even use serifed
quotation marks, for example.

However, new advances such as Java may revive interest in
typographical issues and spur the use of more exotic fonts
for in-line communication.

Well, those are just a few random thoughts prompted by your
note. Thanks for the tip on the Tschichold book. I'll make a
point of getting it. I developed an interest in typography
back in the early 1980s, following my exit from the Fourth
International, when I took a job as a proofreader and
typesetter in a large printing plant. I worked the midnight
shift, with occasionally a lot of down-time, so I persuaded
an older coworker who had lost his job at the Globe and Mail
when they moved to cold type to teach me the rudiments of
the Linotype machine. What fun!


Louis Proyect
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