School of Visual Concepts: You’ve worked extensively in both poster and logo design. What do you think is the role of typography in each of these media?
Art Chantry: It’s pivotal, of course. That’s sort of like asking the role of “wet” in the medium of “water.” Virtually all contemporary academic design theory is based upon the principles of modern typography. It’s where “the grid” used in Swiss design style came from, for instance. There would be no modernist design without the baseline rules of typography establishing the structure.
SVC: Type Americana focuses on a very narrow field of study—the history of American type, mostly in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century. How influenced are you by typographic history?
AC: Personally, I think the language of graphic design is the original visual language form. Even before the written language, we communicated through image to instruct, describe, and worship. When you get down to it, what is typography, but a bunch of squiggles with agreed-upon meanings arranged in clusters to depict a thought? It’s my heretical position that “fine” art emerged out of the world of graphic design, not the other way around as it is usually taught.
SVC: What’s the importance of type history? Does it, or should it, matter to the average (non-designer) layperson?
AC: Good type history is essential. Type history as it is currently viewed and taught is actually not very good and full of errors in assumptions and method and relative value. Frankly, contemporary type education is so weak, it’s almost better to just ignore the current standard. At this precise moment in time, the chaos is the only perception we can actually use in the wider field of type and design.
SVC: What was your first “a-ha!” moment with typography? When did it first click that type actually mattered?
AC: The first time I tried to draw a word—it was impossible. I suddenly “got it.”
SVC: Who do you look to for typographic inspiration? What kind of work inspires you?
AC: I draw inspiration from everywhere in our shared culture. I see what we do as post modern assemblage, anyway, so the source of ideas is all around us. It’s language. No need to invent language, it’s already there to use.
SVC: Best book on type or design you’ve recently read?
AC: “Typography” by Aaron Burns, Reinhold Publishing, 1961.
SVC: Current or upcoming trends to look for in typography and type design?
AC: A big veer away from crude hand-drawn lettering used as typography. It’s completely exhausted. Whenever I see “hand-drawn” lettering that looks intentionally crude and amateurish, I yawn.
SVC: With so many fonts already out there, why do you think folks keep designing new ones?
AC: First, a pet peeve: we don’t design “fonts,” we design “typefaces.” The way we currently use the word “font” is completely wrong and was selected inappropriately (and ignorantly) by computer nerds to describe different designs of typefaces. The word “font” actually describes a single complete set of physical type—caps, lower case, numerals, punctuation. The set of the entire type design is a “typeface.” It’s like pointing at a Canadian goose and calling it a flock.
The reason we keep designing new typefaces so rambunctiously is because we can. This technology has replaced what was once the province of the journeyman craftsman of extreme experience directly into the hands of the everyman. The idea of designing your own typeface is as easy as mud pie. It used to be a hugely time intensive craft based upon many many years of experience in the field. It was really, really hard to do—and a very expensive gamble, as well. Now it’s easy, anybody can do it in an instant.
Whenever new technology enters the design field, we have to go through a cultural “learning curve” period. During this curve, as we figure out how to first operate, then properly apply this new technology, we have an enormous amount of amateurism and experimentation. The result in the typography world is a certain period of really bad and very stupid typography.
For instance, when compugraphic first hit the marketplace in the late 1960s, we were flooded with a handful of pre-selected typefaces (that came with the machine) being used to death by total amateurs with no idea how to use these typefaces properly. Names like “Lubalin Graph” and “Souvenir” make us cringe now. They were destroyed by nearly decade of ignorant misuse. We also went through a long period of crazy lame useless decorative faces (it was suddenly easier to design your “own” typeface).
We think of these terrible typeface designs now in other select categories like “disco type,” or “chrome lettering,” or “decorative 70s type.” Almost all of this typography was useless and badly designed and disappeared almost as fast as it showed up on the market. Eventually, we passed through the learning curve and we finally entered a phase of mature and intelligent typography in the late 1970s. It took nearly 10 years to get there.
We’re going through exactly the same cycle, but with technology so powerful and the market so vast that the learning curve is huge. This technology is basically teaching the entire world to DIY. A learning curve for that process will take decades—only now, we are at a stage where the type world is finally becoming oversaturated with bad type (or else you wouldn’t have asked your question). That means we’re just entering the mid-point of the learning curve. So, another 10–20 years will have to pass before we adopt this technology with sophistication.
In the end we’ll all be our own graphic designers. No need to hire an outside professional any more—that’s just reality.
SVC: What aspects of typography would you like to learn more about? What kind of type-related questions come up in your work?
AC: I’m fascinated by the forgotten and obscure. I love the histories of how certain typefaces became adopted by individual subcultures—and how that process happened. Like the way that the hippie psychedelia movement actually mimicked the art nouveau style so directly (yet nobody really noticed). Exactly who and what and how that happened is a marvelous little story. That’s the history I like.
SVC: Anything else you’d like to add?
AC: Use your hands. Every time technology takes a big step forward, I take a big step backwards. Computers really can’t fake ideas or handwork (yet).
Who is Art Chantry?
Arthur S.W. Chantry II (born April 9, 1954 in Seattle, and now lives in Tacoma) is a graphic designer often associated with the posters and album covers he did for bands from the Pacific Northwest, such as Nirvana, Hole and The Sonics. He is also notable for his work in logo design.
Chantry advocates a low-tech approach to design that is informed by the history of the field. His work has been exhibited at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum of Modern Art, Seattle Art Museum, the Smithsonian and the Louvre.
Chantry received a bachelor’s degree from Western Washington University in 1978.
Interview conducted by: J. Adam Brinson