Photo by Bob Newman / Unsplash

Celebrating the artistry of the printed or written word, typography in the 21st Century is no longer defined into set categories. Spurred by an age of technological advancement, there is now an unprecedented range of experimentation and style in this field that seeks to explore type that is bold, yet retains traditional elements.

During the Industrial Revolution, the overwhelming prominence of machine-made objects brought a renewed interest in craft and the handmade. People began to feel dehumanized as their everyday lives became surrounded by machine goods. A similar effect is happening today with modern typography. Now, as most typefaces are produced digitally with vector software, this has caused a desire to return to illustrative or hand-drawn type.

Recent trends in typography have even shifted away from digital presentations to creating text in the physical world out of tactile objects. We’ll take a closer look at some more experiments in today’s world of type.

Back to Basics: The Written Word as Art

Handcraft Type

Handcraft has become a prominent trend where designers are creating fonts from physical materials. This font is all about taking dedicated time and careful effort into constructing these sculpture-like words that exist in the real world.

In this example, you can see the designers physically building the text from a large, concrete block. R2 Design, “The Life of Man,” 2013.
The final product. R2 Design, “The Life of Man,” 2013.
Text made from stacking hundreds and hundreds of pennies. Craig Ward, “Costing” for Prudential, 2013.

Photo-Based Illustrative Type

Similar to Handcraft Type, photographers that use this form of type manipulate objects from the real world. Whether it’s digitally rendering and editing type from certain objects or building and forming text from pre-existing objects, photo-based type pushes the boundaries of what the materiality of typography can be.

Text made out of sandwiches. Sean Freeman, “Branston Sandwich Series” for Branston Relish, 2014.
Text made from small bones. Francois Robert, “War” in Bones Typeface, 2012.

Action-Based Type

Action-Based Type is type formed through a human motion or gesture. This type can also be created when text reacts to something in its designed environment. Check out this post for more on action-based type.

This boxer created letters by punching paint into canvases. Wladimir Klitschko with Monotype, Klitschko VS Illiteracy Typeface, 2014.
In this example, you can see how the text on the left reacts to an event happening inside a layout. Robert Priest and Grace Lee, “Get Moving!” from O. the Oprah Magazine, January 2011.

Pushing the Envelope: Experiments in Type

Designers with experimental type practices deliberately push the boundaries of legibility and take text out of its role as a conveyor of information.

This researcher designed a font out of DNA. Bryan Wei, DNA Font, 2012.
One student used sound to affect the shape of the letterforms. Each letter was arranged in 9 image layers, with each layer reacting to 9 different sounds creating endless type variations. Ran Zheng, “Look-Hear” 2016.
These designers explored form and technique to create a sleek, marbled 3D font. Mark Richardson and Superfried, “Marbles” 2016.
These designers combined two fonts horizontally to create a dynamic, conflicting font. Astrid Stavro with It’s Nice That and Fontsmith on Local Characters, FS Sally Triestina Typeface, 2016.

Combining the history of typography with today’s technological innovations brings countless ways to create words and visual forms. What kinds of text will you create?


This content is from Session 4 of the course The Practical History of Typography, part of the program The Complete Typographer, offered by School of Visual Arts. Enroll in the course below to learn more about the evolution of trends in typography:

The Practical History of Typography

The Practical History of Typography

School of Visual Arts