The optimism of modernity: recovering modern reasoning in typography

‘The optimism of modernity’ aims to tell the story of an incomplete and now almost forgotten project: that of modernity in British typography. This is envisaged as a matter not of style but of ‘design as a visible form of social philosophy’ and as an optimistic claim on enlightenment.

the project’s questions

The project spans a period of three or four decades, 1945–1979. Our provisional hypotheses are that:

  • The products of modern typographic designing in Britain were accompanied by newly articulate forms of reasoning through practice.
  • This reasoning was mainly about standardization and norms, explaining typographic processes, classification and description, and specification.
  • Modernization, here as always, was double-edged.
  • In order to exercise control through specification, professional designers needed information; this need, especially about typesetting systems, was made more urgent by the new challenges of computing in the graphic industries.

modern typographers

The modern typographers included professional practitioners and academics; their reasoning was channelled into unpaid work in study groups and expert panels, working parties, and internally circulated policy papers. (Examples: in 1965 the Typographers’ Computer Working Group, TCWG, was constituted; and 1966 saw the first meeting of the Working Party on Typographic Teaching, WPTT.) Some of their work emerged in British Standards on publishing and printing, in professional periodicals, in academic journals and monographs. But most of their invisible work has lain dormant since completion or suspension. This work is largely undocumented. Many of the principal participants are dead: Anthony Froshaug, Maurice Goldring, Ernest Hoch, Jock Kinneir, Herbert Spencer.

what we will do

We will interview surviving participants and establish facts about the existence and accessibility of documents. We hope for access to the papers of some British Standards panels; we will interview participants in the work of the WPTT and the TCWG, and other groups. We will establish registers of documents, chronologies of events, and network diagrams of participants. This work will lead to the writing and publication of an account of this brief enlightenment in British typography.