Has the rise of technology ruined the craft of typography?

Graphic design student Sean Knowles interviewed John Roshell for his dissertation on this subject.

First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to answer the questions posed in this questionnaire. you are unselfishly helping a young designer achieve his goal. your good deed for the day is done!

My pleasure! I’m always happy to stop doing actual work and just jaw about it.

What are your favourite fonts at the moment, and of all time, and why?

At the moment, the one i just created — YouBlockhead, and the one I’m working on next, whatever that might be.

Of all time: Gill Sans. It’s so clean and simple, yet so unique and cool.

Do you feel that designers of the 21st century should know more about the history of typography and the manual processes involved in design to improve their understanding and respect for the discipline?

Sure, designers should know their history. But I think that’s kind of automatic for anyone who has an intense interest in anything — you want to know where things you love came from and how they were made, if only to figure out how to capture that magic yourself!

I don’t think it’s essential that people have respect for old processes, necessarily. Sometimes you need to tear things apart in order to create new things.

I think it’s more important to have respect for your personal discipline. Set goals, and follow through. Learn all you can. Respect the people you work with, both ahead of you and coming up behind. And do your very best on every job, no matter how insignificant it might seem at the time.

Do you think that if you had to use the old school techniques of design such as letter pressing and typesetting it would hinder your creativity?

It would be frustrating, for sure! But I don’t think it would hinder creativity. Having limitations usually forces you to be more creative than having unlimited freedom. Sometimes the overwhelming number of possibilities can be really intimidating!

In college, I worked for the student union design department, and watched the transition from Linotype to Mac. And I can tell you that people who’d been doing the former their whole careers were thrilled to be learning the latter. All that rubylith went right in the trash one day. 🙂 But they also taught me a lot about carefully thinking through my concepts, because they’d been so used to having to plan everything out in advance, and there wasn’t a lot of room for experimentation or “happy accidents” along the way.

The limiting factor for me most often nowadays is time. In comics, everything needs to be turned around fast. So my wild creative desires are limited by how little time I get to spend on them — usually it’s just find a concept and run with it! But it’s fun — it’s always something different, always a new challenge. And fast deadlines keep me from getting too indulgent and navel-gazey.

Do you feel that the computer has lessened the pride in which a designer takes in producing a typographic piece?

No way! I don’t think it matters what tool you use. If you worked hard on something, and are proud of it, you’re proud of it.

Has CTRL-Z made designers less clinical in their work?

Do you mean “command-z”? 😉 Absolutely. I could never produce half the stuff I do if I had to plan it all out in advance and there was no easy way to change it. I think “undo” has fundamentally changed the way designers, and probably everybody works. And it’s fantastic.

I can still picture those sheets of black type on white photo paper coming out of the old machines. You cut them, you waxed the back, you laid them down and that was it. A typo, or a slip of the x-acto, and you had to run it all again. Scary!!

Do you think that to feel proud of a piece of design you need to have taken a long time on it?

Certainly not. Sometimes I’ll work for weeks on something and still not be happy with it, then something I knock out in a day just comes out exactly right. But in a case like that, it didn’t really take one day, it took my whole life plus one day. All the experience I had up to that point is what enabled me to do it quickly.

Do you find the quality of fonts available on free font sites to be a high standard?

Someone once said that 90% of everything is crap. Free font sites raise that rule to 99%.

Do you think that these sites are ruining the craft of typography by producing fonts that may not be as fine tuned as the classics such as helvetica, etc, or simply expanding the range within the library for designers?

No, I think it actually highlights the distinction between people who are either just getting started, or knocking stuff out without caring, and those who really know what they’re doing. And it offers a place for the amateur to get their footing, and maybe develop into someone who’s producing something worth paying for.

But really, the free font sites and libraries like ours are meant for completely different audiences. If you’re printing out a flyer for your BBQ this weekend, you probably can’t tell, and don’t care, that I meticulously kerned each lowercase pair. Whereas professional designers want fonts that have been carefully crafted, and are more than happy to pay for them. ComicBookFonts.com is aimed at the latter audience, and we are happy to leave the former to the amateur sites. As long as they’re not pirating us, of course. 🙂

What would be your defense to people that say that its easy to pick a font and be a graphic designer if you know how to use photoshop?

Go for it! Have fun!

I think when you actually try something yourself, and realize how difficult it can be to get what you imagine in your head out into the real world, you more fully appreciate people who are really skilled at it. I can go out to the golf course this weekend and sink a putt or two, but could I do it 18 holes in a row, with a crowd of people watching and million$ on the line? Heck no.

Desktop publishing hasn’t put real designers out of work. if anything it’s raised the level of appreciation for what we do, as well as opened the doors to talented people who might not have had an opportunity before. It’s a wonderful thing.