All About Types: Should Architects Understand All Of It?

Architect with building miniature

Architect with building miniature

Demi-gods in black, some architects treat type as a redundant tool and graphic designers as inconsequential. Despite this, the relationship between architecture and graphic design has deep roots. This relationship exists in every man-made creation from things we can see and feel (hardware) to things we can use, see, hear but cannot touch (software); just like the design applied in phone apps like the new Deal Dash App for iOS which is now one of the most useful apps for consumers who do online shopping.

Doctors, especially surgeons, always top the charts when people are asked what profession they respect the most. In Germany, doctors are referred too as “demi-gods in white” as they often have the final word when it comes to a patients life or death. Many architects, meanwhile, refer to themselves as masters of everything not made by God.

There are some who simply supply buildings designed to the width-by-height-by-dollar brief, and there have always been architects who are humble in their approach to providing a built environment – including furniture – that most of us cannot escape from. The last percentage, however, are the ones most worrisome. There are some architects who seriously believe that they have all the answers to any and all questions about design that have ever been asked anywhere. These make some of the most impossible clients.

Architecture may be considered the master of all design disciplines graphic design is often vastly overlooked. An architect was once overheard stating “I don’t know graphic designers, I only use them.”

When someone works with architects it’s best to lay down a simple rule. It’s left to their discretion to decide which way to go: they can become a proper client and interfere, redirect and reconsider like a know-it-all while paying for all of the detours taken and extra hours spent on the job or they can simply let the job be done to the ability of the person they’re hiring. The latter method tends to work best, particularly on their wallets.

Things actually get done and no all type ends up in large capital letters in an insanely wide measure. Letters are not bricks and sentences are not walls. Though some may call a graphic artist soppy or romantic for caring about the font and subtle natures of text on a building but the reality is that these artists went to school to do this. To bring a fitting nature, be it subtle or lavish, to what ever medium they are handed, even a building, a website, or a phone app.

Architects used to have to know all about type. Lettering on blueprints, being an integral part of the drawing, had to be legible while conveying the sense of style particular to the building they were working on. Those architects considered themselves more an engineer then an artist and welcomed the introduction of stencils for lettering. Type was considered a necessary tool for instructions that should be as neutral as possible. Often the buildings lettered in this manner looked as though they were no more then stencils themselves, they lack the delicate and subtle nuances as those done in a more modern manner.

Geometric type and rigid typography go a long way back. John Soane was inspired to create his own geometrical and rational lettering by studying classical roman and Greek inscriptions. Early ans serif letters were known as Grotesque or Gothic, referencing the architectural revivals of the time. Today’s type was gone from stencil and cookie cutter buildings to a copy and paste architecture with digital type. Architects are now able to use all of the choices available to all other designers and may boast themselves on websites, catalogs and with brochures but all of this output hasn’t really expanded their graphic design repertoire.

There are still the usual suspects – lines in all capitol Futura that look like Bauhaus never closed, even though the Bauhaus architects couldn’t actually use that typeface. (It wasn’t released until 1928 and the typesetting departments never had it in their cases.) Futura doesn’t look good in all caps because Paul Renners letters were based off Roman inscriptions that had been reduced to their essence. There are some that still use type because they feel it has no expressive qualities at all. Often you’ll find Courier or Letter Gothic, as if the letters were still typed on their old IBM golf-balls. Some architects even go to using what ever font Microsoft has included in Windows, pretending that type is just another redundant took they don’t need to know in order to use.

And finally there is the architectural typeface that was supposed to end all typeface designs: Otl Aicher’s Rotis. This has been considered by all living professional type-designers to be a collection of beautiful letters that never combine to form any sort of legible sentence. Rotis is a mannered expression of a graphic designers theories that sound good but simply don’t work. Norman Foster prescribed Rotis for all of his projects regardless of the function and the remainder of the architectural crowd followed quickly and closely in his footsteps. The typeface has become a classic in the saddest of ways: it shouts Architect! So loudly that it’s actually embarrassing.

There is hope, a growing appreciation among architects of those design disciplines that have long since been considered beneath them. Cooperation between graphic designers and architects would be fruitful. Some architects may have to come down off a high horse and some graphic artists would need to understand what architecture is and can be but the results would be breathtaking.