Will there be 'classic' typefaces in the future?

I've been thinking lately about the huge increase in type being produced in the last decade and the fact that it is likely to continue to increase (as hinted at by Thomas in this ILT article) and the question that comes to mind is, will there be 'classics' in the future?

In the this context I am using 'classics' as an umbrella for type designs that have dominated the last 50-100+ years. Types like Helvetica, Gill, Garamond et al. As I understand it, one reason for certain typefaces becoming popular is that historically there were not a lot to choose from, so the 'best' were used widely and often.

But in this day and age where type design tools are accessible, and digital storefronts are easy to set up, we are seeing fonts come and go quite quickly. And type designers are needing to release often in order to have a chance of getting any marketshare.

I ask myself, will Gotham - a currently very popular typeface - still be seen much in 10 years? And the same can be asked of all digital type. Where I live in Melbourne, FF Meta is still around, but used no where near as often as even 5 or so years ago (well, it seems that way to me).

Has the democratisation of type design lead to a situation where contemporary designs will never reach the level of 'classic'?
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  • I think this will depend a lot on how design education and typography textbooks evolve. Currently design programs rarely require more than a semester studying typography or design history. So many students are never exposed to anything beyond the “classics”. Given how tough it is for program chairs to fit anything into their curricula this may not be a solvable problem.

    The issue of design texts, however, might sort itself out. Until 2012 most typography textbooks have been formulaic almost to the point of plagiarism, differing only in each authors’ particular academic baggage and evolving with technology. So they never get beyond the classics. But the new textbooks by Coles, Middendorp, and Highsmith have dramatically raised the bar. That could have a great impact on the quality of design education and help move thinking beyond lists of classic typefaces.
  • I guess I was looking at it a different way, more like, in this market is there room to become a classic? Or will great designs be superseded by whatever is the 'new kid on the block'?
  • I think the answer will be some of both.

    There will be plenty of trendy stuff that peaks and then becomes much less common. Perhaps even more so than 20 years ago.

    But at the same time, certain typefaces will become enduring “classics.” It would not surprise me if Gotham were still fairly common 30 years from now.
  • Sure, there's a vast number of typefaces released each year, but the vast majority of this vast number are basically background radiation: for whatever reason, few people ever use them. I don't think they're taking much market share from Helvetica, Futura, Gill (all still perpetual bestsellers on MyFonts) or even Gotham. The most popular type families put the other 99% in the shadows, and I don't actually think it matters much whether there are hundreds or thousands or even hundreds of thousands of typefaces in those shadows. They're still in the shadows. They're not crowding the stars out of the spotlight.

    So I don't think the sheer number of faces released is going to have a decisive effect on whether certain faces, new or old, can stay popular. The other question is: is the market getting more trend-driven, more fickle? Well, again, look at the bestseller lists: Meta may not be as popular as it was, but it still puts up huge numbers. So do Proxima Nova, Scala, Minion, DIN. They're all about 20 or 25 years old, and typographic fashions have changed a lot in that time, but these faces still have dominant positions on the bestseller lists. Even Gotham, at 13 years old, is no ingenue, and its ubiquity is practically a punchline. So it doesn't look as if the flood of new releases is washing all of the old ones away.

    Now, will Brandon, Museo, Alright, Klavika still be popular in 30 years? I dunno. But if they don't, I don't think it'll be because typographic fashion's more fickle than it was, or because there are so many new typefaces out there that no single typeface can stay popular for long. I think it'll be because, in type design as in any field of creative endeavor, you never can tell what people will like and go on liking. And that's been true for a long, long time.
  • There was a post on Kottke last week about how technology ages in reverse (http://kottke.org/13/02/taleb-technology-ages-backwards) that I believe applies to fonts as well. In short, the longer something sells, the longer it is likely to continue selling. Long term success has more to do with the usefulness and quality of a design rather than how it fits a particular trend or how much buzz it received on twitter.


  • Which pretty much means the answer is no. Because how can any new design rise to the status of a classic if there are not enough people using it? But also, does that even matter? Do we want a future dominated by a handful of typefaces?
  • Just looked at the Kottke link and I'm dubious about the correlation he is making. Even the example is confused about Information (the words of the story) and technology (the mechanism of a book).
  • Sye RobertsonSye Robertson Posts: 226
    edited February 2013
    After reading the Wired link I tend to think it is not really relevant. Because what I'm suggesting is that like the Egyptian boom in the 1800s, most of those faces have not survived until today. Some have been resurrected, but lots have not. I see this as more indicative of where we are headed as with so many new releases each year, graphic designers will increasingly select 'fresh' fonts to stand out. And since we are not only seeing an increase in the quantity of type made, but also, there is more good type being made as well there is little chance of these newer faces reaching the ubiquity of the older ones. Well, that's how I'm seeing it right now.
  • Stephen ColesStephen Coles Posts: 751
    edited February 2013
    Interesting topic, Sye!
    will Gotham - a currently very popular typeface - still be seen much in 10 years?
    Yes. Gotham is a classic. So is FF Meta. Every few years a new classic is born, and I think it’s likely that this birth rate is increasing. Sure, there are hundreds of unoriginal new releases and fashionable flashes-in-the-pan, but the current generation of designers is also producing more timeless quality than any before.
  • Is there really enough market for lots of 'timeless quality' though? Or is it more likely that although the high-quality faces will rise to the top, they will not see the success of times gone by simply because there are lots of them? This topic is loaded with lots of subjective assumptions and values, about what defines a classic and what is success.
  • Stephen ColesStephen Coles Posts: 751
    edited February 2013
    Is there really enough market for lots of 'timeless quality' though?
    Certainly! As James implied above, the bulk of design today is produced with only a tiny segment of the available high quality type.
    what defines a classic
    My definition of a classic is a typeface that continues to get widespread use years after its release. How many years? I dunno. 25? 100?
  • John HudsonJohn Hudson Posts: 1,640
    Yes, there will be classic typefaces in the future. Unfortunately, they will probably be Helvetica, Gill, Baskerville, et al.

    We have a narrow window right now, in which the take up of webfonts tends to favour newer designs, since early adopters of new media technologies tend also to be interested in contemporary designs. But it is only a matter of time before all the companies that use the boring old shit -- sorry, classics -- in print decide that they want it for their web presence too.
  • John HudsonJohn Hudson Posts: 1,640
    Some years ago, I read an excellent article in the London Review of Books that defined literary classics in terms of 'the books we no longer need to read', i.e. those that have such common cultural currency that people know what they're about -- or think they know what they're about -- and hence don't actually bother reading. I think classic typefaces are, similarly, those that people use without thinking about.
  • Matthew ButterickMatthew Butterick Posts: 143
    edited February 2013
    in this market is there room to become a classic?
    What we retrospectively call "classic" typefaces are often the ones that benefited from an unusual confluence of factors near the time of their release — technological, promotional, etc. — that brought them to public consciousness and kept them there. Because these vortexes will continue to crop up in future human activity, "classic" faces will continue to be minted. (A guarantee also made by Zipf's law.)

    I wouldn't go so far as to say that quality doesn't matter in this process. But at any given moment, there are many new faces that are working up to a comparably high standard. So the question of which ones pull away from this pack ends up being fairly arbitrary. Likewise the question of which sink without a trace.

    There's a book waiting to be written that showcases the forgotten faces of great type designers. Those faces are just as good — and often better — than the faces those designers are most remembered for.
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,420
    Yes, because typeface popularity follows Zipf distribution.
  • I had not heard of Zipf :-) thanks! And Matthew, I agree a book like that would be interesting. Stewf, your next work? :-D
  • I am working on a thing.
  • haha so descriptive :-D
  • I am feel like guessing what will be "classic" now is a genuinely dubious activity. If you had asked people if Palatino would be a classic in 1982 they would all have said "yes" and with some passion I think. But now I think this may not be case because something else may end up taking the limelight in 50 years. Maybe it will be Sabon which I will argue has aged better or Minion. But it may be something comes out next week. I could be wrong and Palatino does end up being a classic. We are just not good at guessing about this stuff. Just because something is iffy doesn't mean it isn't fun. I also think that the very notion of the classic is just a way of praising something in particular period. What appears to be a an classic and a necessary part of a cannon of culture at one time if overthrown and rediscovered over and over. All you have to do is extend the time period you are talking about and the notion of the classic gets progressively shakier and shakier.
  • James PuckettJames Puckett Posts: 1,638
    edited February 2013
    I am feel like guessing what will be "classic" now is a genuinely dubious activity.
    Agrred. I think that much of what people know would expect to be a classic will be categorized off as remixes of already successful designs in the same way most Renaissance french type is. For example, Gotham, Proxima, Avenir, Nobel, etc. will probably fall into the huge category of Futura derivatives, and Futura will still be the classic. To me Forza and Vitesse seem more likely to stand out because they fall much farther from the progenitor’s tree than Gotham. I also expect Unit to age better than Meta, because Unit’s less prominent personality will fit more modes than the more popular, but unmistakably spiekermannly, Meta.
  • I guess all the usual factors like availability, price etc will affect usage - but what my original question was trying to get at is not so much will good work be done, work on par with or better than what has gone before, but with more and more type being made, and this leading to more and more people making type, will the market be so diverse and full that people who license type will just pick from a wider range than what has historically been available? And given the nature of digital type over metal for example, it has a certain 'throw away' element to it, so I can buy type like I buy clothes, for a season, or purpose or until I get too fat to fit them anymore.

    My vision of this future is that graphic designers will less and less seek to imitate 'the greats' and use the type they use, but instead find similar, but different fonts. The lists of 'alternatives to Helvetica' etc will get greater and people will feel less of a need to jump on the bandwagon.

    Of course access is key in this and so bundled and free fonts will continue to enjoy a certain mass-usage that retail ones will not.

    I am not against this future, I believe it has a lot of possibilities, but one potential downside from a type makers point of view is less overall sales of individual typefaces, but this too is incentive to keep creating!
  • Stephen ColesStephen Coles Posts: 751
    edited February 2013
    To me Forza and Vitesse seem more likely to stand out because they fall much farther from the progenitor’s tree than Gotham.
    Good point. (That is certainly true for Vitesse.) On the other hand, the Garamond most people use now (Adobe Garamond or Garamond Premier) is not the same thing as its forebears. Improvements or modernizations of originals are just as valid.
  • …will the market be so diverse and full that people who license type will just pick from a wider range than what has historically been available?
    Yes and no. People will explore a wider range. But there will still only be so many design pundits writing anything that generates interest and discourse over time. Likewise, only a few of design saints whose work will inspire many others can exist at one time. When those people agree time after time, generation after generation, new classics will be minted.
  • "not the same thing as its forebears."

    Absolutely right.

    I suspect that people will keep getting more serious about type and its expressive potential in the same way that they have more serious about coffee, beer, bread and so on. This seriousness has led to diversity and a loss of the "rockstar" at the center. I suspect that the character of type use will be one of increasing plurality and stratification in the market. It may be that in the midst of this that the notion of the "classic" will be harder to argue for because the standard by which it had been conferred will have changed so much. In some ways I think that people talking about a vogue for "geometrics" or a vogue for egyptians or slabs reflects this.
  • I suspect that people will keep getting more serious about type and its expressive potential in the same way that they have more serious about coffee, beer, bread and so on. This seriousness has led to diversity and a loss of the "rockstar" at the center.
    Sure, but Starbucks, Budweiser, and Pepperidge Farm still greatly outsell their artisanal alternatives, so I'm not sure the rock stars have to watch their backs just yet. I think we're going to see both great typographic diversity and a continuing use of well-established standards. Why wouldn't we? For every graphic designer who's trying to do something genuinely new, there are fifty who studiously imitate what they see, and as long as there's a lot of Futura or Gill or Gotham out there, most designers will be moved to make yet more stuff with Gotham or Gill or Futura. I can't see any scenario in which Gill Sans goes away in my lifetime, and I can certainly imagine new Gills rising from the frothing deluge of new humanist sanses. They just need to get popular enough that a lot of people use them, and be good enough so that a lot of those uses are successful and inspire imitation.

    It's true that some distinctive and popular faces, like Palatino, do go out of fashion, but that doesn't mean they stop being classics. After her death, Austen's work fell into obscurity for nearly a century, only getting popular again in the 1920s. I don't think her place in the literary canon's in question.
  • After her death, Austen's work fell into obscurity for nearly a century, only getting popular again in the 1920s.
    Something similar happened to Caslon and many neoclassical type designs.
  • I guess I am just saying that it isn't wrong to suggest something seems classic in the period in which you live. We are entitled to our perspectives. That's fine. I even think it is unavoidable. But if we really think people will agree in 20 years or 100 or 500 ( that culture definitely won't shift ) we are deluding ourselves. It doesn't hurt anybody, so it is OK. But that doesn't make it less delusional.

    I think it is more interesting to think about what is useful or functional in type and typography than what is classic.
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