Grunge Typography

Hello everyone, I'm looking to read up on the history of so-called 'grunge' typography — either about its heyday in the 80s/90s, or any critiques or analyses. David Carson's books have been a good start, and I've found a couple of short articles online (including:, but I'm wondering if I'm missing anything substantial that's been published in print. Maybe little has been written on it because it's been generally maligned? If anyone knows of anything, I'd really appreciate it!


  • John HudsonJohn Hudson Posts: 2,732
    My recollection of the 1990s is that the term grunge typography came along fairly late, to refer to a fairly small subset of work sometimes within and sometimes in opposition to the larger conceptual framework of post-modernist typography. So you will find quite a lot of discussion of PoMo type and typography in e.g. Lewis Blackwell’s work and Jeffrey Keedy’s essays, but less specifically about grunge typography as something distinct.
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 2,015
    edited August 2021
    69 issues of Emigre magazine would provide a good overview of the era.
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 2,015
    edited August 2021
    I referred to the magazine, not the foundry.

    Distress (“defaced, battered, weathered”) was a general phenomenon, e.g. the European FF Dirty faces (especially Trixie) and Blur. 

    Very few typefaces could be described as completely grunge (and not just distressed, deconstructed or postmodern). James is on point to focus on grunge typography, rather than grunge fonts. 
  • edited August 2021
    I'd argue the demand for grungy, battered, type extended well past the 90s. My Wild West Press design kit sold EXTREMELY well up to ~2015, and not at all for the intended purpose. Those fonts were seen on all kinds of hip things. Today, not so much. 
  • As far as David Carson had a big impact on grunge typography, he was only the tip of the iceberg. :-) I would recommend Chris Ashworth who continued to work on Raygun, after Carson and did also worked on the British BlahBlahBlah magazine in the 90s. He also released some books about his work. If you are into grunge typography, you need to have a look into his work. 
    Also unforgotten is the work of Martin Venezky who worked on SPEAK magazine, where David Carson designed the first issue.
  • Miles NewlynMiles Newlyn Posts: 212
    edited August 2021
    I played my part in grunge, designing several of the typefaces that Carson used for Raygun and that have since become his house style. I released a few others on T26. Happy to chat about that era of typography anytime. Please DM me James if that would be useful to you.
    Woefully little was written and published about it, though @Claudio Piccinini did but I don't know where he published it, he may still have his writings from that era on file.
  • One day you start a revolution; the next day you find that it has become a commodity and you are selling a style. So it was with grunge type, about which I agree with Chris Lozos’s distinctions, though I think they became a bit murky. Here’s the thing: if you made a grunge font and used it just once, you were making a statement, but if you packaged and sold it for everyone to use, you were in the business of marketing visual clichés.

    I watched it from the sidelines, bemused by the spectacle. It was as if our recent liberation from paste-up and bad [photo]stats and over- and under-exposed film negatives was not welcome everywhere. Small-town newspaper ads were suddenly all straight and tidy and to some that was an affront. After all, the Macintosh was clearly the wrong tool to use if your intent was to design (again and again) the jacket for “Never Mind the Bollocks.” Sometime in the mid-90s, an accomplished designer colleague of mine (now the head of the graphic design department of a major art school), told me that she missed paste-up, which she thought of as a contemplative place. I couldn’t muster the same sentiment.

    The article in The Awl has good things in it, but it’s also got a lot of errors. I especially like the story of the three-day course in Camden, Maine.

  • edited August 2021
    "Marketing visual clichés" perfectly describes my business model 😊
  • Chris LozosChris Lozos Posts: 1,441
    "the three-day course in Camden, Maine."
    Was this perhaps taught by P. Scott Makela? I took one of his classes there in the late 80s which got me interested in type design.

  • I never paid much attention to the genre. To my eye, grunge typography looked like used toilet paper. Of course, I could be wrong. It wouldn't be the first time, nor is it likely to be the last.
  • As @John Hudson suggested, if you want a starting point for criticism, Jeffery Keedy’s essays are a good one. Here are all the issue in which he was a contributor.
  • James MissonJames Misson Posts: 3
    edited August 2021
    Thank you all for these wonderfully well-informed replies (and to the Letterform Archive for the digitized Emigre issues!). There's plenty to get stuck in to here.
    I played my part in grunge, designing several of the typefaces that Carson used for Raygun and that have since become his house style. I released a few others on T26. Happy to chat about that era of typography anytime. Please DM me James if that would be useful to you.
    A very kind offer, thanks Miles. I'll take you up on that once I've done some more background reading.
     To my eye, grunge typography looked like used toilet paper.

    This is exactly why I'm interested. The examples of grunge typefaces that flagrantly reference another (flawed, decomposing!) medium are such an interesting break from the perfectionism that type design has historically aimed for.
  • Chris Lozos Yes, indeed, the course described in the article (link in the first post) was taught by P. Scott Makela.
  • So glad you joined in, @Rudy VanderLans! In my excitement to get young people to check out Emigre as a pinnacle of ’80s–’90s experimental design (and look past grunge) I was too hasty in applying the term directly to the magazine. I think you’re right about how “grunge” got connected to a typographic style, and I do agree with @Chris Lozos’s description of the genre above. 
  • Seriously, Vaughan Oliver and his graphic design work for 4AD had *nothing* to do with grunge. Oliver’s work precedes the 90’s grunge era with a margin of ten years. There’s a kind of Britishness and sensitivity in the work, and attention to detail in typography, that is almost the opposite of grunge.
    I love Vaughan Oliver's work. He did do a couple of grung-y things later in the 90's, in particular album / booklet art for bands like Bush. Razorblade Suitcase was one such album, one of the many loud and angry albums I was playing back non stop back then, but I adored with the design work he did for that album.

    I was going through design school / university around this time period and I remember hearing this style referred to as 'distressed type'. And it was great fun making it too, cutting up old type specimen books and dragging them through photocopiers to try to see how much you could hammer a letter before losing total legibility.

    I hope we see a revival of this design style, I feel like it's due now we're having a 90's culture revisitation. I also want to mention which has been producing excellent rusty and dirty artwork since the early 2000s. Always a big fan of Eduardo's work.
  • Oh, distressed and grunge type was what got me started in graphic design as a 17 year old in 1998. @Ray Larabie 's work was pivotal to me, as well as MisprintedType (mentioned above, I was still using fonts from both places well into the late 2000s), I also loved and used their fonts heaps. 

    I still adore adding texture and grit to my work where I can, it's an evergreen genre to me. 
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