In an age when you can toggle between Wingdings, Times New Roman and Arial with the click of a cursor, it’s easy to forget the effort typographers go through to painstakingly shape the letters, numbers and punctuation that convey the exact level of whimsy, authority or simplicity a particular typeface can epitomize.
But a new digital archive aims to bring the bold art of typeface back to the forefront.
The online portal—currently available in a limited beta mode—is spearheaded by the Letterform Archive (LFA), a San Francisco-based institution that celebrates typography in all of its forms, from the ornate calligraphy of 15th-century illuminated manuscripts to the psychedelic curves of 1960s band posters and disappearing edges of a particularly avant-garde ’60s Christmas card.
As Monica Uszerowicz details for Hyperallergic, the archive, which will feature around 2,000 entries upon its official launch in 2019, promises to be a veritable digital treasure trove, featuring book covers, manuals, posters, typeface “blueprints,” in-store displays and an array of miscellaneous ephemera. Collection highlights include Philip Grushkin’s alternately abstract and illustrative hand-lettered book jackets, Speedball pen inventor Ross F. George’s calligraphic scribblings, and typographer Michael Doret’s Disney titles and logos.
According to a press release, the key to the catalogue is its adaptive search function, which makes it easy to narrow down results based on “design-specific vocabulary,” as well as geographic, chronological and artist-specific details. Uszerowicz adds that users can even create their own typography sets, or tables, comparable to the curated collections on view in the physical archive.
Someone trawling the digital database might, for example, ask the system to build a table consisting of brochures, shopping bags and letterheads produced in Italy, or perhaps a selection of so-called “mid-century modern” works by such designers as Saul Bass and Elaine Lustig Cohen.
LFA’s online archive has been in the works for years: As librarian Amelia Grounds notes in the LFA release, she and assistant librarian Kate Goad began cataloguing the collection for eventual digitization around two years ago. Drawing on a combination of library services knowledge and graphic design parlance, the two were able to create an intuitive system that emphasizes characteristics of interest to designers specifically.
“For books,” Goad explains, “we want to show who designed the cover or layout or set the type, but in traditional cataloging, you’ll [put] the author first.”
Organizational strategy aside, LFA staffers had to digitize the archive’s physical collection—a demanding task that took more than three years. Currently, the LFA boasts a physical collection of some 50,000 artifacts, and curators plan on digitizing as many of these items as possible over the coming years, with the exception of works protected by copyright restrictions that will remain available only to in-person visitors.
“With raking light, premium camera equipment and very high resolution files, we produce images that are as lifelike as possible," Grounds and associate curator and editorial director Stephen Coles tell Digital Arts’ Giacomo Lee in a joint interview. "Our goal is to capture the physicality of the object: paper texture, artist corrections, and metal type impressions."
For now, individuals hoping to utilize the digital database must purchase a membership with LFA. The cost is $60 a year, though students and educators qualify for a half-priced rate. Those seeking access to exclusive benefits tied to both the online portal and the San Francisco archive can also opt for more expensive plans.
If membership doesn’t fit your budget, you can still enjoy a small selection of high-quality digitizations via LFA’s free online gallery.
Correction, 12/31/18: This story has been edited to reflect the correct number of digitized items included in the Letterform Archive's online database.