Font capital of the world?

7th May 2012


While many of the classic typefaces we know best came from a handful of historically significant printing centers in France (Garamond, Fournier), Italy (Jenson, Bodoni), or Great Britain (Caslon, Baskerville), type making has since shifted broadly to other parts of the globe. 

The industrial era spread metal and wood type founding to major cities in nearly every Western European nation, North America too. And digital type brought the tools of font production to anyone with a computer, pollinating even more remote and diffuse locales with new “foundries”. Still, type design is a highly specialized craft with relatively few active, working professionals.

So, if font making is now spread so far and wide, we wondered: is there a contemporary capital of type design?

Naturally, one would look first toward the two schools with the leading post-graduate programs in typeface design: The University of Reading in Reading, UK and the Royal Academy of Arts (KABK) in The Hague. But these schools are in relatively small cities that don’t have enough cultural appeal and employment opportunities to keep most graduates from migrating to larger urban centers.

The San Francisco Bay Area, with its burgeoning tech startups and celebration of design in general, would be another reasonable assumption. In fact, the region is home to Adobe, the organization that could be credited more than any other for type’s digital transition. Adobe still has an active type department with several professional type designers on staff under the direction of Robert Slimbach, and many of the Adobe font library’s authors live nearby. Monotype has a drawing office there too. And although they aren’t foundries, per se, the presence of FontShop and Typekit are worth noting as well.

Still, San Francisco is a distant second when it comes to type designers per square American mile. New York City boasts the most, many of them working under the banner of their own independent studios. The city’s type scene is anchored by Hoefler & Frere-Jones and Commercial Type, two of the digital era’s most celebrated foundries, and by the increasingly active Type Directors Club which holds several events a month and their annual typeface design competition. With all that, plus America’s first post-graduate type design program at The Cooper Union, NYC is clearly the typographic capital of the US.

But the font center of the world has to be where I am fortunate to be sitting right now: Berlin. Next month the city hosts TYPO Berlin, a major design conference that offers a healthy dose of type-specific programming every year. And just last week there were at least two typographic events: the Berliner Typostammtisch (an informal gathering that takes place every few weeks) and a font release party at Mota Italic (a gallery and shop dedicated to type). In fact, Mota Italic first opened its doors with a show entitled “Capital”, showing the work of 27 local type designers and endorsing Berlin’s top rank among typographic cities. In the catalogue for that show Jan Middendorp wrote: 

“Berlin’s role in this field is quite astounding, and probably as significant, comparably as the techno or art scene. … More than half the turnover in MyFonts’ list of 2010’s most popular new fonts came from independent foundries based in Berlin. Arguably the most influential type library and type distribution network, FontShop/FSI, is based here. [Some of] the standard fonts of Microsoft’s system and office software … were made at LucasFonts in Berlin. While twenty years ago Erik Spiekermann famously quipped that the Netherlands is the place with the highest density of type designers per square kilometer, this position had now long been taken over by his own home town.”

Here's a Fontset representing just a few of the typefaces designed or produced in Berlin over the last 100 years.

By the way, one can't write about typographic hotbeds without mentioning Latin America. Type design is especially on the rise in Brazil and Argentina and hundreds participate in Tipos Latinos competitions and events every year.

What other places deserve a mention here? Let us know on Twitter with hashtag #fontcapital.

By Stephen Coles