The Australian Typographic Character: A Short Investigation

This article was originally written in late 2003 and submitted as a paper as part of my Master of Design studies at UTS. If you use this article please acknowledge your source. Note, what were previously footnotes are embedded in the text surrounded by square brackets.

1 Introduction
The topic for investigation in this report came about through my happening to read two things relatively close together. First, the Australian Special Issue of the English design magazine Eye (issue 46), and, second, the Australian Graphic Design Association’s (AGDA) Awards Biannual for 2002. This was something of a coincidence, my being six months behind in my reading of Eye meant I was reading issue 46 at the time the biannual appeared, also I do not normally pay much attention to the AGDA awards let alone look at the related book. What really got me thinking though were two comments; one by Rick Poynor in Eye who said that Australian Graphic Design did not seem to be informed by a sense of the place, and the other in the AGDA biannual warning readers that the content was a “graphic depiction of Australian design”. Could Australian graphic design be nothing more than graphic design done in Australia, as Poynor seems to suggest?

Selection of items from the AGDA Pinnacle Award winning material. A promotion for Saxton Paper.     Selection of items from the AGDA Pinnacle Award winning material. A promotion for Saxton Paper.
Selection of items from the AGDA Pinnacle Award winning material. A promotion for Saxton Paper.

In the biannual, the general manager of AGDA says that the association “is committed to the development and growth of graphic design as a significant contributor to Australian culture…” On the face of it then, the AGDA and its awards biannual certainly appears to set itself up to contradict Poynor. After all, it claims to be a showcase of the best of Australian graphic design. Can design contribute to national culture from within that culture without bring informed by it? I decided for the purposes of this subject to try and find out.

My interest is actually in typography and typographic design so I decided to narrow my investigation to finding out whether there was an Australian typography or typographic style. To do this, I chose one of the Pinnacle Award winners, supposedly the best of the best, that had a strong typographic component and try to determine whether there was anything about it that could be described as quintessentially Australian. The nature of the subject seemed further to afford a good basis for testing out and applying a range of research methods. This, in fact, proved to be the case. What follows are the results of literature reviews of several different subject areas, some semiotic discussions and case studies.

Before considering whether there is an Australian typographic style it is worth while considering whether there can be a typographic style for any country. I begin this discussion first by considering the semiotics of the basis of typographic design, type. Then I will consider typography and national culture in the international context with specific reference to Germany. I have chosen Germany because there was actual conscious debate, as we shall see in section three below, within the political structures of the country as to what type should represent Germany.

Moving on to the Australian context, it is worthwhile first considering what the national identity and character involve. Focusing closer, I then look briefly at the development of typographic design in Australia. This, then, sets up the framework for considering the AGDA award winning design as a piece of Australian design.

2 Myth: Type
Very few, if any, typefaces are inherently national in character. After all, within the Western world, the components of each and every typeface, no matter which country is was originally created in, consist of essentially the same components, a few hundred characters. They can, however, come to be associated with a national character through the semiotic concept of myth.

It seems obvious that type has first order connections with semiotics, for in printed or digital matter type is used to create the signs. I believe that typefaces also have a second order semiotic component. This second order component is myth. For designers, in the first instance, typefaces develop mythologies and for some typefaces these mythologies can be quite rich and deep. This is particularly true of older faces as it is the history, from the story of its creation through the general history of it use, of the typeface that forms a big part of the myth. Added to this is how a face is classified (humanist, egyptienne, etc) which describes the general structural characteristics of the face and brings faces together allowing their individual histories to spill over into each other, informing and enriching each. All of this may be completely, or more likely partially, known to the designer. To this the designer adds their own personal history of association. Thus a typeface gains meaning through a blend of fixed intention (in creation) and two variable intentions ascribed to it, the general history of its use and a personal history of association. These latter intentions are variable because they are viewed through a changing cultural lens.

This then, is the mythology associated with typefaces that gives them, for the designer, a personality, richness and colour unique to each. The typographic designer actually requires this myth when designing to build, in a sense, the subsequent mythology for the signs they are working with as they create their piece of, hopefully, effective communication. In rationalising their choice of mythologised type for their client the typographic designer would reveal, to some extent, this mythology. This mythology then would be re-read by the client in the context of their own needs. Finally, a third reading of the myth takes place by the viewer of the designed communication. It is likely that for most viewers the mythology that the designer has would be unknown to them so that, in effect, the viewer by ascribing their own intention, creates their own mythology.

Thus it is possible to see that for a typeface it is possible to have several distinct mythologies, though they may be related, however distantly. The relation between the mythologies comes from the shared cultural experiences of the each of the readers. The shared experience influences the myth by strengthening and/or weakening the various components of the myth, however consciously appreciated understand by the reader. [In his article Myth Today Barthes describes, as part of his discussion of myth, a poster of a north African man dressed in a French soldier’s uniform saluting a French flag. From his reading of the poster as a Frenchman it is clear to see that the mythology of that poster is significantly different in the French context than it would be in the Australian context even if the imagery is replaced with Australian components (of an Australian aboriginal in uniform saluting an Australian flag).]

3 International
In The New Typography Jan Tschichold argued that the future of typography lay outside national constraints and that to use types with national associations, in his mind at least, was ‘retrograde’ and not in keeping with the ‘transnational bonds’ between the peoples of the modern age [Tschichold is referring here specifically to the German fraktur, the Russian cyrillic and also to Chinese pictographic ‘types’]. He argued that the way to achieve this international typography of the future was through the use of the roman letter forms and sans serif types, ideally devoid of personality. Further, the use of asymmetric designs reflected the new spirit of the modern age. However, the fundamental argument of The New Typography is one of communication of words, that typography and the role of the typographic designer is one of a servant, facilitating the transfer of the author’s words to the reader.

With hindsight it would appear that the, at times, strident calls for abandoning of the past and adoption of asymmetry and the sans serif types would seem to contradict this underlying argument. This has more to do with the ideas of early Modernism and the time it was written, a time in which, particularly in Germany, the devastation of the First World War was still very vivid. The best evidence of this is the fact that when Tschichold had moved, fleeing Nazi persecution, only a few years later, and was working in Switzerland he seemed happily to abandon modernist principles in some of his work, and drew criticism for it. The truth of the matter, though was that Tschichold was fully aware that the san serif types and asymmetric designs espoused in The New Typography were not always appropriate.

Taking the fundamental argument of The New Typography then, it would seem logical, within a certain national context, that for typography to be effective in fulfilling its servant role in communicating the words of an author to a reader, it would be desirable for it to have a culturally specific component. In light of the earlier discussion of the mythology of typefaces, I would argue that cultural influences are unavoidable and again, typographic design gains second order signification through the interplay of the fixed intention of creation and the intention ascribed to it that varies according to the ebb and flow of cultural change.

It would be reasonable to consider some examples of the interplay between national culture and typographic design. However, before I do, it is worth looking briefly at the emergence of the typographer as a profession.

The catalyst for the emergence of the typographer was a physical one; the invention and increasing use of the linotype machine, in the United States and the monotype machine in Britain during the last two decades of the nineteenth century [While it is probably purely coincidental it is interesting to note that the profession of typographer arose only a few decades after the modern nation states in Europe were formed]. Prior to that, type was laboriously set by hand. Typographic design, such as it was, was the domain of the chief compositor who had the right to set the important pages of books (such as title pages). Typography was associated with the book trade, as there was no time for typographic niceties in the daily grind of setting newspapers, and magazines really only achieved maturity in the first decades of the twentieth century.

With the penetration of mechanical typesetting there grew a feeling that standards were slipping. This led to the establishment of the private presses, initially in Britain and then through-out Europe and the United States. These presses were often run by people who were not first and foremost printers but artists and designers. In Britain the most influential presses had owners whose background was the Arts and Crafts movement. Thus a new sensibility was brought to the industry and the way books were conceived changed. Design sensibilities were applied to the whole book, in the use of illustration, structure of the page, the choice of typeface. It was these latter two elements that were considered particularly important and so the profession of the typographer was born.

In Germany, though it was heavily influenced by the work of the British private presses, the situation was a little different. Printing was a very highly respected trade, due in no small part to the fact that modern printing was born in Germany. Typographic work was generally carried out by Master Printers and there existed a title of ‘Buch-kunstler’ (literally, book artist), who was essentially a specialist book designer, some of whom, prior to the late nineteenth century, had come from non-printing backgrounds. From the late nineteenth century to the end of Second World War the interplay of national culture and typographic design is not only fascinating, but had impacts on design around the world that are still felt today.

The history of German printing from Gutenberg to the late nineteenth century is almost exclusively connected to the use of blackletter, the general term for types (of which there were two categories; fraktur and schwabacher) derived from the hand lettered gothic scripts that emerged from the Middle Ages [Blackletter is not the sole preserve of Germany, other countries including Britain at one time or another had their own versions]. With the creation of what we now know as Germany in the 1860s by the Prussians, resulting in the stabilization of the region, industrialisation, and economic and political development, there was a much greater interaction with the rest of the world, Europe in particular.

Luthersche Fraktur
Luthersche Fraktur
Original Schwabacher
Original Schwabacher

While Germans, through familiarity, found blackletter types easy to read, the rest of the world did not. So began a debate within Germany as to the relative benefits of roman and blackletter types, resulting in the penetration of roman into German typographic design. The establishment of the Weimar Republic saw a drive to re-establish the exclusive use of Blackletter in Germany. The reason for this may have been an attempt to cope with the Great War and the disastrous effects of the resultant reparations that the allies inflicted upon Germany. In other words it was part of a desire to look back to a happier and more prosperous time.

At the same time some were taking the opposite approach. Growing out of Dada and the Constructivists came the Bau Haus and the Modernists. They argued that it was time for a new approach altogether. The typographic manifesto expressing this argument was, of course, The New Typography. The turmoil of post war Germany is reflected in this polarisation in typographic design and debate.

Out of this tumult, exploiting the general insecurity and resentment, arose the National Socialists and we see something that is probably unique within typographic history, a deliberate attempt to create a nationalistic typographic style. The attempt was interesting for two reasons in particular. The first is that the driving forces behind the attempt were not designers and the typeface adopted was a rather ungainly “pseudo-gothic design that bore no formal relationship whatsoever to either fraktur or schwabacher” [Willberg “Fraktur and Nationalism” Blackletter: Type and National Identity, p.46]. The second was that the attempt was in no way universally supported within the party. In fact, Hitler’s own preferences tended towards letterforms evoking the Roman Empire.

Left to right; Textura c.1562), Alte Schwabacher (1650), Walbaum-Fraktur (1800), Nazi pseudo-gothic ‘Deutschland’ (1934) single lower case ‘h’ and in use.
Left to right; Textura c.1562), Alte Schwabacher (1650), Walbaum-Fraktur (1800), Nazi pseudo-gothic ‘Deutschland’ (1934) single lower case ‘h’ and in use.

The need to communicate with the subjugated peoples of the new Reich who were pretty well unable to read blackletter forced the resolution of the conflict within the party. In early 1941 an edict was issued from the top of the hierarchy effectively banning the use of blackletter. This was the end of blackletter. The association between it and Nazism consigned blackletter to the margins of design and today it is associated really only with neo-nazis, heavy-metal music and a few beer brands.

After the war, as in most other Western countries, Modernism returned to Western Germany and seemed to sit well with post war reconstruction and the optimism generated by the following economic boom. Today, perhaps in spite of less secure times, the rationalism of Modernist design remains. The confidence remains but it has softened and become much more humanistic and a more even measured tone comes through that seems to suit contemporary German society well.

Recent German design showing a calm humanistic restraint. Signage and a book cover with slipcase.
Recent German design showing a calm humanistic restraint. Signage and a book cover with slipcase.

4 Australia
Turning now to the Australian context, I begin with some background. Firstly, some consideration of an Australian identity and a brief look at the development of printing and typography in Australia.

When considering ‘national identity’ it is necessary to bear in mind that the concept as a whole is an invention and one version is really no more ‘true’ than another, it just depends on view point. It is also the case that the differing versions of national identity are not fixed. In the case of Australia this seems particularly so.

From first settlement there have been challenges virtually every few decades to who we think of as Australians. Many of these challenges have come about through significant migrations to our shores. In addition to this we have never had a war of independence, or even a civil war was to act as a crystallising event to force the citizens of the time to take a position, to say ‘this is who we are’ and to build on from there. Thus white Australians have never really been able to throw off a sense of being migrants, just arrived looking forward, with varying degrees of trepidation, to a new ‘here’ while all the while keeping an eye on the old ‘there’. [I will not be considering the aboriginal aspects of any Australian identity as in the context of Australian typographic design I feel it probably has little current bearing.]

For more than 200 years we have been taking the first steps to finding our way. During this time we have had a mimetic approach to the society, culture and institutions of the ‘there’ but as we start to make what we have observed our own we are required to reassess and begin a new iteration. Obviously this has not left us with nothing more than a chaotic sense of impermanence. It just means that it is harder to pin point what it is that defines us. There are, however, a few character traits that perhaps give an indication as to how we view ourselves as Australians. We see ourselves overall to be tolerant society, until recently at least, and we believe in supporting each other in adversity, the core value of ‘mateship’. We also seem to have a fairly iconoclastic approach to political and cultural institutions and a, probably not unrelated, sense of irony. [Carter in “Baroque Identities: Migration and Mimicry” (Identifying Australia in Postmodern Times) suggests that this may be due to the mimetic behaviour that pervades our migrant society.]

So what does this lead us to expect from an Australian typographic style? Perhaps a highly developed sense of irony, or a general non-specific style in which external trends are mimicked, pulled apart, mixed and rebuilt as each individual designer sees fit, a sort of egalitarian approach where everything is available on a equal basis.

Because until the end of the twentieth century typography was almost entirely embedded in printing it is worthwhile looking at the history of printing in Australia. Compared to the rest of the Western world Australia’s printing history is very short. Not only that, but much of the first half of the history is concerned with acquiring the basics of; presses, types, ink, paper and skilled tradesmen.

Printing began, naturally enough, in Sydney with an old wooden press and some battered second hand type. The first printers were convicts assigned to the job with no skills whatsoever. The first five decades of printing were characterised by shortages of everything. It was not until the 1790s that any skilled printers appeared in the colony. The first locally manufactured inks appeared in about 1830. It took until 1846  for all the colonies to have at least one press. The first type foundry began production in 1850 and locally made paper became available during the following decade.

Early printing involved, apart from official material, largely newspapers and magazines. Stability in these media was not achieved until the 1860s when the population was sufficient to ensure economically viable readerships and, most importantly, business acumen. Initially locally created literature appeared, serialised, in magazines or via books published in Britain. Book publishing, the fundamental medium for typographic design elsewhere, did not begin reliably in Australia until the 1880s [Angus & Robertson, for instance, began selling books in 1884 and then publishing a few years later]. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that all the technical difficulties of printing had been addressed.

This history puts Australian typography into a unique position in that it is the only typographic tradition that has not grown out of book publishing. Australian typographic design could develop, from the beginning, out of not only books but also magazines, newspapers and advertising materials, that is, the gamut of print based design. As if to reinforce this possibility, the first recorded examples of Australian typography come from the decades between the wars. The time when the value of these media, as a form of expression and communication of the times, were being reappraised in the rest of the world, discussions of which Australians were not completely unaware. The first locally designed typefaces did not seem to appear until the 1960s, again reflecting the paucity of sufficient skills that plagued the wider industry.

Unfortunately, typography in Australia seems to have suffered from the small size of the population and from the same cultural insecurities, one of the big disadvantages of partially reconstructed mimetic behaviours of our migrant society, that appear elsewhere within Australian society. So, typographic history in this country is weak, undervalued commercially and poorly taught in colleges. It has been unwilling or unable to find a strong native voice. Very little has apparently been written on the subject and it has been discussed even less.

So, what of an Australian typographic design style today? It is suffering from the onslaught of foreign cultural pressures from without, and from within, by the fact that, because it does not have a strongly respected tradition, from the belief that anyone with a computer and the right software can do it. This is not to say that typography in Australia is on the way out. It is more that, like the rest of society, it is facing challenges to which it must adapt. Typographic design in Australian appears to be doing just that. Jack Yan writing in Desktop notes that there seems to be developing a contemporary ‘international style’. Not a new version of the cold faceless corporatism associated with the modernist international style, but a style that has currency outside Australia while retaining a personality that is defiantly local.

5 Pinnacle
The material that makes up the award winning project is a promotion piece for an Australian paper company (see images on following pages). The product is a premium uncoated stock that is marketed to the graphic design and advertising industries in Australia. Although this promotion is obviously valued for its design, by at least part of the design community, the client company no longer uses it and after two years has almost no memory of it existence. In this respect, unfortunately, it represents some of the classic difficulties of the Australian graphic design industry.

Of the design itself, it has a familiarity to it. There is a sense on some level of the viewer having seen something just like it before. However, the signification is unclear. While it is comfortably familiar, the component signifiers are all suggesting different pasts and so it is impossible to pick a timeframe, like something (several things) just on the tip of ones tongue. The typeface is undoubtedly contemporary, as evidenced in the unusual lower case ‘a’, though it fits with a larger collection of bracketed slab serifs known generally as Clarendons [The group of faces is named after the first of the group which appeared in 1843 in England], a group that appeared in the nineteenth century and were intended for printing on poor quality paper. The way the type is laid on the page seems to suggest magazine (or is it a catalogue?) design of the mid twentieth century, but again the signification is general and unclear. There are evocations of American or even English vernacular but the deftly ironic tone certainly ensures that it cannot be American and it is too airy and apparently unstructured to be English.

Typographic design provides unity and structure to the entire range of materials.
Typographic design provides unity and structure to the entire range of materials.
Related poster to above.
Related poster to above.
‘Non-photography’ and ‘decoupage’ like imagery.
‘Non-photography’ and ‘decoupage’ like imagery.

The typography is supported but similarly undefined imagery. A straight out vernacular image is used for the poster. It could have come from a Women’s Weekly beautiful babies competition from the 1930s. Other pieces in the package of material use quirky ‘non-photographs’ overlaid with elements suggestive of decoupage and other elements still use pseudo catalogue imagery. With such a variety of imagery, the only style missing is reportage, it is the typography that provides the structure unity to the entire package. The duality of Clarendon style typeface suggesting the old but being new brackets the layered signs holding the heavily ironic whole together. This ironic vernacular style is not without  precedent in Australian typography. Certainly since the 1990s it has been a part of Australian design language in a fairly low key way. Its deliberate evocation of either American or English design (or both) is, it could be argued, part of the trend towards the Australian ‘international style’ suggesting the ‘there’ while still remaining resolutely ‘here’.

Other examples of an internationally non-specific Australian typographic design. Book cover and typeface design by Stephen Banham.
Other examples of an internationally non-specific Australian typographic design. Book cover and typeface design by Stephen Banham.

6 Conclusion
So, it is possible to see that typographic design operates within a cultural framework and that it can and must respond to the particular and varying national cultural characteristics. This is as much the case in Australia as internationally. The question is though, is it worthwhile trying to identify the national characteristics of typography? Can anything be gained from it, particularly in Australia where we have seen that the general cultural identity, such as it is, is perhaps one of the most fluid and rapidly changing of all? Regardless of the answers to these questions it is apparent that the Saxton Paper promotion, winner of an AGDA Pinnacle Award, does seem to fit and display aspects of a contemporary Australian typographic style, or at least one of them as there may well be others. The typographic style itself is, in turn, compatible with a national cultural identity, or a portion thereof. Given the fluidity of our national identity, such as it is, it is unlikely to remain so for long.

Sixth AGDA National Awards Compendium, AGDA, Melbourne 2002
Typography23: the Annual of the Type Directors Club (New York), HBI Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002
Bain, Peter & Shaw Paul (eds) Blackletter: Type and National Identity, Princeton Architectural Press, New York 1998
Barthes, Roland “Myth Today”, A Roland Barthes Reader,  Sontag, Susan (ed.), Vintage, London 1982
Borchardt, D.H. The Spread of Printing: Australia (series), Vangenot & Co, Amsterdam 1969
Carter, Paul “Baroque Identities: Migration and Mimicry”, Identifying Australia in Postmodern Times, Dobrez, Livio (ed), Bibliotech, Sydney 1994
Dobrez, Livio “Being Australian: Identity, Identities and Traces of Identities”, Identifying Australia in Postmodern Times, Dobrez, Livio (ed), Bibliotech, Sydney 1994
Dobrez, Livio “Introduction”, Identifying Australia in Postmodern Times, Dobrez, Livio (ed), Bibliotech, Sydney 1994
Greenop, Frank History of Magazine Publishing in Australia, KG Murray Publishing Co, Sydney 1947
Kinross, Robin Modern Typography: an Essay in Critical History, Hyphen Press, London 1992
McLean, Ruari How Typography Happens, The British Library, London 2000
Tschichold, Jan The New Typography (english translation by Ruari McLean), University of California Press, Berkley 1998
White, Richard Inventing Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney 1981

Magazine and Newspaper Articles
Pears, Harry “Capitalis Senatus”, Design World, December 1991
Poynor, Rick “Is Australia’s global cutlural impact reflected in its graphic design?”, Eye Winter 2002
Poynor, Rick “Stephen Banham” (interview), Eye Winter 2002
Yan, Jack “Inspriational Type”, Desktop, April 1998
Yan, Jack “States of Play”, Desktop, March 2002
Stephens, Tony “We’re Still a Nation of Mates, but the Fair-go is Going Fast” Sydney Morning Herald, 07/08/2003
Matin, Lauren “The Erogenous Zone at the End of the World” Sydney Morning Herald, 15/10/2003

Russell Bean
Harry Pears

Online References
Chandler, David Semiotics for Beginners, .