Typographer boycott: Art vs evil

Neil Bennett
5 September, 2011
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I’ve been re-reading Simon Garfield‘s Just My Type after it was sent to us by its appropriately titled American publisher Gotham Books. This is its first edition in the US, and it’s bound to be as popular in the creative community there as it has been elsewhere (American designers – be prepared to get a least three copies for Christmas).

An easily accessible tome for anyone with a passing interest in design – the typographical equivalent of Freakonomics, if you like, Just My Typeis frequently funny, not shy on details, and most-of-all celebratory of the beauty of letterforms without being all-out nerdish.

Just My Type also gives brief insights into the personal lives of the great typographers from John Baskerville to Matthew Carter.

And then there’s Eric Gill. Creator of beautiful, truly innovative fonts, including Perpetua and Joanna and Gill Sans, one of the best fonts ever hewn. He was always known to be an eccentric character, but his 1989 biography by Fiona McCarty exposed him as having molested his own children and dog – an issue Garfield skirts around by calling it “outrageous outré meanderings”. We shouldn’t hold back in our language in this way. The man was not a practitioner of “scandalous and ceaseless sexual experimentation,” another of Garfield’s mealy mouthed phrases. He was a rapist.

To me, that makes the use of Gill’s fonts problematic, to say the least. My thoughts are underpinned by the recent birth of my second child, Alice, but also Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author – a persuasive essay drilled into me at university that says you should judge all art forms (and type design is an art as much as painting) on their own merits, separate from the biographical details of the author.

Barthes’ essay isn’t about judging works based on the moral character (or lack of) of the creator, it’s more concerned with warning us against interpreting the meaning of works based on biographical details that may or may not have been in an author’s mind when they wrote a piece. At its core is a philosophy that our interpretation of works based on our own experiences is more important than what we think the creator meant. Our response is paramount – and my response to Gill’s work is one of revulsion.

I’m not going to get up on my high horse and demand that Microsoft, Apple, Adobe and Monotype remove Gill Sans from installations Office, Mac OS X, Creative Suite and website font collections. This is my choice – your experience may vary – but from now on no Gill-designed fonts will appear in Digital Arts. We can’t erase Eric Gill from the history of typography – his artistic influence can be seen in too many faces – but I cannot celebrate his work directly.

Neil Bennett is the editor of Digital Arts.

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