The Vignelli Twelve

Though I have the utmost respect for the brilliant Massimo Vignelli, and am a fan of his work, his idea that we use too many typefaces feels like a unnecessary hyperbole. It’s by no means the first time he’s has voiced views. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, then watch this video:

For any designer to claim that a half-dozen or a dozen typefaces is enough — well that’s their prerogative. However, it’s one thing to say ‘twelve typefaces is enough for me’, but to claim ‘twelve typefaces is enough’, period; extrapolating a generalisation from a personal imposition is rarely, if ever helpful.

Taking his statement at face value, imagine a Vignellian world in which only twelve typefaces exist. Ignore for now that such an arbitrary limit would mean that a number of writing systems would be left without typefaces. Sorry, Chinese, sorry Arabic, but there aren’t enough to go round; pen and paper for you, I’m afraid. The global typographic landscape would look pretty bleak indeed. So, in deference to Mr Vignelii, let’s suppose that he is talking about twelve latin alphabet typefaces. Enough?

Let’s answer that below. For now, let us pose another related question. Why, instead of a handful of typefaces, do thousands upon thousands exist? True, a large number of them could be shredded tomorrow, and we’d probably be none the worse for their deletion. In fact, we might be better off as a consequence. Again, hold that thought, and join me in the arbitrarily selected sixteenth century. Looking around, we see that we already have more than our quota of a dozen typefaces at our disposal; in fact, there are thousands to choose from. German-speaking countries, and a swathe of Northern Europe have numerous blackletter types, while the remainder load their setting sticks with roman types first developed by pioneers like the brothers da Spira, and honed by Jenson. We even have numerous italic styles, ornaments, some wood type, broader- and narrower-set designs, varying x-heights, and different lengths of extenders. Surely, then, we have enough? Despite all these typefaces, Caslon, Baskerville, Bodoni (inventions of the 18th century), the slab serifs (e.g. the Clarendons), the grotesques (e.g. Akzidenz Grotesk), the geometric sans (e.g. Futura and Gotham), the neo-grotesques (e.g. Helvetica), the humanist sans of Martin Majoor (e.g. Scala Sans), Adrian Frutiger’s eponymous Frutiger, Erik Spiekermann’s Meta, and a comprehensive, unified super-familiy like Lucas de Groot’s Thesis — well, none of these has yet to make an appearance. No doubt there were those in the 16th century who shared Vignelli’s views. Every age is populated by those who think we’ve reached the apogee of progress.

Let’s return to the why question: why are there so many typefaces? For that matter, why are there so many designs of chair? Surely a dozen designs of chair would suffice. And, while we’re at it, let’s make do with a dozen designs of houses, tables, books, bridges, teacups, salt-shakers … everything. Why, then, do we see such profligacy in design? Because that’s what we do, that’s who we are. Our restless minds are always striving for ‘better’, for more functional, more comfortable, stronger, more durable, more economical, more ornate, simpler, more complex, smaller, bigger, greener, healthier, clearer, more legible; even, more aesthetically pleasing. That’s what we do. That same spirit, that inherent desire for progress, that indefatigable obsession with creation, that’s what we do.

During the Industrial Revolution (which Vignelli mentions), there was explosive growth in the number of typefaces available, a gargantuan proliferation of new designs. Advertisers demanded new designs, so that their work could be differentiated from the competition; and type designers too created new, non-commissioned type designs; thus demand drove supply, and supply fed and elicited demand. This era gave birth to the grandparents of Vignelli’s beloved Helvetica, a typeface that would never have existed but for our desire to do better, to progress, to create.

Thousands of typefaces exist simply because they are demanded and supplied, supplied and consumed. Moreover, technological progress, the desire for differentiation, the desire for more legible types, for types appropriate for new printing techniques, for the screen, for printing on new substrates — these challenges, these changing needs demand new solutions. Vignelli is an exceptional designer, and graphic design is arguably better off for its association with him. He has succeeded despite his limited, self-imposed type palette, but the world is bigger and more beautiful than Vignelli and his twelve apostles.

Cyrus Highsmith’s Do we need more fonts?
Michael Bierut’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Typeface.
Video courtesy of bigthink.com

previous: What the iPad lacks

next: Hand-painted sign

Typeface Categories

learn greek type desgin
font deals of the week
fonts on tape