20 Years of FontShop: Vintage FUSE Interview
In 1990 Neville Brody and Jon Wozencroft developed the idea of FUSE – an interactive disk and poster package that published experimental typefaces in a digital format; "The magazine of the future" according to Creative Review. It went on to become an internationally renowned platform for experimental design and typography, and spawned a series of conferences. The first issue was published by FontShop International in May 1991, with Wozencroft as editor, and Brody as art director. Each edition of FUSE brought together four designers or typographers, commissioning them to create an experimental typeface each, along with a poster based upon a central theme. These themes ranging from "Codes" and "Runes" to "Religion" and "Pornography". Eventually eighteen issues were produced. The publication was equally revered by those embracing the bold and exciting new horizons it explored, as it was contested by others who held on to traditional values in typography.
The controversy surrounding FUSE hit an all time high when in 1995 the most experimental issue up till then was published – "Freeform". Around that same time FontShop BeNeLux published an ever-evolving and continuously morphing magazine, that I wrote and co-designed with my three colleagues. This was the precursor of "20 Years of FontShop I am republishing this 15 year old interview below.
Although the interviews were conducted in English, they were published in Dutch. I haven't got the original transcripts anymore, so I am confronted with the difficult situation of having to translate the Dutch translations back to English. Let's hope for the best.
Some issues from the FUSE archive at FontShop International in San Francisco, with FUSE 10 – Freeform on top. Photo by Stephen Coles
In FUSE 10 "Freeform" the designers pushed their experiments with letter forms to such an extent that the letters became abstract signs. In this context I'd like to quote Neville Brody, from his presentation at the Fuse 94 conference in London:
The basic idea behind freeform typography is that the computer keyboard can also be used as a musical instrument or a painter's palette. It can be used as a way to redefine the representation of digital language.
Fuse 10 elicited a flurry of reactions. The main criticism was that freeform typography was a contradictio in terminis, that it implied a paradox. According to the opponents the only purpose of letters (and even symbols and pictograms) is to convey meaning. When those letters are abstracted to the point that they stop performing this function, then one can't qualify them as letters nor typography anymore. In this context how can one justify FUSE?
E R I K V A N B L O K L A N D| Usually reactions to typographic experiments are of the "What use is it if you can't read it anymore?" variety. Yet experimenting means trying out new techniques and ideas. This implies that you are entering uncharted territory, and that you possibly will create something that apparently serves no function.
It takes a poor typographer to be convinced that letters are only meant to convey meaning. If you follow this line of reasoning you could also argue that a plane is the same thing as a bicycle, "because it transports people from one place to another." Just like their are different modes of transportation to get things from one place to another, there also are different kinds of letters to communicate different types of messages.
Letters are peculiar things, and readers can take quite a bit. It is possible to create shapes that are individually unrecognisable as letters, but that are readable when put in context. This means that fascinating things happen in your head when you read. The parameters of reading, the letter shapes, context, character size, paper stock, spacing, … all influence the reading process. This is what typographers and type designers are dealing with. By changing the separate components you learn more about the whole.
E R I K S P I E K E R M A N N| Neville's quote is only half a contradiction. He is correct when he says that a keyboard can be used as a musical instrument or a painter's palette. However it think is incorrect to call this typography, although the term digital language can be used. There are many languages – the language of music, of theatre, of love, of nature, of art, etc. It is possible that a new digital language exists, whatever its means of expression are. But typography is the tool of verbal language; it is a visual language.
Our system of 26 letters (and less or more in certain languages) offers a vast and inexhaustible range of means of expression. If the function of language is to convey meaning, then this language can only communicate a precise message with letters. Emotional expression can be added by the choice of typeface, contrast, colour, size, positioning, etc. Something new may be something new, it will never be a valid alternative for our alphabet as we have been using it for the past 5,000 years.
FUSE 10 does not need to be justified. FUSE wasn't created to prove something, but to explore possibilities. Even if an experiment doesn't lead anywhere, that is one of its very reasons of existence.
Poster from FUSE 18 – Secrets, designed by Neville Brody. Photo by Stephen Coles
J O N W O Z E N C R O F T| I think there is some confusion that relates to a common misunderstanding regarding the fundamental principles of information, and the difference between our expectations for this information (clearly defined content) and the day-to-day reality – countless linguistic signals, of which we understand a number, recognise some more, and can't even decipher nor specify the vast majority.
Information is merely a box that we've created, not only in an attempt to make the world that surrounds us understandable, but also to master our past, our present, and our future. Regarding this ambition, this so called "information society", who will determine "What means what"? How exactly is content measured? We use analogies from music and painting to question essential concepts as "how is typographic meaning determined"?
For example, the paintings by Kandinski are about … what? The meaning of a sculpture can be explained … how? John Cage's music can be hummed along … like this? There is a huge contradiction between what we want to restrict to "essential meaning", and that what we want to submerge ourselves in, namely "art" and "spirituality". We need order. But by choosing a exclusively information-oriented, specific approach we cut off ourselves from so many chaotic and abstract linguistic elements that are of essential importance to a dynamic communication environment. At the same time we agree that the language of bees, the mating calls of the rainforest, and the choir welcoming every new dawn sounds pleasingly "abstract" yet melodic to our ears. Just because we can't easily imitate this "information", does this imply that it has no meaning? Of course not.
Conveying meaning is not the sole function of letters/symbols/pictograms. It is also communicating feelings and vision. Fuse 10 – Freeform did not aim to don the mantle of Art, nor to throw ourselves into absolute chaos. We wanted to explore and question typographic shapes and motives, to emphasize the essence of communication: to reach out, not to recede. Paradoxically Freeform is more an artistic statement than a fixed message.
Many of the questions/accusations uttered against Freeform support the opinion that we only have a very limited common vision of the new possibilities of digital language. This betrays a social and cultural malaise; it also leads us back to the original mission of FUSE 1, whose intention it was to shed a light on and research the strict conventions of typography.. Freeform is not a project that can offer ready-made answers. It is a naked experiment, and at the same time a revaluation of the intrinsic dilemma between words as meaning, and words as images of meaning. FUSE 10 is an open invitation to keep discussing a number of essential questions, with an emphasis on research and change, not on retreat.
Header image:The FUSE archive of the FontShop International offices in San Francisco. Photo by Stephen Coles
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