DesignThinkers & the Future of Typography

Director of Words & Letters at Monotype, Allan Haley recaps 'The Future of Typography' panel with Aaron Draplin, Richard Hunt and Erik Spiekermann at the 2014 DesignThinkers Conference

Image via @Jeremy_Cole


It was a standing-room-only event that went long – rare for most panel discussions. The title, “The Future of Typography,” wasn’t particularly seductive. Sure, the panelists, Aaron Draplin, Richard Hunt and Erik Spiekermann, could fill a room based on their names alone. But there was something else that brought so many interested and ardent people to the event. Five years ago, the title might have evoked conversations about eclecticism and skeuomorphism. In 2014, designers are concerned more about how the future of technology will affect their work than a new typographic or design fad.


To start things off, each panelist was asked just one question – and it was the same for each: “What do graphic communicators need to know about the future of typography?” What followed after a five-minute riff from each of the panelists on the question was a candid, insightful and lively discussion prompted by continuous questions and comments from the audience. The theme was typography, but design in general was the substance.


The views of the panelists about what to expect of, and how to cope with, the future of typographic design were remarkably consistent. While Draplin used words like compromise, Spiekermann stressed partnerships and Hunt talked about teamwork. The importance of collaboration was underscored throughout the 45-minute dialogue.


“You can’t be good at everything,” said Spiekermann. “Be good at one or two things, know about everything else – and work with people who are good at the things you don’t know about. Learn about design technology and know what can and can’t be done – not necessarily how to do it,” he stressed.


Draplin said, “I don’t know everything, and I’ve learned to compromise with technicians and experts. I can work in HTML5 but won’t touch Java. I hire people to do that. I have a go-to guy. If I run into a roadblock where someone who writes code says ‘you can’t do that,’ I ask my guy and, if he says it can be done, I’m all over the jerk who told me it couldn’t. If my guy agrees with the coder, I work out a design compromise.”

The panelists emphasized that design should always drive projects, that design should push technology, and that the future will be a convergence of art and technology. In times past, a designer would create the piece, toss it to the developer and say, "OK, implement this for me." Today, typographic design – in fact, all design – is about collaboration. Whether the job is creating a UI, web pages, content for mobile devices or automobile dashboards, designers increasingly need to know how to work with the technology person, and vice versa. Moving forward, the process will be collaborative as never before.


Respect The Craft
Hunt highlighted the importance of the craft of typography. “Since the end of the type shop, generalist designers and developers are often responsible for everything including type,” he said. “As a result, there is more and more bad typography being produced. This, combined with a lack of specific typographic training, can lead designers into creating typography that is less than good.”


“There is also more good typography being produced,” countered Spiekermann. “But you’re right; we must always respect the craft and importance of good typographic design.”


“I love noodling the fine typographic aspects,” said Draplin. “These are what can make or break a design. And remember, 95% of digital communication is typographic.”


Never Stop Learning
“You can never stop learning,” Spiekermann emphasized. “When I was teaching, I would stay up the night before a class, educating myself on the newest technologies and capabilities. It’s the same today; the books and articles on new tools are deadly boring, but you’ve got to read them and learn from them. The best typography happens when craft and intellect come together.”


In some ways the future of typography has not changed. Knowing the limits of technology (and pushing past them), respecting the time-honoured artistry of typographic communication and continued accrual of knowledge are pretty universal guidelines for dealing with the future.