Akiem Helmling / Underware
Towards an expanded notion of type.
Media theorist and philosopher Vilém Flusser claimed that when Gutenberg invented
moveable type, the true achievement was not the ‘pragmatic industrialisation’ of language,
but the discovery that letters are not characters, but types. Although Gutenberg might not have
realised this himself, he completed a process which started with the invention of the alphabet,
and came to its full glory in the mass book production of the 20th century: Abstract and
typified thinking produced the age of science & technology.
At the same moment, art developed into something like a counter-position towards rational
society, by introducing an alternative view on knowledge through the concept of beautiful
thinking, as described by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten in his book Aesthetica. A process
which gains truth not through theoretical reasoning, but through aesthetics. Sensually
perceptible forms of any kind like artworks, poems or pieces of music which are capable of
expanding human knowledge beyond the realm of the written words.
This development within the arts mainly emerged through the work of two artists: Marcel
Duchamp & Joseph Beuys. By declaring an already existing object as an artwork — more
precisely a ready-made artwork — Duchamp changed the notion of art from retinal towards
mental. This process was only precisely identified 60 years later by Boris Groys in his book
About the New. In this book, Groys explains that new things are not made, but declared. This
is a process which makes something valuable which had not been valuable before. And this is
always happening whenever something new is created. No matter if it is the Mona Lisa by Da
Vinci or the ready-made Fountain by Duchamp. The act of making something new is
therefore not so much about a physical act of making something which did not exist before,
but much more about the process of giving value to something which did not yet seem to be
Within the 4 books entitled Projekt Westmensch, Beuys developed Duchamp’s ideas even
further, proposing that making art is probably not about objects at all. By introducing the
notion of Der Erweiterte Kunstbegriff (the expanded concept of art), he developed a
methodology which was based on the idea of understanding human society not as something
naturally given, but as a work of art. Based on the idea that society is formed and sculpted by
human beings, everybody is also responsible for this artwork. Therefore, Beuys’ famous quote
Jeder is ein Künstler is not an opportunity, but a human duty, something we cannot escape,
because it’s an inevitable part of the reason we exist.
Meanwhile, a situation arose where technology and digitisation produced radical crossdisciplinary
conditions where the separation of art and design is more and more discussed,
where the borders of rationality are blurring, and the academic value of artistic research is, for
the first time, officially approved even on a national level. But more importantly, it created
conditions where everything can change dramatically, including the fields of design and
From this perspective, it’s interesting to notice an analogy between Neville Brody’s project
Fuse (1991) and the Duchamp’s Fountain. Despite their different context — time-wise &
content-wise — both works were actually made with the same intention: to free up our
expectations of what we think we know and to shift the ‘act of making’ from the physical to
the mental. Neville Brody and Jon Wozencroft — co-founder of the infamous Fuse project —
gave this act the title From Invention to Antimatter, which could be interpreted as the attempt
to liberate typographic forms from their history.
As progressive as both positions have been — Duchamp with his Fountain and Brody with
Fuse — each of them were still tightly connected to the existing historical ideas. Duchamp is
still attached to the concept of an artist who is producing artworks. And Fuse is still based on
something which could be called ‘mechanical typing’ (or transcribing), a process which is
distinguished through its abstraction from talking or writing by hand. Although the manual
typewriter was replaced by a digital computer with a keyboard, there is not much difference
between them: each tool translates spoken language (parole) into a unified signifying system
(langue) by pressing keys. In that perspective, Fuse could be regarded as a simple variation of
Gutenberg’s moveable type.
So, wouldn’t it be possible to expand our notion of type, like Beuys did for the arts, and John
Cage did for music, by saying that Every Thing is Type? How could that be achieved, and
perhaps even more importantly, what could this mean for us as designers, communicators and
readers (social human beings)?
With Variable Fonts, the groundwork is ready to fundamentally transform written language.
With Font Variations, digital type will change from being uniform, repeatable & portable, into
pluriform, responsive and dynamic algorithms.
It is time to think about the future.