Expressive type is making us feel again, one ascender at a time

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Type designers have been embracing expressionism for a while now. A24’s head of publishing investigates how the pandemic accelerated it.

8 min read

A title card for the liquid metal typeface "golia new style".

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There’s one surprising thing romantic partners and typographic trends have in common: you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.

As in, you often don’t know you’re in a movement until the movement is over. Sometimes a movement is self-conscious, and even names itself (think: Dada, Bauhaus, Free Jazz). Other times a canny reporter coins the term that will go down in history, as was the case for Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism. Mostly, though, we don’t quite know what we’re up to until we’re onto the next, swept up in the pendulum swing of something new. Only then can we look back and clearly say, with capital letters, oh, yes, Modernism, Expressionism, Art Nouveau. But sometimes, mid-movement, you can feel something stirring.

I’m not the only one who has put a wet fingertip to today’s typographical breeze and taken the temperature as: Expressive. It’s selling you tights, bread, music, and magazines—from fashion to drugs. Designers themselves refer to it by a number of terms: Nouveau Hippie, Jugend-ish, and Avant Basic. (These aren’t quite right, but give it time). But you know what I’m talking about: the swoopy, sometimes goopy fonts, with thin stems and bulbous, blobby terminals. The letterforms are irregular, illustrative, and often (intentionally) hard to read. They aren’t quite ‘70s, not quite Art Nouveau, not quite liquid metal, but some kind of unexpected, heady brew that’s now reached its boiling point. We’re at the end of a decade of tech and startup-driven minimalism gone stale; still trapped inside our homes, confined to the 90-degree angles of our on-screen life, and busting at the base line, primed and ready to stretch our collective ascenders and descenders to the max.

Goliagolia typeface by Alex Valentina. Images courtesy Alex Valentina.

Reactive aesthetics: a brief history

If you follow the pendulum swing from type trend to type trend over the past century or so, it’s easy to see the progression. After the rise of machine-driven industrialization, the creative community reacted with the decidedly decorative, languid, handmade, and organic styles that characterize the Art Nouveau and Arts & Crafts movements. Once we’d had enough of that, we whiplashed into the geometric splendor of Art Deco, and then pushed those clean lines further with Modernism, a long period when one of its leading figures, legendary graphic design Massimo Vignelli’s penchant for Helvetica (plus five other select typefaces) ruled the day and brought order to a time of post-war unease.

Those who felt confined by the cold comfort of the grid took a trip to the psychedelic, with neon-bright Op art patterns and swirling letterforms. Some detoured, preferring a maximalist approach with a Deco edge, and thus the Memphis style was born in the early 1980s, led by Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass. Even more thrilling was the new wave of technology that washed over the ‘90s, replacing the slow, cumbersome mechanics of rapidographs and Diatype machines with accessible desktop computing. A fertile, if chaotic period of experimentation followed, when Neville Brody’s Emigre and April Greiman’s Wet, The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing pushed the grid-breaking energy of the era to the max.

Screenshot: Wet Magazine; screenshot: Emigre.

But by the late ‘00s we were exhausted by all this typographical excitement, and came back to a cozy kind of restraint. Modernism made a reappearance, but it was a softer, warmer, cozier version of itself. This retelling of mid-century classics was clean and spare, but colorful and friendly, too, and altogether more human. Suddenly, it began to sell us leggings and toothbrushes, personalized vitamins and mental health. We trusted its clarity, its straightforward and honest approach—making it the ideal feeding ground for the onslaught of startups that may have had a business plan but not a brand identity or, more importantly, consumer trust. And what better, more convenient signifier for truth and transparency than stripped-back simplicity.

Soon it was everywhere, applied to everything, a blank slate upon which a user could project anything they wanted. Inundated with empty-feeling brands targeting our feeds with promises of smoother skin, healthier gut flora, workout gear that will actually work this time, and ideal romantic partners all just an easy geometric sans-serif button click away, it's no wonder we all want out. “It’s a rejection of tropes and trends from before—the clean cut, trying-to-be-trustworthy sans serif,” says Jesse Reed, co-founder of Brooklyn-based design agency Order. “Major corporations—from tech to fashion—want to be neutral because they’re too afraid to be expressive. They want the users to determine how they feel about the company. Doing anything else is too much of a risk.”

Inundated with empty-feeling brands targeting our feeds with promises of smoother skin, healthier gut flora, workout gear that will actually work this time, and ideal romantic partners all just an easy geometric sans-serif button click away, it's no wonder we all want out.

So will they stay the stale geo sans-serif course, or adopt some other, newer signifier of corporate responsibility? “Designers are testing how far they can push against that, to distort legibility to a point where it feels anti-establishment,” says Garrett Corcoran, a graphic designer who works with Reed at Order (which coincidentally just launched its own foundry of “practical typefaces for longterm applications.”)

Embrace personality. Reject practicality.

Before the pandemic fully set in, I taught a month-long class in publishing at The University of Texas at Austin’s Design and Creative Technologies Department, and was struck by the illustrative nature of many of the student’s hand-drawn typefaces. Two of those students who have since graduated, Anna Sing and Ben Zerbo, say they try to avoid being overtly referential to current trends, looking instead to IRL design archives, used bookstores, and record shops for undiscovered sources of inspiration. Their font explorations came from a more personal, authentic place, landing somewhere between weird and pretty, off-putting and yet at the same, alluring.

There’s a term for this in Japanese, kimo-kawaii, or “creepy cute.” Picture a sweet animated bear with ecstasy-eyes that will either stroke your hair or rip your throat out at any moment. When done right, the combination pulls us in, but keeps us on our toes. And after years of innocuous sans serifs and dayless bleeding months of lockdown, dulling our faculties, this heightened form of expression is precisely the jolt we needed.

Images 1-2 courtesy Oh No Type Co; Image 3 screenshot: @teenvogue; Image 4-5 screenshot: @outdoorvoices; Image 6 screenshot: @weirdoughbakehouse.