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Typography: A Lesson in Creative Destruction

June 2, 2017

Creative Destruction. Ironic, isn’t it? Yet this paradox is the foundation for all modern economies. It is the market’s messy way of progressing. It is—according to Joseph Schumpeter, the 1940's Austrian economist who coined the phrase—a “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes economic structure from within.” But what does this look like? While it takes a legion of forms, creative destruction is clearly illustrated in the evolution of typography.

 

I watched the documentary Helvetica the other day and was struck by the complete and meticulous expertise of the type designers being interviewed. I—along with almost anyone interested in graphic design—consider myself a typeface-enthusiast. But my cursory knowledge of the trade seemed nonexistent in comparison to the mastery of these rare typographers, who first learned design by manually carving individual characters from steel for the letterpress.

 

My first reaction was to lament the extinction of the true art of typography by the dawn of the digital era. No one will ever learn to engrave letters at a type foundry again—that craft is gone, obsolete, destroyed. But is that really so bad?

 

Change is the only constant in a market-driven economy—the system accepted by most modern nations. Fueled by entrepreneurship and competition, the capitalist economy is constantly driven in the pursuit of “the next best thing.” Resources in this system are not allocated by intention or planning; rather, they are distributed naturally (some may call it an “invisible hand”) from declining sectors to more valuable uses.

So with the inevitable change generated by the invention of the computer, typography underwent another stage in the evolutionary process. The market no longer demanded hand-made letter stamps and their long, arduous manufacturing process. The resources of time, money, and creativity, therefore, had to be diverted to the more profitable sector of digital type design. Thus, manual type production was “creatively destroyed” and reconstructed into a more efficient and versatile alternative.

 

This constant shaking of the status quo is messy: inevitably, jobs are lost and industries are obliterated. Countless typographers and printing block makers lost their livelihood with the introduction of the word processor. But this is a minute and short-term cost for the explosion of new opportunities and wealth created by progress. It is an inherent requirement for progress to first sweep away—or destroy—the pre-existing order.

 

Now anyone can experiment with fonts and claim to be a “typeface-enthusiast” by barely lifting a finger. Over 30,000 typefaces exist today—a majority of which are accessible to all computer-users. Creative destruction has an equalizing effect by spreading the wealth of knowledge held by a few experts and dispersing it to the masses. Many who never would have had the means to attend the Dutch type foundry eighty years ago are now advertisers, graphic designers, and digital artists. And that is the beauty of creative destruction: it blows an old art-form to pieces, scattering its influence into countless new crafts attainable by anyone. 

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