Crimes Against Typography
By Steven Heller August 4, 2004
Crimes Against Typography
By Steven Heller August 4, 2004
Crimes Against Typography
By Steven Heller August 4, 2004

Crimes Against Typography

Crimes against typography are committed everyday. But few typefaces have been victimized more than the late-sixties/early-seventies gothic Avant Garde – and the felonies persist. The reason is a surfeit of angular ligatures that offer too many cheap tricks. I know because I am a recovering Avant Garde abuser. Although I haven’t touched the stuff in almost thirty years, when the face was in its prime, I was hopelessly addicted. Since I had the fonts on my Phototypositor I got kicks making the most flagrantly absurd ligature combinations imaginable. Nobody, not even the face’s creator Herb Lubalin, could stop me. In fact, having seen so many abominable applications by addicts like myself, I once heard Lubalin curse the day that Avant Garde was released to the public. However, the revenue stream made from font sales gives this a disingenuous ring.

Avant Garde was not originally designed as a commercial typeface. It was the logo for a magazine that its editor and publisher Ralph Ginzburg explains was “a thoughtful, joyous magazine on art and politics” aimed at people “ahead of their time.” The goal of the magazine, however, was not merely to reflect the cultural zeitgeist but take a lead role in purveying raucous sixties culture. In other words, it was avant garde – thus the magazine’s title, coined by Ginzburg’s wife and collaborator, Shoshana, was Avant Garde.*

* The opening page of the first issue of Avant Garde bore this dedication set in Avant Garde Gothic: As most of the world's ills are traceable to old imperatives,old superstitions, and old fools, this magazine exuberantly dedicated to the future.

Before launching the magazine Ginzburg was the publisher and editor — with Herb Lubalin the art director and designer—of the erotic hardcover magazine, EROS, which folded after four issues when Ginzburg was arrested and convicted on the charge of sending prurient materials (e.g. “pandering”) through the United States mails. After the trial Ginzburg wanted to start a new magazine but was prevented by his lawyers who feared it might turn out to be a “hellraiser.” Ginzburg was out on bail for the EROS conviction awaiting appeal, but the process took so long—about ten years—that the magazine ultimately went into production in mid-1967.

To help Lubalin develop the design scheme Ginzburg sent him a lengthy editorial outline and recalls, “He came up with two beautiful logos, but they were all wrong for the publication I had in mind.” One was based on the typeface used on the old original Coca-Cola bottles, another on Hebrew letters. “[Lubalin] kept associating the magazine with the nihilistic avant-garde school of art of the early 20th Century,” Ginzburg adds, “but this magazine had nothing to do with that.” Instead it was for intellectuals who might also possess a sense of humor. “Herb and I had always been on the same creative frequency. The concept of Avant Garde was the lone exception. He just couldn't get it. And though he normally produced designs for me instantaneously, no matter how complex or challenging the job, two weeks elapsed and he still didn't have a clue.”

Exasperated, Ginzburg had Shoshana visit Lubalin at his studio to explain the concept of the magazine to him one last time. “I asked him to picture a very modern, clean European airport (or the TWA terminal), with signs in stark black and white,” Shoshana recalls, “Then I told him to imagine a jet taking off the runway into the future. I used my hand to describe an upward diagonal of the plane climbing skyward. He had me do that several times. I explained that the logos he had offered us for this project, so far, could have been on any magazine but that Avant Garde (adventuring into unknown territory) by its very name was something nobody had seen before. We needed something singular and entirely new.” Ginzburg continues, “The next morning, driving to work from his home in Woodmere [New York] he pulled over to the side of the road and phoned me (the first time he ever did that). ‘Ralph, I've got it. You'll see.’ And the rest is design history.”

For his historic solution, Lubalin adapted gothic caps, something between Futura and Helvetica, and angular-ized the “A” and “V” so they fit together like a wedge of pie. He halved the “T” so that one half of it was part of the “N.” The perfectly round “G” carved into the angular “A”, which overlaid the mid-stroke and the second “A” in avant was an inclined extension of the “A” in garde, Both words were tightly letter-spaced to be perfectly stacked, and thus could fit as a block anywhere on the cover. According to Shoshana, “The distinctive slant of the "A" was exactly the line I had made in the air when showing him that ascending jet.”

Lubalin turned his rough sketch over to type designer Tom Carnase, his partner at Lubalin Smith Carnase, who rendered the final form. “Herb was a scribbler,” recalls Carnase, “but his scribbles were very readable.” So it would seem for anyone questioning its provenance, Avant Garde was entirely Lubalin’s invention. But, there were actually more intricate machinations on the way to becoming a bona fide commercial font.

Lubalin decided that all department headlines should conform to the logo, and Carnase asserts that it was he alone who designed the additional characters and created all the ligatures. After making a handful of these headlines, he further realized there were almost enough characters to complete an entire alphabet, which he eventually drew, and from which a prototype film font was made for the studio’s use.

Avant Garde had a modest circulation but was extremely popular with, among others, New York’s advertising and editorial art directors. They were so smitten by the contemporary character of the logo they clamored for freer availability of the face. Carnase recalls that Photolettering Inc. illicitly copied many of the letters and ligatures and sold them without permission. So, to counteract this and other unauthorized use, Carnase produced a specimen card pack that offered custom settings to Lubalin Smith Carnase’s clients. Given the high volume of requests, it was clear to Lubalin and his soon-to-be partner, type director Aaron Burns, that Avant Garde should be released as a commercial font. Lubalin Burns, was founded (which prefigured Burns’ ITC) to produce and sell typefaces.

Before the font could be issued, however, a little matter of the name had to be resolved. “Herb seemed to think I held ownership in the design (I paid him for it, of course),” Ginzburg recalls, “and he asked me for permission to expand the logo into an entire alphabet and to market it under the name Avant Garde. I granted it with alacrity and gratis, with one proviso: That the face's name Avant Garde always be followed by the tiny circled letter "r" connoting that it was a registered trademark—as it was. This was necessary to protect my ownership of (I believe the legal term is to ‘police’) this valuable mark. Herb blithely ignored this ([and] I can hear him chuckling puckishly over my request) but it infuriated me and caused me legal headaches.” Ginzburg later told Burns about the trademark issues, “and he, too, seemed indifferent to my concerns.” The consummate irony, notes Ginzburg, is that Burns invited him to become an investor in ITC, chiefly on the strength of profits it stood to make with the Avant Garde faces. “But the timing of his call couldn't have been worse,” says Ginzburg, who was about to be start serving his prison term on the EROS conviction. Ginzburg’s incarceration also put an end to Avant Garde magazine, yet the face with its name became ever more successful.

“As I understand it, a number of people got really rich off that typeface, including Herb,” notes Ginzburg. But Carnase, who made and retains ownership of all the original drawings for the light, medium, and demi-bold weights (later other designers at ITC designed the additional weights), did not share in any of the profits. “I resented it highly,” he says. “This was no way to treat a partner.”

Carnase was not, however, as agitated by the way Avant Garde was used as Lubalin—even though misuse of the ligatures was indeed rampant. Carnase recalls that, among other travesties, many times the lower case “r” and “n” was so improperly set the result looked like an “m.” “When you see it you just roll your eyes,” he says, “but I didn’t want to be a policeman, not then or now.”

During every generation at least one typeface represents—often accidentally—the zeitgeist. Through widespread use the font’s style then becomes emblematic of key aesthetic points of view. Futura was “the typeface of the future.” Helvetica was the typeface of corporate modernism. Avant Garde was the adopted as symbolic of raucous sixties and me-generation seventies. While the face had roots in modernism, it was also eclectic enough so as not to be too clean or cold. As a headline face it said “new and improved,” and as a text face it added quirkiness to the printed page. It came alive on advertisements, was appropriate for editorial design too. Eventually, after excessive overuse and rampant abuse, its quirkiness became simply irksome—something like the paisley of type faces—no longer fashionable, but not entirely obsolete either. Today, Avant Garde is having something of a revival on the pages of some magazines. For some it may even be an alternative to the more elegant, contemporary gothics.

As for me, I’m happy to say I kicked the habit.

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Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more.