Steer Clear of the Uncanny Valley

This year marked the 21st anniversary of a heated debate held between Tibor Kalman, founder of the design firm M&Co, and Joe Duffy, of Duffy & Partners. Of the many contested issues in their argument about the state of contemporary design in the 1990s—art versus commerce, values and “causes” versus corporate sell-outs—nostalgia was high on the list. Duffy celebrated its use as a persuasive and communicative tool, while Kalman berated its “fakeness” as a lie, arguing that designers such as Duffy used history without representing anything new. As Kalman put it, “Well, certainly it’s from the past, but how it’s used is the question.” Today, almost a generation after the debate, designers’ use of nostalgia is still prevalent.

In his commentary for the New Museum’s “Generational” show in 2009, Rob Giampietro of Project Projects described today’s mode of appropriation as “playing the past.” He says, “We’re riffing. We cover it in our own way. We do it to feel connection. We do it to get each other’s attention, form bonds, and share with a peer group.” If today’s designers use the past to connect with their contemporaries as well as with their audience through the familiar, how do they use the past to create something new? Some undertake the challenge on the micro-level—with detail in typography.

Type foundries such as Type Supply and House Industries, based in Maryland and Delaware, respectively, are successful purveyors of the past, referencing earlier design eras in their work. Collectively their work includes fonts inspired by hand-drawn scripts, old-school lettering, and illustrations created with analogue and digital methods of making. Type Supply’s Tal Leming and House Industries’ Ken Barber and Ben Kiel would agree that this collective referencing of visual nostalgia represents larger themes in contemporary graphic design—the capitalization on the “familiar” in design, the desire for acceptance and affirmation in the design community, and the exhaustive visual saturation happening on the Internet.

“Design doesn’t happen on its own,” Leming says. “It can’t ever be wholly new.” Referencing the past may be considered less of a choice and more of an inevitability—it’s just a matter of which reference you choose to deploy. Each generation draws from the one before, repurposing and honing in on an aesthetic or a style to tap into the recognizable, the familiar. Design is inherently based on what one knows but often times the most inspiring influences come from unexpected sources.

Leming used an unexpected influence in his font United, released in 2007. United, which became the typeface of choice for Fox Sports’ on-screen graphics, began with a series of old military diagrams. House Industries (where Leming worked prior to founding Type Supply) had been struggling in-house to digitize the diagrams since the ’90s and they just couldn’t get it right. “I think it was because the designers at House were sticking very close to those diagrams. And when I picked it up, I started over and I tried to mix the military aesthetic, which is just straight lines, with Franklin Gothic, because I love Franklin Gothic,” says Leming. Just using the diagrams as a reference wasn’t enough, there had to be innovation. “I restarted with the idea of a typeface with the salient characteristics from the specification: straight lines, hard edges, tough letterforms. After experimentation, I decided that the family’s internal structure should follow the traditional American gothic form and it should lightly reference classic American wood type.” The public has responded well to the look—which Leming credits to the typeface’s “all-American” foundation. The military didn’t invent the straight-lined look—19th-century sign painters and wood type makers popularized the half-block, octagonal style. Its traditional utilitarian style served function over fashion.

Duffy’s nostalgia reached back to the early 20th century; today’s references draw from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s—a reach back toward mid-century nostalgia, and particularly the Americana of this time period. Designers draw from sources like commercial sign painting, mom-and-pop shops and the folk-modern products of Charles and Ray Eames. “Retro” is a word that is often used to describe work emulating these eras. It’s also a word that’s been used to describe the House Industries aesthetic. Designer Ken Barber gets riled up just hearing the “R” word. “What does that even mean?” he asks. In today’s design criticism, “retro” is often a negative descriptor. People attach a visual style to an era (most commonly American mid-century) and they say—that’s retro. Both Barber and Kiel have seen this criticism first-hand. Barber says, “In times where it’s been used to criticize our work, or ‘retro’ design in general, they use it to basically say we’re not doing anything new. People said, ‘you know, they just looked at magazines or advertisements from the ’60s and ’70s and boosted it.’ And I wish that were the case, because that would have made our job so much [insert expletive] easier.”

Critics often fail to see beyond the surface aesthetic, getting stuck on the “retro period” without seeing the innovation and invention that’s required to revisit these lettering styles and mediums of the past and make them work, and work well, in the digital present. Take the website, launched earlier this year by House Industries. Photo-Lettering, Inc., or PLINC, founded in 1936 by Edward Rondthaler and Harold Horman, became one of the most successful, long-standing type houses in New York City. Lettering artists at PLINC drew alphabets with pen and ink, a process that could take up to 200 hours per alphabet, and then transferred the drawings to film strips used for typesetting individual headlines on photographic paper. This method liberated typography from the confines of metal typesetting, and PLINC remained influential until the rise of new digital technologies forced them to close their doors in 1985. The Photo-Lettering legacy—more than 10,000 type designs—went dormant until 2003, when House Industries purchased the entire collection, rescuing the archive from a storage facility on New York’s Tenth Avenue.

For the next eight years, designers at House Industries painstakingly parsed the thousands of film specimens, lettering catalogs and original plates to hone in on a select series of original PLINC alphabets and transform them for the digital world. House Industries set out to construct a digital tool that matched the delivery of craftsmanship, innovation and design established by the original company. Barber explains, “The idea evolved to create a service that would be a new incarnation of the original service, where you wouldn’t buy typefaces per se, but you would actually buy a setting.” This service would allow users to generate the words they need while also adding color, changing weights, manipulating scale and more, customizing the alphabets on the fly from directly within the online interface. “We thought, well…wow, these aren’t typefaces, so let’s push the fact that they can do things that typefaces can’t do.” When House Industries, in partnership with Erik van Blokland and Christian Schwartz, launched the Photo-Lettering site in April, PLINC’s legacy was reborn. received much praise in the months following the launch of the site. To Ben Kiel’s dismay, the word “retro” got immediately assigned to it by a number of bloggers and tweeters, but people like it precisely because it is familiar in a nostalgic way. It willingly conveys a sense of the history and whimsy found within the original alphabets and an aesthetic that reflects the time period from which they originated. Still, there is much more to the site than how it looks—the real strength lies in what it can do.

At the core of is the Lettersetter engine, created by Erik van Blokland and Tal Leming. This new tool allows letterforms to do things that traditional desktop fonts cannot. The lettering style D’Amico Gothic, which operates on six masters, allows the user to interpolate weight and width to any spot on a spectrum, right on a sliding scale on the interface, essentially allowing the user to create a unique version of the lettering style. Designers can now access a visual library of lettering styles, edit them and download custom lines of type. Sounds simple, but simple doesn’t take eight years. With, House Industries shows its respect for typography’s history, and in turn helps guide its future.

Before the digital era, learned skills such as typesetting and lettering were often considered more of a trade than an appreciated craft. As far as Barber and Kiel are concerned, these trades are crafts and there’s a lot to be learned from them. “There’s a wealth of knowledge from these trades that have come and gone that we’ve forgotten about, these trades that weren’t really associated with the profession of graphic design, for example, lettering artists. When graphic design made this leap in the 1950s and ’60s from a trade to a profession, much of the knowledge surrounding the trade kind of got forgotten, and it is forgotten in design teaching now,” says Kiel.

For them, designers’ un-informed use of visual nostalgia is of great concern. Leming relates the work of designers today who appropriate these styles or methods of making to the “uncanny valley.” The uncanny valley, a robotics term coined by Masahiro Mori in the 1970s, suggests that when human replicas look and act, almost, but not perfectly, like human beings, it causes a sense of revulsion among human observers. Humans can sense that it’s inauthentic—and it’s creepy. Leming views lettering in the same way.

“If you draw it on paper and it has an obvious hand feel—then it feels natural and alive. If you digitize it and you don't finish it all the way—meaning bring it back so that it looks like it was made by hand and in doing so, tell the truth about its origins—it’s in an uncanny valley. Where it looks really digital, but not digital, because it looks handmade, but not handmade enough…it’s just this weird thing that happens.” Making something truthful and authentic in a time where filters, scripts and automation in computer-assisted programs provide the designer an easy way out is becoming something of a rarity because it requires a valuable resource: time. It took Leming a decade of thinking and four years of drawing to bring his font Burbank to life. Four years of drawing, revising, going back redrawing and revising again, all in effort to make it “not look digital.” Why? It’s not about being sentimental for the methods left behind, and it’s not about nostalgia. It’s about humanism and infusing work with a human touch, fueling the desire to maintain authenticity—to preserve some remnant of the creator within the digital interface.

Smart design solutions that reference the past and use nostalgia are not just copying a style—there’s innovation and ingenuity in the reinterpretation. Contemporary firms like Type Supply and House Industries use the past in the right way, for the right reasons. They bring the value, history, and craft associated with these references to contemporary design and advocate for the value of these integral components of graphic design’s history as something to learn and learn from. And perhaps, most importantly, they think like craftsmen in the realm of contemporary design and use these references with careful skill.

About the Author:

Hi. My name is Jessica Karle Heltzel. I am a designer, writer, and most recently, a self-publisher. I believe in creating beautiful work with the hope that it will add value to the design community. I am a recent graduate of the Graphic Design MFA program at the Maryland Institute College of Art. While there, I started two companies with my friends, Kern and Burn an online and print publication about design entrepreneurship and The People's Pennant which celebrates the everyday through custom illustrated pennants.