08 November 2006
David Earls
The evolution and current trends of type in motion
David Earls

When the first moveable type printing presses arrived hundreds of years ago, it revolutionised the way in which information was presented and distributed to the public. From the days of daubing on walls, carving glyphs in stone, and writing on papyrus, typography had evolved in an organic fashion, with the method of production deeply embedded in a glyph s style. Typography as I perceive it - as a creative art that encompasses not only character design, but also the whole process of how type relates to the medium in which it exists - started at that point.

So we moved on. Typography grew. Much of what we now understand about readability, structure, and form came as a direct result of those moveable type presses and their successors, but always with one single common element: All typography was static. Again, the very nature of the medium dictated its form - much like in the cases of painting, sculpture, or photography, type s purpose as a method of communication relied on the typographer s ability to convey meaning and message in a snapshot.

Then, something fundamental happened. Time-based media arrived - first in film, then television. Almost overnight, typographers had a new set of challenges, as well as creative possibilities. But just like before the arrival of the presses, the lucky limited few who had access to the medium and methods of production neglected, for the most part, the creative possibilities, still stuck in the old mentality of print. For years, the film and television industries remained the same, right up until the 60s and 70s, when television powers that be, particularly in Europe, began to allow designers to experiment with new, time-based ways of dealing with type - usually on smaller, lower budget titles.

The true renaissance came in the 80s and 90s, when typography as a moving, living, evolving entity in time became mainstream in the eyes of the public, with notable examples being the now eponymous opening title sequence of the film Seven (or Se7en, 1995, New Line Cinema) by Kyle Cooper and Jonathan Barnbrook s television advert work for British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL). In these, we first saw type treated as an evolving thing, as opposed to the rather staid, transformational, basically graphic design-based work of earlier years.

You may be wondering what this has to do with current trends. Well, a lot, as we can draw many parallels between what is happening now and past events.

As the Internet grows and new technology opens up new ways of thinking about typography, many of the same issues that faced those in control of production in the past rise again. With the strength of the Flash plug-in growing steadily over the last few years, people have been experimenting with its use in typography. Just as before with print and the first time-based media, typographers are learning to use the medium more effectively, but it s happening slowly, and too many designers don t seem to be giving their work much meaning. If I see another splash screen with some flying type that serves no purpose, I think I may vomit over my poor Mac s keyboard.

For the Internet, the current state of the industry does not look too bright. Time-based typography, a vehicle that has real potential to help a viewer understand and feel a part of what the producer is trying to convey (which is, after all, what all design is about), is currently being under-utilised. Rather than using technology to benefit and enhance the message, it s being used to provide that most insidious of all client requests the Wow! factor. Just after we have persuaded the last marketing person in the world that the Blink tag in HTML really isn t what they need, or that animating their logo on every page may just prove to be somewhat annoying, we seem to have replaced these minor victories with new, potentially far more damaging weapons. And let us not be under any false illusions here; Flash is a very dangerous weapon indeed, more dangerous than the everyone is a designer mentality that proliferated in the early days of desktop publishing.

The truth of the matter is that, with few exceptions, Flash animations embedded into websites do not serve any purpose other than Wow! at this moment in time. Just as in the older time-based media, designers seem to concentrate too hard on what Flash can do, rather than what the new medium allows a piece to say. Television has learnt the hard way, particularly in the 80s, how new technology can be used in an ill-conceived manner in matters of type and time (think 3D animated chrome logos in channel idents across the United States). And so it is with the Web industry, which, for the most part, is failing to grasp the true potential of what its new technologies have to offer in terms of pushing the boundries of sound design, while concentrating on me too whiz-bang tricks. The only difference that I can see is that the flying 3D logos of the past are being replaced with animated, rotating, spinning title sequences hardly thinking outside the box!

For the most part, the work out there is in its infancy and is missing a fundamental point. Throughout this article I ve been drawing parallels between the Net and other time-based media. What we ve yet to see designers contemplate is that there is an incredibly important difference the Net is an interactive non-linear medium, and Flash gives us a very exciting opportunity to bring interactivity to type. And no, I don t mean simple rollovers!

But there are glimmers of hope. Overall, one can say that film and television have learnt their lessons over the decades, and so it is beginning with the Internet. Small pieces of experimental work appearing out there give rise to real, genuine hope. What I am referring to are the projects produced by a few particularly clever individuals who are beginning to understand the implications of their work and are making time-based, interactive type an integral part of the design, rather than the ever-so-popular eye-candy which, in reality, doesn t taste that sweet. A good example of this ground-breaking work include John Maeda s interactive calendar work for the Japanese cosmetics company Shiseido, a project which, although completed in 1997, still has the capacity to shock with its pure inventiveness. Another is the work of typogRaphic (particularly its first incarnation, still available at, which pushes what one expects of type on the Web as a method of communicating ideas over time.

So, stay tuned, folks. There are signs of yet another revolution coming, and this one is going to change your view of typography forever. Broadband Internet and truly interactive digital television are now very real, the former in The States, the latter across Europe. The Web and Flash technology as we know it now is our last great chance to learn to do things right before true digital convergence takes place. And trust me, that day is closer than many people believe.

About this article
The following article is reprinted from Visual Arts Trends, with permission. 2001, Visual Arts Trends.

About the author
After graduating with honours from one of the first new media programs in the United Kingdom, David Earls has worked as a graphic designer before making the move into Web design in 1996. Today, he works on digital television and Web projects for the Soho, London-based Entranet, one of the largest e-commerce agencies in Europe. David's primarily European portfolio includes online brand development work for clients as diverse as Zurich, Barclays, Digital (Compaq), Royal Bank of Scotland, Williams F1 Racing, and SCA Hygiene (Kleenex, Bodyform). To complement his commercial work, David founded, the independent online magazine of typography, in 1999. His writings are now regularly featured on Microsoft's typography website and

With offices in New York and London, Visual Arts Trends is an international quarterly "state of the industry" report for the creative professional. Focusing on graphic design, advertising art direction, photography and illustration, each report offers a brief, business-oriented, definitive and timely overview of industry developments that affect aesthetics, pricing, salaries, working conditions and client relations. Visual Arts Trends combines unique proprietary research with material gathered by monitoring hundreds of publications, companies, membership organizations, online sources, and other relevant sources of information. The reports review and analyzes professional trends by business category and by specialization. In addition, each report profiles client industries interviews with senior executives of leading companies and organizations. An annual subscription retails for US$29.99 and includes four reports available for download as PDF files. Visual Arts Trends is a trademark of and is published by Colonial Communications Corp.