The typographic system Twin Cities is a family of typefaces that exists as a result of the networked society that shapes our current cultural and social era. This new era posits a change away from the mechanic and electronic logic of yesteryear, towards a worldview that realises all forms of identity are a result of connections to neighbours in the network. It represents a shift in moving away from using semantic values as a marker of design, using the context of the broader environment as a means of justifying the alteration of form. In departing from a focus on historical styles that has become dominant in recent typographic trends, Twin Cities approaches the concept of identity from another angle. This consists of using the elements of the natural environment to symbolise create a connection with the urban geography.
The typeface acts as a dynamic weather vane, updated every five minutes to reflect the temperature or wind strength of the area in which the data is taken. Through the use of several typefaces the design illustrates the diversity of cities and in doing so it is taking part in a shift in which cities need to portray themselves through non specific means. The typographers who designed this device are aware of the historical differences in type styles, specifically how they relate to attitudes about hierarchy, the collapse of order and non–linear means of creating structure. By standing at the vanguard of typography they are able to use emerging technologies to create works that could not have been possible using simpler techniques. These are not for novelty’s sake, but are a response to the needs of the designer and the client.
The Twin Cities typographic system designed by typographers Just Rossum and Erik Blokland from LettError is a dynamic design for the twin cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. It treats various external factors such as wind strength and the temperature of the cities as a means of generating form. It is a family of fonts that cover a wide variety of styles including a sans serif, sans, rounded sans as well as many other whimsical fonts. It was commissioned as part of a competition to explore the relationship between typography and cities. Out of the six entrants invited to the competition, their entry was the winner based on their response to the brief.
While this typeface can be used in common design software (Adobe Illustrator, InDesign et. al) it is similar to the Casa de Musica Logo Generator and also exists in the form of a tailored software program. This program takes the form of a special web applet allowing it to take live data from the National Weather Service Forecast Office in realtime; the wind strength or temperature affecting the overall form of the typeface throughout the day. Aside from existing as a living pulse of the city’s weather, the designer can choose to input parameters along the program’s predetermined axis of variability. While this is a novel use of typography, I will be focusing on the contextual network–oriented meteorological component of the design.
The typeface consists of ten different fonts: Formal, Gothic, Sans, Poster Sans, Casual, Round, BitRound, Weird Round, Weird and Loony. These ten can be viewed as inhabiting three distinct typographic dimensions – Serif/Formal, Round/Informal and Alternate/Weird. They begun with a two dimensional map of four quadrants and then expanded this into a three dimensional cube of eight quadrants to allow for a finer granularity between fonts. By beginning with a simple and “sturdy low contrast sans serif design with subtle curves and rounded edges” they were able to extend the basic shape of the fonts to create the rest of the family.1 The cube allowed them to extrapolate the vast array of characters that would be able to bridge the differences between styles. The X axis is formality, the Y axis is informality and the Z Axis is weirdness, giving the designers the ability to “need a glyph that’s close to (0.56, 0.33 0.92)’’ to ensure smooth transitions between each of the styles.2 The temperature used by the system ranges from -10˚F to 100˚F (12.2˚C – 37.8˚C), the coldest using the Serif/Formal typographic values and the hottest using the Round/Informal values; the Alternate/Weird Axis is not used for the temperature component of the identity. This allows for a gradient of options depending on the temperature at the time by including a mixture of fonts in the same line of text. By creating such a comprehensive system they were able to respond to the wide variety of possible external factors and contexts.
Yesterday’s designer was closely linked with the command-control vision of the engineer, but today’s designer is closer to the if-then approach of the programmer. It is this programmatic or social logic that holds sway in relational design...obsessed with processes and systems to generate designs, which do not follow the same linear, cybernetic logic of yesteryear. 3
The relational and contextual qualities of the Twin Cities system would not be able to operate without being connected to the internet. It is by being part of a network that it is able to mutate and transform in real time. Examples such as this illustrate how much influence the internet has in creating our network dominated culture. This flexible and feedback orientated societal structure is a new one, having replaced the older formal industrial era hierarchies.
For Network Theorist Manuell Castells the network has become all invasive and paraphrases Marshall Mcluhan to make his point: “The Network is the Message”.4 This Network Culture has become the dominant paradigm of our time; not just composting the older machine oriented society of Modernism but also the electronic and digital based culture of Postmodernism. For Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism was a result of Late Capitalism, the commodity having become transformed into an abstract entity. Continuing on from Jameson and Castells, Architectural Theorist Kazys Varnelis recognises that the value of the commodity has become less about what has become abstracted but its position in the network. This notion of importance based on contextual relationships has importance for not just capital, but for individual identity as well. The singular subjective identity, once deemed so central to enlightenment values has now become subsumed into the network. Our identity is now composed of relations articulating where we sit in the network: “affirming one’s identity today means affirming the identity of others.”5 The identity of the Twin Cities now relies on affirming the identity and importance of the other non–formal and symbolic factors of place. The transferal of subjectivity was transferred to another node in the network: weather.
The advertising campaign for the Nordkyn peninsula in Norway is another example of using external environmental factors to alter the form of a logo. Designed by Neue Design Studio, the logo takes weather statistics from the Norwegian Meteorological Institute to affect the shape and colour of the logo. To promote the area as a tourist destination the tag line Where Nature Rules is used to highlight the sublime qualities of the arctic area. Acting as a compass, the logo is distorted to reflect the wind strength and direction while the colour values are changed according to the temperature ranging from –25˚C to 25˚C. This is a logo that has a deep relationship to the area, where the nature rules over not just the peninsula, but to the logo as well. The tagline and weather details are adjacent to the logo, set in a clean and rational typeface appropriate for the Nordic locale. This dynamic identity reflects the local and immediate environment while being conscious of situating itself within the broader historical and cultural domain of Nordic design.
In representing a non urban area, the use of the weather as a means to generate and alter form has a closer semantic link to the logo than the Twin Cities typeface. While the typeface represents the diversity of urban life through the use of a multitude of possible forms and variations, it is the connection to the natural environment that informs the programmatic and contextual element of the identity. The city is an artificial environment, yet the values that affect the typeface are composed of natural phenomena. Perhaps different databases such as traffic speeds or population densities would provide a more cohesive means in which to connect to the urban environments of St. Pauls and Minneapolis. The differences between Twin Cities and the Nordkyn logo reflects the geographic scale both are attempting to represent. While a large area, the Nordkyn Peninsula is a monocultural area composed of a natural landscape; The Twin Cities are microcosms composed of the diversity of human culture. The difficulties in representing two cities, and the cultural diversities that lie within, is a harder task than referencing a broader culture with the deep historical connection it has to a country.
The competition was commissioned as an experiment to understand the relationship between urban identity and typography. This relationship is often fraught with problems. How can one consolidate the vast cultural attitudes of the residents of a city into a typeface, let alone the geographic, historic and architectural aspects as well. The creation of a new typeface poses new new problems: does one impose a specific ideal of the city by creating a typeface and expect it to respect all the factors that define the image of a city, let alone two. Typefaces that are now considered emblematic of cities, nations and cultures were not imposed by above, but allowed the passage of time to imbue the font with meaning. Johnston, the typeface used by Transport for London has become synonymous with the city of London becoming part of the urban fabric. The classical form of British modernity that underscores the form of Gill Sans is a result of the culture and training of the designer Eric Gill who contributed to the Johnston typeface. Another typeface which has come to represent a city, if not officially, is Gotham designed by Tobias Frere Jones. Taking cues from the lettering seen on the Port Authority building in New York he extrapolating the alphabet by finding similar examples throughout the city. Through this survey of the typographic environment of the city he was able to construct a typeface family that reflects the city’s character. In paying homage to the semantic relationship that Gotham has with New York, it was used on the Freedom Tower memorial stone on the site of the Twin Towers.
The Twin Cities typographic system does not refer to the semantic or historic nature of the cities themselves, but to the vibrant and multicultural aspects of cities in general. They rejected the idea of using stylistic traits common to either city, deriding it as kitsch. Their proposal reflected on the heterogeneity of urban life: "To an extent our proposal is more about a city and diversity in general, rather than something specific from St. Paul and Minneapolis".6
The recent rebranding of Melbourne City is one such example where the representation of multicultural and vibrant city replaced concerns to represent specifics. Consisting of a geometric capital M, the inside of the logo has been used to present a diverse range of options and appearances. The internal system of triangles and angular facets allows the designers to create a multiplicity of options that can be used to present the diversity found in Melbourne. The different patterns and forms inside the logo allow for a multiplicity of options, but unlike the Twin Cities typeface they do not respond to any external factors. Instead the visual syntax is used to display semantic values or to illustrate differing organisational structures within the Melbourne brand. While the use of a dynamic and flexible identity system is a relatively new occurrence, it is not situated exclusively within the domain of the networked and the relational.
Galanter refers to the three distinctions between Modernism, Postmodernism and Complexism as being distinguished by Hierarchy, Collapse and Connectionist Networks. We can further explore these three differences through the lens of typeface systems. The Univers typeface family designed by Adrian Frutiger in 1954 is one of the great type designs in the modernist tradition. The clear rational forms of the letters helped designers portray universalist messages, using it as a global language that could be exported around the world. The typeface should clearly speak the message contained in the text: the typography should be invisible so as to better service the text. The system in which it was presented is a result of the modernist mind. Organised along a grid system, it presented the hierarchy of the typeface in a clear and concise manner. Not just through the numbering system used to denote the range of faces but also through the rationalist grid. This clearly outlines the differing weights of the font; an informational tool used to visualise the hierarchy of the typographic system.
Designed by Letterror in 1989, Beowolf is a typeface that become more distorted the more it is used. By using the Postscript technology that was new at the time, they were able to alter the underlying code of the typeface. Through programming, the designers were able to create a font that creates minor distortions each time a letter is used. The more often a specific character is used the more that character will become distorted. Throughout a sample of text, more commonly used letters like ‘e’, ‘s’ and ‘n’ would become extremely distorted and almost unreadable while less commonly used letters such as ‘q’ and ‘x’ would remain fairly coherent. The font never repeats itself as noise is added into the distortion process so that each character is never the same. It is this distortion that appeals to the postmodern fixation on random qualities, by collapsing hierarchies. To refer back to Galanter’s morphological metaphor, Univers is a crystalline structure while Beowolf is an undifferentiated gas.
The Twin Cities typeface is situated in between these two oppositions. It has an underlying structure ranging from a soft rounded sans serif to a firm and rigid slab serif with all the gradients in between; as well as the loony and weird variations. There is no strict hierarchy involved in delineating the differences, these are a result of the parametric inputs responding to the designers preferences – or more importantly – the natural environment. The specimen sheet they provided does not work in the same way that a typical specimen sheet illustrates the range of weights or italics commonly seen in extended typeface families. Instead it is presented as a city map, comparing areas of an imagined city to the different sensibilities that each face portrays. This provides a semantic context to aid those needing to understand the various personalities of each font. As Dewey discusses in reference to language: “signs and symbols derive for their meaning upon the contextual situation in which they appear and are used.”7 The contextual situation for Twin Cities lies in not just the relationship between typeface and imagined urban neighbourhoods nor between the interplay between environment and text, but between the letters themselves. The non–hierarchic network structure of the typeface uses contextual alternates to create a smooth and readable result despite the various typographic styles contained within a single word or sentence.
Contextual alternates have become an important and defining typographic trend in recent years. This is a result of the new Opentype format which allows for 65,536 glyphs in a typeface, a vast improvement over the previously allowed 256. Type designer have been experimenting with the typographic form because of the increased amount of characters able to be embedded into one font. This experimentation has lead to typefaces that play with the idea of ligatures: letters that connect together to enhance readability. Up until the digitisation of typography, fonts were only able to include a small amount of ligatures, notably fi and fl. This allows the terminal of the f to not clash with the crossbar of the t or the ball of the i. Due to the increased range of possibilities allowed through opentype, a wider range of possibilities have been explored. One notable example is the Ed Benguiat family of fonts designed by House Industries in 2007. This family of casual typefaces use an extensive range of contextual ligatures and alternates in an attempt at mimicking the fluid forms of hand rendered typography, of which the typographer and letterer Ed Benguiat is famous for. These homages to mid–century modern lettering uses a vast amount of interlocking and connecting glyphs to create the illusion bespoke typography. The Ed Interlock typeface has a family of 1,400 ligatures allowing for an extremely varied and whimsical typeface. Ed Script uses a similar technique to create the illusion of authentic hand rendered lettering by ensuring that each character smoothly connects to those surrounding it in all but the most unreasonable of character combinations. The fluid forms of both of these typefaces use contextual alternates and respond to their immediate environment.
While the characters in Twin Cities do not connect in the same manner that Ed Interlock and Ed Script do, the Twin Cities system takes this a conceptual step further by allowing for a wide variety of styles and typographic sensibilities to work together. By creating each font with the same weight, width and humanist form the varied forms are able to work in a harmonious and readable manner. The aim of this approach, is to be able to create a typeface where you can tell “a difference if you set a word at the beginning of the day vs the end of the day” while still maintaining the same level of readability and quality of design at all times.8
The question of whether or not the Twin Cities typeface can “effectively represent a city, or communicate what’s unique about a particular place” is best answered by the woman who commissioned the competition: “Maybe. Maybe not.”9 This answer depends on what quantifying factors are included in the question. As discussed, there are many ways of representing a city through a typeface. These can range from incorporating historic cultural elements of the specific location or by allowing the semantic relationship between the urban and typographic form to grow together. Twin Cities does neither. It takes a completely different approach, an approach that is dictated and informed by the changing culture we live in today. It does not respond to the city through formal or semantic dimensions, but through a broader meteorological connection. It represents the diversity of the city by portraying the multicultural fabric of the city through the various differing typographic styles, from a serious and cold formal slab serif, to a warm and friendly rounded sans serif, to a mixture of bizarre forms which have a passing resemblance to the typographic form. All of these work together using a well designed humanist base; a handy typographic metaphor for cosmopolitan city living. Despite all of these networked meanings, this typeface could represent any city. The fact is that it was made for the twin cities of St. Pauls and Minneapolis, and is thus able to represent them. This could only be possible because the project and designers are aware of the cultural and technological period in which they work. Not just in using advances in the construction of typographic artefacts as a means of creating variability but in understanding why and when to use them. As shown in their previous work, they are able to construe the defining qualities of the age into structural qualities of the work. The Twin Cities responds to the networked culture in which it resides by creating a structure not around hierarchy, or by ignoring or collapsing it, but by aligning the structural qualities in the network that it resides. If, as Blauvelt argues, that there are now different defining markers of this period, this project must be marked against the qualities and requirements of our age. Seen in this light, the answer to whether or not this typeface represents a specific locale the answer is not an indecisive “Maybe”, but a decisive yes.
1. Worthington, Michael. ed Littlejohn, Deborah. Metro Letters: A Typeface for the Twin Cities. (Design Institute, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 2003) p184
3. Blauvelt, Andrew. Towards Relational Design
4. Castells, Manuel. The Internet Galaxy (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001) p1
5. Varnelis, Kazys. The Rise of Network Culture Networked Publics.
6. Blokland, Erik Metro Letters: A Typeface for the Twin Cities (Design Institute, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 2003) 91
7. Dewey, John. ‘Context and Thought’ University of California publications in philosophy, (Volume 12, Issue 3. 1931) p5
8. Blokland op cit
9. Abrams op cit