The Gerrit Noordzij Prize, Part 2: Incoming

Typeface: Gotham

Type designers are accustomed to approaching the line between homage and parody with great care. It’s especially daunting when its subject is a living colleague, as was the case last Friday when our own Tobias Frere-Jones presented an award of his own design to Wim Crouwel, winner of the 2009 Gerrit Noordzij Prize. (In keeping with the tradition, the current holder of the prize designs the award given to its next recipient.) To design an award for Crouwel, a Dutch icon who is indelibly associated with a strong and recognizable personal style, takes great sensitivity: imagine having to design a business card for Piet Mondrian, or select a ringtone for Igor Stravinsky.

If there is anyone able to see past the obvious, it is Wim Crouwel. In the 1960s, Crouwel’s fresh yet doctrinaire approach to graphic design earned him the pejorative nickname “gridnik,” which Crouwel, with typical flare, adopted as a moniker, and later chose as the name for his best-known typeface. In his acceptance speech on Friday, Crouwel described his decades-long disagreements with his friend Gerrit Noordzij — in whose name the award is given — and both men reflected gleefully on their continuing philosophical differences. This fruitful synthesis has colored both the study and the practice of graphic design, and it’s satisfying to see it recognized. This is what awards should be for.

In keeping with the custom, Tobias designed an award that uses one of our typefaces, but includes a nod to Crouwel’s own work. In celebration of the pre-history of the Gotham typeface, Tobias arranged for the fabrication of a traditional enamel sign, featuring an abundant grid of Gotham’s many styles (64 out of 66, to be precise.) Hearing Crouwel speak with such good humor at the presentation ceremony, I was almost tempted to reveal Tobias’s original idea, which was to find a way to bridge the Dutch tradition of chocolate letter-making with Crouwel’s arresting new alphabet of 1967. (“I probably could have done it with Kit-Kat bars,” Tobias mused.) I am certain Crouwel would approve. —JH

The World’s Most Perfect Script

Typographically, the Republic of Korea has much to celebrate. The world’s first typefaces cast in metal were made in Korea: a fourteenth century book in the collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris establishes Korean printing from movable type at least as far back as 1377, though Korean typefounding may date to 1234, some 221 years before Gutenberg. An impediment to early printing was the complexity of Chinese characters, then used to render the Korean language, which further stifled national literacy. But in 1446, an undertaking by King Sejong the Great addressed both problems, through what is surely one of the greatest inventions in the history of typography: the Hangul alphabet. On October 9, Korea celebrates this incredible innovation as Korean Alphabet Day, better known as Hangul Day.

The invention and reform of alphabets has a long tradition, though its efforts are rarely successful. Generally speaking, script systems with highly scientific foundations go completely unrecognized, the typographic equivalent of Esperanto. And among the world’s most successful script systems are some of its most arbitrary: nothing in the design of the Latin A suggests its sound or meaning, and even scripts with pictographic origins such as Chinese are usually abstracted to the point of unrecognizability. But Hangul, Korea’s “Great Script,” is perhaps history’s only effort at alphabet reform that is both scientifically rigorous and universally successful. As a result of careful planning, Hangul is easily learned, comfortably written, and infinitely flexible.

Hangul is comprised of 51 jamo, or phomenic units, whose shapes are highly organized. Simple consonants are linear (ㄱ, ㄴ, ㄷ, ㄹ, ㅁ, ㅂ, ㅅ, ㅇ, ㅈ, ㅊ, ㅋ, ㅌ, ㅍ, ㅎ), vowels are horizontal or vertical lines (ㅏ, ㅓ, ㅗ, ㅜ, ㅡ, ㅣ), glottalized letters are doubled (ㄲ, ㄸ, ㅃ, ㅆ, ㅉ), and so on. But more interestingly, Hangul’s characters are featural: their shapes are related to the sounds they symbolize, each representing a different position of the mouth and tongue. Pay attention to the curvature of your lower lip when you form the sounds buh and puh, and you’ll begin to see the logic of Hangul’s B (ㅂ) and P (ㅍ). Notice how your tongue interacts with the roof of your mouth when you say sss and juh, and you’ll understand the design of its S (ㅅ) and J (ㅈ). Hangul’s ability to represent an especially wide range of sounds makes it easy to render loan words from other languages, a challenge in many Asian scripts (but an entertaining hazard to reckless Westerners.) Typographically, I envy my Korean counterparts who get to work with Hangul, with its letterforms that always fit into a square, and can be read in any direction (horizontally or vertically.) And best of all: no kerning! —JH

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