Plazm Magazine: Documenting Creative Culture Since 1991

Plazm is a magazine of design, art, and culture with worldwide distribution. Founded by artists as a creative resource, the magazine is now published by the nonprofit New Oregon Arts & Letters.Order Plazm #30 now.

Out of the Darkness:
DIN and the Mythic Power of Type

Students of typographic design are forced to initially consider the technical issues of optical engineering for the visual universe. Yet they rarely focus on the ideological underpinnings and conundrums. The student of typography often views his or her subject as a series of rigid constraints, principles of scale and proportion and mechanical possibilities, fair game for manipulation. Rarely is typography viewed as part of an organic process of evolution, a working construct of ephemeral existence in a greater time continuum. As fonts evolve they carry forward echoes of the history that created them and the myths they bear. One cannot easily place a monetary value on myth, though some will try.

How deeply a brand values typography –and its ability to carry forward myth- varies widely. The little players use generic, esoteric or readily available letters for their corporate signatures and communications. Some companies commission custom letterforms. Some eventually buy global licenses for entire typefaces, attaching their own myth or borrowing from that of the typeface. There are two classic examples of the genre: VAG originally developed for the Volkswagen Auto Group, has fallen out of widespread use; and the proprietary solution for Philips electronics, a truly beautiful and successful typographic undertaking, which remains an enduring beacon of enlightenment in a crowded and visually chaotic marketplace. Some fonts, such as Times Roman, Fraktur, Playbill, Clarendon and Old English migrated into mythical presences themselves without the overt adoption of corporate patrons.

Such a font is DIN, whose creation by Wagner in 1932 yielded a typographic institution so grandly proliferated as to be imitated to this day. We are awash in its grotesque children. As always, a window backwards serves to remind how and why.

The earliest monotone letterforms, composed of strokes of even thickness, can be traced to written Ancient Greek from the fifth to second century B.C. From them comes the name Grotesque, and the designation sans serif. The casual baseline seen in fragments extant belies a letterform suited to the sparest elegance and economy, allowing lofty flights of random artistry. Later, the Romans, with their chisel serifs, drove the Grotesque into hiding for two thousand years. Letterforms approximated handwriting for centuries to follow, even to the dawn of moveable type. While the eventual introduction of serif fonts widely succeeded, it was not until 1816 that we can track the first recorded reappearance of a sans serif font in Germany, a transnational typeface that followed the Napoleonic era of plunder and destruction. The primary uses of the font were for display purposes, and there was little understanding of the interaction between individual characters. The elemental caps adhered to simplistic geometric modeling, with perfectly round counters, wider footing, the near-equilateral pyramid A, a scenario of uncompromising kerning. This was a typeface that symbolized enlightenment coming from the face of darkness, with stoic freedom in all communications. It was a typeface heralding the industrial age with its relentless mechanical precision.

Around 1898 two pivotal typefaces appeared, at the exact cultural moment when Art Nouveau was transiting into an era of protofuturism, anticipating the emergence of Art Deco. Akzidenz Grotesk was designed with an economic verticality modeled on the demands of moveable metal or machine-set type, introducing an upward compression expressed in condensed letterforms, which were meant to be mechanically arrayed. Copperplate Condensed, of the same era, was produced no doubt to satisfy the demands of the cabal of serifim, but produced in an uppercase only. Copperplate’s cap set roughly emulates that of Akzidenz, both in proportion and drafting, as well as in optical color. Neuzeit Grotesque, cut in 1928 by Wilhelm Pischner, adapted the thick regular strokes and square corners of Akzidenz, suggesting an even stricter rectangularity and harsher geometry. DIN, whose earliest incarnation dates from 1930, and its near relation, Umkerschrift, are Bauhaus-inspired in their affinity to form and function.

It was the decision of the German Standard Committee in 1936 that DIN 1451 be specifically employed in technology, traffic, administration, and business. The Committee deemed the type easily read and written, promoting its ubiquity. But there soon came vivid debate about the typeface’s aesthetic attributes. Of course the artists won, and DIN quickly infected the artistic realm, insinuating itself into advertising with a singular vengeance. DIN’s cap set was approximately modeled on the letterforms of Akzidenz, largely assuming the optical character and color of Copperplate Condensed. Curve stress of the counters is most apparent in the lower case a, m, n, and r. DIN’s numerals have been simplified and streamlined for the convenience of the end user. There is a loftiness in DIN’s intent, which believes everything can work together, while things florid and artistic shall occupy their own space; DIN’s rapid adoption for aesthetic uses refuted any such preposterous limitation.

The 1950s saw the emergence of highly evolved industrial fonts, designed by enlightened and talented typographers: Univers, which celebrated the aesthetic of precision; and Helvetica, which promoted the mass proliferation of the mundane. Both made a lasting impression on communication, literacy, taste. The essential impersonal blandness of Helvetica, though, came to symbolize a world homogenized, devoid of any humanistic refinement.

Thus, in 1995 Albert-Jan Pool created the magnificent FF DIN, rebuilding this herald of the end of the industrial age with a grace, elegance, and ease, superimposed on a matrix of formal, architectural right angles. This recutting created a standard of beauty and function, spawning a tidal wave of imitators all possessed of a cold and clinical mediocrity, which managed to obfuscate the mythical quality of the original. It is a curse of our era that dissolution and devaluation are often the result of high technology’s ease of operation. Everyone can be a typographer, the mistaken idea goes. But the newer cuttings looked antiseptic, uninspired, over-refined to the point of the innocuous.

In 2002 adidas, a German athletic footwear company, commissioned a proprietary font family of twelve faces named adiHAUS, created to communicate the sensibilities of their brand. Plazm Fonts, retained for the project, proposed basing its earliest letterforms on a classic, antique cutting of Wagner’s Umkerschrift.

The key word to remember with adidas is competition. While Nike built its brand on performance, adidas had attached itself primarily to professional competition and is credited with almost all athletic footwear innovations prior to Nike’s waffle sole, which was introduced in the 1970s. Witness the recent resurgence of interest in classic adidas Olympic shoes from the sixties and seventies. The mythos of the brand is embedded in the concept. Plazm Font’s project Creative Director Pete McCracken symbolically referenced this by introducing the typographic idea of setting one’s self up in opposition to the past, drawing differences between the forerunner named DIN 1451 and the challenger named adiHAUS. Times had changed, too. The designers rendered adiHAUS more extended, more open in the counters, suggesting a more stable base, a more assured landing, and the foundations of balance. Paradoxically, the designers added a slightly higher waistline, rendering the font even more bottom-heavy, with a lower center of gravity, an effect not mediated by a deeper descender line. adiHAUS is a contrarian font where the lower case a, l, and y stand simplified in symbolic opposition to their DIN antecedents, while the numerals 1 and 9 engage in a comparable conflict, only in reverse. adiHAUS has altered the altitude of center horizontal strokes in A, B, E, F, G, P and R to reflect the volumes of the extended counters — but other than that and some manipulation of the cap Q, the upper case is largely undistinguished, an homage to DIN, and a concession to our antipathy toward uppercase, which in the digital world is considered loud, pushy, and aggressive. Finally, adiHAUS demands and seizes more horizontal and vertical space proportionately than its predecessors, symbolizing the brand’s attachment to the gains of competition. While the font met the objectives of the commercial mythos, it left behind the very mnemonic signals of its heritage.

Adidas continues to utilize the adiHAUS font for retail, POS, internal presentations, legal lines and occasional URLs in print and TV advertising. In that action, Adidas demonstrates how much it values typography, using it to reference the concept of competition, as it acknowledges the process of 'coming out of the darkness and into the light.'

There is a classic Zen koan which talks about what is outside the vessel being as important as the space within. adiHAUS helped Adidas add the figurative zone outside the vessel to their presentation, deploying the skills of the professional typographer to help reinforce and invigorate their brand value. In the search for corporate enlightenment, this is the single significant first step in a long and rewarding journey of a thousand miles.


Albert-Jan Pool writes:

“In 1905 the Prussian Railways were the first to define a model for lettering. Its original purpose was to unify the descriptions on freight cars. Soon it was adapted for all sorts of lettering, including the names of the railway stations.

The foundation of the Weimar Republic, which turned the patchwork of states into a single German state, was followed by a merger of all state railways into the Deutsche Reichsbahn in 1920. The master drawings of the Prussian Railways became the reference for all railway lettering.

During the Dessau Period of the Bauhaus, characters were drawn with ruler and compass on coarse grids. Doing so, Herbert Bayer and Joost Schmidt — who were responsible for the typographic courses — became exponents of the so-called Constructivist style of lettering. In the 1920s Constructivism was not the only game in town, but it certainly played an eminent role.

It is my personal guess that it was the Berthold foundry that was involved. Bernd Möllenstädt told me this some time ago, but within another context. The force behind the modelling of characters in the direction of Akzidenz Grotesk is said to be G. G. Lange, as well as Berthold. Lange had been a member of the DIN Comittee of Drawings, and the later Committee of Type.

The work on DIN 1451 was supervised by Ludwig Goller, an employee of Siemens. With minor modifications the typeface of the Deutsche Reichsbahn (identical with that of one of its predecessors, the Prussian Railways) was turned into DIN Engschrift., which became the basic model for the signage version of DIN Mittelschrift and DIN Breitschrift. It seems that the company appreciated the work of its employee (also president of the DIN Committee of Drawings) so much that the characters of his newly drawn DIN Mittelschrift became the model for the new Siemens logotype from 1936 (Art Direction by Hans Domizlaff). As from the start of the development of DIN, which began around 1925, until the most recent versions of 1985, one main guideline forms the basis of all designs. Characters would be drawn with all kinds of tools, varying from drawing pens, engraving tools as well as compass and rulers. They all should share the same heartline. Depending on the tool, stroke ends could be rounded or angular. This is contradictory to all traditional forms of typography in which it is considered that only varying stroke weight enables optimal word-images.

Nevertheless there have been different versions of DIN from the very beginning. Not only was there the DIN typeface used for signage, of which the Adobe-Version DIN Mittelschrift and DIN Engschrift are the ‘modern’ versions. There was also a typeface for engraving (based on or identical with DIN 16 and 17), and also one for stencil lettering."

Share |

Text by Stanley Moss. Originally appearing in the book F30: Thirty Essential Typefaces by Joshua Berger and Imin Pao.