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Avant Garde Gothic

Avant Garde Gothic

It was the mid-1960s, and in New York the idea for a magazine with the title Avant Garde had just been conceived. In the publishers’ own words, it was to be “a thoughtful, joyous magazine on art and politics, [aimed at people] ahead of their time”.

The publishers Ralph Ginzburg and Herb Lubalin worked together on the design scheme for the magazine. “It was a difficult collaboration”, Ginzburg remembers. “His first logo was in Hebrew. He thought that was funny. Then he did it in Coca-Cola script. We went through a dozen designs, all masterfully executed. But none felt right.”

The New York designer and typographer Herbert F. Lubalin (1918–1981; Photo © 1979 The American Institute of Graphic Arts)

One day, Ginzburg and his wife Shoshana went to see the frustrated Herb Lubalin at his studio. They explained the concept of the planned publication again to him. “I asked him to picture a modern European airport”, Shoshana Ginzburg recalls. “‘Imagine a jet taking off the runway into the future.’ I used my hand to describe the plane flying skyward as an upward diagonal. He had me repeat that a couple of times. I explained that the logos he had offered us so far would suit all kinds of magazines, but that Avant Garde needed something nobody had ever seen before: something singular and entirely new.”

The eighth issue of Avant Garde magazine, with a typographical cover (1969)

As Herb Lubalin was driving to work the following morning from his home in Woodmere, New York, he suddenly pulled the car over to the side of the road. He rang Ralph Ginzburg from a telephone box, something he had never done before: “Ralph, I’ve got the answer. You’ll see.” And the rest is design history.

Lubalin’s starting points were capitals in the style of a geometrical sans-serif typeface (known in the USA as a “Gothic”), something between Futura (#5 in this list) and Helvetica (#1 in this list) . Remembering Shoshana Ginzburg’s hand movement, he angularised the two As and the V in such a way that they fitted together like slices of cake. He halved the T, joining it to the N. The third A had one of its legs in the circular G, with the horizontal strokes coinciding. The R, D and E touched one other, so that the final result was two compact blocks of type. These became the unmistakeable Avant Garde logo.

In order to attract advertisers, Ginzburg and Lubalin devised a promotional brochure in which all the headings needed to be set in the Avant Garde type – all in capitals. Lubalin exhausted three assistants in his efforts to get the 26 letters of the alphabet drawn at record speed. At this point, his partner Tom Carnese stepped in, and quickly realised that it would be almost impossible to produce serviceable results with the geometrical font unless they used ligatures. With every word that they drew, new ligatures were created. Eventually, they had enough characters to complete the booklet. Indeed they could now even commission a phototypesetting prototype for Avant Garde from Photo Lettering, Inc.

One of the best known covers in typographical history: Avant Garde magazine, N° 13 (1970), replicated using Avant Garde Book, Book Alt, Medium and Medium Alt from E+F; Photo: Image100

From 1968, word of the new typeface spread through New York like wildfire, despite its limited distribution. Advertisers and art directors were crazy about the lettering and wanted to use it in their own work too. Eventually, Photo Lettering began offering headlines set in Avant Garde, but the typesetting company had not requested permission to use the font, much to the resentment of its designers.

In the hope of taking the wind out of the pirates’ sails, Tom Carnese produced a set of specimen cards. With these, Lubalin Smith Carnese began bidding for work as the only authorised setters of Avant Garde type. They were soon overrun with orders.

A logical consequence of this was the founding of the International Typeface Corporation (ITC) by Herb Lubalin, Aaron Burns and Ed Rondthaler in 1970. The revolutionary idea behind ITC was that of a hardware-independent font library which would license its designs to typesetting equipment manufacturers. Until that point, Monotype, Linotype and Co. had used proprietary type designs, sometimes exchanging licenses or copying from one another. ITC’s aim was to create clarity from then on with regard to copyright protection for the type designer.

ITC’s first endurance test was the Avant Garde typeface itself, which was released amid considerable legal wrangling. Although Herb Lubalin owned the rights to the design, it was Ralph Ginzburg who held the name and trademark rights. He made them available free of charge on the condition that the font name was always marked with the copyright symbol ®. Lubalin and Burns ignored this demand, which angered Ginzberg. But he did not have the financial means to take action against the trademark violation. On the contrary, soon he even had to close down his magazine, while the font that bore its name became famous around the world.

“I think a number of people got really rich off that typeface, including Herb”, Ralph Ginzberg suspects today. “But Carnese, who made all the original drawings for the light, medium and bold weights, didn’t share in any of the profits. I resent them for that. It was no way to treat a partner.”

Perhaps Carnese took comfort in the fact that very few people were able to use the idiosyncratic typeface well. Many only concerned themselves superficially with the ligatures. And if set incorrectly, the lower case r and n would touch, inevitably giving the appearance of an m. Thus, many Avant Garde users ruined their pet font themselves.

After its phenomenal premiere, ITC soon released a serif version of Avant Garde, which was designed by Toni Di Spigna and given the name Lubalin Graph.

The fanatical enthusiasm for the new Avant Garde, combined with the possibilities offered by phototypesetting, caused some art directors to lose their heads. DDB art director Dieter Krone created the Fox campaign for Audi, with headers and body text in Avant Garde. Form followed technology. Even the claim was inspired by the type sample text “The quick brown fox ”.

Few typefaces reflect the spirit of an era quite as precisely as Avant Garde. It comes from an age of unclouded faith in technology, with humanity just preparing to make its first landing on the moon. The font is so strongly of its era as to make it unserviceable for contemporary communication purposes, unless one wishes to make deliberate reference to the 1970s.

It is an extremely popular font nevertheless, particularly among amateurs. Perhaps it takes such extreme forms for the untrained eye to notice that different typefaces exist. And from then on the assumption is: “If we want it to look professionally designed, we’d better use Avant Garde.”

But it is not a beginner’s typeface. As with most constructed sans-serifs, its areas of application are limited. The idea of constructing a typeface, rather than evolving it from handwritten lettering, goes back to the 1920s, to Functionalism and the “mechanised graphics” of Paul Renner. Futura, Erbar and Bernhard Gothic all date from this period. But nobody had dared to depart as far from typographical norms as Herb Lubalin.

The essential Avant Garde ligatures, now available again as alternatives in the digital version (produced by E+F)

The prevalence of Avant Garde in the digital era, which began in the late 1980s, can be attributed to the page description language PostScript. The first PostScript printers included Avant Garde as one of their fonts. And as only a handful of fonts were available at that time, Avant Garde was always required to serve as the “outlandish option”.

Avant Garde quotes:

Ed Benguiat: “The only place Avant Garde looks good is in the words Avant Garde.”
Tony Di Spigna, partner of Lubalin: “The world’s most abused typeface.”
Alex W. White, writer: “A collection of such extreme shapes causes fatigue at text sizes and cannot help but draw attention to itself, which is arguably the greatest sin a typeface can commit.”
Steven Heller: “The paisley of typefaces.”
Stephen Coles, Typographica: “Now that the alternatives have been released, the floodgates have been reopened.”
Art Chantry, designer: “When I was a beginner, it was Avant Garde that taught me how typography doesn’t work.”
Dieter Krone, art director at DDB: “Phototypesetting with Avant Garde made it possible for character spacing and line leading to be given negative values. And because it was possible, people did it.”
Fontblog: “Avant Garde is not a typeface but a synthetic product. True type is born, it is alive. Constructed alphabets are typographical deadwood.”

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