Five typography trends set to make waves in 2023
This year’s trends are all about what’s underneath. From code and generative typography to type as a political tool, how and why we create type will be driving what’s coming next.
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We’re experiencing an unprecedented moment in type history – where so much of what we’ve been taught about typography (it should be invisible, it’s slow to evolve) is dissolving before our very eyes. And behind it is a bright, luminescent, gorgeous field of hallucinatory magic.
For much of recent history, the work of a designer was a job of pairing, where the illustration or photograph did the heavy lifting of communicating tone or mood, and type was appended, often around the edges, almost as a label. But today, with the help of a multitude of technological innovations and experiments, a new era is emerging: where typography itself is able to embody mood and vibe like never before, leading to some of the most breakout campaigns to be entirely typographic (check out Tátil Design’s Rio Carnaval campaign from earlier this year). What designers are doing with type today is akin to what it must have felt like to live in Dziga Vertov’s era, with technological innovation opening up new ways of seeing and understanding the world around us. And as new visions open up – as technological opportunities show us just how innovative type can be – deeper questions surface, regarding why the default has been what it’s been; what ideas or ways of thinking have benefitted from it; and who owns the visual cornucopia of typographic language. Below, we take a look at the five typography trends set to shake up the creative world in the year ahead.
Augmented with typography
In 2011, Portlandia rolled out their catchphrase and hipster design-fix-it: “Put a bird on it.” These days, it might as well be “put type on it”. Typography has infiltrated fashion, food is shaped or moulded into type, and dance-based TikToks still have us pointing to the words at every pivot. And if we’re going to have type everywhere, it might as well be interesting. This is where the uncharted possibilities of dimensional type in augmented reality (AR) come into play.
AR typography is a burgeoning field and to guide us through it, we talked with recent grad Rajshree Saraf. Rajshree has been creating sculptural type she can dance inside of in Hallucinating Type, exploring the dimensional typographic grid in her thesis work, and pushing out variable dimensional type in her latest project, Typespace App. In Typespace, Rajshree combines all the bells and whistles available to today’s designers, opening the door to little-explored possibilities that could explode in 2023. “I’m most excited to experiment with responsive AR,” Rajshree says. “Automating it and having the type adjust itself based on environmental factors around it would be incredible.”
For those wanting to get into the realm, “AR platforms might look intimidating, but most of them are not that hard to use,” Rajshree says. The biggest challenges are conceptual. “The environment’s visual clutter, time of day and even the colour of the clothes people are wearing on a particular day might make type look very different,” she says. “In retrospect, it seems kind of obvious, but my first ‘aha’ moment creating type in AR was when I realised that it was much like designing wayfinding – they both need to be incredibly environment aware.”
The co-creation era has begun
Now that we’ve collectively concluded that we like type on all things, wouldn’t it be easier if it just generated itself or created its own layout and formation? Type is morphing shape and form with the help of artificial intelligence (AI), bouncing to life with anthropomorphic movement and creating layouts within bounds that are anything but boring. Typography these days is, more than ever, part mind and part machine.
While functional computer-generated fonts are still nascent, the iterations and steps along the way are jaw-dropping and fascinating, such as Yehang Yin’s Hanzi experiments, or Gianpaolo Tucci’s Peterbald cat typography mash-ups. AI is “broadening the spectrum of stylistic and imaginative opportunities, while reducing effort and production time,” says Gianpaolo. “When typography breaks out of the barriers of the container (print, screen and so on) and towards new shaping dimensions (AR, VR, Metaverse, Multiverse) – will we still have the same rules and constants?“ Gianpaolo ponders, noting the added opportunities in shapes, colours, depth, size, movement, reference points and more that the expanded field provides.
Sanchit Sawaria is another practitioner surveying the AI space, whose recent works include landscape type interventions. These works are deceivingly simple to create, where “the machine-learning tool will do the job of making sense of the prompts,” says Sanchit. Primarily working with GauGan and Nvidia Paint, Sanchit explains that the “involvement between designer and machine is still in balance – as the artist, you’re still able to have control over the composition, so your lettering skills can seamlessly transfer onto the platform.”
Type that engages
Right next to typography that can self-create or reproduce, we have typography that engages and reacts. And no one is better positioned to showcase the giddy excitement that this can elicit than Yehwan Song with her experimental interfaces.
In her bio, Yehwan makes a tongue-in-cheek claim for “anti-user-friendly” work, yet I’d argue that what she does is anything but. The humanity, joy and friendliness is exactly what Yehwan introduces against the sterile backdrop of design systems, which have succeeded in bringing as much of the boardroom into design as designers into the boardroom. Yehwan speaks about the web as “another place where people gather; sharing thoughts, feelings and art”, and notes that “we don’t always pursue efficiency as the top priority when in the physical space – so we should pursue diverse values when we are designing websites as well.” Yehwan points out that there are numerous under-explored options where “websites can be slow but fun, confusing but touching”.
Talking about her influences, Yehwan mentions websites from the 90s and 2000s, noting her love of “single-function websites from that era, which simply play with basic web structures”. She also points us in the direction of Olia Lialina’s Summer, which plays frame-by-frame animations by connecting different homepages; Rafaël Rozendaal’s web series; and Rhizome’s ArtBase, which houses many early net art projects. And for those wanting to follow Yehwan’s forward-yet-backward-looking ways, she suggests W3Schools for basic CSS skills; three.js for 3D material; MediaPipe for detectors; Stack Overflow to ask questions; and spending time in CodePen, JSFiddle and GitHub to see others’ code and way of visualisation.
Yehwan emphasises that she doesn’t think she has “special skills”, but just enjoys the process of “coding from scratch, writing each line one by one – I love finding my own patterns by writing them and practising them everyday.” At Southland Institute, Neil Doshi and Joe Potts once referred to the website as a community garden – and it’s a metaphor that’s stayed with me. Following this garden metaphor, Yehwan’s line-by-line planting has delivered one of the most abundant of blooms.
Moving even further away from sterilised efficiency and into the actions of engaged play is manually crafted typography. Paper, clay, melted crayons, oils, science experiments – whatever you had access to in primary school might just be exactly what it takes to create high design now. And two dedicated practitioners of the laborious and the analogue are collaborators Laura Hilbert and Sarah Stendel.
Though not a stranger to the digital, Laura enjoys veering towards analogue methods of production, stating that “modern technology often tries to make the process frictionless”, thus “making it harder to produce unusual outcomes; whereas craft work requires significantly more time.” Craft “rewards with more diversity and more successful failure”.
One of those successful failures is Laura and Sarah’s clay Hands On! project, which picked up awards from the Type Directors Club (including the coveted Judges’ Choice), the ADC Talent Award, 100 Beste Plakate and secured them a slot at the otherwise digital-forward Inscript Experimental Type Festival. Laura encourages coming to projects from the attitude of an amateur, whether working with high or low technology, saying that “knowing too much about certain features can restrict you from using them freely”. So, this coming year, make a resolution to pick up a tool you’ve never used before, spin it around, close your eyes and see what happens – safe in the knowledge that success can come from beautiful mistakes, as well as preconceived directions.
Revolution, but make it aesthetic
Moving away from earlier trends of optimised, one-fits-all design systems and proclamations against user-friendliness, it seems like we’ve already met with typography as a political act. But even more type projects are positioning their ideological stances front and centre, and embedding letterforms with added meaning to make the designer’s convictions explicit.
“We have all of these canonical rules around the perfect use of typography and what constitutes good design; and I think a lot of people want to push back against them. That’s where I see a lot of political action,” says designer and educator Bobby Joe Smith III. “The rules feel very rigid – akin to the way Jan Tschichold extolled cleanliness and precision in design until he was persecuted by the Nazi party. Afterwards, seeing the rigidity of his earlier thinking echoed in white nationalism, Tschichold came to retract those ideas.”
Bobby’s own work considers and rallies against assumed norms, from his Lakota Letterforms inspired by traditional tools such as the quill and beadwork, to Vigilantism, which asserts the interplay of white text and black bodies on the page. And in 2023, it is likely we’re all going to be reading even more on just how much messaging and depth type design and typography are able to embed. “Type can voice different positions,” says Bobby, discussing how the political aesthetic is currently evolving. “While we’ve seen protest-style typography become mainstream in the past few years, today the design of political and social movements is more nuanced, more complex, more commercial. It’s no longer just protest vernacular.”
One project that really blends high-end production with a strong urgent message is Climate Crisis Font from Eino Korkala and Daniel Coull. “To be frank, we had serious anxiety throughout the project regarding whether it’s going to be recognised as a respectful visualisation of a catastrophe, or merely a designer-centred marketing stunt,” says Eino, who adds that their fears were ultimately unfounded. The project has been “incredibly well received, going beyond the type and design industry” to further awareness and meaningful dialogue.
As more people – and companies – wear their heart on their social media posts and pivot to being values-first, we can expect the aesthetic of those issues, the aesthetic of rebellion and protest, to take even more wildly different forms than it does today.
About the Author
Ksenya Samarskaya is a strategist and creative practitioner, focusing on all things typographic, pedagogical and with regenerative futures on her mind. Actively engaged in many facets of the type scene, Ksenya is the managing director at the Type Directors Club (TDC), board member and US country delegate at the Association Typographique Internationale (ATypI), member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI) and participant in the Inscript Collective.