Dutch typographies

During their eventual victory over Costa Rica on Saturday evening I had plenty of time to once again admire the design of The Netherlands' football kit.

It's a sophisticated, understated design, unemcumbered with superfluous patterns, allowing that brilliant orange to shine forth, emblazoned with a stylised version of the Dutch coat of arms. The typeface used for the player names and numbers is especially pleasing: a geometric sans-serif I haven't seen before, the numbers cut with an inline evocative of the shirts worn by the great Dutch teams of the 1970s.

A designboom piece posted earlier this month reveals that, as I had half-hoped, this carefully crafted retro-futurist aesthetic is partly the work of the great Dutch designer Wim Crouwel. Crouwel was one of several leading graphic designers and typographers commissioned by NIKE to help create several of this year's World Cup kits (Neville Brody was involved in the development of the England strip briefly on view earlier in the tournament).

Case Crouwel | Image: NIKE

The Dutch outfit, designed by Crouwel together with NIKE graphic designer Floor Wesseling, references two of the typefaces for which he is best known, Neu Alphabet and Gridnik. Crouwel designed the fonts nearly 50 years ago but their stark, uncompromising geometries still speak of the future.

Case Crouwel with 'ij' ligature | Image: NIKE

Case Crouwel | Image: NIKE

Stu McArthur, Design Director at Nike Football, said:

In the case of the Dutch typeface we followed Wim's modernist typography rules, focused on spacing letter shapes purely to be legible while also creating a modern look. This style has been a modernist (and a niche) discussion in the dutch graphic world for the past six decades.

It certainly has. The controversies that have surrounded Crouwel's long career, which began in the 1950s, are indicative of ideological fissures that ran not just through Dutch design during the second half of the last century, but the entire graphic design profession, and which continue to this day.

Crouwel's work is notable for the intensity of its commitment to modernist design principles. His designs through the most prolific phase of his career, the 50s, 60s and 70s, exhibit a austere, cool rationalism characterised by disciplined use of the grid, flat colours, abstract geometries and clear sans-serif typefaces. This is design conceived as a refreshing glass of iced water, intended to communicate a message as transparently as possible, uncluttered by unnecessary ornament.

Johan Cruyff, 1974

Crouwel's severe aesthetic is well illustrated by his Gridnik and Neu Alphabet designs. Both are early examples of functional typefaces, fonts designed not according to 'timeless' humanistic principles, but with respect to the specific requirements of the devices on which they were to be used.

Gridnik was intended for use with a new wave of electric typewriters that appeared in the early 1970s, the first to allow varying letter widths, which succeeded an older generation of machines capable only of monospaced type. Crouwel's carefully calibrated letter forms offered greater variation of weight and width than the old monotypes, but retained a geometric character to ensure readability.

Gridnik (adapted by Foundry Type)

Neu Alphabet was even more radical, though it actually appeared a few years earlier than Gridnik. It was designed to address the limitations of the cathode ray tube technology used in 1960s data display screens and phototypesetting equipment. Noting the inability of these devices to render cursive fonts Crouwel constructed a set of letter shapes consisting entirely of horizontals and verticals, joined by geometric corners set at 45 degrees. To simplify the design further, all of the glyphs were set in lowercase.

Neu Alphabet

Crouwel never intended Neu Alphabet to serve as a working typeface: by his own admission its spartan simplicity made it virtually unreadable. It was a conceptual exercise designed to make the point that typefaces suitable for the emerging digital age should be developed with respect to the limitations of the pixelated digital displays on which they were to be viewed: to Crouwel it was clear that it would be many years before computer screens would be capable of rendering the curves of traditional typefaces with any degree of felicity.

Crouwel's argument that typography should adapt to the limitations and promise of new technology was controversial at the time, when many designers still thought that letters should be shaped in the traditional manner, as if intended for print, and simply stand in reserve until the day when technology would advance to the point when they could finally be displayed accurately onscreen.

It is clear in retrospect that Crouwel was right: Gridnik and Neu Alphabet can now be considered forerunners to many other typefaces that have been designed specially for digital display, such as Susan Kare's Chicago), tailored to the requirements of early Apple Macintosh monitors, and Matthew Carter's Georgia) and Verdana, commissioned by Microsoft for the screen resolutions of the 1990s. Gridnik and Neu Alphabet were actually little used in their day - as we've seen, Neu Alphabet was essentially a conceptual exercise - but both are now available as part of the Architype Crouwel package by Foundry Types. And Neu Alphabet will be familiar to many from its use on the cover of Joy Division's 1988 album Substance.

Joy Division, Substance, designed by Peter Saville

I find it interesting that, as with so much of Crouwel's work, Neu Alphabet and Gridnik carry an emotional charge, their uber-functionalism notwithstanding. There is something about their super-rationality - all those uncompromising horizontals and verticals - that radiates the white hot intensity of the modernist design movement of the 1960s and 70s from which they emerged, a purity of intention characteristic of this era that I considered in a recent post about one of Crouwel's contemporaries, the late Massimo Vignelli.

Indeed, in a famous quote, Crouwel once said of himself: 'I am a functionalist troubled by aesthetics.' The seeming impossibility - or indeed desirability - of ever realising the modernist ideal to which he once aspired of developing a wholly objective design methodology is explored in a fascinating interview Crouwel gave a few years ago on the occasion of his 80th birthday to the Dutch graphics magazine design.nl (organised into parts one and two).

Wim Crouwel, Leger, poster, 1957

During the interview Crouwel notes that when he began his career in the 1950s modernist design was more than an aesthetic: once, it encompassed a political dimension that has now more or less dissolved. During those years the design industry was engaged in the process of professionalisation, working hard to assimilate the design theories that had emerged in early 20th century Europe, and translate them into a set of reliable methodologies that could be used for day-to-day commercial work. Crouwel recalls:

The feelings and intentions of designers working particularly between 1927 and 1932 were so influential on me. That was the real crystallization of modernism and functionalism, and the aesthetic I always found most moral.

Note the use of the word 'moral': for Crouwel's post-war generation graphic design was conceived as just one element in a much wider project for the transformation of society. Practitioners across all fields of design - from graphic design to architecture - aspired to use new techniques and technologies to help construct a new world on the ruins of the old:

After the war, Europe was looking for ways to build better societies. Of course I'm left-wing, like most creative people are, and wherever I looked, I found the best solutions in the visionary principles of modernism. I really did believe that design was a way of helping people, a way of guiding them through their lives.

Through those post-war decades Crouwel, together with many other like-minded designers, sought to develop a systematic 'grammar of form', a 'universal' visual language comprised of a set of versatile components that could be combined in different ways to meet the specific demands of different projects. They believed it possible to develop a rational, scientific, objective design system, capable of reconfiguration from task to task. And indeed through the 60s, 70s and 80s Crouwel's work exhibits a remarkable consistency. Each design appears to be constructed from a carefully curated toolbox of visual building blocks, the common elements including blocks of colour, a limited group of sans-serif typefaces, simple geometric shapes, and clear, bold photography, all bound together by modular grids.

Wim Crouwel, Vormgevers, poster, 1968

In 1972 Crouwel took part in a celebrated debate with fellow designer Jan van Toorn about the meaning and purpose of design. Crouwel, from the modernist perspective, argued that design should be functional, professional and objective, seeking out clear air above the murk of subjective preference and passing trends. Van Toorn made the counter-argument that the pursuit of objectivity is futile: every design inevitably betrays the subjective preferences of its creator. Designers should stop dreaming and openly acknowledge the personal idiosyncracies lurking behind design decisions ostensibly taken on rational grounds.

Van Toorn's argument foreshadowed the direction design was to take through the 1980s and 90s. Belief in the high modernist ideal of a universal design language was eroded by widespread acceptance of the postmodern philosophical insight that an impersonal, unsullied, wholly objective 'view from nowhere' is ultimately impossible: functionalism must ultimately be one design perspective amongst others. Crouwel came to acknowledge that in this respect the modernists were indeed mistaken:

In the beginning I really believed that I could strive for something neutral. I thought that by being strict and orderly and by not letting influences that deflect from the message into the work, I could be timeless. What I know now though, is that timelessness is impossible. That is probably the real change in my opinion.

I'm glad though, as is clear from his contribution to the 2007 movie Helvetica, Crouwel still believes in the modernist aesthetic, and the value of the work of the post-war generation in establishing a set of reliable, repeatable design methodologies that established the practice as a profession. Certainly, the uncompromising rigour of Crouwel's design remains a primary inspiration for my own work, and I'm delighted that this year's World Cup is helping to bring those achievements into focus.

Wim Crouwel interviewed for the movie Helvetica