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11 of the Most Important Digital Fonts Ever Created [Slideshow]

We take a look at the unsung heroes of digital typography in MoMA’s freshly expanded permanent collection.

Next month, the Museum of Modern Art will showcase nearly two dozen digital typefaces freshly acquired for the permanent collection, signaling both the consecration of digital type and the canonization of typography as a design discipline. Someone break out the Comic Sans!

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All joking aside, the import of the exhibit Standard Deviations: Types and Families in Contemporary Design can’t be overstated. MoMA is the Vatican of the design world; as goes MoMA, so goes the rest of design’s devotees. Until this year, the permanent collection had infographics and magazines and art-show catalogs in spades but only one typeface to its name, and a vanilla one, to boot: Helvetica 36-point bold. The museum seemed to approach typography with a pronounced indifference.

“They were all designed with foresight into the digital revolution.”

“With the inauguration late last month of not just one new typeface but 23 — 21 of which were developed on a computer — MoMA is emerging from the typographic Dark Ages with a blast of the wired future. “This first selection of 23 typefaces represent a new branch in our collection tree,” Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s senior curator of architecture and design, writes on the museum’s blog. “They are all digital or designed with a foresight of the scope of the digital revolution, and they all significantly respond to the technological advancements occurring in the second half of the twentieth century. Each is a milestone in the history of typography.”

Why home in on digital typefaces and not, say, the International Style? In part, because that’s what Antonelli likes. “That’s my time zone,” she tells Co.Design. “I?m more passionate about contemporary design.” (She adds that this is just a starting point; the museum has plans to acquire many more typefaces and from different eras.)

The process for acquiring digital typefaces started several years ago. “We took a long and hard look at our collection to see if our graphic design was up to snuff,” Antonelli says. “And even though it is excellent, we were completely lacking the kind of design that bridges the idea of graphic design with the idea of communication design. Our idea is that fonts — typefaces — are the basic unit of graphic design. And they are astonishing examples of design in and of themselves.”

So she and her staff gathered the field’s top experts, including Rick Poynor, Steven Heller, Michael Bierut, and Matthew Carter, for a symposium on expanding the collection. They floated their ideas. Then over the years, MoMA whittled down the list to 23, what Antonelli calls “a number of typefaces that would form the baseline for what a collection of typefaces at the Museum of Modern Art could be.”

Some of them are so obvious, it’s a wonder they didn’t make it into the permanent collection earlier. Take typography demigod Matthew Carter’s ubiquitous Verdana, widely considered the best set of letterforms for reading on a screen; or Gotham, by Hoefler & Frere-Jones, the typeface behind the visual identity of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

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Some are less obvious, and they are the focus of our slideshow here. They are the good (the beautifully imperfect Template Gothic); the bad (the rote OCR-A); and the ugly (the eyeball-assaulting FF Beowolf). Together, they form a major element of the history of design. How nice of MoMA to finally join the party!

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About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D

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