The Computerless Electronic Designer

Joy Division ‎– Substance 1988

Joy Division ‎– Substance 1988 [fig. 1]

Job Hansen Poster

Job Hansen Poster 1964 [fig. 2]

Paul Rand Reuters Logo

Reuters Logo Alan Fletcher 1965 [fig. 3]

Rotterdam Logo Wim Crouwel

Rotterdam Logo 1972 [fig. 4]

Paul Rand I B M Logo

I B M Logo Paul Rand 1972 [fig. 5, 6]

Two aspects of Wim Crouwel's work are widely recognized today: his designs of overall corporate (or institutional) image - notably developed by his agency, Total Design and his bold typographical experiment, the New Alphabet.

While the former earned him a major place among "modern" graphic designers in the tradition of the Swiss masters. the latter was the striking symbol of Crouwel's pioneering role in the creation and emergence of what is called electronic design. Indeed, the odds are it was Crouwel – a self-proclaimed functionalist and a fan of the neutrality of Helvetica[1] – who put onto paper the first "electronic" typographical forms in the history of graphic design. This brief essay will dwell on this latter, unexplored aspect of his career.

Crouwel was barely thirty when he learned of the research done by Rudolf Hell, the German inventor of computerized typesetting[2]. One step of the new system, which hastened the obsolescence of traditional lead type, involved working on a screen. In order to overcome the poor reproduction quality of "standard" typefaces on a screen. Crouwel devised after several years of experimentation, an alphabet whose forms would not be distorted by the new technological apparatus. Thus was born his New Alphabet, released in 1967.

The context in which this incident took place entailed the invasion of computers into every sphere previously dominated by mechanical or craft practices. This explosion was accompanied by numerous research projects that sought to improve man-machine communication. The answer seemed to lay in one of three possible paths (each of which led to distinct formal solutions). The first path required researchers to envisage communication from the double viewpoint of its two protagonists, seeking a compromise between aestheticism and constraint; it resulted in the design of optical character-recognition systems employing typefaces similar to ordinary ones yet also machine-readable. The first typeface of this kind, OCR-A, was released in 1966 and redesigned two years later by Adrian Frutiger as OCR-B[3]. The second path, in contrast, involved creating a radical new form dictated by the constraints of computers and their display system. Convinced that "the letter-type for our time certainly not be based on the written or drawn examples of the past." Crouwel therefore boldly proposed his New Alphabet[4]. The third, more prudent path, involved waiting for improved technology that would be able to read and display every kind of writing. Crouwel's decision meant wagering on the dawn of a brand new era. He therefore logically called his typeface "new." an adjective evoking major developments that had marked the history of graphic design, such as "The New Typography" (Jan Tschichold's manifesto on asymmetry, issued in Berlin in 1928) and The New Graphic Design (magazine that promoted the international style, published in Zurich by Josef Muller-Brockman and others)[5].

The New Alphabet was perhaps too "theoretical,"[6] or simply too illegible, to be employed for anything other than its ability to evoke an outmoded futurism. It was to that end, moreover, that Peter Saville used it in 1988 for the cover of a compilation album of music tracks [fig.1] by Joy Division from 1977 to 1980 (Substance), in what has remained one of the most well-known examples of the face. Indeed, barely sixteen years after the New Alphabet was released, the first Macintosh computer appeared in a memorable, world-wide advertising campaign that featured a screen with a cursive "Hello" proving that in less than a generation the computer had learned to communicate with humans by imitating – and recognizing – their own handwritings[7].

The bold experiment of the New Alphabet too often masks other, truly pioneering work undertaken by Crouwel during that period. In the 1960s he paid constant attention to the new forms that were accompanying the birth of information technology. With a certain fascination for what he sensed were new perspectives, he became the prophet of a new era in typography, bolstering his theory with futurist imagery (atoms, microscopic views of printed circuits, photos of astronauts in space, etc.), designed the body of a futuristic car, and was also the favorite model of space-age fashion designer Alice Edeling. Criticizing his own times for failing to come up with appropriate typographic forms (after having noted that Phoenicians had their clay tablets, Romans, their marble inscriptions, and humanists their lead letters), Crouwel created and seized upon new forms that would be his trademark for a decade.

As early as 1964, a few years before the New Alphabet, he devised a dot-matrix alphabet for a poster for the Job Hansen exhibition at Amsterdam's Museum Fodor, it clearly evoked the luminous diode screens then used for computer displays. Even prior to the existence of the term "pixel"[8] and hence of wide awareness of that notion, Crouwel invented the first electronically inspired letterforms[9]. Based on his observation of computers, he developed and appropriated a new system for describing forms; then, playing on contrasts and varying the shape of the "cells" employed (round or hexagonal, empty or solid), he applied it to much of his work. Similarly, his obsession with technology meant that early barcode systems inspired his design of the poster for Visuele Communicatie Nederland[10] in 1969. These examples nevertheless remained isolated in the graphic landscape of the day, still heavily marked by the International Style, the only example contemporary with the Job Hansen poster [fig. 2] being the Reuter agency logo [fig.3], designed by Alan Fletcher in 1965. A few years later, playing on the novelty of this same matrix, Crouwel designed the logos for the Spectrum Encyclopedie (1971) and the urban signage for the city of Rotterdam [fig. 4] (1972).

In the days when the vocoder[11] synthesizer was becoming popular in the musical world, thus electronically “robotizing" a singer's voice, the graphic filter "invented” by Crouwel swiftly became the mark of modern, high-tech graphic design. Initially adopted right away by the team at Total Design, it was soon imitated on a wide scale.

In 1970 Crouwel devised his most spectacular "electronic" project, which was certainly one of his last. Going beyond the two dimensions of print, he and the Total Design team conceived the Dutch Pavilion for the 1970 World's Fair in Osaka, devising an environment in which the pixel was the dominant element. Devoted to urban planning in the Netherlands, the pavilion was organized around a giant circular screen (over ten feet in diameter) whose pixels changed color to reflect the evolution in urban development. These pixels, which sprang from the imagination of a computerless electronic designer, didn't really exist, any more than the screen allegedly displaying them. In fact, each element was patiently drawn and painted by hand, that animated by the circular movement of two polaroid fitters that changed color as they rotated[12]. For that matter, similar artisanal techniques were used ten years later in the film Tron, whose sets (and certain costumes) were painted on the film frame by frame[13]. As proof of Crouwel's leadership in this sphere, it might be noted that IBM, the main computer manufacturer, would wait another few years before adapting its logo to the new era by abandoning the mechanical typeface that dated back to the 1950s. Paul Rand, who devised the original logo [fig. 5], proposed a new, electronically filtered version [fig.6] in 1972, which would go down in history.

In the 1970s, on the eve of the explosion In personal computing, Crouwel abandoned his own discoveries and returned to graphic design that remained faithful to the “modernist” tradition. From this deliberate retreat he observed the birth of desktop publishing and a revival of taste in electronic style, which grew over the 1980s and 1990s with the notable emergence of the Californian New Wave and the popularity of the bitmap faces designed by Zuzana Licko for the Emigre typefoundry[14].

Like the exhibition catalogues he designed for the Stedelijk and Van Abbe Museums in the 1950s, which usually featured a layout that respected all the canons of typographic modernism while being wrapped in a colorful, strikingly experimental cover.[15]. Wim Crouwel has displayed throughout his career a talent for ubiquitousness – or a penchant for imaginativeness – that makes him a worthy heir to the modern Swiss designers even as he indulges in heretical experiments bordering on illegibility.


1   ”I love modernism... that's my life." Interview with Wim Crouwel in Gary Hustwit's documentary film. Helvetica, 2007.

2   Rudolf Hell (1901-2002) was a post-war pioneer of many innovations that impacted on graphic design. It was Hell who invented the first color scanner and, in 1964, an electronic typesetting system.

3   OCR-A (Optical Character Recognition) was the brainchild of the European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA). Its design was revised in order to give it greater human legibility without reducing its efficiency. The new version. OCR-B, released in 1968, was adopted as an international standard in 1973. See Adrian Frutiger, son OEuvre Typographique at ses Ecrits (Villeurbanne: Maison du Livre et de l'Image, 1994 ).

4   Wim Crouwel, "Type Design for the Computer Age,"Journal of Typographic Research (1970), vol. 4, no 1.

5   This list of “new breakthroughs" grew after the release of the New Alphabet with the emergence of New Wave" graphics in the 1980s, imported from Switzerland into the U.S. by, among others, April Greiman.

6   Wim Crouwel (1988), quoted by Sergio Polano in Paolo Palma, New Alphabet (Treviso, 2003).

7   1984.

8   Richard F. Lion dates the birth of the term pixel to 1965, crediting it to Frederic Crockett Billingsley, an American computer engineer. The word was an abbreviation of "picture element," to describe a video image sent from space. See R.F. Lion, Digital Photography, ISAT / SPIE Symposium on Electronic Imaging (San Jose, California: January 2006).

9   Crouwel admitted as much, concerning this poster, in Wim Crouwel, Alphabets (Amsterdam: Bis Publishers, 2003).

10   Interview with Wim Crouwel, March 2007.

11   The vocoder was popularized by the soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick's Clockwork Orange, composed by Wendy Carlos. The synthesizer was used on the title song. Timesteps, considered one of the earliest examples of electronic music. The vocoder was subsequently used by various musicians such as Giorgio Moroder, Kraftwerk, and others. In the 1970s it became the leading new technological "sound."

12   On this project, see Graphis no. 220, July–August 1982, p.8-23.

13   Steven Lisberger's 1982 Tron, produced by the Disney Studios, was inspired by the futurist world of the French illustrator Moebius (Jean Giraud). Although hailed as the first "electronic" film, it was made entirely by hand using ultraviolet light, stroboscopes, and polarizing filters. Every now and then Disney announces that there will be a sequel to what has become a cult film.

14   In 1985 Zuzana Licko designed several pixelated faces for the Emigre typefoundry in California: Emperor, Universal, Oakland, and Emigre, which could be compared to the Stedelilk and Fodor faces designed by Crouwel in the 1970s.

15   His layouts were notably characterized by great legibility and a highly limited number of fonts from a single typeface (Univers).