Design Matters: Requiem for a heavyweight

The following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.Much has been written in recent years about the demise of traditional typography by the arrival of Mac technology on...

The following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.

Much has been written in recent years about the demise of traditional typography by the arrival of Mac technology on the desktops of designers and art directors.

In one of those articles, Ed Cleary, who was, at the time, owner of Cooper+Beatty and the Composing Room, lamented:

Mac jocks

‘There is a tremendous difference between a Mac jock and a skilled typesetter. Unfortunately, most type is now being set by the jocks, so 99.5% of it is just not of acceptable quality. After 500 years of setting type, we’re actually regressing.’

Ed was one of the last champions of skilled typesetting in Canada, and, certainly, one of a handful left in the world.

Now the ranks of that small group have been greatly diminished after Ed’s sudden death on July 26 in Toronto.

Anyone who is familiar with the design and advertising scene in Canada will know who Ed was, partly because he was so outspoken on the subject of typography, and partly because he was an astute entrepreneur who moved with the times.

Acerbic voice

As an uncompromising defender of traditional skills, his acerbic but intelligent voice was often heard on the pages of Canadian design publications such as Applied Arts magazine and Electronic Link.

And his launch of FontShop Canada, a distributor of digital fonts to the very Mac jocks that he so skillfully criticized, demonstrated he was prepared to add the power of technology to his arsenal of typographic weapons.

It may seem contradictory that someone who promoted traditional skills would also embrace new technology.

But, for Ed, the quality of the end product was never a result of the tools, but of the skills of those who used them (a valuable lesson for anyone who believes that a computer oufitted with Quark Xpress, Illustrator and Photoshop will make them a good designer.)

Where did this obsession with quality, this confidence, this expert knowledge come from?

What many of us in the design and advertising community don’t know about Ed is that, before he came to Canada in the mid-1980s, he had already established an international reputation for himself in England and Europe.

We were, for instance, surprised to learn Ed was one of a trio of typographers who were responsible for establishing typographic standards for The Guardian newspaper.

In that same newspaper, it has recently been said that in the ’70s and early ’80s, his London company, Filmcomposition, ‘provided probably the most sophisticated use of type in advertising to date.’

Any designer or art director who was buying type in Canada in the ’70s and ’80s will recall the matchless quality of the Berthold system.

It had a cachet that elevated it heads and shoulders above the rest of the typographic pack, and a big reason for that was Ed Cleary, who worked close and hard with Berthold in Germany to promote its products throughout the world.

Won their reverence

As a result, Ed won the reverence of Germany’s best typesetters and typographers, including Erik Spiekermann, with whom he launched the Fontshop group, now world leaders in digital types.

It was apparently his unbending obsession with quality that impressed them, but it was also this very quality which almost destroyed Filmcomposition financially and resulted in his emigration to Canada, where he joined Cooper+Beatty.

Unmatched stature

Thus a near disaster brought to our shores a type practitioner whose stature could not be matched by anyone in Canada (with the exception of the late Les Usherwood), then or now.

In the short time that he was with us, our appreciation for quality and craftsmanship has been elevated far beyond what it would have been without him.

And, yet, if he were here, he would probably disagree with that last sentence.

In the last article he wrote, a short but incisive critique of desktop typography, he skillfully dissected a recent print ad, pointed out its faults, and reset it as he would have done.

Evident in advertising

Along with an obvious before-and-after setting, he wrote with characteristic candor that ‘nowhere is the lack of basic typographic knowledge more evident in advertising, once a showcase for the best typography.’

There are few, if any, who care enough about what they do to make a statement as bold as that, especially in a business which has all but surrendered to the seductive power of technology.

Now that we need him more than ever, Ed’s gone. He’ll be greatly missed.

Ed Cleary,

born Dec. 28, 1950;

died July 26, 1994.

Will Novosedlik and Bob Russell are principals of Russell Design in Toronto.

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