July 13th, 2009

A Brief History of Avant Garde

By Duane King

As a fan of typography, the work of Herb Lubalin and Avant Garde magazine I wanted to share what I had learned about the colorful past of the magazine’s namesake font. Many of the people associated in the tale are personal heroes of mine, but if you are a bit of a design geek, I think you’ll find it’s quite an amazing story.

In 1964, Lubalin formed his own design consultation firm named Herb Lubalin, Inc. It was during these years that he collaborated with Ralph Ginzburg on Eros, Fact and Avant Garde where he served as creative director and designer for these publications. Five years later Herb Lubalin, Inc. became LSC, Inc., incorporating the talents of Ernie Smith, Tom Carnase, and Roger Ferriter. A year after that, several subsidiaries were added: Lubalin, Delpire & Cie, Paris, Lubalin, Maxwell Ltd., London, Good Book Inc. (“a highly unsuccessful publishing venture”), and Lubalin, Burns & Co., with its highly successful typographic offspring, International Typeface Corporation.

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Lubalin designed the typeface Avant Garde for the last of these magazines. The font was not originally designed as a commercial typeface – it was simply the logo for a magazine. Lubalin’s letterforms with tight-fitting combinations reflected Ginzburg’s desire to capture “the advanced, the innovative, the creative.” The character fit was so perfectly tight that they created a futuristic, instantly recognizable identity for the publication. Later he and Tom Carnase, a partner in Lubalin’s design firm, worked together to transform the idea into a full-fledged typeface.

“I asked him to picture a very modern, clean European airport (or the TWA terminal), with signs in stark black and white,” Ginzburg’s wife and collaborator, Shoshana recalled, “Then I told him to imagine a jet taking off the runway into the future. I used my hand to describe an upward diagonal of the plane climbing skyward. He had me do that several times. I explained that the logos he had offered us for this project, so far, could have been on any magazine but that Avant Garde (adventuring into unknown territory) by its very name was something nobody had seen before. We needed something singular and entirely new.”

According to Ralph Ginzberg, “The next morning, driving to work from his home in Woodmere he pulled over to the side of the road and phoned me (the first time he ever did that). ‘Ralph, I’ve got it. You’ll see.’ And the rest is design history.”

Given the high volume of requests for the font, Lubalin formed Lubalin, Burns & Co. (which later became the International Typeface Corporation) and released ITC Avant Garde in 1970. Unfortunately, Lubalin quickly realized that Avant Garde was widely misunderstood and misused in poorly thought-out solutions, eventually becoming a stereotypical 1970s font due to overuse.

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Tony DiSpigna, one of Lubalin’s partners and co-creator of ITC Lubalin Graph and ITC Serif Gothic, has been quoted as saying, “The first time Avant Garde was used was one of the few times it was used correctly. It’s become the most abused typeface in the world.” Ed Benguiat, one of type’s legends and a friend of Lubalin’s, commented, “The only place Avant Garde looks good is in the words Avant Garde. Everybody ruins it. They lean the letters the wrong way.” Steven Heller also noted that the “excessive number of ligatures […] were misused by designers who had no understanding of how to employ these typographic forms,” further commenting that “Avant Garde was Lubalin’s signature, and in his hands it had character; in others’ it was a flawed Futura-esque face.”

The strength of the Avant Garde font is certainly in its all-cap ligatures and it should be used as it was originally intended – a display face whose ligatures can be carefully crafted into magnificent letterform combinations. There were two original designs of ITC Avant Garde Gothic: one for setting headlines and one for text copy. The display design contained ligatures and alternate characters and the text design did not. Unfortunately, when Avant Garde Gothic was turned into a digital font, only the text design was chosen, and the ligatures and alternate characters were not included leaving designers with the least interesting aspect of the font.

OpenType technology has allowed ITC to release a complete version of Avant Garde Gothic, offering the full breadth of Lubalin and Carnase’s design. Released in 2005, Avant Garde Gothic Pro includes a suite of additional cap and lowercase alternates, new ligatures that were drawn just for this release, and a collection of biform characters (lowercase letters with cap proportions). It seems that there are still, however, lost ligatures out there and that the current execution is still lacking the finesse it deserves. Read more about The Lost Ligatures of Avant Garde and check out these scans of vintage Letraset dry transfer lettering sheets.

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I will undoubtedly always have a soft spot in my heart for Avant Garde magazine as, over the years, I’ve slowly collected each and every issue. I still have a fascination with the font and can’t swear off experimenting with it entirely, but experience has shown that it truly does only work in carefully crafted combinations that balance the tight requirements of the letterspacing with legibility. It is something best left for a master like Herb Lubalin. Possibly a little insight on the history of the typeface will help others to be successful in designing with it. As G.I. Joe always said, “knowing is half the battle.”

References

  1. Meggs, Philip. “Two Magazines of the Turbulent ‘60s: a ‘90s Perspective.” Print 48 (Mar-Apr 1994): 68-77.
  2. Heller, Steven. “Herb Lubalin: Type Basher.” U&lc 25 (Summer 1998): 8-11.
  3. Heller, Steven. ‘Crimes Against Typography.’ AIGA: AIGA Journal of Design. 4 August 2004.
  4. Berry, John D. ‘Avant Garde, Then and Now.’ Creative Pro: dot-font. 4 May 2003.
  5. White, Alex. ‘Alex White on Herb Lubalin’s Avant Garde.’
  6. ‘1977 Hall of Fame.’ The Art Directors Club: 1977 Hall of Fame.