I’m writing in response to an article published a while ago in The Awl which looks at the decline and fall of “grunge” typography. It’s a good historical overview of the subject, but suffers from a fundamental flaw. The author thinks that there is such a thing as grunge typography.
Grunge was a design movement and continues as a way of describing a certain style of graphic design, but because of its spontaneous nature and the predicate that everything not look the same and that design norms be deconstructed, you can make type grunge but you cannot make grunge into type. It only works as a one-way process.
Grunge was never about type. It was about what you did to the type.
The author uses Raygun magazine as his point of reference for grunge design. The cover to the right shows immediately why grunge cannot be typography. The idea of distorting characters, repositioning them or even removing them entirely defines grunge. In the example to the right, the “G” and “N” in Raygun and the “r” in bjork are backwards and the “b” in bjork is missing. This works in the cover design. It’s not a radical example of grunge, but the light touch of starting with a familiar font, removing a character and distorting or damaging a couple of others makes it grunge.
These elements that make the design grunge are not part of the type design. They are something done to it after the fact and they are unique changes applied in the process of designing the cover. If you were to take them and actually make them into a typeface, the result would no longer be grunge, it would just be a defective typeface. Building the variations into a font takes away the aspect of spontaneity which defines grunge. The concept works if it is expressed as some apparently random changes in a cover design. But if you are using a font based on the same concept, where every “G” and “N” is backward snad every “b” is missing, every time you type them, then it is not spontaneous and all you really have is a mess.
The article also references the grunge font Morire where every character is uniquely distorted. Morire had a fad popularity in the 90s which didn’t last. It didn’t last because the uniqueness of the font caught your eye the first time you saw it and then every time you saw it again you asked yourself why you bought such a butt-ugly and inflexible font. Grunge works because of its inherent impermanence. Sometimes everything is normal and other times it’s all screwed up and you never know when. Once you nail down the randomness and make it static you lose the whole point.
This is why a font like Morire really does not work and has a short shelf-life. If every “A” looks like every other “A” and the relationships between characters remain the same every time you type the same letter combination, what you have is just something dull and deliberately ugly, with no real life to it.
The problem with grunge typography is that to be really excellent and creative it has to not really be typography at all. The best designs that fit into this category require a quality of uniqueness which you cannot produce with type alone. It may start with type, but if you deconstruct the type and make it “grunge” then you cannot really reconstruct it as type and preserve that character. Making the unique duplicable and the spontaneous static is a flawed concept.
Grunge is a design style, not a viable category of typography.