Creativity Lost

Where did all the typographers go? Not graphic designers with typographic skills, but people who made their living as pure typographers who were responsible for setting cold metal, hot metal, and eventually phototype using machines and techniques that most are lost to the dustbin of time. Before the rise of the personal computer and the ability of graphic designers to set their own text in place, typographers were responsible for composing galleys of text, painstakingly composing blocks of copy, making sure each paragraph and line was set just right. They’d sweat the details of justified text to make sure those angled characters like “A” and “V” visually aligned with an “M” or “H”. Ragged text was never left to chance either. They’d review the lines to make sure there was enough of a rag, and that it was sufficiently random, without forming awkward shapes at the ends of the lines and minimizing word  breaks as much as possible. They were the masters of subtlety, of quiet, almost imperceptible space between and around letters, and were equally confident with rules of grammar, punctuation, and typography. As a young designer, I was in awe of the skills of these typographers and was fortunate enough to have worked with several before technology evolved and they found themselves out of work, like so many buggy whips in the days of horseless carriages.

Once technology allowed designers, and later, anyone with a computer, to set type in their font of choice, at whatever size they wanted, the typographers found they were no longer necessary. Their skills that they had developed over a lifetime became relegated to electronic spell-check, kerning pairs, hinting, and various dialog boxes on screen. Though no Microsoft Word document could ever match the simple beauty of a professionally-composed page, businesses didn't care. Subtle beauty was never a match for speed and price. An inexperienced assistant could “typeset” a page of copy in a fraction of the time and, frankly, it was good enough. Fortunately, designers still were needed for higher-quality projects that were required to look good or work well. Sure, most designers didn't have the skills of the typographer, but with the computer as a tool, they were sufficient.

But if technology hastened the decline of professional typographers, it did the same to other creative fields. With the advent of digital photography, anyone could post their own photos for sale online, earning a couple dollars here and there if their photos are used. Professional photographers are still busy today taking photos of CEOs and presidents, of restaurants and hotels, and specific products, but the competition from every amateur online has forced the cost of stock so low that most can't rely on selling their photos that way as a steady source of income. The photo above is an example of an image available for use for free. But we have seen demonstrations of technologies that will further erode the photographer’s domain. Apple’s portrait mode algorithm does a reasonable job of turning what would be a mediocre photo into something much more special. Machine learning algorithms have successfully generated portraits based on photos of famous people. In the future, an algorithm could look at all of the photos of the Manhattan skyline at sunset from the Brooklyn Promenade and generate a unique image based on them—no photographer need be paid. But who will do this? Probably the graphic designer, taking on yet another role and hastening the demise of yet another profession.

How about other creative fields? Writing? Music and sound? Video? Feed a machine learning algorithm a thousand headlines and have it generate samples. Do the same for music. Right now, what you'll get won't be good but these systems will grow and learn. They'll improve and the people creating them will be proud of their achievements. Interfaces will become more natural and easier to manipulate. Instead of dialog boxes, we'll be able to tell a computer what we want. Designers will still be the arbiters of the process but, eventually, once the interfaces become intuitive enough, and once the technology becomes powerful enough, they'll be unnecessary, relegated to the creative dustbin like so many typographers, photographers, writers and the like. Unskilled and untrained administrative assistants will be able to use these new tools to create whatever is desired.

Eventually, once these creative professions become unprofitable, the institutions that have been responsible for training countless creative professionals will begin to change focus or close. The skills developed over decades and centuries will be lost, relegated to algorithms in computer programs. Creative pursuits will become nothing more an hobbies, taught in night classes and on weekends, along with courses like 16mm film and paper marbling.

Will this happen? I hope not but with the advancement of technology, it is entirely possible. And would that happen in five years? In fifty? I've seen seismic shifts in many creative fields in the last 30 years and there shows no sign of slowing. In the future, to paraphrase a well-known saying lamenting the adoption of another kind of technology, “Creative minds with simple tools will be replaced by simple minds with creative tools.”

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Lee Willett | Carolingian Minuscule