For this blog post I wanted to explore the power of historical context when considering typefaces, specifically typefaces that have become attached cultural stereotypes. The theory of stereo typography—the stereotyping of cultures through typefaces associated with them—has been increasing, as graphic design becomes a greater cultural force.
In this blog, I will focus on two typefaces—Mandarin and Neuland—the origins of these “stereotyped” typefaces and how they became associated with specific cultures. What I discovered most fascinating is that even the most blatantly racial stereo typography is still in use today.
Neuland (as well as its doppelganger Lithos) are typefaces are display faces that are highly recognizable and appear on everything from Trader Joe’s Organic Coconut Oil to the on-screen graphics for Big Buck Hunter Safari Edition and in wordmarks and logos from the Subaru Outback to Jurassic Park.
On-screen graphics for Big Buck Hunter Safari Edition
An interesting article by designer and writer Rob Giampietro attempts to explain how Neuland and Lithos Inline have become adopted by designers as the default typeface for all manner of African/jungle/primitive/exotic-themed graphic applications.
Neuland was created by German typographer Rudolph Koch in 1923. Two aspects of Neuland to mention here because of how it laid the foundation for the relationship between the typeface and black culture. First is the composition of the letterforms, second, how this letterform design was advertised and then distributed to American print shops.
Koch’s original intent for Neuland was “to make a bold, noticeable typeface that would shout to other Germans that following God’s path would help them find comfort from the trauma of World War I. The letters composing the Neuland typeface are heavy bold black san serif forms that would be easily distinguishable from any other lighter-weight typefaces printed on the same page. These attributes were not lost on the Type distribution companies, who marketed Neuland as an advertising font to American print shops and retailers. In the early 20th century, American typesetters and graphic artists viewed heavy woodblock type as cheap, low-class, “garbage type”. Upon Neuland’s release, designers and printers associated the font’s heavy, bold forms with cheap woodblock type and made use of the font in the same manner. Neuland soon became a member of the family of fonts that designers call “garbage type”: esoteric, inelegant, difficult to set, and destined, for tobacco ephemera, circus posters, advertisements and ultimately for the garbage.
Neuland’s association with Africa and the exotic originated with the first applications of the Nueland typeface on advertisements for products associated with slavery: tobacco and cotton. Due to constant anti-African-American sentiment and the socioeconomic status of African-Americans during and after the Civil War, African-American graphic culture in the United States prior to Neuland’s release in 1923 and before the Harlem Renaissance in general was unimportant at best and nonexistent at worst. Before Neuland’s release, the graphic culture of African-Americans was exemplified by trading cards, “circus type,” and cigarette packaging and it typified the racial and socioeconomic stereotype of the “poor negro”. In short, African-Americans did not have the buying power or the social acceptance required to cultivate a significant graphic culture. What graphic culture they did have was centered around their depiction in advertisements for products associated with slavery: tobacco and cotton. Neuland was used on this very ephemera and thus the association with African American culture was born.
Neuland still persists today. In fact, it’s scope of application has not shrunk but widened beyond the world of ephermera to include movies, automobiles, sports, fashion, etc. (Hollywood has used it in such films as Jurassic Park, Tarzan, and Jumanji. Subaru used Lithos prominently in the logo for their new car, the Outback.) These uses seem to indicate that Neuland has since acquired qualities that suggest “jungle,” “safari,” and “adventure”—in short, Africa.
The typeface Mandarin belongs to the family of fonts known in graphic design as "chop suey fonts". These American typefaces attempt to mimic East Asian calligraphy and have long been used to sell China to western audiences. With its roots in turn-of-the-century San Francisco Chinatown, chop suey fonts prevailed as an intentional misrepresentation of China used for dramatic effect by graphic designers, Chinese immigrants, and now, politicians.
2013 Republican Advertisement
The use of Asian-inspired fonts began in 1883, when the Cleveland Type Foundry created a typeface called Chinese, which became known as Mandarin by the mid 1950s. The font became famous when it was used in a poster that promoted tourism to San Francisco’s Chinatown after the 1906 earthquake. The poster heralded a new Chinatown, one filled with pagodas and flamboyant Chinese imagery.
By the 1930s, Chinese restaurants across the country used chop suey lettering in their advertisements. Ironically, it was Chinese-American restaurateurs who were choosing the chop suey lettering, conferring a bit of authenticity on two American inventions. Chinese immigrants were eager to use chop suey types—not because they enjoyed the aesthetic, but because they were good businessmen who realized it allowed Americans to easily identify where Chinese food was served. Chop suey fonts are still connected to Chinese food today, found on takeout boxes, disposable chopstick packaging, and restaurant signage.
Popularity in these “chop suey fonts” waned in the second half of the 20th century as graphic designers shifted away from the prejudice that dominated the discipline through the 1950s Modern era. Today, chop suey types are used with and without caution
. When Chinese-American author Jennifer 8. Lee received criticism that her blog header made use of “Chinesey” lettering, she wrote in defense: “The font would be disturbing if I were using it earnestly to represent China or ‘Chineseness’… in a way the font is very appropriate since it represents the exotification of the ‘Orient.’ We are appropriating it, not in a serious way, but in a way of self-aware mockery.”
Lee distinguishes her use of the font from less appropriate uses, like Abercrombie & Fitch’s 2002 line of t-shirts with caricatures of Chinese images. After receiving “hundreds and hundreds” of complaints about the shirts—largely from Asian American college students, who were presumably one of Abercrombie & Fitch’s target groups—A&F withdrew the garments from their stores nationwide and discontinued catalog sales.
5 Genuinely offensive fonts:
Nueland and Lithos as stereotypography
Casual racism and the chop stick font