Last time I visited my parents, I noticed that they had a new type of food for our dog.
I noticed it, but didn’t pay much attention to the design of the bag. I was relaxing and didn’t have my CRITICAL DESIGNER hat on. (It’s on at most times, don’t worry about that.)
From a distance, like in this photo, the design doesn’t look like anything out of the ordinary. A nice, quiet design, clean and well-put together, not flashy or edgy in any way. A fairly innocuous dog food bag.
But then something prompted me to take a closer look.
What I initially thought was just a pleasing variation in the type weight turned out to be one of the more bizarre fonts… was that Dead History?!
I realize that some of you may not be well acquainted with type history, so let’s take a quick tour of typography.
Emigre was a type foundry that got started in the 1980s, just around the time that the Mac was becoming the design tool it is today. Emigre was one of the first type foundries to design specifically for the digital realm. They got their start as a design magazine of the same name, and were important for pushing some influential designs and typefaces that are popular today.
To my eye, fonts published by Emigre tend to have a distinctive look: they’re quirky and techy and have a distinctively ‘80s/‘90s flavor. Once you get a sense of them, they’re instantly recognizable.
In addition to pushing the boundary in terms of what the fonts looked like, many of Emigre’s typefaces were highly conceptual in nature. Dead History is one of these.
Here’s the type specimen for Dead History:
Weird, isn’t it? It’s a typeface created by combining a serif and a sans serif into one face.
From Emigre’s website:
“According to the designer, Dead History signals the end of an era of traditionally produced fonts. It personifies a new attitude in type creation marked by the design of hybrid typefaces which are largely the result of the computer’s capabilities to function as the perfect assembling tool.”
Dead History is essentially an experimental face, but it’s one that’s received enough recognition to even be in the MoMA’s permanent collection. As one of the few fonts at the museum, it was chosen as a representation of the upheaval that occurred in this period of type history.
Dead History is postmodern. It’s design that’s about design. Heady stuff, but is it actually a usable face outside of self-referential student work?
Believe it or not, the story about this packaging manages to get even stranger.
When I searched for more photos of Back to Basics’ packaging, I found an interesting contrast. This image is of their previous dog food bag:
Yep, that’s Papyrus. These logotypes are at opposite extremes of the design spectrum: the first logo employs the ever-overused and generally despised Papyrus, and the current logo uses a somewhat obscure font that’s totally conceptual and postmodern.
If you search online for Dead History, you can find a lot about its historical importance, but you can’t find many examples of it in use. In fact, up until now, I only knew of this typeface as a concept face, not one that anyone actually used. I couldn’t find a single example of it in use outside of Emigre’s own published works, or designs created by the font’s own designer.
Back to Basics dog food proves that it can be used. But does this use even make sense? Knowing the origin of the font, is this even an appropriate use of it? I think I’m most impressed by the fact that Dead History didn’t immediately jump out to me when I looked at the packaging. I had never thought that the font would ever be usable, but it blends into this package remarkably well.
Have you seen Dead History in other applications? What do you think of its use in this context?