Preserving the typography of yesteryear

As you can imagine, working in a place that is filled with magazine enthusiasts, I’m a sucker for a beautiful typeface.

In the world of Etsy, Pinterest, hobbying letterpressers and everyone’s-a-designer-now, loving type is not an unusual thing. Which may be why there is an audience for a new free mobile app: Fontly.

Fontly is dedicated to preserving the typographic treasures that lie dormant in today’s world. That faded, painted advertisement from the Fifties on the side of a terrace. That old, neon sign in the window of your liquor store. The battered remains of storefront names in long-abandoned country towns. These shouldn’t be lost to future generations but saved for posterity.

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This is where Fontly comes in. It’s a very simple app: it uses geo-location to direct you to real-world fonts that might be nearby at any given moment, meaning you can literally go on font tours if you like. And it uses the camera function to allow users to snap examples of fantastic fonts and add them to the Fontly map, which also forms a kind of living archive of typography.

Fontly was created by entrepreneur and designer Brendan Ciecko, whose interest in fonts extends way beyond what is pretty. Because fonts do more than beautify – they are also practical items that can improve accessibility, help with rapid understanding or instil a sense of trust in the audience – he reckons that yesterday’s fonts can tell us a lot about the towns and cities we lived in back then, building psychographic stories and shedding light on the urban landscape.

According to Ciecko: “Without picking up a history book, you get a sense of who inhabited the Lower East Side of NYC or Boston’s South End or Krakow’s Old Town; which immigrants settled, what the community valued, their distinct aesthetic and commercial activities of the past and present. It’s all there.”

He’s absolutely right, and it uncovers a sad truth about Sydney: we’re maybe a little quick to build over the old. Trawling around Bondi’s old Jewish neighbourhoods, wandering along The Corso in Manly or the Italian district around Stanley Street, you get little sense of the vibrant communities that lived there even 50 years ago. Maybe Fontly can help with that.

The app is currently only available on the iPhone (although an Android version is in the works). You can get Fontly from the app store or check out what and where people are posting on the Fontly website.

Richard Parker is the head of digital at strategic content agency Edge, where he has experience working with leading brands including Woolworths, St George and Foxtel. He previously spent 12 years in the UK, first at Story Worldwide then as the co-owner and strategic director of marketing agency Better Things.

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