've begun several posts defending the importance of 90s graphic design, but never finished them because they've grown into wild and rambling tomes, attempting to bridge too many subjects. The latest attempt got close, and then Ellen Lupton went and wrote a piece for Print Magazine that sums it up much better than I could. Go read it.
I've been a designer long enough to recognize that fastly-held beliefs as to what is and what is not aesthetically appropriate tend to wane over time. While there are tons of type crimes I consider Never Okay, I still believe that a really good designer can make most things work as long as they address a concept.
That said, I was just flipping through Jan Tschichold's The New Typography, realizing I've never read it through, when it occurred to me that I probably never finish it because the type in my edition is ugly and incredibly hard to read. My paperback edition was printed by University of California Press in 1995 and the notes on the design in the back read:
"The text was set in 7.75 Imago Light Extended with 11.6 point leading. The typeface was revised by extending its overall set widths by 112 percent; character spacing was expanded to a Quark XPress tracking value of 16. Display fonts were set in Frutiger Ultra Black with a tracking value of 19."
In other words, they horizontally stretched a font that was probably too light to begin with, set it small and with too much leading, then fully justified the paragraphs. That's...like, impossible to read. Also, Goudy was the one who personally insulted anyone who would think of letterspacing lowercase, so it's not just my beef.
So I'd like to clarify that 90s typography was not a particularly great result. It was its transparency of process and its exploration of expression that was a necessary juncture in graphic design. It was messy, but messy in the way a desk covered in art supplies is — gratifying.