Reflections on Type and Typography [Related Matters]

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  • The first print run of the A1 promotional posters for the Reflections on Type and Typography [Related Matters] booklet was delivered at DTL’s HQ by courier yesterday.
    The concise heretical publication, containing gathered reflections on type and typography as unpredictable as Mandrake the Magician’s magic tricks on a wet and windy Wednesday afternoon, is, of course, available from DTL’s small bookshop.
    Reflections on Type and Typography
  • Yesterday I made Reflections on Type and Typography [Related Matters] available as free downloadable PDF. However, I prefer the printed version, which is available at the small online bookstore of DTL. After all, the booklet was meant to be printed.

    But for me, the most important thing is that the TypoMagical, controversial, provocative, and a bit heretic content is read. And one is very welcome to (completely) disagree with my argumentation, of course!

  • With type design, the question is how the added value of someone’s idiom can be estimated if the underlying basis has not been clearly mapped out. The rules (conventions) for type can be determined by distilling the factors, i.e., particles, that make up a type design. On top there is the idiom like a layer of varnish. The extent to which idiom contributes to usability may be up for debate: after all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In addition, the term ‘legibility’ is easily used by type designers, but what exactly does it mean and how can it be measured?

    The quintessence of movable type is that the white space is evenly distributed between the characters –regardless of their order. At the same time, the black shapes must form a pattern, which is, of course, inseparable from the white-shaped pattern. A calligrapher controls this system by dividing the white area with black strokes. The type designer (formerly punchcutter) must chop this pattern by defining the boundaries of the rectangles between the black strokes. This process is essentially completely artificial with regard to writing: the positioning of characters on rectangles while preserving the white-space balance gave a new dimension and introduced new technical constraints.

    Sum of Particles

    In my ‘sum of particles’ diagram I sum up the aspects that in my opinion determine the rules (conventions) for type within the Latin script. These rules may overlap with those of other scripts, especially those related to some degree with the Latin script, such as Cyrillic and Greek. The diagram is intended as a guide to find out exactly what type design entails. The last two rows show ‘formalization’ and ‘idiom’ respectively. Especially the aspects shown in the previous four rows are preconditions for usability: if a typeface does not meet these rules, it could be considered ‘illegible’.

    The degree to which formalization is required to improve usability may depend on how one is conditioned. If the conditioning model was the sophisticated and refined type of Robert Granjon and Claude Garamont, the user will undoubtedly prefer it to, for example, the Sweynheym and Pannartz type used in Opera from 1469. After all, the latter model is undoubtedly much rougher. The details in Granjon’s and Garamont’s work, in turn, differ, although they often used almost identical underlying frameworks. The differences are too small to consider that they would make a difference in usability. The idioms of these two master punchcutters form a layer of varnish on top of the archetypal Renaissance models.

    On the right side of the image, you can see a column with a gradual transition from my geometric font model to variants that are increasingly formalized and eventually become shapes in which idiom begin to appear. It can be interesting to find out exactly where you consider the type useful and where in your opinion the (excess of?) varnish of the idiom appears.

    If type design can be described as the sum of particles and usability is determined by the way these factors are dealt with, then one could argue that in line with this legibility is determined by the same factors. After all, it is highly unlikely that in particular Nicolas Jenson and Francesco Griffo did any legibility research before developing their influential archetypal models for roman and italic (Griffo) type. Neither these two eminent punchcutters, nor their Renaissance peers, appear to have explored the physiological structure of the human visual system in relation to type. The fact that light hitting the retina excites photoreceptors was no doubt completely unknown to them.

    Moreover, one could argue that legibility is relative to (the rules for) type models. What we like in the context of the Latin script, rhythmically and harmonically, may be completely absent in other scripts. The same goes for the balance of white space between characters. So, instead of looking for the holy grail of legibility through mainly empirical research, the distillation of the rules of the archetypal punchcutters, as laid down in the ‘sum of particles’ diagram, could be applied in an inverse way, I reckon.

    In the third chapter of my booklet Reflections on Type and Typography [Related Matters] I elaborate a bit on the legibility aspect.
  • Yesterday I made Reflections on Type and Typography [Related Matters] available as free downloadable PDF.

    Thank you.
    I looked through it; there was much that was interesting as well as much that was amusing.
    But only one trivial thing at the end inspired me at the first glance to think about it and comment: the mention of your thesis topic.
    The type Gutenberg used originally appears to have been designed according to a unit system?
    I had an immediate gut reaction that was no doubt the same as that of many other people: how could this be? Why on Earth would anyone in those days have even thought of such a thing?
    But after I calmed down and applied some rational thought to the matter, instead I said to myself, well, of course!
    Why? Because I remembered that measurements of foundry type in Typographical Printing Surfaces, and information about the width of 3-to-em and 5-to-em spaces in the ATF catalogue... revealed that ATF foundry type was designed in widths that were multiples of the basic unit of 1/4 of a point.
    So why would Gutenberg design his typefaces according to a unit system, when there was no mechanical constraint preventing him from giving the letters any old width he felt was ideally aesthetic? Because when he set a line of type, he wanted it to be possible to find spaces of the right widths so that he could actually justify the line (and even if one is setting flush left instead, one still needs spaces of the right width to quad out, or one won't be able to lock the type in the chase...).
    In fact, when in shop class in Junior High, and learning how to operate a printing press, how it would be possible to make lines come out even when letters could have any old width was a question that occurred to me even then, so why wouldn't Gutenberg have been able to think of it?
  • Hi John, thank you for your comment. In my dissertation (see also this presentation), I try to explain step by step the benefits of standardization (and subsequent unitization) for the archetypal Renaissance font production and, as you said, for the typesetter, i.e., the justification of lines. As I argue, Gutenberg and his colleagues (in Italy) could make use of an intrinsic standardization in the morphology of the underlying written model that has its roots in the Carolingian minuscule.
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,732
    With regards to legibility and typographic technology, compare this with the visuality of painting employing the technique of linear perspective, which emerged at a similar time and place—15th century Italy.

    In the post-modern era, theorists (Damisch, Cray, etc.) have suggested that linear perspective is a culturally specific means of discoursing about the nature of space, which conditions perception, rather than just describing the objective appearance of things.
  • In the post-modern era, theorists (Damisch, Cray, etc.) have suggested that linear perspective is a culturally specific means of discoursing about the nature of space, which conditions perception, rather than just describing the objective appearance of things.

    While it is easy to ridicule that point of view, it is not complete nonsense.
    Yes, linear perspective, along with the other properties of a realistic painting, allows a scene to be presented that closely resembles the real thing...
    if you close one eye, and ignore the fact that any living beings in the scene portrayed are not moving.
    So if a representation of an image is not perfect, one can step back and ask questions about which aspects of a representation should be the most valued. That's something that can legitimately be described as cultural.
    So one can cite the Impressionist school of painting - or subway maps, which are more useful if they are schematic rather than geographical.
    But on the other hand, it is also legitimate to note that linear perspective does improve the resemblance of a painting to what it represents, and that it is objectively a technical innovation that had to be developed by a society which had a developed understanding of geometry.
  • Out of curiosity, I examined some type from a book set in Jenson's Roman typeface to see if it might also conform to a unit system.
    While my examination was relatively cursory, and so I am not confident in any conclusions, it appears as though it might be, with widths like these:

    i, l: 4 units
    r, t: 5 units
    c, e: 6 units
    a: 7 units
    b, d, o, p, u: 8 units
    n: 9 units
    m: 13 units

    The scale I was using to examine the letters was such that a unit was about 5 pixels wide, so there was some opportunity to see if a unit system existed or not.
  • Hi John, welcome in the wonderful world of archetypal standardization and unitization!



    Also my own measurements and the research of some of my undergraduate students from The Hague support the plausibility of a standardization and related unitization in Jenson’s archetypal roman-type model, similar to what is discussed in this TD topic.
  • Following your link led me to Google some information, from which I corrected a mistaken assumption I had made about the history of digital font formats.
    I remembered seeing in a book about typography an image of a letter being built from curved segments found on an Archimedian spiral. So, when I heard of Ikarus being a digital font format that preceded Type 1 and TrueType, I thought that this is what it had referred to.
    But now I have corrected that mistaken assumption. It was Peter Purdy and Ronald McIntosh, not Dr. Peter Karow, who used the Archimedian spiral, and they used it back in the 1960s for the Linofilm CRT phototypesetter.
  • On my web page, at
    I have now mentioned you because of the relevance of your researches to the topic of that page.
  • The mention is at the very end of the page, in its final paragraph.
  • Hi John, thank you very much for listing me on your website! In this context, I would like to refer a little bit to the blog about my research.

    LetterModel Blog
  • It seemed only appropriate to mention your work on a page of mine that was attempting to explore the whole field of explicit known unit systems.
    In looking at the comment you made on your blog page about criticisms of your research, I found that interesting. Since there is so little documentation of what the early printers did, one criticism, indeed, we do not know whether whoever the punch-cutter was working for advised him, oh, we're going to cast according to a unit system, so please design your letters to fit into that - in order to answer the other criticism, that unitization was a decision made by the caster, and the punch-cutter had nothing to do with it.
    No, there is no reply to these criticisms... except for one. Jenson's type was praised down through the ages for its beauty, and if the sidebearings of the type were poorly made, not fitting properly to the width of the letters, surely that would have detracted from this.
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