The history of typefaces may seem irrelevant in a digital age. But it is tradition and not technology that defines the letters we readby John Holbo / September 28, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
Font. The Sourcebook
edited by Nadine Monem (Black Dog Publishing, £24.95)
Once upon a time, the word “font” meant the individual bits of lead from a foundry used in printing: “font” and “foundry” both come from the Middle French verb fondre (to melt), which lead does nicely. These fonts were created in a number of distinct alphabetic looks, known as “typefaces.” Each typeface had a unique name, like Garamond or Geneva, and spanned a variety of heights and weights (italic, bold). Everything was done by hand; aesthetically and pragmatically, printing was a demanding business.
These days, only type designers—typographers—think in terms of typefaces. For everyone else, the digital age has effaced the face/font distinction: the “fonts” installed on your computer are a lot more flexible than a box of lead blocks, and using them takes no more effort than clicking a mouse. Now, however, I have a lovely new anthology—Font. The Sourcebook—to make me pause for thought. It’s part catalogue, with a seductive selection of fonts on display. But it also presumes to tell “the story of type.” And it’s a tale that makes the relationship between print, design and history seem as complex and current as ever.
I open my new book. “The story of typography just is the story of human communication. Across space and time and throughout all human history, the way that humans have chosen to record stories, theories and all manner of public declarations has been informed by the technologies and designs surrounding the field of typography.” No, this will never do. Most communication is oral. And isn’t it the case that typography only starts with Gutenberg?
Well, yes. But then again: no. Its origins are far older. In ancient Greek, typos meant a strike or dent and thus, by extension, casting or impressing forms. So strictly speaking, typography begins not with the printing press but with cuneiform: the wedge-shaped impressions struck into clay 5,000 years ago in Sumeria. Typography is dent-language. Handwriting, by contrast—a “script”—is a scratch-language. In Greek, graphein meant “to scratch” before it came to mean “to write.”
The history of writing, then, is a history of dents and scratches. But the history of typography is also one of technology: an accumulation of more flexible techniques. Font informs me that the first designer to free letterforms from imitations of handwriting was the printer Nicolas Jenson, who in 1470 developed the first fonts specifically adapted to the height and width rigours of printing. This line of innovation runs all the way through to designers like Paul Renner, who in the 1920s proposed a “two-pronged attack” in type against “the romantic denial of machines” and “the materialism of art’s enemies.” Renner’s greatest creation was Futura (1927), a typeface based on geometric forms—perfect circles, triangles and squares—that spurned what he considered the affectation of emulating hand-made production.
With digital media, there is now no technical reason why a letter should look like it was made by any denting or scratching tool. Yet it remains a central paradox of type that even the most advanced technology must fall back on technically outmoded models—on scratches and dents—because the job of a letter “A” is to look like an A, and the best way it can do that is by looking like a scratch or dent. As graphic designer Will Hill remarks in his contribution to Font, “all typefaces have a dimension of revival.”
If anything, the digital age has meant the quiet revival of romanticism in type—and an often bewildering mix of historical borrowings and allusions. Perhaps you saw the poster for Barack Obama’s public speech in Berlin back in July (pictured, right)? It was an elegant nod to the German modernism of the 1910s and 1920s, and to its influence on the iconic American signage of the 1930s. Inevitably, a few critics tried to pretend it looked fascist. No one took this seriously. Yet the historical facts behind such claims recall a brief, strange time when fonts became a very serious business indeed.
Obama’s font is Gotham (see poster, right), which is a bit like an American vernacular version of Futura. The Nazis tried to make fonts like that illegal, in favour of the thick, blackletter Gothic stuff—Fraktur. For a time, Obama’s poster would have been illegal in Nazi Germany, on strictly typographical grounds. Yet the Nazis were schizophrenic about type. In 1941, they outlawed “the so-called Gothic script” on the grounds that it consisted of Judenlettern—Jewish letterforms. That’s not the funny part, though. The decree went out on official Nazi party letterhead, which was fairly dripping with Judenlettern. They hadn’t had time to make new letterhead yet. If only someone had taken Hitler aside and explained that the matter was hopeless, since the Latin alphabet itself is one big happy Jewish font family.
As Font illustrates, fonts are a field in which, although form owes large debts to function, a certain eclectic tolerance is also vital. As much as it is a technology, type is also a museum: a gallery of the most beautiful dents and scratches our ancestors have made.