home archive font wall

I Love Typography

I Love Typography

History of typography: Humanist


Every subject, from dentistry to dog handling has its own vocabulary — terms that are peculiar (unique) to it. Typography is no exception. Learning the lingua franca (lingo) of type will make typography that much more accessible; and that will, in turn, lead to greater understanding, and hopefully a greater appreciation for all things “type”.

Today we’re going to take a look at just one of those terms, namely “Humanist”. You may have come across this term before (or you may even be thinking, what the hell’s that?). The term Humanist is part of the nomenclature that describes type classification. During the 1800s a system of classifying type was derived, and although numerous other systems and subsets of this system exist, this basically is it:

Humanist | Old Style | Transitional | Modern
Slab Serif (Egyptian) | Sans Serif

By the end of this six-part series, you will be quite au fait with all of these terms; and just imagine the joy you will experience when you proudly exclaim to the delight of your spouse, girlfriend, boyfriend, neighbor, guy at the corner shop,

Look at that Humanist inspired type! Note how the bar of the lowercasee”….

So, without further ado, let’s begin our journey — a journey that will take us from the incunabula to the present day.

[Incunabula] can refer to the earliest stages in the development of anything, but it has come to stand particularly for those books printed in Europe before 1500. — A Short History of the Printed Word

The model for the first movable types was Blackletter (also know as Block, Gothic, Fraktur or Old English), a heavy, dark, at times almost illegible — to modern eyes — script that was common during the Middle Ages. Thankfully, types based on blackletter were soon superseded by something a little easier to read, (drum roll…)—enter Humanist.


The Humanist types (sometimes referred to as Venetian) appeared during the 1460s and 1470s, and were modelled not on the dark gothic scripts like textura, but on the lighter, more open forms of the Italian humanist writers. The Humanist types were at the same time the first roman types.



So what makes Humanist, Humanist? What distinguishes it from other styles? What are its main characteristics?

1 Sloping cross-bar on the lowercase “e”;
2 Relatively small x-height;

Humanist characteristics

3 Low contrast between “thick” and “thin” strokes (basically that means that there is little variation in the stroke width);
4 Dark colour (not a reference to colour in the traditional sense, but the overall lightness or darkness of the page). To get a better impression of a page’s colour look at it through half-closed eyes.


And here are some examples of Humanist faces:

Jenson, Kennerley, Centaur, Stempel Schneidler, Verona, Lutetia, Jersey, Lynton.


Although the influence of Humanist types is far reaching, they aren’t often seen these days. Despite a brief revival during the early twentieth century, their relatively dark color and small x-heights have fallen out of favor. However, they do deserve our attention — our admiration even — because they are, in a sense, the great grand parents of today’s types.

Grab your passports and pack your toothbrushes because in part two we’re off to Venice to take a closer look at “Old Style” type. For those of you interested in testing your knowledge, can you tell which of the following are not generally considered to be Humanist types:

Erasmus, Times New Roman, Caslon, Cloister, Guardi, ITC Garamond

Further reading:

Wikipedia entry for Blackletter
A Short History of the Printed Word, chapter 4 — Chappell and Bringhurst
Type — The Secret History of Letters
, chapters 1 and 11 — Simon Loxley

Read part 2: Type Terminology: Old Style