I Love Typography

History of typography: Transitional

Welcome to part three of our Type Terms series. In part one we travelled all the way back to the 15th century to take a closer look at the Humanist or Venetian style types with their distinctive lowercase ‘e’ (remember that sloping crossbar?). In part two we considered the Old Style or Garalde types and also discovered how this era gave birth to the first italic type in 1501.

Today we’ve moved along the time-line to the cusp of the 18th century, the start of a period in history that we now refer to as the The Enlightenment, a time that was to sow the seeds of revolution in France, North America and beyond. But today we stand in the cobbled streets of 17th century France; Louis XIV is on the throne and Jacques Jaugeon is working on what is now considered to be the first Transitional (or Neoclassical) style typeface, the Romain du Roi or King’s Roman, commissioned by Louis XIV for the Imprimerie Royale in 1692.

Roman du Roi

The Romain du Roi marked a significant departure from the former Old Style types and was much less influenced by handwritten letterforms. Remember, this is the Age of the Enlightenment, marked by resistance to tradition, whether that be art, literature, philosophy, religion, whatever; so it’s no surprise that this same era should give birth to radically different types.

The Romain du Roi is often referred to as Grandjean’s type, but the designs were produced by a committee* set up by the French Academy of Science. One of the committee members, Jacques Jaugeon — at that time better known as a maker of educational board games — in consultation with other members, produced the designs constructed on a 48×48 grid (2,304 squares). The designs — also known as the Paris Scientific Type — were engraved on copper by Louis Simmoneau, and then handed to the punchcutter Grandjean (not to be confused with the earlier Granjon of course), who began cutting the type in 1698. Interestingly, Jaugeon also designed a complimentary sloping roman (often referred to today as an oblique) as an alternative to a true italic**. However, Grandjean himself was to produce the italic from his own designs.

The principal graphic novelty in the ‘Romain du Roi’ is the serif. Its horizontal and unbracketed structure symbolizes a complete break with the humanist calligraphic tradition. Also, the main strokes are thicker and the sub-strokes thinner….Letter Forms, page 23, Stanley Morison

The first book to use these types wasn’t published until a decade later in 1702. In fact the full set of 82 fonts wasn’t completed until half a century later in 1745.

Baskerville of the Types

The Englishman John Baskervile is a fascinating character, and reading about him is like reading the biography of two men in one. Space doesn’t permit to list all of his achievements; suffice to say that he always strove to improve upon existing methods and materials, whether that be in his recipes for new inks, or his finer quality glossy papers.

[Baskerville] was not an inventor but a perfector….He concentrated on spacing. He achieved amplitude not merely by handsome measurement but by letting in the light.—Type, the Secret History of Letters, Simon Loxley, page 54 (quoting from English Printed Books)

“Baskerville has less calligraphic flow than most earlier typefaces”***, and this can be said of just about all the Transitional Style types. Whereas the earlier Humanist and Old Style types owed much to the handwritten letter form, the pen’s influence has all but disappeared in the Transitional types. The following is a detail from one of Baskerville’s type specimens:

Baskerville specimen

During Baskerville’s lifetime his types had little influence in his home country. However, In 1758 Baskerville met Benjamin Franklin who returned to the US with some of Baskervilles’s type, popularising it through its adoption as one of the standard typefaces employed in federal government publishing. Franklin was a huge fan of Baskerville’s work, and in a letter to Baskerville (1760) he enthusiastically defends Baskerville’s types, recounting a discussion he had with an English gentleman who claimed that Baskerville’s ‘ultra-thin’ serifs and narrow strokes would blind its readers.

Franklin mischievously tore off the top of a Caslon specimen (to remove any mention of Caslon, of course), and showed it to the gentleman, claiming that it was the work of Baskerville. The gentleman examined the specimen, and thinking that it was indeed a Baskerville specimen, started to point out the worst features of ‘Baskeville’s’ type.

Another notable character from this period in type history is Pierre Simon Fournier who developed the ‘point’ system (Fournier Scale), and also designed and cut his own type. William Caslon is yet another notable figure, though his types were based on the Dutch Old Style; however, some modern interpretations of Caslon’s types would sit more comfortably in Transitional.

Whereas Caslon’s letters are thoroughly Baroque, Baskerville’s are thoroughly Neoclassical.—A Short History of the Printed Word.


1 Vertical or almost vertical stress in the bowls of lowercase letters. (See also A Short History of the Printed Word, Chappell & Bringhurst, pages 160-161):


If you read parts one and two, you may well have noticed a trend here: with the stress, like the minute-hand moving from the humanist axis to rationalist axis at 12 o’clock. (Tip: if you’re trying to approximate the angle of stress, pick the lowercase ‘o’ and draw a line through the two thinnest sections [the actual stress is the fattest parts of the stroke]).

2 greater contrast between thick and thin (sub-) strokes:

stroke width contrast comparison

3 Head serifs generally more horizontal:

head serifs

It’s worth noting that the above characteristics are guides only. Modern-day revivals of these types vary in their ‘authenticity’.


Baskerville (many flavours), Bookman (Linotype), Cheltenham (ITC), Clearface (ITC), Fournier, Joanna, Slimbach (ITC)

And in a brief Back to the Future moment, here’s Baskerville in the 21st century, seen here in the retailer Habitat’s logo (set in Fry’s Baskerville):

habitat logo


Spot the odd ones out. Three of the following are not generally considered to be Transitional style types. Which ones are imposters?

(a) ITC Zapf International | (b) Sabon | (c) Times Europa | (d) Melior
(e) Bodoni | (f) Caledonia | (g) Old Style 7 (Linotype)

Remember, the screen is one place to compare type, but not the best place. Why not take an Old Style type like Bembo and a Transitional like Baskerville and print some of the letters as large as you can—one per single A4 sheet of paper. Also print out some sample body text in each typeface, say, at 9 or 10 point, to determine differences in the colour of the type (the relative darkness or lightness of the type when viewed en masse).

There is so much more to be said about this period in type history, but if you have to scroll any further, your mouse wheel will probably seize. The expanded version of this and all the other articles in this Type Terms/Type History series will be available for download as a PDF (approximately 60 pages).

In part four we’re going to look at the Modern types.

Read part one | two | three | four | five


* Under the presidency of the Abbé Bignon. The table of the proportions of the letters was drawn up by Truchet. Page 25 of Stanley Morison’s Letter Forms.
** An italic does not need to be ‘sloped’ or inclined to be an italic; in fact an italic type can be upright (and some of the early italics were).
*** from The Elements of Typographic Style, page 56, Robert Bringhurst

Related Links:

Chappell, Warren & Robert Bringhurst. A Short History of the Printed Word. 2nd ed. 1999.
Loxley, Simon. Type: The Secret History of Letters. 2004.
Morison, Stanley. Letter Forms: Typographic & Scriptorial. 1968.
Tracy, Walter. Letters of Credit: A View of Type Design. 1986.
Typophile forum: John Baskerville.

Solution to the ‘imposters’ exercise.

This weekend I have another Sunday Type and then next week an article by type designer Kris Sowersby. And after that some more great interviews, some video tutorials and lots, lots more. So, if you haven’t already subscribed, join some 10,000 other type-nuts and subscribe to I love typography today.


  1. Great job John! You’ve put a lot of effort into this article, and it shows.

    Do you have all the content planned out for this 60 page PDF? (Or is it perhaps already written?)

    I’m looking forward to the article on Modern type, keep it up!

  2. Wow — awesome article, Johno! I hadn’t heard of Fournier before. According to Wikipedia (source of all immutably correct knowledge), he developed something of a revolutionary musical typeface. Which gets me thinking how incredibly cool the world of musical typography is…

  3. John Hudson

    ‘Transitional’ is a terrible term, suggesting Baskerville and Fournier were somehow interpolating between baroque types and the yet-to-be-invented romantic types of the Didots and Bodoni. Calling these types neoclassical makes much more sense.

    I also think it is a big mistake to try to understand Baskerville’s types within a purely typographic history, ignoring the developments in formal English writing that provide both context and direct models for these types. For more discussion on the origins of Baskerville’s types, including some thoughtful contributions by James Mosley, see this Typophile discussion: http://typophile.com/node/37310

  4. Interesting how you put it into the historical context; it makes more sense why this Transitional/Neoclassical style was developed. Do you think the 48×48 grid (or something similar) is still used in modern typeface design?

    Hehe, I think, technically, your subtitle should read Types of the Baskerville, if you’re trying to keep with the Holmes play on words ;) But I guess the way you have it could work, too. Made me laugh. I love Sherlock Holmes!! The story about Franklin and the Caslon specimen made me smirk, too. He was quite the mischief maker!

    I know that you needed to cut down your 1,000 pages worth of notes, but I think some important details were left out. You make reference to several type designers (Caslon and Fournier), but don’t really expand on them much or offer links to further reading specifically on them (I see the addition of the bibliography, which is great). Maybe something to keep in mind for next time? (and can I also point out Benjamin is spelled with an “i” not an “e”? I don’t mean to be so critical!)

    I love your “stressful times” illustration! Did you come up with that yourself? I like how you break down the tell-tale characteristics of the periods, too. Those are so helpful!

    Looking forward to the next installation, as always, but Modern is not one of my favorite groups. The forms are not very elegant to my eye, but maybe you’ll show me something new—well, you’ll definitely show me something new, but I mean something to help me appreciate these guys a little more.

    I can’t believe you’ve hit 10,000. Incredible! A big congrats. You do such great work here :) Any progress on whether or not this will become a more significant job for you in the future?

  5. John

    While I do believe that the term Transitional is far from ideal (in some respects it is derogatory), it is a methodological expedient and does help when attempting to plot out a ‘potted history’ of type. And its use here is justified, to some extent, by the constraints of the medium and its continued use in type literature.

    I also concur with your words (on another Typophile node),

    The specialised terminology of many typeface classification systems — transitional, Didone, Garald, neo grotesk, etc. — cut type design off from its cultural context,…

    though I cannot agree with,

    …and present type as an esoteric field of specialised knowledge to which outsiders can only gain access with difficulty.

    Forgive me for quoting a little out of context, as you do go on to make a reasoned and altogether logical case for looking at type in terms of its cultural context; and you are absolutely right when you propose,

    By including type design in our consideration of the cultural context in which it is produced, we not only make sense of type design, but also change our understanding of that context.”

    I do believe that most type classification systems (with the exception of Panose) are a wonderful aid to study. Those who know their type and their type history well, really have little need for any method of classifying type. However, for the beginner, type classification is a means to bring some order to the subject, and a method to set type within a loosely ‘historical’ context.

    Personally, when thinking about type, I don’t do so within any system of classification; I prefer to think in terms of ‘comparative type’.

    And with reference to what you write about ‘the mistake of trying to understand Baskerville’s types within a purely typographic history’, I say that ‘understanding’ Baskerville’s types is outside the scope of this brief article.

    Thank you John for your input, and for the Baskerville link. It’s greatly appreciated. I have only just discovered that you too were born in Bristol; at least we have something in common :) I hope to see you here again. I’d be honoured if you’d write something for iLT some day. I really enjoyed reading Sylfaen: Foundations of Multiscript Typography, though it feels like a decade since I read it. Can it really be that long ago?

  6. Great article!

    Just one question about the second footnote. If an italic doesn’t have to be sloped, than what is the difference between an upright italic and a ‘normal’ upright typeface?

  7. Lauren
    I don’t know of anyone who uses a 48×48 grid, but I’m sure others have experimented with it. Now that would make an interesting theme for a type workshop :)

    You’re right to say that some important details were left out. In fact many important details were omitted. One of the greatest challenges in writing these articles is keeping them from being overly long. Generally, very long articles are something of a pain to read on-screen; moreover, they are intended to appeal to a relatively broad audience. I’m hoping that the expanded versions (in PDF) will sate the appetites of those yearning for more. I only wish that I had time to publish the PDF versions simultaneously.

    The ‘Stressful Times’ illustration is my own, but I’m sure the clock analogy is from somewhere else. I can’t imagine that I dreamt up that one :)

    I’m hoping that iLT will become a more ‘significant job’ in the future, but that depends on finding sponsors or advertisers (preferably type-related ones). That way I could publish many more articles, including much longer ones that could be made available through an alternative ‘more in-depth articles’ feed :) Thanks again for your contribution, Lauren; and for pointing out my misspelling.

  8. Stressful times indeed.

    I am pretty certain that nobody uses a 48 × 48 grid, but the pixel boys work to the grid, indeed the sub-pixel…

    And I am also fairly certain that the Roman du Roi was never actually cut exactly to the specification, it was impossible to do so with the materials of the time. These chaps have made their version, for better or worse.

  9. bkawalec
    Good question. Although most italics are sloped, the difference lies not in the angle of the slope (if any) but in the form of the letters, which is generally more cursive (flowing). Also italics usually have transitive, unilateral serifs. Transitive meaning that the serif flows into or out of the main stroke (a little like the ‘links’ in ‘joined-up’ handwriting); unilateral, meaning that the serifs occur on just one side of the stroke:
    I hope that makes some sense. I will try to find a good illustration of a good upright italic (unless someone else has one?).

  10. True, it was definitely not cut according to the brief :) A few comparisons show this clearly (even if one can’t find both complete resources online)

  11. Kris
    Yes, you’re right, it appears that Grandjean interpreted rather than slavishly copied the designs. However, I wouldn’t say it was impossible to cut it to the exact specifications, but considering the materials (ink, paper, metals), if cut to the exact specifications, it undoubtedly wouldn’t have reproduced the type true to its original design. I’m half asleep, so I hope that doesn’t sound too garbled.

    Thanks for the link. Never seen that one before. The black italic is fun.

    ps: perhaps ‘Stressful Times’ would be a good title for an article on the ‘joys’ of kerning ;)

  12. Jean-Baptiste
    Thanks. Do you have scans of those comparisons? I’d love to see them.

  13. Sure, allow for a few hours.

  14. TypoJunkie


    Another great piece of work. I must agree with Lauren as to the beauty of the “stressful times” illustration. Yesterday I re–read the previous two articles and it was a nice surprise to get this one today. I’m a big fan of Baskerville and Caslon (been in London studying typography for two years) and it’s nice to see stuff about them.

    About the grid, I made an experiment using one to “design” a typeface and I must say it depends on the concept of the typeface itself whether it works or not. I can’t imagine it working on a script face, but if it’s going to have its roots in the Enlightenment I guess it would.

    As for funding your blog, you should charge foundries a commission for purchases (or clicks) made through your blog. I know I’ll but either Epic or Requiem because of you… so thinking about it, I should probably charge you!

    Oh, and “Joys of kerning” cracked me up!

    Keep the good stuff coming!

  15. Hamish
    The content is planned, but it’s not written. Upon completion of the series (another 3 parts and possibly a part 7 ‘summary’ ), I’ll gather all my notes together (my note-taking is hideously disorganised) and set about writing and rewriting and redoing all the illustrations (higher res’ for print), then realise what a mammoth task it is…despair…drink more coffee…

    So I guess the PDF’s are a couple of months away, but I’m hoping they’ll be worth the wait.

    “Source of all immutably correct knowledge.”—for a moment I thought you were talking about the Time magazine ;)
    The whole ‘musical type’ is something I know very little about. As a musician and typophile, I guess it interests you. I wonder whether there are any books on the topic? On a related (well, remotely related) theme: there’s a great illustration in Unger’s While You’re Reading of a type case for chess. As a chess player (a poor one at that), I’d love to find out more about chess types. I think I’m starting to go off topic so…

    Great. Thank you.

    Thanks for that. Yes, London is treasure trove of type. Interesting about your experiment with that grid. Interestingly, the sloped roman of the Romain du Roi was designed on a trapezoid version of the one in the illustration above.

    “Joys of Kerning”: I’m sure deep down, type designers get some strange pleasure out of it—a kind of typographic self-flagellation ;)

  16. Thanks for the explanation, John. It would be interesting to see some upright italics. I wonder why the sloped ones are more popular. I know that italics were invented to save space, perhaps the sloped italics did it better?

  17. Awesome article. Hardly vaiting the the PDF version.

  18. However, I wouldn’t say it was impossible to cut it to the exact specifications, but considering the materials (ink, paper, metals), if cut to the exact specifications, it undoubtedly wouldn’t have reproduced the type true to its original design

    The following is from Smeijers’ excellent Counterpunch, pp 70–72.

    “The type that was made from these ‘designs’ could not of course follow the grid of the engraved letters. And this allowed Fournier—who perhaps took more from the Académie des Sciences than he wanted to aknowledge—to ridicule the enterprise:

    ‘The square they divide into 64 parts, each subdivided into 36 others, making a total of 2,304 little squares for roman capitals. Italic letters are constructed by means of another square, oblong and inclined, or rather a parallelogram, which undergoes a greater degree of subdivision. Add to this numerous curves done with a compass; for example, 8 for the a, 11 for the g, as many for the m, etc, and it will be appreciated how useless is such a multiplicity of lines for shaping letter on a steel punch whose face, in the case of the letter most often used in printing, measures no more than the twenty-fourth part of an inch across.’”

  19. I will try to find a good illustration of a good upright italic (unless someone else has one?).

    Majoor’s Seria has upright italics.

  20. Very nice article John. I really liked how you showed the different characteristics of the bowl of the each classification using a clock reference, I never really thought of it that way. Good stuff! :)

  21. Kris
    Good point, and thanks for the the Smeijers quote.

    Well, I can no longer claim to be such an ardent fan of Majoor—I had completely forgotten about that one (and it’s pretty recent); before clicking the link I was thinking, ‘I’m sure it’s sloped’. I’ve got illustrations of some very early uprights, which I’ll post once I’ve scanned them.

    I was so tempted to slope the above illustration just 1° :)

    And here’s another one for you. Plus this article on Majoor’s Seria, both found through a Google search (now why didn’t I think of that before?)

    Thanks. Pleased you like the clock illustration (pity I didn’t align those clock faces more evenly) :)

  22. Johno

    Regarding TypeJunkie’s comment:
    As for funding your blog, you should charge foundries a commission for purchases (or clicks) made through your blog. I know I’ll but either Epic or Requiem because of you… so thinking about it, I should probably charge you!

    You may already have this set up, but IIRC, both Fonts.com and Linotype.com and who knows who else actually do have web affiliate programs, where if you set up an account and then link fonts back to the store you can get a percentage of all purchases from your readers via that link. Just like Amazon, really.

  23. Wow, what a read that was. I had to take a cigarette break and come back to finish up the last bit. Haha.

    This one was very very well written. As much as I hate reading about history, this article kept me in there. I especially love the Caslon story, it made me think of the “designers” in our time now that bash Comic Sans and Arial because it is the cool designer thing to do. I remember confronting a designer for writing an article about how bad Comic Sans is because he wrote the article in Impact. Seriously, don’t shoot down something that you don’t truly understand or know about.

    Great work mate, looking forward to Sunday!

  24. As Hamish says, it’s obvious you put a lot of effort into this post, and I appreciate it. Thanks John.

    I like your share the love section beneath the post, and I’m also enjoying your varied blog headers. Always something new to see when I pay you a visit. :)

  25. Cody
    Thanks. In fact, it’s difficult to keep it short. I’ve mentioned some big names and big type, but only very briefly.
    Yes, I like that Franklin/Baskerville/Caslon story too; and there is indeed an interesting experiment in there.

    And thank you for reading. Talking of headers:

    I wonder who can name the type?

  26. RogueJunkie

    Umm…it starts with “B” and ends with “askerville”?

  27. Richard

    I think Durham University uses Baskerville Gothic in their new branding/logo.

  28. RogueJunkie
    Haha. It is indeed.

    It certainly looks like a Baskerville to me. At that size and on screen, it’s difficult to see; but maybe URW Baskerville? BTW, I don’t know of a Baskerville Gothic.

  29. Johno, do you have the answers to the exercise you prepared please?

    I’ve got mine written on a piece of scrap paper and I’d like to cross-check them with you.

    I have the imposters down as: Sabon, Times Europa and Caledonia.

  30. Yeah, I’d also be interested in the answers to the exercise. I’m thinking the impostors are Sabon, Times Europa, Caledonia and Bodoni. The only real reason I have for including Bodoni is that my typography textbook (though I’m not in a typography class) classifies it as Modern. As well, the contrast between thick and thin strokes is much stronger than with Transitional types. But… these classifications are, as you say, subject to change.

    Also — that Benjamin Franklin, what a rascal! ;) I love this little story. It humanizes a historical figure.

  31. Jacob A.

    I was looking at the types. Were the three impostors Sabon, Melior and Old Style?

  32. Solution to the imposters exercise:
    Those struck through are not generally considered to be Transitional types:

    (a) ITC Zapf International | (b) Sabon | (c) Times Europa | (d) Melior
    (e) Bodoni | (f) Caledonia | (g) Old Style 7 (Linotype)

    Bodoni and Caledonia are marked by higher contrast between thick and thin strokes (more about them in part 4). Tschichold’s Sabon and Jean François Porchez’s Sabon Next are Old Style (think Garamond), though the stress is almost vertical; take a look at those head serifs:


    Thomas and Leah: very close. Jacob, Old Style 7 is a tricky one because of how it’s named. Confusing isn’t it.

  33. Jacob A.

    The only one I was really sure of was Sabon. To be clear, what distinguishes them from a transitional font is that their thick and thin strokes are even more contrasting? These exercises are pretty great (and enlightening for a newbie like me :) ).

  34. Jacob A, I know what you mean. I like these exercises too! Searching around for the fonts and comparing them definitely teaches me about typography. I love it.

  35. Jacob & Leah
    I think it’s great that you have a go at these exercises; they’re not easy, and I find that the screen has some kind of neutralising effect on type. Perhaps neutralising is not the best choice of word; perhaps ‘sanitizing’ is better. When these types are printed (even at small sizes) the character of the type is much more evident. Jacob, for the so-called Moderns, the types that followed Transitional, yes, stroke contrast is an important factor. You may have noticed that along with stress—which over time became more perpendicular (took on a more rationalist axis—the contrast of the thick and thin strokes also increased. Great job, BTW.

  36. Will

    I found this site today, and it is awesome.

  37. Will
    Welcome to iLT! See you around. I post an roundup of all things type on Sundays, then another article like mid-week.

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