Genuine imitations

Every year The St Bride Foundation holds a lecture in memory of Justin Howes, a great typographer and historian who was instrumental in supporting the St Bride Printing Library. He re-established the firm of HW Caslon, published books, organised exhibitions, delivered lectures and worked with the Type Museum in Stockwell, finally moving to the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp before his death in 2005, aged 41.

Previous lectures have been popular, but demand was so high for this year’s lecture that all the tickets were booked up in two hours and it had to be moved to Conway Hall to allow more people in, and still there was a waiting list. Given that Matthew Carter was giving the lecture and he would be talking about his views on type revivals, it was perhaps not so surprising so many people wanted to go. For an hour he talked through the development of some of his typefaces and his philosophy not just on revivals but on type design in general. I suspect it’s this philosophy and thinking that interested a lot of the attendees, including me, so I’ll focus more on that here.

Matthew Carter

‘I’m not a nostalgist […] more of a ‘presentist’ given to typographical regressions’

Throughout the talk, and right from the start, Carter emphasised how he was presenting his own views on the subject and not advocating a particular approach, stating, ‘I’m not a ‘nostalgist’, I don’t believe type should look like it did in the 15th and 16th Centuries. You could describe me more of a ‘presentist’ given to typographical regressions’.

ragged r

I found one of the earliest bits of work he showed rather interesting. He had recreated a missing ‘ragged r’ for a blackletter font used by Oxford University Press, and I must admit such a thing was new to me. I must have seen (and traced) that form of the letter thousands of times and in context actually read it as an r, but hadn’t thought much on it. To explain, a straight ‘r’ is used after a straight-edged character, and the ragged form is used after a round-edged character. The book in question was on the history of printing, and so the missing character would have been somewhat embarrassing for the OUP. You learn something every day…

Carter spoke often of the help that St Bride Library has been throughout his career, with various anecdotes of sneaking books out of the library to get Photostats done round the corner on Fleet Street. Later, I assume, the Library must have got a photocopier of their own because Carter said that its work would play a starring role in the talk through the examples on his slides.

double f

One of the fascinating copies he showed were those of Ambrose Heal’s History of English Types, showing the mechanics and geometry you should follow to reproduce the lettering.

snell dCarter remarked that for a student armed only with a quill the instructions must have been terrifying indeed, but for a type designer the detailed diagrams were an absolute boon; from them he eventually created Snell Roundhand. He also said that revivals and re-creations like this are only possible with digital type - looking at the incredibly beautiful but very deeply kerned double-f ligature, you realise why. Kerning as deep as that ‘would be impossible in metal type’.

He showed some preliminary sketches for the script, which he cheerfully admitted were entirely bogus, saying, ‘Almost all of the preliminary sketches you ever see for a typeface are bogus, created after the fact because a reviewer asked to see them’. So if you ever wondered how these sketches were always so neat and perfect, that’s why. One genuine piece he showed though was the ‘D’ which only exists because someone at Linotype spilled paint on it and it was sent to him to clean up. He promptly forgot about it and it remained in a desk drawer until long after Linotype had decommissioned their Photostat machines and, incredibly, destroyed all the production drawings with them. Carter thanked the clumsy printer for damaging the drawing and ensuring its survival!

Next he showed some of the development work on Big Caslon, and showed some samples of larger sizes of the original Caslon, and some from the recut of 1880.

At this point he provided some more insight on his philosophy, in that to recreate the original exactly would be to create a pastiche, something of limited use and of interest to very few people.

He likened historical types to musical scores. We can replay them by reviving them, but we can never recreate the original perfectly, as it was a product of its time and place. Each era has its different needs, its different fashions and different typographical conventions. He said to be a type reviver, you need to be an amplifier, a translator, to adapt the original ‘score’ to its new ‘performance’. It’s an interesting approach and I completely agree — just resurrecting an old type isn’t enough, you need to restore it, breathe new life into it.

So for Big Caslon, Carter based much of his revival on the recut of the 1880s, it was, in his words, ‘a revival of a revival’. He recreated swashes that had been introduced in the Victorian recut, admitting that they weren’t quite right for the face but that it was necessary they be included because the Caslon that people were familiar with had them, and they would be missed.

From there Carter spoke on the development of Miller and Century, both of which are pretty well documented elsewhere so I won’t reproduce it all here. He did make a comment on the cliché of Didot-esque faces in fashion magazines which ‘refuses to die’, saying, ‘Perhaps it’s because the hairlines are so anorexic, they represent some kind of ideal for a fashionable typeface?’

One other comment here caught my attention as it fits closely with my own philosophy. While describing the development of the Newsweek typeface, he said he’d come across some font samples produced by Figgins Foundry, and digitised them himself: “To understand something, take it apart and put it back together again. Digitise it.” I couldn’t agree more!

The last revival project he talked about was for Yale University. He had the job of creating two faces for them; one for general use in print, downloadable and usable by everyone associated with the university for use on everything from PhD theses to invoices; and another for use on the University’s signage around campus.

The latter was apparently the most urgent, as Yale had virtually no signage whatsoever. The signs that did exist were carved into the stone on various buildings, usually in heavy blackletter or other medieval forms to match the Gothic-Revival architecture of the University itself. None of it was particularly readable, so something had to be done.

He explained a little of the background to the project: Yale has an original copy of Aldus Manutius’ De Aetna, which was the inspiration for Bembo, and the high point of Venetian Roman type. Bembo was the face that Yale were using already for their official documents, so Carter designed the new typeface as a revival directly from De Aetna, which (I would think) meant he could spend lots of time worshipping studying the original manuscript.

yale type

This is an example of both faces together. You’d expect looking at these that the top one is for print use, and the bottom one for signage — after all, signs are basically display type, right? In fact it’s the other way round. Signs, Carter explained, have much in common with captions; they tend to get viewed from a distance, under less than ideal lighting conditions and from various angles, so are often at the limit of what the eye can perceive.

In the end, the Yale signage face was far more successful than Carter imagined. Since 1701 Yale had virtually no signs on campus, but after the face was designed there were signs everywhere. In his own words, the typeface effectively ‘went viral’, appearing not only on buildings but sprinkler valves and recycling bins. Everything that could be labelled, was.

Carter wrapped up the talk at this point with another good point on his philosophy on revivals, for which I shall have to paraphrase as I didn’t write down his words precisely, ‘However gigantic the giants upon whose shoulders we stand, by virtue of your additional height you can still see, however slightly, further than they could’.

And then we had some questions, which raised a few other interesting points.

Q. Is all old type worth reviving?

According to Carter, no. ‘The only reason most old types have survived is because someone was too lazy to throw it away’.

Q. What about new technology? Does that make it easier? Too easy?

Carter: The technical part of type design is not the difficult part. OpenType will not make you a good type designer. He said he sees students producing 800 characters really quickly, where by the same point he would still have been working on type pairs such as na, nb, nc and so on. He said that it’s easy to race ahead without having got the basics sorted, and that on his courses students aren’t even allowed to kern until they’ve got to a fairly advanced level, as kerning can mask fundamental problems in the design of your type.

He commented that OpenType is revolutionary and useful but has far greater relevance to non-Latin scripts, that writing systems that couldn’t be digitised before now can be. I would say that this is going to be one of the interesting typographic developments of the 21st century, as more writing systems become available online, how will the Anglo-centric internet develop and change? Will it break everything? After all, even now we have character encoding problems online, and that’s often with pages written in English!

Q. What is your methodology on producing type?

Carter said that he doesn’t draw well, so as soon as he didn’t have to, he stopped. He now draws directly onto screen.

One final, and very good point he gave was that when teaching he tries not to be doctrinaire; so many type designers are self-taught, there are so many routes into the discipline that there are many more valid approaches than the one he uses.

Pretty informative, and highly inspiring all round. Thank you Matthew Carter, and St Bride!

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Aegir Hallmundur is a UK-based designer, and author of Ministry of Type.


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  1. Thank you so much for the detailed review!

  2. I was not quick enough to get a ticket, so thanks for review.

  3. Mikko

    Thank you! Afternoon saved.

  4. Thomas Vanhuyse

    I enjoyed reading that. Thank you!

  5. Great stuff!
    Articles like this are the reason i follow i love typography!

  6. Great write-up. I almost feel like I was there. I especially loved the realistic perspective on revivalism. Thank you.

  7. Excellent recap. Loved reading about the Yale signage project — how cool!

  8. wes

    I really like this article really made my day as a designer.

  9. Thanks for the summary — sounds like it was a great lecture. The mention of the Museum Plantin-Moretus caught my eye. It’s a definite must for type enthusiasts!

  10. Rodrigo López

    Thanks, love to read it

  11. Lindsay Rollo

    This issue is a great gem in the usual dross that comes each week.

  12. If anyone would like more information on the Yale typeface, there is a Web site dedicated to it: http://www.yale.edu/printer/typeface/ . Only members of the Yale community can sign in to download the typeface, though.

    The Yale Daily News also published a terrific article on the University’s comprehensive design program: http://www.yaledailynews.com/articles/view/24465 .

  13. nice one

  14. Lindsay
    It’s a pity that my rejecting to publish your article should lead you to comment thus. Perhaps my conclusion is wrong. Anyway, I’m pleased you enjoyed this one. If you have suggestions on how I might deliver ILT from the dross, then I’m all ears.

  15. Reed
    Many thanks for those additional links.

  16. Lindsay Rollo

    Johno:

    At this point I’m not sure what it was I supposed to have submitted that you rejected.

    This certainly didn’t influence my comment.

    I find much of what you include is not typography as I know it, but is designers either flattering their vanity or making artistic statements using type as a vehicle —- no much different that artists making collages with sea shells, knitting wool and old bus tickets.

    I have never disguised my interest in typography as it applies to extended text, and to that extent Matthew Carter’s statements are both interesting and welcomed. I thought his comments about revivals particularly pertinent and will consider including them in a paper I’m preparing at the moment —- which will require a URL reference to this issue.

    I do you the courtesy of reading every issue, and usually follow up at least one or two of your main or subsidiary links.

    I could just unsubscribe, but this would be both pointless and petty.

    Go well, Go warm (from a frosty Wellington, New Zealand).

  17. @johno:

    Wow. Yeah, I would honestly have to say that I haven’t encountered one article on ILT that I would call “dross”. I’ve never been the “fanboy” type for anything save typography, and as such I take my type sites very seriously.

    With so much information out there on the web, and with the recent explosion in all things typography in the last couple of years, there are a million “type” sites out there now. I believe ILT set the original bar for quality articles on all things type. The evidence is in the dedication, research, and passion behind the articles. I have learned just as much on this site in the last three years as I have learned in all my typography books .

    @Lindsay
    If you find the “usual” ILT articles dross, then please, point me to a regularly updated site with articles on typography that trumps ILT.

    Please.

    —Bob

  18. Krapp

    Its not so much the articles that are ‘dross’ but a major part of the content seems to be unsubstantiated private opinion (which is fine as long as one doesn’t take it to heart). One would hope that ILT doesn’t cater to superficial arbiters of taste in typography (and doesn’t become one itself).

  19. Great Lecture and good write up, nice to recap. Cheers

  20. As one who has contributed articles to iLT, I should be offended, but the word “dross” is just so excellent that I can’t stay mad.

  21. Nice article Aegir,

    You guys put a lot of work into your articles and it shows.

    It’s crazy that his lecture sold out in two hours!

    I also like the fact you’ve included his links back to his home site. I saw his designs for the US Dollars and I like them, very impressive. I like when you guys link back to authors or sites you’ve come to respect because then we get another view on type, its great.

    Thanks,
    Anthony Proulx

  22. Thank you for an interesting read. Has the lecture been filmed and uploaded anywhere?

  23. JanDW
    Not sure if it was videoed. Perhaps Aegir knows. Maybe that’s something for St Bride to consider — StBride.tv. I’d pay for that channel.

  24. another great iLT article, thanks guys!

  25. @Lindsay Rollo

    To be honest, this is one of the few popular design blogs that isn’t full of the sort of stuff you’re talking about, generally the posts are very highly informed and are accessible to the reader regardless of their experience. It is rare we have a situation where the comments turn into an argument or similar. It’s a shame that you had to make a remark like that.

  26. And yes, dross is quite a nice word actually. ;)

  27. I know that a couple of people recorded the talk, but as for video, I’m not sure - I was sat right at the front so couldn’t see if anyone was videoing it. I did rather cheekily ask Matthew Carter for his slides (I know, I know), which he politely refused, saying that he was planning to give this (or similar) talks again.

    In hindsight I should have asked if I could take a picture in good light - you have the photographic skills of David Earls (http://typographer.org) to thank for the one in this article.

    I agree with you Johno, St Bride could certainly make a bit of extra cash putting videos online.

  28. Isn’t “making artistic statements using type as a vehicle” what typography is about? Who’s to say?

    Either way, with over 40,000 subscribers, this dross comment isn’t anything to get worked up about. Plus, it pretty much names the next “The Week in Type” right?

    Oh, and Johno, I don’t count my subscribing here as courtesy to you. No offense, but if I did find it dross I would just unsubscribe. I don’t think that would be pointless or petty.

    Keep up the good work, this site is great!

  29. Lindsay,

    I agree with you that some things posted on ILT can seem like dross, or even low-brow, when compared to the more serious parts of typography. Isn’t this being a little exclusive, though? How are we meant to draw inspiration for our work if not from this ‘dross’ that others are creating?

    I would also argue that a website such as ILT is not just the right medium to discuss extended text setting—it is also the perfect one for exposing those who would not normally seek such things out. How do we foster a love of typography in others? By showing them the interesting and varied work that goes beyond mere text setting and into the realm of experimentation and artistic innovation. It is the cool stuff that draws the kids in, and hopefully they stay for the rest.

    Over the past couple of years I’ve watched ILT grow into something that is truly worthy of praise—a bastion of good type in all its facets. It would be truly sad to see the vast majority of Johno’s hard work dismissed as dross, or even to see such a narrow view of typography being expressed.

  30. litherland

    Krapp, blogs tend to be expressions of an author’s opinion. If I were to draw a comparison to journalism for the purposes of this discussion, I might say that blogs are similar to editorials as opposed to pure reportage. Out of curiosity, can you direct us to a blog on typography that is purely objective?

  31. I find ILT informative, relevant and anything but dross. The content I’ve seen on this website is almost exclusively typography related. I recommend ILT to any serious designers and students of design and typography.

  32. This comment is as difficult for me to write, as telling your girlfriend she isn’t fat, but could need some exercise.. Week in type is not dross or even close too it.

    I’ve been on iLT almost from the beginning and the content have changed from articles about type, to aggregated content. I need week in type, but I painfully have to admit that I skim it until I get to the middle of the article, were the small collection of links reside just in case I missed something throughout the week.

    I guess what Im saying with respect, is Im missing in depth articles about typography & type and get back to the school bench called iLT. I am aware these articles are difficult to create and sometimes demand a lot of research and time is a factor.

    Hope my comment is seen with love, cheers

    Esben

  33. ILT is anything but dross. I read ILT because its one of the few design blogs without sanctimony, elitism, or utterly random stuff that just happens to be liked by a designer considered eminent by AIGA members over the age of forty.

  34. Why is it that those who leave negative comments almost never link their names to their respective sites or anything that would tell us more about the person and if they have serious background to back up their comments with a superior knowledge on the subject matter they so carelessly critique?

    iLT is a mixture of light (Week in Type) reading and in-depth type-related articles. Both types are immense sources of inspiration and knowledge. It’s not right to associate iLT’s contribution to the world of typography by basing it only on one type of articles published here.

  35. @Esben It appears that I was writing my comment at the same time as you, but submitted it afterward. In-depth articles are indeed much more difficult to write, and I’m very grateful to read every one of them that do get born here.

    I rather have Johno’s superbly compiled Week in Type separating the educational articles than meaningless Top whatever lists on best typographic resources or fonts or any other best lists of twaddle.

  36. @inspirationbit

    I agree with your statement, top “whatever list” is a sign of non quality. I too are grateful for what have been delivered here; from John and other contributors - We all are I guess.

    Im not even qualified to make a statement about these issues, since my opinion is irrelevant. Its Johns blog and he knows what he’s doing, better than I am.

  37. Also, I would like to remind the critics that Johno has somehow kept up the quality of this site while at the same time launching We Love Typography, maintaining Typenuts, his personal blog, and somehow finding the time to do his client work. The man must rarely sleep keeping us all entertained by the work he has done.

  38. @Able

    Yes I am aware of this, I have don’t know where he’s finding the time and the “geist” to keep it up . I don’t hope my comments where seen as a negative critique, because that’s far from the case.

    I owe John a lot, because without him I wouldn’t have contacts to most of the designers I write with on a regular basis, which all are connected to the network created from these comments.

  39. Lindsay Rollo

    I’m pleased that Johno’s efforts have such a supportive following.

    A number of the comments here remind me of Hermann Zapf’s comment in reviewing Robert Bringhurst’s book the it ‘is particularly welcome in an age where typographic design is sometimes misconstrued as a form of private self-expression for designers.’

    To whom does the cap fit ?

  40. Krapp

    @Lindsay

    Couldn’t agree with you more. Thats exactly what I was trying to say, but maybe just too many people prefer typography to be private self-expression afterall.

    @All

    Most of the comments seem to revolve around whether Johno or ILT is doing a good job (as if that needs any questioning). What the subscribers of ILT need to consider is that a critique and dialogue should be far above the merely personal. A state of open-minded re-evaluation of ideas is not a threatening thing. We are discussing ideas here, or so I would hope. There is no need to take it personally, hence defending and offending anyone doesn’t figure. The quality of this critical dialogue goes to show the overall maturity level of those who post here.

  41. Thanks for the great article! Inspiring.

  42. Jane McGovern

    Dross! Dross? Lindsay—as an aspiring typography student I would just love to know where I can find your work. Can you please I bet you’re a professional typographer who has executed many excellent designs, quoting Bringhurst is the dead giveaway! Are you a book designer? I am sorry for contacting you publicly in this forum, but I can’t seem to find your website or email. Thanks, I would really appreciate it!

  43. @aegir, @johno – Thanks for the reply. I’d be interested in an audio capture if anyone reading these comments has one.

  44. Lindsay Rollo

    @Jane McGovern

    I don’t have a web site and I’m hereby authorising Johno to release my email address to you.

    Quoting Bringhurst should not be a dead give away for anyone interested in typography, rather anyone interested in the subject who does own a personal copy for reference is denying themselves the most influential book on the subject in the last 20 years.

    Can anyone point to anyone book on typography that ran to a second edition in just four years?.

    Of course there are other books that deserve a mention. While Bringhurst almost overwhelms the reader with his erudition, I think his sections on musical proportions somewhat remote from reality. James Felici’s The Complete Manual of Typography :: A guide to setting perfect type is much much closer to the mark for the individual involved on a daily basis with books or extended text professional, academic or literary publications.

    Another field that desperately needs codification is the preparation and publication of electronic texts.

  45. Josef Go-Oco

    Esben, I agree with you. ILT indeed has evolved: I definitely miss those times when I was still lurking and reading ‘Who Shot the Serif?’ and other fun articles. I think that John is doing a wonderful job in keeping all his sites up lovingly, and we love and thank him for his dedication and spirit, but the quality of the content in ILT is a function of what can be found in the Internet and the amount of time to find or to separate the better from the good, as well as John’s personal life, which is, of course, affected by the economy. He cannot, of course, ultimately sacrifice his lifestyle for the sake of delivering quality typography-related articles, because if he did that, he wouldn’t be able to write or have a medium for his articles in the first place!

    The week in type has definitely evolved from the in-depth to the mass it is now. Perhaps because this is so, in order to cater to a wider audience. Perhaps John doesn’t simply have the same amount of time he did when ILT was young. If we desire to focus more on the in-depth, then why don’t we talk to John and write the articles ourselves, flesh out our theories, delve into the depths that we want? We, as a community, are a very powerful resource. Such is the essence of WLT. Why not do the same for written content,? These potential articles offer the perspective of the ‘I’, hence, I Love Typography.

    Regardless, thank you Aegir and John for delivering a delightful article. Keep it up.

  46. I think that content being rubbish is an entirely subjective opinion posted by someone who has outgrown ILT’s intended audience.

    The quality is still there, even though the topics have evolved a bit. I’d imagine John would hang up the mittens before considering a “50+ groin-grabbingly awesome free fonts!!!” posts we see on every webdesign[insert writable surface here].com. It’s also hard to imagine ILT going the way of Smashing Magazine or Nettuts - offering downright dangerous and misinformed tips on subjects they have very little knowledge on.

    Most of us read ILT because it is what it is - a great blog whose author has never compromised on quality (and rarely, if ever, on quantity).

    As Able Parris already mentioned - the amount of work put into these projects is enormous. I can only partly relate, since I’ve only been involved with We Love Typography, but it’s safe to say that the effort put into it was probably a bit too much for the both of us. It was still worth it, no question about it. And that, I believe, is the driving force behind ILT and indeed every great website: doing good just for the sake of doing so, instead of compromising for profit.

  47. Going against the last two comments I think this article was once again a best shot by iLT and thoroughly enjoyed reading this article.

    Well, speaking my thoughts I would say i always enjoy being on this blog except a thing which I miss. You should be offering a section where your visitors can drop some of the best “typographic posts”.

    I just had a post on my blog Top 8 Categories of Typographic Logos
    and was wondering how could I share it with you….afterall, you ar the master of typography :)

  48. Atilla

    @ Graphic Design Blog

    You present the perfect example of stuff ILT should never descend to.
    You should probably use Kari’s “50+ groin-grabbingly awesome free fonts!!!” suggestion on your web site.

  49. I know that most professional fonts are proprietary, and free fonts are either (a) (mostly) hopelessly amateur, or (b) (a few) funded by a foundation (e.g., SIL, Gentium) or university (e.g., University of Virginia, Junicode), but it would be nice to see a couple from the latter group occasionally featured here.

    Peter Baker’s Junicode has just released a new version. It’s designed as a font for medievalists, and contains all sorts of funny characters for that purpose, but it works beautifully when used for plain English text as well.

  50. steve

    yeah typography doesnt suck. woop. woop.

  51. Great review
    I was there and must admit that I had never even heard of a ragged R. It was a smashing talk, the real nitty-gritty. I am off to the late night opening of St Brides next Wednesday though to look in the book that Matthew drew inspiration from.

  52. Lindsay Rollo

    @grendelkhan

    Thanks for reminding me to look at the SIL site.

    I found Charis SIL there which proves to be a useful addition to Open Source fonts. I intend to examine it more closely soon, but in the meantime I’m finding t an excellent font for PDF documents — being slightly more robust and so more legible in this form of document distribution.

    As you say, Junicode is an interesting font with literally thousands of special characters for an academic specialty. If you look at the italics font I think you wwill agree that it is probably based on a Garamond version. While this is fine for printed material, I find Garamond to weak for PDF or web display.

    I’ve referred Junicode to the appropriate faculty at the local university just in case they have missed its availability.

    I too would like to see more consideration of Open Source fonts. I’ve looked at a few now, and found some of them very amateurish or just plain knock offs of well established proprietary products.

    A review of the field could sort out the possible from the putrid.

  53. Nice article, enjoyed to read it!

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