PRINTING--'that most noble of the Mechanick Arts, being that to which Letters and Science have given the Precision and Durability of the printed Page'--was invented in response to a growing demand for speed." Someone has said that "the moment that marked the liberation of words from the limitations of the medieval scribes also marked the beginning of modern civilization," the moment being, of course, the invention of movable types. In the type founder's craft the moment that marked the elimination of the founder's punch and introduced the machine-cut matrix, marked too, in a way, the severance of the connection which until then had existed between artist and artisan, that intimate relation which should exist in all art that creates useful things and makes them pleasing by appropriate decoration. The immediate predecessors of type--the manuscript letters of medieval times--were shaped for easy reading. The first types followed them in form, but because of technical and mechanical limitations they had first to be simplified to meet the exigencies of use--not, however, at the expense of legibility or beauty. Although the first types were based on the scribe's writing, probably with the intention of deceiving readers into the belief that they were manuscript, or, at any rate, of supplying type forms similar to the written letter forms with which readers were already familiar, the type forms themselves gradually drew away from their models as printers discovered that one shape was as easy to cut and found [and print] as another. Later to conserve space, types were often unduly compressed and reduced, thereby losing much of the beauty that at first was the great desideratum. Manuscripts were, in many respects, rivals of the early printing as well as its type
models ;in fact, printing was simply another method of writing, differing in means only. Printers often insisted that their work was indistinguishable from manuscript or superior to it. In Paris, it is said, the first printed books to reach that city were actually passed off as manuscripts. The scribe's letter that supplied the model of the desired type to be cut in metal did not always exhibit the expeded and wished-for beauty in the type itself, because the metal workers who undertook to draw the letter, cut punches, and fit matrices were not always equal to the task. As type cutting was a new craft, there were no precedents for them to follow, no traditions to direct their efforts; they created their own precedents. It was only when types were produced by craftsmen who were artists also, workers who appreciated the subtleties of letter forms, and who gave intelligent supervision to every stage of type founding and letter cutting, that types began to display a beauty and character of their own. The perfect model for a type letter is altogether imaginary ;there is no copy for the designer today except the form created by some earlier artist, and the excellence of a designer's work depends entirely upon the degree of imagination and feeling he can include in his rendition of that traditional form. Just as the scribe's writing was adapted from the early lapidary letters, simplified by dropping everything difficult to shape easily with the pen and yet retaining the essential letter forms, so types are the materialized letters of the scribes, that is, handwriting divested of the scribe's vagaries and whimsicalities, conceived as forms to be cut in metal, and needing only to be simplified and formalized to meet the new and enlarged conditions of use. It is regrettable, perhaps, that our first types should have followed those written letters so closely in form. Suppose, instead, they had followed the earlier Greek designs. In that event our lower-case letters would probably be of more gracious line, their parts in more perfect proportion and contrast, and quite possibly they would show less of the crude and barbarous angularity which they now exhibit. On the other hand, they do show a robust strength and virility and character that make them more legible and more interesting than they might have been, had they been derived from a purer and more beautiful archetype. Although letters are the individual signs that compose the alphabet, each one signifying primarily but one thing--what letter it is--and beyond that having, until joined with other letters to form words and sentences, no significance, they do have, in addition to the main purpose of making thought visible, a decorative quality which is theirs as a whole, quite aside from any ornamental treatment of the separate characters or their arrangement--a quality that constitutes the graphic art itself. This decorative quality intimately concerns the type designer and is the outcome of feeling rather than the result of any conscious effort on his part to attain it. But form alone is not enough ;type must show life and power, that is, expression. Many types have correct enough forms, yet lack entirely that vibrant quality of life and vigor which comes naturally from the hand of a craftsman who is intent on personal expression and is not merely attempting to display his draftsmanship or striving for an exact and precise finish. Types, too, must have character. But in what does type character consist? A writer in a recent magazine article has said that "imperfections are the foundation of a type design's character." As I have said elsewhere, I believe that if a design has character, it is in spite of its imperfections, not because of them. There is a wide gap between freedom of drawing with natural irregularities of execution, and imperfections per se. No, character is not gained by imperfections of handling or eccentricities of form or bizarre details. Then how is it attained? Is it something got by conscious effort, or is it rather a byproduct of the designer's own individuality or personality, something he doesn't deliberately and consciously strive for, or is it, again, some innate thing which is in his work because of his unique personality? For myself, I believe that type character is the outcome of a sincere attempt by the designer to fashion his letters upon a sound tradition and then to add such subtleties in the handling of his lines and curves as are within his ability and power, qualities which are unconsciously produced in his drawing and controlled by his innate good taste and feeling and imagination. Character in types has to do with the impression made by the individual forms, their proportions, and the intangible something in them that makes the letters of each word hang together to form an agreeable whole; each letter with a quality of completeness, and not made up of bits taken here and there; each a shape with an air of its own, with graces not too obvious, and with no affectation of antiquity. When technical conditions are fully understood, frankly acknowledged, and fairly complied with, a long stride toward character will have been made. When a type design is good it is not because each individual letter of the alphabet is perfect in form, but because there is a feeling of harmony and unbroken rhythm that runs through the whole design, each letter kin to every other and to all. One writer, in speaking of modern type design, says, "It is doubtful whether the type designer benefits from a close study of hand lettering," meaning a study of the manuscript hands of the past. In the main I am inclined to agree with him. I do find manuscript letters intensely interesting, but only occasionally do they suggest new type expressions to me. As a general thing I prefer to get my suggestions from a study of the earlier types that appeal to me, realizing of course that the types which I most admire were quite probably inspired by the very manuscript hands which I do not find of much use in my own work. With complete independence of calligraphy I attempt to secure, rather, the negative quality of unpretentiousness, and strive for the pure contour and monumental character of the classic Roman letters in the spirit of the best traditions, and avoid, as far as I am able, any fantastic quality or any exhibition of self-conscious preciosity. My friend, Stanley Morison, has said, "The good type-designer knows that, for a new fount to be successful, it has to be so good that only very few recognize its novelty. If readers do not notice the consummate reticence and rare discipline of a new type it is probably a good letter. But if my friends think that the tail of my lower-case "r" or the lip of my lower-case "e" is rather jolly, you may know that the fount would have been better had neither been made." I am not sure that I accept his dictum completely, but inversely I have often said that when one friend or critic has found fault with the tail of an "r" or the lip of an "e" of one of my own types, I have scarcely considered the criticism, but if a number of critics should fix on the same points, I would be inclined to reconsider my drawing. If the tail of one of my r's should prove "rather jolly" I would not kill it because of that fad, provided it took its harmonious place in the fount and did not invite undue attention because of its jollity. It is hardly possible to create a good type face that will differ radically from the established forms of the past; nevertheless it is still possible to secure new expressions of life and vigor. The types in daily use, almost without exception, betray too fully the evidences of their origin, and do not always follow the best traditions. It requires the skilled hand, the appreciation and taste of the artist, and the trained mind of the student to select suitable models which may be adapted to our use and to which we may give new graces suited to our times. I have made designs that reverted for their inspiration to the lapidary characters of the early Romans; others that were based on the classic types of Jenson, Ratdolt, Aldus ;still others that were suggested by the scribes' hands which were also the source of the types of those masters ;and now, in the autumn of my labors, I draw with practically no reference to any of the sources mentioned ; relying largely on the broad impressions of early forms stored up by years of study and practice, and governed by a technical knowledge of the requirements of type founding and typography, I attempt to create those impressions into new designs of beauty and utility. We should study the early types in order to know them, to increase the material for our future use, or even copy them if we do not allow our copies to become the end desired instead of the means to an end. We should study them not merely to revive or imitate them because we admire them indiscriminately, but rather so that we may piece together the broken threads of tradition, there intact, and finally to adapt them to our increased mechanical facilities and thus create for them a wider currency. "Only an inventor knows how to borrow." Go back to Table of Contents
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