Book Excerpt

TYPEFORMS: A HISTORY. Alan Bartram

TYPEFORMS: A HISTORY.

New Castle, Delaware and London: Oak Knoll Press and The British Library, 2007. 9.5 x 10 inches. cloth, dust jacket. 128 pages. First edition. This book is the long-awaited successor to the classic An Atlas of Typeforms, the great visually-led history of type that Alan Bartram and James Sutton produced in 1968. Much has changed in the last 40 years, not least the teaching of typography and the means by which it is created. Because..... READ MORE

Price: $55.00  other currencies  Order nr. 95866

This book is partly based on An Atlas of Typeforms (which James Sutton and I wrote in 1968), abridged and mostly rewritten; to it is added a parallel story of architectural and vernacular lettering. That book came out in a world unlike today's. The intervening forty years have seen major changes brought about by technology; changes in society and the economy which encouraged the dominance of profit over 'worthwhileness'; and changes in commercial preferences that effectively brought an end to my parallel story. Much of this present book is history; but for a full understanding of type today, we need to know that history.

The Atlas was published in the very sunset of metal type and letterpress printing. The types shown here are those metal types, for they are often historically more revealing than today's digital designs derived from them. Many of the post-1750 types I show are either from the original punches or matrices, or very close copies of the originals. Thus, when I compare these with the lettering of my parallel story - architectural or vernacular forms - any relationship is a valid one; for the new technology and digitisation created problems which had to be overcome by some modification of the metal form. I discuss this and show some such changes at the end of the book.

That changing technology was initially - it is generally agreed - a disaster. Types were badly adapted for filmsetting - as it was then ¬and print quality was generally dull and flat. The printed type was grey and insipid, lacking the sparkle and richness of good letterpress, and halftones were drab. It was, on the whole, not a happy episode in printing history. The story today is different. Illustrations are rich in tone and colour; detail is retained, allowing (if need be) illustrations to be quite small without loss of meaning. We now take it for granted that illustrations and their related text are placed together, and forget the time when pictures were bunched up in a distant part of the book, as so often happened, for technical reasons, in the days of letterpress. Type is now properly black and crisply printed, although unfortunately, as I explain later, some old friends were digitised in a form that often makes them too light, especially in smaller sizes. Recently, some 'second generation' versions have appeared, aiming to be more authentic. Yet it matters not how faithful they are to the originals: they merely need to be usable.

But against any disappointments can be set the control a knowledgeable designer has over the typesetting itself. AppleMacs and their kin allow all Geoffrey Dowding's Finer Points in the Spacing and Arrangement of Type of 1954 to be implemented following the designer's personal preferences and idiosyncrasies, of which most good typographers have a sackful, bitterly upheld and contested, with zero tolerance for alternative views.

Previously, the designer was to some extent at the mercy of the compositor, who might have been both ignorant and careless. But more often, in the book trade, he was not. He not only set the type, but made a contribution that today should be done ~ but is often not done - by a publisher's house editor - an essential member of the production team who frequently seems to have gone missing. That compositor of yesterday would correct punctuation, grammar, spelling, and even query facts, for they were highly trained craftsmen, having served a six-year apprenticeship in a trade that jealously guarded its skills. Many authors today, because they own an AppleMac, believe, in their ignorance, that they can design and set their own books, which they can, of course, but badly.

Today we have to work as if we had undergone the long years of apprenticeship that those men in the printer's composing room had experienced. If a designer restricts himself or herself to a few typestyles, enough accumulated knowledge is gained to enable informed decisions on the optimum letter fit, letterspacing and leading for particular sizes to be made. Who needs more than five or six typestyles? A thorough knowledge of and feeling for a few old favourites is better than casual encounters purely for the sake of originality.

When the Atlas was published, the designer had to use whatever type the printer or typesetter (usually, then, the same firm) held. Most reputable book printers would hold a workmanlike range of a dozen or so usable types. Not only was type much more expensive than today, each size had to be bought in - or as many sizes as the printer felt he was likely to need. A trade typesetter might hold the hundred or more, in all available sizes and weights, that advertisers demanded.

Today, any designer can personally own far more styles than he is ever likely to use. And, of course, sizes can be varied from the one master to an infinitesimal degree, unlike the restrictions imposed by metal type. Yet no-one worth his or her salt then felt constrained by this: imagination or ingenuity, professionalism or good judgement carried you through. You never feel Tschichold or Schmoller, for instance, wished they could change a type size by O.Ipt, or even o. Wts. Limitations concentrate the mind.

As I say later, the very method of creating a design rough - the tracing off, the tracing down, the painting in - meant that you gained some knowledge of different typeforms as a matter of course. Mere theory and staring at a computer screen, or even at typesheets, are no substitute for a pencil (that outmoded tool) and paper. Creating a paste-up from galleys supplied by a typesetter meant you worked, with paper, at the same size as the final result. We all know those reduced examples of award-winning designs which look so wonderful, but which, seen in real size, are disappointing. With the computer a designer can produce a dozen minutely different variations of a design in seconds; but this would reduce me, who doesn't use one, to a dithering indecisive wreck.

There is no doubt that today the designer, and the printer, have the equipment to create work as good as, and in many ways better than, could ever be achieved in the 'golden age' of yesteryear, for actually it wasn't always so golden. But other aspects of that past were undoubtedly conducive to the creation of more satisfying work. For the response to the cut-throat situation today shows a depressing assessment of the general public's visual preferences.

Marketing. That is the ogre that stalks publishing today. Marketing, men in suits, the bottom line, the moneymen, the bookshop; with Amazon chewing away at them all. It is a battlefield out there. Life is rough and tough. By 2007, nearly 200,000 new titles a year were being published in the UK alone. Somehow, somewhere, someone hopes all these will be sold.

In 1941, Allen Lane was looking at a potential Penguin (Living in Cities by Ralph Tubbs, a vision of how blitzed towns and cities could - and should - be rebuilt). He said: 'Our cost of production will amount to almost exactly twice the amount we will receive from the trade, but so convinced am I of the "worthwhileness" of the venture, that this causes me no qualms.' Or, in 1949: 'Quite frankly I don't think we shall make a profit on this book. This does not cause me the slightest concern ... as I feel ... it is a new landmark.' (The book was The Archaeology of Palestine.)

Reading Penguin Portraits. Allen Lane and the Penguin Editors by Steve Hare, I was struck by the enthusiasm of these overworked and underpaid people in publishing. (Actually, all three characteristics still exist.) Just after the war, even during it, was an idealistic age: 'we are building a new world'. That was not a hope, but a belief; and publishers played a crucial role in attempting to make the aspiration a reality. 'We fitted into a time of very high idealism - and a wish to share a kind of explosive creativity which was so evident in all the writers and editors who themselves had so much to express, and who needed us as a forum' (Eunice Frost, a Penguin editor).

The designer Colin Banks described Ralph Tubbs, the architect and author of Living in Cities, as speaking to us 'with shining eyes, brimming with optimism for a new world order' and asks: 'isn't that what design meant to us all then?' The mid-I940S was when 'commercial art' became graphic design. The seminal typography course of the I950S at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London run by Herbert Spencer and Anthony Froshaug was a major force, teaching the New Typography (new in Britain). While Gill Sans was the type of choice (it was readily available), and grotesques - reflecting the Swiss preference - were also popular, a knowledge and awareness of more traditional faces was always considered part of a typographer's essential kit.

The belief that good design made for a better society motivated many designers here and abroad until disillusion set in during the 1960s, by which time it became clear that society had other priorities, despite all the educational and promotional efforts of the Council of Industrial Design (COlD) and later bodies. Today such offspring of the 'nanny state' are slagged off; but I have never had a problem with them, or it, believing personally that such nannying is one of the duties of the state. Without this conviction, how could I write books urging a knowledge of design I believe anyone working in this field, or even the general public, should be required to have? One might say, especially the general public.

In 1947 the COlD suggested to Penguin (that name again) a series of books called The Things We See 'to encourage us to look at the objects of everyday life with fresh and critical eyes. Thus, while increasing our own daily pleasure we also become better able to create surroundings that will give us permanent pleasure.' The subjects included houses, furniture, pottery and glass, public transport, ships and printing - subjects 'in which many of us are unaware of the subtle variations in excellence or even the difference between good and bad'. Even if the very concept of 'Good Design' had not become out-of-date, a phrase from the past, I could not imagine such a project being considered today by any of the conglomerates that have each swallowed up four or five once-independent publishers.

In contrast to those takeovers and groupings, the new technology has allowed the setting up of tiny publishers willing to chance their arm (or their money), sometimes rather incautiously. Such kitchen table adventurers, admirable though they are, can be horribly ignorant of the subtleties of typeforms and typography. It would be nice to think that, once the initial excitement has worn off, they feel a desire to know more about type, that versatile tool with which we work. It is not knowledge that simply happens: it requires some effort to attain. If the lack of it becomes the norm, the beginning of a slippery slope beckons. Conversely, the work of just two men, Tschichold and Schmoller, at Penguin from 1947 onwards, raised the standard of design and printing for the whole of British publishing, even of printing generally. That happened within the context of a particularly lucky combination of circumstances, a context this Prologue has tried to depict.

Parallel lines never meet, and my two parallel stories of typeforms and architectural! vernacular lettering do not get seriously entangled until the beginning of the nineteenth century. That entanglement seemed to stop coincidentally about the same time as metal type died out, and the world just described became a memory; although there is no suggestion of a causal link. Nonetheless, no continuation of a similar relationship is detectable today, not least because the tradition of vernacular lettering, and the architectural use of lettering, has unfortunately more or less died out.

Perhaps we are too close in time to detect any pattern in contemporary type design, amongst the welter of new forms, yet alone relate them to any parallel story. From today's perspective we can easily see the earlier interaction of different traditions, and their creative consequences. The caps of early typeforms derived ultimately from Roman inscriptions, the lowercase from Renaissance calligraphy which itself had a convoluted history. Such an inheritance broke down in the beginning of the nineteenth century when it was jolted off course by a combination of industrial requirements, and somewhat naive ideas about the Noble Savage and rugged antiquity, which was how the intellectually fashionable Greek world was regarded. But today there is neither a consistent influence of carved or pen forms, nor the intellectual backing of a historical theory. Those 'outside' influences had a reinvigorating effect on type, and type design was an equally beneficial influence on those other forms of lettering. The lack of this happy interaction is impoverishing to both. Looking at it from our close-up viewpoint, there seems now an individualistic free-for-all, not a steady development, on a broad front, of inherited forms or traditions. Such a situation rather reflects the aggressive and competitive society in which the design and publishing worlds now operate. Yet there is a contradiction here, for that aggression seems to be strangely conservative and afraid of the individualism, or the belief in 'worthwhileness', that characterised the small publishers in their calmer world of the 1940s, 1950S and 1960s.

This is a history book. Many new types (far too many) have been produced in the last thirty years, which can be examined in the plethora of type books now available. But one strand of my dual story has disappeared from the scene. The long and vigorous tradition of vernacular lettering in England had been dealt a blow in the early twentieth century by the reverence for Trajan roman initiated by Edward Johnston and some of his disciples. This form was widely adopted in varying degrees of accuracy or sensitivity by organisations - banks, commercial firms, municipal authorities, the Ministry of Works ¬who felt it conveyed good taste and dignity. The tradition was further weakened by commercial sign-producing firms who could supply the increasingly brash high streets with cheap products in modern (that is, plastic) form, normally using a debased typeface.

The self-employed journeyman, creating many different styles of his own, travelling the country, shouting at the top of his voice, as one voluble Irish signwriter put it, that he is happy with his existence, is no longer in demand. And the rare architect with an interest in lettering is not usually bold enough (or is not allowed by local planning authorities) to design or commission innovative forms.

The English lettering tradition crossed the Atlantic seemingly as early as the mid¬eighteenth century, if not earlier. As Paul Shaw has suggested, in the journal Forum, emigrating lettercarvers could have been partly responsible. There are tombstones dated between 1750 and 1800 in Manhattan that suspiciously resemble some in the Vale of Belvoir and N ottinghamshire carved less than ten years earlier. For whatever reason, the English style took vigorous root in America, where it became part of the scene, including type design.

The only other country where external influences affected type design appears to have been Germany, where a healthy tradition of inventive (that is, non-Johnstonian) calligraphy has had an almost subliminal effect on type design, not least because some practising calligraphers have designed types distantly reflecting the personal style of their pen forms. In England, professional lettering craftsmen such as Michael Harvey (who works in all forms of lettering, in all media) likewise bridge the gap between the different disciplines. But that is one designer trans¬posing his own styles: a different form of interaction than the one I have tried to pursue here.