Typeface is tightly connected to the history of technology. Although first invented in China, movable type was not “discovered” in Europe until Johannes Gutenberg developed a version in 1450s Germany. Moveable type changed the ability to spread ideas, and in many ways, it actually helped fuel the split between the Catholic and Protestant churches that gradually led Western society into modernity. From there, we eventually used typewriters and now the home computer. Lettering effects everything we do, and we have hundreds of variations at our very fingertips. They are as unique as our fingerprints.
Here at the Press, part of our apprenticeship training focuses on understanding the bones of a couple different typefaces. The challenge is to visually understand the lettering and then be able to copy it. Without tracing. [Ed. note: The exercise referred to is adapted from an assignment by designer/educator Ellen Lupton, http://www.thinkingwithtype.com/contents/extras/#Tools_for_Teachers] It is a lot harder than it sounds. This exercise makes you focus on how a font style can visually change the way we perceive words. It challenges you to see the artistry behind the lettering. So when I’m sitting here trying to painstakingly sketch the letter A, I’m reminding myself that it is to understand the signs that make up the written world.
Each of the examples illustrates a completely different way of writing the letter A. Some of these types have been around for a long time, acting as standards. Others, like the Chalkduster example illustrate the new ways we can use technology to make typefaces. One of the older types is Baskerville. It belongs in the "Transitional" category of type. First created by print enthusiast John Baskerville, we have been using this style of font since the 1760s! This is a Baskerville A.
The distinguishing characteristics include a distinct differences between the wide and narrow strokes. In a way, it imitates a calligraphy nibbed pen. It definitely tapers a bit, and it is longer than say, the Garamond A. This makes it great at extending the text slightly, and creates a uniformity among the capital letters. Best of all, it is very clear and easy to read.
My hand-drawn attempt is slightly too narrow, and the feet are not equal. But in general, the strokes imitate the typeface. After a few tries, I find that I start noticing distinguishing characteristics of typeface. It becomes a question of visual clarity, sharpness of corners, and rigidity of text. From there, the technical aspects diminish in importance and the letter itself achieves an unmistakable level of beauty. Which font to use is not just a technical question; it is a question of art.
-All photos and text by Erin Conner