Lack of Uniform Names Brings Confused Typographic Terminology

To the uninitiated, a specimen book issued by almost any printer can be as confusing a bit of literature as it is possible to produce. This is not to imply that the format of the specimen book is poorly organized, although that, to, is likely in spite of the efforts of progressive printers during the last 20 years or so.

No, the problem of confused typographical terminology is one which is normally beyond the control of the individual printer. It is in part the result of competition among type foundries and typecasting machine firms. The difficulty lies in the lack of a system for naming types.

Cheltenham was probably the first type to grow into a family, the original design going into several weights, followed by such variants as condensed, extended, extra condensed, inline, outline, shaded, etc.

The same principle has now spread to many popular type designs, particularly the sans serif’s. Since many foundries and matrix manufacturers are involved, the nomenclature of the variance has enlarged to proportions urging on the astronomical. For example, take a look at the Futura family, a representative sans serif type. It consists of the following weights: Futura Light, Futura Book, Futura Medium, Futura Demibold, Futura Bold, and Futura Extrabold. It can be seen between the light face and the bold there are three additional weights with which to contend.

In the Spartan family of ATF and Mergenthaler the weights are: Spartan Light, Spartan Book, Spartan Medium, Spartan Heavy, Spartan Black, and Spartan Extrablack. It is apparent that some agreement exists between Sparta and Futura on the first three weights, but not on the next two. In addition, another weight has been listed.

Monotype 20th century lists the variance in this manner: 20th Century Light, 20th Century Medium, 20th Century Bowl, 20th Century Extrabold, and 20th Century Ultrabold. Here there is no “book” weight, but the pattern is very with an extrabold and an ultrabold.

Ludlow’s major sans serif type is the Tempo series, which bears the following labels: Tempo Light, Tempo Medium, Tempo Bold, Tempo Heavy, and Tempo Black.

In all, we see a completely confusing array which puts the purchaser of composition out of his depth, frequently with his typesetter for company. To point to only one of many problems, we notice that the heaviest version of the sans serif has always been allotted three distinct names: Black, Extrablack, and Ultrabold. In each case, the casual observer would find it difficult to discover any basic differences in appearance. (See the accompanying table for approximate weight values of the four types.)

Confusing nomenclature in weight designations is illustrated by these comparisons of different names given to equivalent types in four families. Suggested standard names are shown in the last column.

Confusing nomenclature in weight designations is illustrated by these comparisons of different names given to equivalent types in four families. Suggested standard names are shown in the last column.

No doubt the type founders and machine companies have fallen into this trap through a desire to keep abreast competitively in the production of types which have proved to be of wide interest. Now that we are in a revival of wide gothic types, it is possible that similar confusion may result in the designation of these letters. Certainly if the popular sans serifs branch out into wide and extra wide, in addition to condensed and possibly extra condensed, the disparities will increase.

I suggest that a single list of six different weights be used to designate these types as follows: Light, Book, Medium, Bold, Extra bold, and Ultra bold.

Light will represent the weight with the thinnest stroke. Book, while not particularly descriptive as a term, does imply a weight of stroke less than Medium, and one which might possibly indicate a standard use, if I dare make such a suggestion. Medium would represent a stroke halfway between Light and Bold, while Extrabold would be midway between Bold and Ultrabold.

There exists a national type board, a group of printers and typographers who meet occasionally to discuss such matters and thereafter make suggestions to manufacturers and users of printers’ types. I am sure that this board could be helpful in standardizing the system of naming types to keep confusion to a minimum.

Of course, many printers have long felt that to vast catalog of types is already in existence. They look dimly upon any measure which might add to the already rich treasure available to all burden themselves with the problems of typography. I will not advocate any slowing down of the volume of new designs, even though many of them are ephemeral in nature. The fraternity of printers has for 500 years been in happy disagreement about type faces; fortunately there seems to be no sign that this condition will cease.

What we would like to see, therefore, is not a decrease in good designs but a mature awareness on the part of the manufacturers of the problems of printers—the middlemen between the type founder and the ultimate type user.

This article first appeared in “The Composing Room” column of the September 1954 issue of The Inland Printer.

Leave a Reply