Let Us Standardize!

If typographers, designers, production men, and type designers are to communicate with one another about type, it becomes increasingly evident that, in the matter of typographic nomenclature, they must find a common ground. It is to this end the growing interest appears to be a rising in the international dialectic upon the subject of type classification.

Last month I discussed to recent European suggestions for approaching this problem—that of the French typographer, Maximilien Vox, and the adaptation of that system by the British Standards Institution.

Both of these systems will definitely be questioned by American type men. The Vox method, however, will undoubtedly win greater approval then the British approach. Vox proceeds along the reasonable path of the historic development of types, except for black letter. This type is unaccountably placed in the last position, although as the first style of manuscript hand to be cast into metal types, it should logically head the list.

Neither system satisfactorily defines roman type, an admittedly rough problem to overcome. We refer to roman type as a style of lettering popularized by the Italian humanists of the 14th century, but we also use the term to describe an upright character as opposed to a sloped or italic letter. Thus, any attempt to utilize the name of roman as a specific style of type runs into difficulty, as witness the name of the currently popular type, Times Roman Italic, and exercise in the futility of reaching happy conclusions in typographic terminology.

The first section of Vox is called Humane/Venetian, in which are placed the Roman types developed in the latter part of the 15th century in Italy. Other than its placement as the first category of the system instead of black letter, there can be no argument about this grouping into which so many widely-used types may be placed, such as Cloister Oldstyle, Italian Oldstyle, etc.

The British system begins with a group called Graphic which contain such diversified designs as black letter types, uncials, and such freely drawn characters as Dom Casual and Cartoon. Here is an odd assortment that would seem to offer no clues of recognition to the person attempting to learn the various styles of type now available.

This group, though, is followed by Humanist and Garalde, both of which agree with the Vox method. The term Garalde is a combination by Aldus Manutius in Venice about 1500, along with the types of the French punchcutter Claude Garamond which appeared about 1540, modeled upon the Aldine types.

Since the further development of this form continued into the 18th century, through the Dutch styles, to the widely admired letters of William Caslon, it would seem somewhat unwieldily to give such divergent styles a single classification. Caslon certainly offers strong contrasts when compared with such faces as Bembo and Garamond, particularly in the serif structure of the lowercase characters.

Both Vox and BSI agreed to jump from Caslon into the classification called Transitional, although a strong case might be made for including Caslon with Baskerville, which is generally considered to be the first Transitional type.

Here is a category which is a remarkably varied and populous one. It contains types which by definition have in common the characteristics of oldstyle and of the group which follows, called by both systems, Didone. This term also combines the names of two distinguished printers, Didot and Bodoni, who popularized, in the late 18th century, the style of letter best represented to contemporary printers by the named Bodoni.

Vox follows the Didone classification with sans serif, while the BSI reverses this sequence. Both of these typographic developments took place simultaneously in the 19th century, when the commercial or job-printer became dominant over the book printer. Slab-serif types are generally called square serif in the United States. Those types in the group which have bracketed serifs are more properly Clarendons, and some were called Antiques in the specimen books of the period.

The difficulties of attempting to classify the sans serif types are complicated by the two distinct styles represented. The original sans serif were bold adaptations of roman types lacking serifs but maintaining the structure which had come down from broad-pen lettering. These types are misnamed Gothics by American printers, while in Europe there called Grotesques. Neither term adequately describes the style, the Europeans are closer to the spirit of the sans serifs, which are skeleton forms of roman letters.

During the 1920s the various design movements which culminated in the Bauhaus school in Germany produced a new sans serif letter based upon geometric principles. The basic type emerging from this period was Futura. It became the dominant commercial type for the next twenty years, when it became partly replaced by a revival of the 19th century gothics. This latter reawakening has been further complicated by a contemporary working over of the older Gothics to conform to current design standards, from which has come such types as Univers, Folio, Helvetica, etc. In the interest of clarification, perhaps the grotesques and the geometric sans serifs should be separated.

The next group in the systems under discussion includes the chiseled or initialed letters represented by the old chisel-serifed Latins. Vox called his Incise, but BSI reached into the dictionary for Glyphic, which can only bring about a similar stretching out by every typographer who stays with the system up to that point.

Both Vox and BSI next include script types, a widely varied group of types imitative of hand writing. They are the British researchers rest their case, but M. Vox makes his system final with the addition of Display, a handy dispose-all for all the types which don’t otherwise fit the system. I am inclined to call this the Hell-box.

This article first appeared in the “Typographically Speaking” column of the November 1966 issue of Printing Impressions.


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