The Problem of Nomenclature

As long ago as 1958, the British Standards Institution, which conforms to the United States Bureau of Standards, published a pamphlet titled Typeface Nomenclature, which represents an attempt to systematize the terminology of a craft that had heretofore resisted such endeavors for over 500 years.

There’s a reasonable amount of agreement on some printing trade charms and wouldn’t take very long for any aggregation of printers representing a number of nationalities to be a will to communicate with one another on the point, the pica, x-height, italic, font, series, family, etc., a smoky haze might interfere with rapid comprehension when the conversation turned to such matters as gothic, sans serif, antique, roman, Latin, Egyptian, etc. The British Standards Institution—aided and abetted, no doubt, by various printers’ organizations—leapt into the breach and valiantly attempted to define the weight and width of printer’s typefaces.

In the relatively unsophisticated days of the 15th century, the printer had a type in his shop. If he wanted to use a little emphasis, he printed words or lines in a different color. Later on, different sizes of type came into use for such a purpose and then different styles of type.

With the 20th century came to variations of stroke thickness. Printers were offered up a bold face version of the popular type style, which is quickly followed by an even bolder version. The founder then tried a rendering which was lighter and thinner than the original, the difference being called “weights.” In such a fashion, the tight family was born. A typical example is Cheltenham which enjoyed a phenomenal success in the first two decades of the century.

British Standards defined way reasonably by stating that it is the degree of blackness of a typeface. The relative weights of the family of type are recommended to be known as: extra-light, light, semi-light, medium, semi-bold, extra-bold, and ultra-bold. Then, having taken the bull by the horns, British Standards bravely faced the morass of type width.

A type style which is correct for specific measure, or length of line, might possibly be too wide to incorporate into a narrow space or to narrow for a wider one. The idea was thus developed the type should be made available in a width narrower than normal and wider than normal. As in the business of weight, typefounders were delighted with the opportunity to sell type in a number of widths. The trouble arrived when he intended to name the widths. This is one of the problems which received the attention of the compilers of the British Standards on Typeface Nomenclature.

Their suggestion for meeting this enigma was to dictate that the relative widths of typefaces should be ultra-condensed, extra-condensed, condensed, semi-condensed, medium, semi-expanded, expanded, extra-expanded, and ultra-expanded. And there the matter stands, the committee apparently having gone off on holiday, leaving the poor printers to try to ascertain the difference between semi-expanded and expanded. Under such a system the difficulties of type marked-up boggle the imagination. How would a designer write neatly in the margin of this layout, 48-point Twentieth Century Ultra-old, Extra-expanded? And how does one distinguish extra-expanded from just plain expanded?

The Bureau rates a B for effort, though, since present nomenclature is certainly just as cloudy. Take as an example the name of the current type, Record Gothic Heavy Medium Extended. To the making of types there will be no end.

Now that some eight years have passed since the introduction of Typeface Nomenclature, there has been time to consider its original recommendations. Of course there have been criticisms from British and European typographers, but little has been heard from printers in the United States, where nothing at all has been done along these lines. In any case, British Standards is interested in improving its stand and has now circulated a draft of a revised set of definitions which–if excepted—will replace the original study.

A valid criticism of the first edition of Typeface Nomenclature is the fact that terminology is limited to single metal pipes during the period in which typesetting by photography has come to be completely accepted on both sides of the Atlantic. Certainly a revision should consider some of the special problems of phototypography.

It is amusing to note that one of the most interesting efforts in recent years to escape the problems of weight terminology in type faces is already facing obsolescence. When the French foundry, Deberny & Peignot, introduced the family of sans serif types called Univers and designed by Adrian Frutiger, they applied to the various series a logical system of numbering which made a great deal of sense. When this happened to this attempt at modernizing typographic terminology is that many printers have laboriously placed names next to the numbers, no doubt frightened by an appeal to logic in the matter of nomenclature.

It will be interesting to witness the effect of one other innovation in the revised edition of this pamphlet, and that is the effort to straighten out the toughest problem of all–type classification. Here is a no-man’s-land in which even the most knowledgeable typographer fears to tread simply because type classification is all things to all men. The determination of whether a type like Lydian should be called a sans serif, calligraphic, pen-drawn roman, or what, is a matter which can keep printers are doing until the early hours. It can raise hackles like no other subject, except possibly religion and politics.

I would like to comment next month on the suggestions for a system of type classification made by the British Standards Institution. Type knows few national borders, so we can all get in on the discussion and have as much fun as our British friends

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


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