What Type Faces Would You Buy for Printing Plant?

  • What type faces can’t you do without? Sans serifs thought indispensable
  • Some typographic designers believe printers responsible for setting styles
  • Printers with strong ideas about types should consult their type founders

What type faces would you buy for printing plant?

The perennial war-horse of a question can always be relied upon to start a first-class argument. Before we rouse the battle-gleam in the eyes of typographers, however, we should probably qualify the question a little, or least narrow the size of the sparring ring. Perhaps it would be better to rephrase the question this way:

What type face can’t you do without?

I believe that most printers would answer without hesitation, “Sans serif.” Some might use the term “gothic,” which of course is the same thing, although here the purist will disagree, holding that there is a real difference between sans serif and the gothic.

It is true that the modern sans serif types, such as Futura and its many relatives, have behind their design and inspiration that was prompted by philosophy unknown to the creators of the lowly gothic. The topics they are, although the general “sans serif” is no doubt a broader description of the appearance of the types themselves.

Nobody seems to know exactly when “gothic” was first used to describe sans serif types. We Americans are responsible for the confusion. In Europe, “gothic” refers to black-letter type, although space is lacking seraphs are called, aptly enough, “grotesques.” However, American printers, saddled with slightly confusing terminology, must make the most of it.

Sans Serif Letters Very Old

Sans serif lettering goes back to the Greek inscriptions of the fifth century B.C. It has been traced in medieval art forms up to the lettering on coins and medallions of the Italian Renaissance. As a type, sans serif made its first appearance under that term in 1832 in the specimen books of English type foundries of Thorowgood and Figgins. Some 16 years previously, William Caslon IV had listed a similar design, but called it an Egyptian (square serif).

During the nineteenth century every type foundry cast undistinguished block letters which were used primarily for display composition. These types were up monotone stroke, generally, and were cast in several weights. the light-face versions for much fancied for formal announcements of various times.

Early Gothic Still Favored

Today, we still have many of the earlier forms of gothic types, although modern preference has singled out a few favorites which receive the greatest use. For example, Alternate Gothic, Franklin roman and News Gothic are most prominent, along with the Copperplate Gothics, a stand-by the small commercial shop and recently revived in 30-point and 36-point sizes for display. Even the current white dot fix, under various names are revivals of the old Philadelphia Lining Gothic series of the last century.

Owing to their similarity, the gothics as a group are just about the most difficult types to identify. And there is an embarrassment of numbers with which to contend. An examination of present-day type founders’ and machine companies’ specimen books will produce some 95 different “old line” gothics, plus some 75 variations along the lines of the so-called contemporary sans serifs. Perhaps this can give an idea of the hardship connected with the task of naming the types or the “Typographic Scoreboard” appearing in this magazine for so many years.

The problem of assigning names to all of these types was even too much, and we are left with numbers, such as Gothic No. 1, 2 16, 18, 38, etc.

It simply is not possible to predict when the interest in sans serif will in and the emphasis will return to the graceful old-styles and other variations of the roman letter. I glanced through the December issue of this magazine reveals that out of a double-page ads and 48 full-page ads, only one did not have a sans serif type. Similarly, of the ads in the quarter-page 2 half-page size range, 59 out of 60 featured sans serifs. The Christmas issue of Life indicated that domination by gothics is not confined to trade publications, because almost identical statistics, percentage-wise, help true that magazine.

To the typographic designer, sans serifs are especially interesting, because they are available in a variety of forms—condensed, extra-condensed, extended–and in a most satisfactory series of different weights, up to six in some series. All of this contributes to their broad versatility, particularly in advertising display, in which a type line can carry almost any kind of emphasis required. Gothics can take fairly wide letterspacing; in fact, they often needed for increased legibility, especially when color contrast is small.

Wide Faces Back in Style

All of these factors must be recognized in order to understand why sans serif types maintain their domination in all phases of printing area about three years ago, when the extended gothics such as Franklin Gothic Wide and Venus were revised, many typographers assign them to a relatively short span of popularity. The introduction of the wide square serifs seem to justify this conclusion, but it didn’t even slow down the demand for the gothics. Even the Clarendon’s, and other 19th century types such as Wide Latin and Egyptian Expanded, have made no apparent than in the continued use of the wide gothics.

Of course, none of this attention to sans serif types has changed the design or style of such items as books, magazines, or newspapers, except in the region of the display composition. It would require a great deal of courage on the part of a designer to advocate the gothic for text composition. During the sans serif Renaissance which occurred about 1925, there was much experimentation along these lines, but scarcely a dent was made in the use of the standard roman faces for composition longer than a few paragraphs.

Several of the nations leading typographical designers have long felt that printers themselves are responsible for setting textiles and that by careful thought, coupled with example, they can mean the buyer of printing away from dependence upon the stark form of the sans serifs. There is no doubt that the romans can add warmth and color to a design. Both of these attributes are rather difficult to attain with the gothic letter form, with its mechanical stress which, while frequently effective, does present a somewhat sterile appearance.

Should Consult Type Founders

Those printers who have strong opinions about good and bad types should make it a point to discuss their ideas with type founders who, frequently enough, are at a loss themselves in judging what reception in the design might have. They sometimes guess wrong on the type which will satisfy the demand of their customers. It appears that advertising artists, many of whom have had no practical typographic experience, have the most influence upon new designs. This will continue to be the case until the printer makes his own preferences heard.

Apparently, then, today’s printer will simply have to stock one or more sans serif types just to keep abreast of what is expected of him. The particular design that he selects will be determined by a number of variables, starting with the very simple one of which type he likes best. However, the series and size ranges available will also be a determining factor, coupled with knowledge of his customers’ desires or requirements and the type of work he most often does.

Regardless of the printer’s personal preferences, and indeed many practicing typographers are critical of the continuing trend, it would seem that printing for the market place will demand the constant everyday use of the sans serif types. I doubt that anyone would be rash enough to predict in the near future a reversal of the state of affairs.

This article first appeared in “The Composing Room” column of the February 1956 issue of The Inland Printer.

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