There are good reasons why the form of the book and the type we read most comfortably haven’t changed very much since the 1500s: Our eyes are still next to each other and our hands still hold a book (or a tablet, for that matter) a certain distance away from our face. They can only comfortably hold an object that fits them. That’s how coffee-table books got their name: you cannot hold them in your hands but have to rest them on a table. Which actually means that you do not read, you rather just look at them. Books for reading are never wider than two hands next to each other.
When I design and typeset books, I tend to go for the typefaces that people expect for reading long, continuous text – never too far from the Garamond / Caslon / Bodoni models. Those early standard faces have been reworked often, first for machine composition in the late 1800s for Monotype or Linotype, then again for photosetting in the 1960s, and then once more as Postscript type in the 1980s. Not every revival had been carefully done, nor did it consider what the original purpose and technology had been. Recently, however, we’ve seen a number of very successful revivals that are more than another re-drawing of old shapes, but an evaluation of what the original idea might have been, what the technical and physical constraints were, and how we would assess a similar brief with today’s sophisticated type-design tools. In other words: what would Claude Garamond (or, in fact, Robert Granjon) done with today’s tools?
I now have a set of favourite fonts that I am familiar with and whose designers I usually know. It feels good to license and use fonts from designers who actually make a living that way. Among these favourites are Lyon by Kai Bernau, William Text, a new Caslon by Maria Doreuli, FF Hertz by Jens Kutilek, FF Franziska by Jakob Runge, Guyot by Ramiro Espinoza, Arnhem by Fred Smeijers, ATF Garamond by Mark van Bronkhorst, Equity and Century Supra by Matthew Butterick, the new Walbaum by Charles Nix for Monotype.
Recently I came across a new typeface by Kris Sowersby, called Signifier. It started out as a revival based on one of the Fell Types, a curious set of types that were brought back to England from the Continent in the 1670s. Amongst them English Roman, by an unknown punchcutter, caught Kris’ attention. He started digitizing it, hoping to capture its qualities, which he calls “dark and assured on the page”. Taking into account ink, pressure, paper, and the fact that those letters were cast by hand, every impression of the same letter can be quite different. Which one, then, is the most faithful one, the true source?
Most revivals try and imagine what the original punchcutter’s intent might have been. And what would he have done with digital tools? Kris decided he didn’t want just another double-guessed revival, instead asked himself what an honest digital approach would be. His answer: Brutalism. Yes, that style of architecture we equate with large buildings, made of concrete.
The real meaning of Brutalism, however, is not the material as such, but the question: what can it do? Digital letterforms are free of any formal constraints. Curves can be infinitely precise, corners incredibly sharp. Early digital fonts would blunt some points and straighten complex curves to anticipate the destruction during output. Today we understand that at small sizes sharpness is corrupted by scaling and rasterisation anyway, regardless of the substrate the letters are displayed on – they look as if they had already been drawn with softened tips and simplified curves. The sharpness is theoretical. Only math is infinite, while the physical world has limits.
Look at the Signifier drawings and you see a digital font. Read it in text size and you see a traditional Old Style typeface. We use laser light to burn pixels into polymer, project pixels to a glass screen or burn them onto aluminium plates. Those tiny dots add up to form letter-shapes that look just like the not-too-sharp and thus pleasant type we’re used to from old-fashioned analog typesetting. Printing takes curves drawn with equations, transmitted by light, and makes them back into things that we can run our fingers over.
*The photo at the top shows a title from the other collection, books produced post-digitally, i.e. typeset on a computer, data transferred to a polymer plate and then printed letterpress on an Original Heidelberg Cylinder from 1954.