Whenever the first homo sapien (sapien) first put his or her finger into clay or ash and marked that clay or ash to communicate an idea to another person, she or he created written language, and perhaps a font face. Over the next N millennia language groups evolved largely toward two camps: the pictographic written languages (think: Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese ideograms) and the Alpha Betic languages (think: Greek, Aramaic, Latin and all its derivatives). Earliest evidence of this latter alphabetic tradition (so called because the first two letter in ancient Greek were the characters Alpha and Beta) comes from about 1500 BC/BCE. The lettering system best known as ‘Greek’ began in fact with the Phoenicians in modern-day Israel/Palestine about 1000 BC/BCE. Not to worry: we are not going to walk through the history of the alphabet and its myriad of fonts (including Myriad). We’ve all got more pressing needs on a Monday afternoon. But we would like to point you toward an interesting series of sketches of a number of popular fonts by idsgn.org entitled “Know Your Type.”
One of the challenges facing these alphabetic languages was to create universal shapes (letters) that could transcend the vagaries of various scribes’ handwriting. Scribal schools (evident in both camps of written language) were meant not only to educate a literate class (of males) but also to temper any personality traits that might make one scribe’s document illegible to other people or to future generations. This tradition lasted well beyond the invention of mechanized and standardized printing, of course, as millions of school children are still trained in penmanship (except those children who will become doctors). With the development of the printing press in the Latin alphabetic world of western Europe (think: the Gutenberg Bible of the 1450s, though the first movable-print presses were invented in China 600-plus years earlier) came the development of font faces – the various sizes and shapes and thicknesses and slants and variations of the shapes of letters that continue literally to form our words even after the invention of cell phones and social media.
The earliest printed book in the west was the Bible, and its ‘mass-produced’ font mimicked the hand-written Bibles of the medieval era. But within a century or so designers began developing new fonts either based on classical (Roman) models or, eventually, on new ideals of industrialization and proportion. We wanted to call your attention to just a couple of fonts in the series being developed at idsgn.org because we feel that they were game-changers in their own right and they continue to be influential in our print media and popular culture.
The first font is ‘Baskerville‘ designed in 1754 by the self-taught English printer John Baskerville. , a designer with international experience and a graduate student in Design Criticism at the School of Visual Arts in New York, gives us a bit of history about his font and the technological innovations it spawned. His desire for a ‘softer’ typeface than those popular in his day actually required a development of harder printing surfaces and darker inks:
Existing printing presses did not capture the subtleties of his type, so Baskerville redesigned the press replacing the wooden platen with a brass one in order to allow the planes to meet more evenly. The wooden platens were usually covered with thick tympanum which helped to absorb pressure and reduce type depth, however, Baskerville’s press used thin tympanum around the metal and the platens were even heated before using them. It was the combination of the contrasting cut in his letterforms, the process of printing, the gloss of his paper and the intensity of his inks that made each print so refined.
Its popularity continues to this day, and can be seen on movie credits, in print advertising, and in published books – even when the intention is not to give a ‘classic’ feel to the piece with the use of an eighteenth-century font.
The second we picked from the series is Gill Sans (as in ‘Sans Serif’/without the marks and ‘wings’ that end letters in the Baskerville font family), which famously grew out of the need to create a clean and simple font for all the signage of the London Underground. Edward Johnston started the project in 1912-1913, but it was his student, Eric Gill, who tweaked the original design and gave it the name it carries to this day. That said, ‘Gill Sans’ is one of the broadest and most varied type faces used today with over 25 variants in weight (bold, extra bold, light, light-italic, etc.) and proportion -some of which are vilified by many designers for their internal inconsistencies and their break from the original intent.
Drawing heavily on Johnston’s work, Gill first experimented with his ‘improvements’ in 1926 when he hand-painted lettering for a bookshop sign in his hometown, Bristol. Gill also sketched a guide for the bookshop owner, Douglas Cleverdon, who later published the work in A Book of Alphabets for Douglas Cleverdon. The alphabet, which at the time only contained uppercase letters, was noticed by Stanley Morison for its commercial potential. A Monotype advisor, Morison commissioned Gill to develop a complete font family to compete with the sans-serif designs released by German foundries fueled by the overwhelming success of Futura. The font was released commercially by Monotype in 1928 as Gill Sans.
It has since been used by Penguin Publishing, Tommy Hilfiger, and (again) numerous movie titles. The breadth of its uses and the variations of its faces might be appreciated as symbolic of the stunning interplay of debauchery and Catholic discipline that made up Eric Gill’s personal life. Be that as it may, Gill Sans, reinforced sans serif fonts as both modern/contemporary and as standing the tests of popularity and economy.
The series is of interest to the designers and desktop publishers following our blog (or that at idsgn.org). But we believe everyone interested in communicating their ideas (or those of their organizations) benefits from a consideration of fonts. Are you looking to convey a sleek, contemporary, air about your foundation? Would a traditional serif text suggest stability and tradition important to your organization? What about a combination of the two? Whoever made those first ideographs and letters were probably enjoying their creation. So should you.