Three People Who Were Surprisingly Passionate About Typography

Ryan Gayowski

Wherever you find works of art being produced or consumed, you are also bound to find a certain breed of artist or fan who is happiest when discussing some obscure element of their chosen interest. These specialists are easily identified by the passionate and vocal views they hold on matters that seem nitpicky and unimportant to the uninitiated outsider; and, given the passage of time, these views often seem quaint or fantastic in retrospect. Typography — the arrangement of elements on a printed page — though a seemingly mundane element of book design, has also inspired this sort of passion and so here, in no particular order, are three people who got a little carried away defending their favourite fonts.

  1. Edgar Allan Poe

In this age of desktop publishing, it is easy to forget that there was a time when the manuscript that an author submitted to a printer was still a handwritten document in the author’s own hand. It has been noted that “Poe was not inclined to trust printers … [and] whined ceaselessly about the liberties they took and the errors they made” (Jackson 155); and in attempt to address this, he began experimenting with a “mode of textual reproduction rather than of production” (159) known as anastatic printing, essentially a process where the author’s handwritten manuscript could be transferred to a copper plate and used “to produce as many or as few reproductions as the printer desired” (159). Poe saw in anastatic printing an opportunity to “imitate and reproduce handwriting in print” (156). However, not content to simply experiment with typographic conventions, Poe quickly announced that anastatic printing would “revolutionize the world” (159) through three “paradigmatic transformations” (160): An “autographic revolution as authors began to pay attention to legibility in their manuscripts … [a] scribal revolution … [and] an epistemological revolution, since clarity in handwriting engendered clarity in thought” (160). Clearly, no such revolution ever took place and Poe’s enthusiasm for the process seems quaint to us now.

  1. Theodore Low De Vinne

An example of the letterforms advocated by De Vinne. Image: William Morris [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons. Web. 27 March 2017.

Theodore Low De Vinne, “widely regarded as America’s leading printer” (Benton, “Typography” 71) in the late nineteenth century, considered the typographic conventions of his day as being “fussy, pale, and feminine” (71) and was among a group of critics who called “for a return to darker, heavier, more robust letterforms … [which would lead to a] long-overdue return to masculine printing” (71). Further, the conventions that De Vinne criticized were not aberrations, but were the most “commonly used … [and] widely admired style of type” (72) in his day. It seems odd to us now to that someone would go so far as to argue that the width of a serif could result in a “miserably weak and ineffective” (72) style that had “thoroughly emasculated” (76) printed books; but this type of overstatement is typical of the specialist’s self-limiting view.

  1. Jan Tschichold

An example of the letterforms advocated by Tschichold. Image: Meggs’ History of Graphic Design. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2006. Page 317. Web. 27 March 2017.

Where De Vinne advocated for heavier letterforms and a return to pre-modernist typography styles, Jan Tschichold embraced modern type design while making equally absurd claims about the significance of different typefaces. For example, Tschichold “argued that only sans serif types are in ‘spiritual accordance with our time,’ (Tschichold’s phrase) that their geometric plainness and universality better achieved the clarity and anationalist neutrality needed for modern typography” (Benton, Beauty 101); while also claiming that doing away with capital letterforms would “result in great savings of spiritual and intellectual energy” (Tschichold’s phrase, Benton, Beauty 101). Only someone with a specialist’s knack for exaggeration could seriously entertain the notion that there is a spiritual element involved in the choice of font.

Works Cited

Benton, Megan L. Beauty and the Book. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000. Print.

Benton, Megan L. “Typography and Gender: Remasculating the Modern Book.” Guthjar and Benton, pp. 71-93.

Guthjar, Paul C., and Megan L. Benton, editors. Illuminating Letters: Typography and Literary Interpretation. Amherst, 2001. Print.

Jackson, Leon. “The Italics are Mine: Edgar Allan Poe and the Semiotics of Print.” Guthjar and Benton, pp. 139-161

This entry was posted in Book design. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.