The problem with a blog is that it’s a lot like a house plant: you have to tend to and pay attention to it, otherwise it’ll end up just withering up and dying. Unfortunately for my house plant, I’ve been rather neglectful and the leaves – I suspect – are beginning to turn a bit brown around the edges.
Last I wrote, we were beginning to map out the skeleton of the Roman inscriptional forms under the guidance of Sumner Stone. In historical terms we were very much starting at square one in terms of the modern Latin character set: the capital letters that would be some of the most enduring forms in our language for the following fifteen-hundred years. The idea was to take these forms and realize how elemental, and ultimately how modern they were; Sumner was toying with the idea of demonstrating on how to take this rudimentary character set and show how one could transform them to look like nearly any modern sans serif typeface. Unfortunately, we did not have the time to try out this experiment, but I believe him when he says it can be done; these forms – primitive as we may see them as – are just as bracing and modern as any new sans being put out on the market today.
After this exploration of form, we spent several days – again with Sumner’s guidance – copying and ultimately imitating the prototypical broad nibbled Carolingian miniscules. As we began getting comfortable with the forms, we were able to begin crafting them free-hand without the aid of our examples (in this case, the style of Renaissance humanist Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini). The broad nibbled pen is a tough tool to initially begin working with – as I have long struggled with in both calligraphy lessons and my own little experiments – but is one that is extremely rewarding when you are able to get a letterform just right.
Our exercises with the pen, though, would come to be broken down even further. Since these letterforms are composed of discrete and ultimately interchangeable pen strokes, it would stand to reason that we could use them as such; the stem of the ‘n’ can be interchangeable (albeit it a bit shorter than) with the stem of the ‘h’, ‘m’, ‘d’, ‘i’, and so on. The same goes for the shoulder/right-stem stroke of the ‘n’, et al. By isolating these elements, we can then use them for similar strokes in different letterforms, allowing a fuller glyph set to be built up very quickly.
We got a quick little break in the middle of Week 2 when Ken Barber of House Industries came in to do a one day lettering workshop. After spending so long in the annals of type history for a week and a half, it was nice to try our hands at some inventive lettering styles and experimenting with form and design. It was really interesting – for me at least – to look at two different typographic styles and attempt to meld them together (in my case mixing Clarendon and Ed Benguiat’s Caslon 244 Black). At the end of the day the class had a quick round of voting as to which was the favorite – Wendy went home with a brand new set of House Industries’ Type Blocks.
Then in Week 3 came the tough part: the fork in the road. Do we continue with the forms that we have created – and the insight gained from working with these letters during the past two weeks – or do we strike out on our own and attempt our own forms?
While I’d been keeping my mind open to the exercises and experiments in form that we were going through, I still really wanted to try my hand at a grotesque/gothic, and since the bulk of our instruction during Weeks 3 and 4 would be under Sara Soskolne (who knows a thing or two about grotesques), I opted to go for it.
Since I would be starting from scratch (as opposed to having materials to begin with, had I kept on with the forms we had made in the prior two weeks), Week 3, then, compressed a lot of design decisions into a very short time. Some simple points I’ve come away with:
- Spacing – I have learned all too well – is the corner stone of a type’s design: a type designer will spend just as much – if not more – time concentrating on the white of words as much as they do the black of the characters themselves. Measure a million times, cut once.
- The weight of characters is always in flux: the bowl of the ‘o’ has a direct optical correlation with the ‘p’, ‘b’, ‘d’, et al. That’s a given of course, but what is important to remember is that when you change one, the rest must also change by extension; same goes for vertical and horizontal stems on like glyphs (E, F, H, etc). However, diagonals (from what I’ve experienced) don’t fall into any kind of discernible pattern, so you really just have to eyeball those.
- There are no “formulas”: even the “geometric” typefaces that we like to think are constructed purely from elemental shapes are still finely tuned for optical issues. I hate that design teachers will always parrot the line that “Futura was constructed using squares, triangles and circles” – it’s a line that makes Paul Renner sound like some kind of hack. Go and try to use just those three exact shapes without changing them and come up with something that looks remotely like Futura. I’ll wait. Yeah, looks like crap doesn’t it? That’s because when exact shapes are put together in different combinations, they will not always look optically correct in those different configurations. That’s why Geoffroy Tory’s drawings for Champ-fleury (“geometric bullshit” as Sumner Stone remarked one evening) look devoid of the life of the Roman inscriptions on which they are based. It is also why the final metal type for the Romain du Roi look so good and set so well – even though the forms were very precisely drafted and “designed by formula”, the steel punches were ultimately cut by people with a keen sense of optical judgement and knew what would look good rather than just blindly following some kind of compass-and-rule derived dogma. Therefore, your own judgement – and not some kind of formulaic nonsense – will always win out, but only if you put in the time to train that sense of judgement.
- Start small and work slowly: like I just wrote above, a change in one character’s dimensions or weight will have a ripple effect across all the other like-shaped glyphs. So that being said, when you are still in the stage of establishing your typeface’s voice it’s easier to make broad changes when you have a minimal amount of characters. So if you change the shape of the ‘o’ you only affect a couple other glyphs; but if you already have your ‘b’, ‘p’, ‘d’ and ‘q’ designed in rough stages, then you must go in and make similar changes to them in order to match the ‘o’. Start small and establish your basic principals – it will always be easier to implement a system then make minuscule adjustments across the same system.
- Be your own worst critic: it’s easy to fall in love with your work. Don’t. “Good enough” is never good enough, and small deficiencies only show a sloppy work ethic – or worse – a lack of proficiency in your craft. Furthermore, small mistakes will manifest themselves multiple times across a page or layout – that weird flat spot in your ‘a’ may not be too noticeable on its own, but it certainly will be when it’s set in a paragraph.
As I write this, we have just completed Week 4 and will be entering our final four days this coming Monday. The progress in everyone’s work in the past two weeks has been nothing short of phenomenal: the work at the end of this program will be just fantastic. I can’t wait for you to see it all.