Why Do All Diplomas Use Blackletter? Charles Nix Breaks it Down

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If you’ve ever received a diploma or certificate of achievement, it probably looked something like this (complements of Shutterstock):

Graduation season has us wondering about the perpetual bond between blackletter faces and such documents. If you could separate diplomas from blackletter, what would you find?

Charles Nix, Monotype’s Creative Type Director, is here to take us on a guided journey into the annals of type history. It begins not when diplomas emerged as a regular practice in the second half of the 17th century, but long before. (And for posterity, we feel it’s important to note that Nix sent us his responses in Lucida Blackletter, before switching to Modern No. 20 after the Parsons diploma below.)

Gothic and Old English typefaces are so ubiquitous with higher learning. When did that association begin?The association began before printing. Official documents were written by scribes from the earliest times. Even after printing from movable type was introduced in the West, single or double copies of official documents were written by hand. It made sense. You weren’t going to involve the printing process unless the number of copies—or the circumstance—warranted it. Preprinted certificates, with names later added by scribes, happened soon after printing was introduced to Europe (and before moveable type, in the form of carved woodblock prints)—think papal indulgences like those printed by Gutenberg in the 1450s. Early handwritten diplomas, traditionally on sheepskin, were official documents that were intentionally difficult to make. The sheepskin parchment was expensive because preparing it was difficult and labor-intensive. The scribe was a practiced professional whose services cost money. And then there was the difficulty of securing signatures from school officials—after the fact. These were commissioned documents, not pieces of paper given to every student leaving the school. They were proof, after the fact, vouching for the young person’s claim. Diplomas on sheepskin were traditionally written in Latin in some form of formal calligraphy (sometimes blackletter) and embellished with decorative calligraphic touches (usually with some large, display form of blackletter). The Latin language (a signifier of higher learning), the formal calligraphy, the embellishments and the sheepskin all combined to make the document impressive to look at/read. But they also gave it veracity. The effort conveyed truth.

Blackletter (Old English, Gothic, Textura, Schwabacher, Fraktur—all forms or references to blackletter) evolved from the Middle Ages—a time of handwritten texts and scriptoriums. Blackletter’s continued use in diplomas and other legal documents happens now because that’s how it was done before. It carries, in its typographic form, a reference and a reverence for the past—a faith in traditions and institutions.

Was there a time when other typefaces (or lettering, etc.) predated such styles on diplomas?Yes and no. Blackletter played a heavy role in handwritten diplomas, but other forms of formal writing also appear, including flexible-nib scripts like Spencerian and copperplate. None of these were typefaces.

When did the typefaces and diplomas lock together in symbiosis?The practice of pre-printed diplomas began, in earnest, at the start of the 19th century. At that point, the secondary tradition of either printing some portion of the diploma text and/or handwriting/typesetting the graduate’s name in blackletter was established.

Do you think their constant presence on diplomas today is a positive or a negative? Are we seeing an ideal form, or something that’s stuck in the mire of tradition?Blackletter on diplomas in the 21st century is anachronistic. Blackletter no longer serves to carry the meaning it once did; it suffers from associations with terrible historical actors/actions; it looks fake and disingenuous; and it’s rarely executed well (in typeset text or in calligraphy).

Do you think these typefaces will ever evolve on diplomas? (And have you seen any instances in which they have?)They have. To wit:

And that’s an old one.

In your opinion, what fonts would be solid contemporary replacements?I wouldn’t replace the typeface. That’s like redecorating a cake. I’d look at its purpose (veracity) and replace the diploma itself. I don’t know what I’d replace it with. A blockchain?

Diplomas are not alone in being so deeply associated with a particular set of typefaces. Where else can we find such well-defined pairings?So many. Didones and fashion/the fashion press. Old-style serif fonts and printed books. Typewriter/monospaced fonts and contracts. Formal script fonts and invitations. Humanist geometrics and political campaigns. Grotesques and operating systems. And on and on.

Do you have any advice to share with new design graduates?As I mentioned above, the diploma is a piece of proof. It’s a sign to others who care about such things that you’ve prepared yourself. Have you? For designers, a diploma, besides being a source of typographic consternation, means far less than the preparation. And the preparation (and the diploma) are just brief waypoints on a lifelong pursuit of education and change. Design is learning. It’s study and research. It’s hypothesis and experiment. It’s iteration and reiteration. Hopefully your education has prepared you not only to design a better diploma, but to be a life-long student. If it hasn’t, don’t worry. You have many, many years to learn.