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Lettercentric: Type as Writing

Type has always aspired to achieve the status of writing—to emulate its freedom, fluidity, and diversity of forms. In the past, type makers have tried to account for the variety in individual handwriting by allowing for a certain amount of randomness in their designs. But this approach is being challenged: In a case study of their font Liza Pro, Underware posted an article to their site in which they contend. “Being random alone does not guarantee a script typeface to get a realistic handmade look. A sign painter can be clever enough to optimize the look of your words, in every specific situation. So should a typeface be. A typeface should not only always look different, but should also always look good.”

Liza Pro

This dilemma has been present from the very moment Gutenberg began experimenting with movable type in the 1440s. In a futile attempt to mimic the rich scribal options found in manuscripts, he created a fount for his 42-line Bible that consisted of an astonishing 297 characters, most of them ligatures and abbreviations. Similarly, Robert Granjon’s 1567 Gros texte civilitè contained 183 characters, including multiple alternates for each capital. Eventually, the creators of metal type accepted the fact that they were making pre-fabricated letters and that the purpose of type was not to replicate handwriting but to aid in the cheap and quick production of texts.

Or at least most of them did. In the 1870s and ’80s, American typefounders such as MacKellar, Smiths & Jordan in Philadelphia and Bruce’s New York Type Foundry took advantage of electrotyping to issue numerous typefaces (such as Spencerian Script, Excelsior Script and Penman Script) based on pointed-pen handwriting. These faces were replete with alternate swash capitals and alternate finial letters and remain marvels of the founders’ art at its zenith. The letters were cast on angled bodies or with special kerning to insure smooth and invisible joins.

Zapfino (first three examples) / Ex Ponto (last three)

But these amazing scripts disappeared in the 20th century. It was the new technologies of phototype and digital type that revived the dream of type as mechanized handwriting. With the physical barriers of metal and wood gone, type was weightless and free to assume any shape. Matthew Carter’s Snell Roundhand (1965) timidly showed off this new freedom from kerning. And fonts like Caflisch Script and Ex Ponto in the 1990s brought back alternate characters to better imitate the handwriting they were based upon.

Burgues Script

However, the real spur to innovation in this realm came with the introduction of OpenType whose 65,000 glyph set represented a quantum leap beyond PostScript’s 256-character ASCII set. The result has been a plethora of fonts—from Burgues Script to P22 Zaner Pro—bursting with extra characters: initials, alternates, ligatures, swashes, ornaments and more. Yet, the strategies for making type look like writing have largely remained the same: just provide more options for each letter in the hope of recreating the sense of randomness in writing that is normally alien to type. This is aided in OpenType by the advent of contextual characters that rely on a program such as InDesign to determine when alternates should be deployed. (The amazing “jumping bean” effect occurs as one types in letters using one of these new fonts—a c followed by a t, for instance, instantly transforms into a quaint ct ligature, complete with leash yoking the two letters together.)

Studio Lettering: Slant (top two) / Sable (bottom two)

The notion of randomness as the ultimate means of faking writing with type has been challenged recently by House Industries and Underware. “But what is much more important than being random? Being clever,” the members of Underware write. For these designers, cleverness means using language, in addition to shape, as a means of determining which letters change in a given text. This sets their face Liza Pro and House’s Studio Lettering suite apart from Beowolf (1989) and the older random fonts of Letterror.

The Underware case study is an excellent summary and demonstration of how these new linguistically-inflected fonts work and why they have advanced type one step closer to becoming inseparable from writing. Is this good? Underware seems conflicted as they conclude their essay. “In the end Liza Pro is maybe more a lettering-tool than a typeface,” they write. “It allows non-craftsmen or non-technical people to easily create a unique piece of lettering. Still simulated, but as close to real hand lettering as technically possible.”

Have we really reached a technical dead-on or are there more clever strategies waiting to be discovered? Perhaps, an algorithm for randomly adding ink splotches or blurring the edges of letters? Stay tuned.

About the author:

Paul Shaw teaches calligraphy at Parsons School of Design and the history of type at the School of Visual Arts. This June, he is leading a lettering tour of Italy entitled “Legacy of Letters” this summer. For more information, contact him at paulshaw@nyc.rr.com