Doctor Overanalyzes the World.

Doctor Overanalyzes Typography (II).

In my last quarter as a student at the Creative Circus, I was a teaching assistant for a section of Type II. In addition to my normal TA duties of critiquing work and filing paperwork, the instructor, Colleen Finn, let me have five to ten minutes of each class meeting to talk about whatever type-related thing I wanted to. I presented little capsule histories of certain typefaces, and used them to illustrate some typographic concepts I wanted the class to learn. All in all, I think I gave seven mini lectures, and I still have six of the handouts. I don’t know what happened to the seventh, but I think that week I might have talked about Helvetica versus Arial — or it’s possible I just didn’t preach that week.

These mini-lectures were not at all intended to represent a comprehensive typography curriculum. Instead I wanted my students to understand many different ways to look at typography, and to teach them some ideas I had picked up along the way in design school that I had not learned in a classroom.

I’m going to take you through each of the handouts, and expound briefly on the concepts they were meant to illustrate.

The first mini-lecture I gave was about Garamond.


This was the first one, so it was a big one. Garamond was one of the first text typefaces, from the 1500s, and is still one of the most-used typefaces today. I used this as an opportunity to explain that for hundreds of years, typography was printed using glyphs punched out of metal blocks, which then “stamped” the ink onto the page. What this meant was that each point size had its own cut, in which the letterforms were optimized for that size of printing. This was something we lost when we started using phototypesetting, and now digital typefaces. Many type designers get around this problem by creating separate weights for caption and display sizes, as illustrated on the left.

This also illustrates the difference between a typeface and a font. A font (which gets its name from the fact that type used to be forged at a metal foundry — places that make type are still called foundries today) is a delivery mechanism for a typeface, which is a broader idea of what letterforms look like. Although the fonts to the left have differing letterforms, they all still belong to the typeface Adobe Garamond Premier Pro.

Which raises another interesting point. None of the Garamonds that we use today are the “original” Garamond — they’re digital adaptations of the original typeface. Different foundries have their own versions of Garamond, as seen on the right. Could these different font families all be said to belong to the same typeface, since they’re based on the same idea? I’m not sure.

My second mini-lecture was about Futura.


At this point I started introducing examples of the typeface in use, to try to illustrate the varied personality that a single typeface can have, depending on the different ways it’s used.


I used Futura to introduce the idea of optical correction — the fact that subtle adjustments have to be made in order for your eye to think that things are the same size. Futura looks like it’s geometrically precise, but in fact several adjustments have been made to make your eye believe that. The vertical parts of a letterform have to support the “weight” of a letter, so in order to appear the same thickness as the horizontal parts, they actually have to be thicker. Additionally, round and pointed parts have to overshoot flat parts in order to appear optically aligned. The overshoot does not have to be as proportionally large when the forms are larger, however. This relates to the idea of caption and display sizes we had talked about the previous week. It’s an issue with most digital versions of Futura, which were based on the original 12-point font. When you use it at large sizes, the overshoots in Futura appear far too large, and the N and A call undue attention to themselves. This can be used to good effect, however, as Neil Kellerhouse did on his poster for The Social Network (as seen on the opposite side of the handout), where the pointy Ns feel kind of sinister.

My third mini-lecture was about Gotham and Avenir.


Gotham and Avenir appear very similar to each other, but there are subtle differences, mostly in the capital letters and in Gotham’s larger x-height (the height of the lower case letters).


I explained that Avenir was Adrian Frutiger’s attempt to “update” Futura. He wanted to take Futura’s geometric perfection and humanize it. You can see how Avenir to some extent exists between Futura and Frutiger’s earlier namesake typeface, in that it adds more open terminals and creates and alphabet that just seems to work more cohesively than Futura’s.

I grotesquely oversimplified the equation for Gotham, but it’s not totally invalid. Gotham was originally inspired by the vernacular capital lettering throughout New York City, particularly those on the Port Authority Bus terminal. These letters occupy a space similar to Avenir’s, between precision geometry and human imperfection, so it makes sense that Gotham’s lower case follows a similar model to Avenir’s.

However, Gotham was designed with the uppercase in mind first, and Avenir was designed for text, with a lower x-height, so the typefaces have different “optical centers”, as illustrated by the dotted lines. Many quality fonts come with separate punctuation and numbers for upper- and lower-case, to keep them aligned with that typeface’s optical center.

My next mini-lecture was about Bodoni and Didot.



I honestly don’t remember what I talked about that week, and the handout isn’t making it any clearer. I think maybe I talked about how to spot the subtle differences between very similar typefaces, and how they can change the personality tremendously. I think I also talked about modernism, and how by the time Bodoni and Didot were designed at the turn of the 19th century we had moved from a model of letterforms that were based on human handwriting, like Garamond, towards much more machined letterforms like those found in Bodoni and Didot. To me, the entire history of typography (and perhaps humanity) is about the give-and-take between humanism and modernism. I’m really interested in typefaces that occupy the in-between space, like Avenir and Gotham from last week.

I think I also talked about how the thin lines in these typefaces were meant to stay hairline-thin at any size, and how when really good typeface designers make modern serifs like these they create different cuts for different sizes to preserve this effect. I really wanted to drive home the point of different fonts for different sizes, I guess.

I’m missing the handout from the next week.

The next week, I talked about Trajan and Optima.


I messed up on this one; the logo for The Lion King was not actually in Trajan.


This was probably my favorite mini-lecture of the bunch, because it covered the thing that I really, really love about the Latin alphabet. Trajan is based on some of the earliest examples of Roman capitals, those found on Trajan’s Column in Rome. The shape of the letterforms was informed by the physical restrictions of having to carve them into stone. Optima’s capital letterforms are very similar to Trajan’s, because they’re based on the same inscriptional model. It’s one reason Optima was chosen as the typeface for the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial — it just works really, really well carved into stone.

In addition to the give-and-take between humanism and modernism, one of the big stories of the history of typography is the give-and-take between carved and calligraphic letterforms. In fact, it could be said that calligraphic letterforms represent a humanist approach while carved letterforms represent a modernist approach — we’re just using a fine-point pen to carve our letterforms now instead of a chisel. In retrospect, I don’t think the lowercase a was the best example to demonstrate this difference.

But here’s where it really gets interesting. The Latin alphabet makes no sense. Our uppercase letters came out of inscriptional forms, while our lowercase letters came hundreds of years late from a script form called the Carolingian Minuscule. Meanwhile, our numbers came from Arabic. None of these things were meant to go together! When you really look at it, the Latin alphabet is awkward and clunky and hard to deal with, but that means that there are a lot of exciting things that you can do with it.

My last mini-lecture was about Georgia and Verdana.


I seem to have lost the front of this handout, but here’s the back. Georgia and Verdana were among the first typefaces designed specifically for the limitations of a computer screen. I talked about pixel hinting, and how some fonts that look great in print look awful on a computer screen and vice-versa.

I also used this as an opportunity to talk about web fonts. I don’t know why I thought this was an important topic to cover in Type II, especially since I had been dealing with much more theoretical things up until now, and this represented a sudden shift to the practical. I think my big point was that there always have been and always will be technological limits to the way we deliver letterforms to a page, print or web, but that we can overcome those technological limitations. A lot of the history of typography, in fact, is about adapting to technological limitations.


Looking back, there were probably better and more coherent ways I could have presented these ideas, and if I had planned these out ahead of time instead of doing them week by week I could have linked the ideas better. But ultimately I’m glad that I was able to share some ideas that excite me with some people who might get excited about them, too.

  1. edoctor posted this
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