New Faces (Historiography)

Essays by Emily King
8 572 words43 min read

A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of Kingston University for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (1999)

(i) Historiography
(ii) Typographic History in the Context of Broader Design Historical Models
Chapter One: Technological and Industrial Change: Setting the Scene
Mapping Contemporary Type Design
Chapter Two: The West Coast
Chapter Three: The East Coast
Chapter Four: London
Chapter Five: The Netherlands
List of Interviews


An anomaly amongst writing upon typography, this thesis is the work of a design historian rather than a typographic insider. For the most part, the history of type design has been the territory of those within the trade. Accounts of the development of letterform have appeared in their own right and been included within histories of printing, typography and later graphic design, but in spite of their variety, these studies almost uniformly fail to put the design of type and of printed material into any kind of broader cultural, economic or social context. Instead, they have tended to concentrate upon the evolution of form. In her book The Printing Revolution in Early modern Europe, Elizabeth Eisenstein pointed out that, although the history of printing is an integral part of the history of civilisation, studies of the subject “are isolated and artificially sealed off from the rest of historical literature” and “are seldom consulted by scholars who work in any other field”.[1]

Within the few academic institutions that concentrate upon the design and reproduction of printed matter, it appears to be felt that proper understanding of type and typography, and a credible motive for enquiry into the subject, can come only from those engaged in practice. At a discussion group concentrating upon the future of practical and theoretical research into type and typography held at Reading University’s Department of Typography, historical research was assumed to be intimately tied with practice. A faculty member described the aim of research into type and typography to be the achievement of an understanding of what was done and how it was done on a practical level.[2]

It is possibly not surprising that a business concerned with the dissemination of information has been so effective in accounting for itself, but does seem peculiar that historians have not examined more closely a practice which is so closely tied to the mechanics of their craft. It seems that these scholars have viewed their sources as transparent: addressing the content of historical documents, but ignoring their form (and failing to acknowledge form as a carrier of content). The histories that have emerged largely from the heart of practice have tended to be minutely detailed, the product of painstaking empirical research. As a non-practitioner, writing against the background of this tradition is daunting. Especially so because many of the typefaces mentioned in this thesis have been dismissed by those within the trade as worthless and looked upon as part of a spate of aberrant form; just another in a series of spates that have reoccurred periodically over the history of printing types.[3] The insular histories that have made this kind of view possible have largely been the creation of the last century, but the roots of these accounts lie further back.

Pre-Nineteenth century accounts of the printing types Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing is said to be the earliest manual of printing written in any language by forty years.[4] Writing in the late seventeenth century, Moxon offers a very detailed account of the contemporary business of printing. Dividing the profession into eight distinct trades[5], Moxon’s book goes on to describe meticulously contemporary printing equipment and the practice of printing. Moxon, like his father before him, was a master printer. It has been suggested that his motives for publishing were to “maintain the dignity of the art.”[6] The tone of the book expresses an awe at the everyday business of printing, as if the trade as it existed at the end of the seventeenth century had achieved perfection. For the most part, Moxon’s account has been admired by subsequent writers, though his practices as a printer and also as a cutter of letters have come under scrutiny. Twentieth-century typographers and typographic historians, such as Herbert Davis and Harry Carter, have implied that Moxon’s failure to produce sufficiently sophisticated printed material compromised his account of the trade.[7] The assessment of any written account of type and typesetting appears to have become intimately bound up with the evaluation of the output of the author.

The first English language publication which deals specifically with the letterform rather than with the broader business of printing is not the product of someone within the trade, but the work of an antiquarian. Edward Rowes Mores published his Dissertation Upon English Typographical Founders and Founderies in 1778. Mores, a wealthy individual, was a member of the Antiquarian Society. His enquiry into printing was intimately bound with his interest in antiquities.[8] As was common practice amongst antiquarians of the late eighteenth century, Mores published the result of his investigations himself. The Dissertation was one amongst a number of other volumes published by Mores which dealt with a variety subjects.

The idiosyncrasies of Mores’s Dissertation did not escape the attention of even his contemporaries. A review in the Gentleman’s Magazine by a fellow antiquarian remarked that the publication was “curious, and eccentric”, though the author of the review did commend Mores’s “extensive abilities and steady perseverance”.[9] Subsequent commentators have not been so kind. Mores has been criticised for not having a full understanding of the business and techniques involved in commercial printing and also for failing to recognise the significant international influence upon the development of type form.[10] But while the account met with some censure, it has formed the factual basis for a large part of the subsequent study of the subject.

Mores was not writing from within the printing trade, but his theoretical interest in printing was tied to practice. He was a keen collector of type, matrices and other materials connected with printing. Amongst his most significant acquisitions were the tools of the major English typefounder John James. Rather than let his acquisitions languish untouched Mores put them to use in his own printing press. The Dissertation was probably published from Mores’s own house upon this press.[11] Subsequent writers on typography, amongst them the American Henry Lewis Bullen and the English Stanley Morison, have been dismissive of this kind of non-commercial practice of printing, believing that the integrity of the practice lies in its application to commercial tasks.[12] Although it was by no means unusual in its time, what could have been read as Mores’s dilettantism might have compromised his subsequent reputation.

Nineteenth-century typographic histories

Mores’s influence upon later accounts is most apparent in Talbot Baines Reed’s A History of The Old English Letter Foundries. First published in 1887, Reed argued that “Mores’s Dissertation has necessarily formed the basis of my investigations.”[13] Talbot Reed argued that Mores was significant in being the first to treat the practice of letter founding as distinct from that of printing.[14] To Talbot Reed, a nineteenth-century letter founder, Mores’s single minded concentration upon letter-founding was valuable, allowing him to elevate the practice of letter-founding from a “mere trade” to an “art”.[15] But what seemed historically appropriate to Reed appeared less so to later commentators. Writing in an era when the prevailing technologies of printing had largely reunited the two practices, Davis and Carter, editors of Mores’s original text, judged that the distinction led to a very partial account.[16]

Talbot Reed, who joined his father’s founders firm in the mid-nineteenth century at the age of fourteen, outlined his understanding of the history of type and typesetting in a lecture delivered to the Royal Society of Arts, published in their journal of 18 April, 1890. Offering a tale in which the printer was first “emancipated”[17] from the conventions of the scribe and then went on to perfect his art, achieving perfection in the late fifteenth century, with the Jenson types, he went on to talk about subsequent degradations of the letterform. In the seventeenth century, Reed argued, the letterform suffered due to “bad ink, bad paper, bad presses, bad workmen”[18] and later, in the first part of the nineteenth century, offences were brought about by an “egotism” amongst punchcutters which tempts them to stray away from “the canons of easy legibility”.[19] Reed implied the blame for the later state of affairs lay with new technologies, which made such attention seeking displays of virtuosity possible.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Reed did not completely condemn the modern types of the nineteenth century which emerged from Bodoni and Didot, but in spite of this he celebrated the late nineteenth revival of the old styles:

“We come, finally, to our last epoch, the present. It was ushered in, about 1845, by the revival, under the auspices of Mr Whittingham, of the Caslon old face...The typography of the last half century owes a great deal to this opportune to return to the past; and the continued favour of the old styles, I venture to think, is a hopeful sign for the future.”[20]

Reed recognised that type forms of the past might be embellished by the application of new technology, but was nonetheless suspicious that in itself the technology of the late nineteenth century is prone to lead to an inauthenticity of form. For Reed, the best application of the new technologies of the late nineteenth century were to facilitate the rendering of historical form.

Addressing an audience in London, Reed’s lecture is very similar in substance to that given by Theodore Low De Vinne at The Grolier Club in New York five years earlier. Like Reed, De Vinne tells a story of the abandonment of the “old-fashioned Black Letter” and an eventual recognition of “the superior merit of the Roman character.”[21] Also like Reed, he upholds Jenson as the man who perfected the Roman letterform and welcomes the return of these kinds of typefaces. Viewing new technology positively, he remarked that:

“Types were never made so well as they are made now. Drawing was never so correct...The mechanical workmanship of a second-rate modern founder is far better than that of Jenson or Van Dijck.”[22]

Like Reed, De Vinne felt that technology should be employed to enhance already existing type designs. De Vinne feels himself to be talking at the end of the history of printing types, to him it appeared that both form and the technology to reproduce it had been perfected: “The art of printing seem to have fixed the forms beyond the possibility of reconstruction.”[23]

Theodore Low De Vinne was a commercial printer, who made his living producing up-market printed material such as fine books for the Grolier Club and the American publication Century Magazine.[24] His views and those of Reed were part of currents of thought around typography that were prevalent in both Britain and the United States of America at the end of the century. Robin Kinross suggests that the growth of interest in the history of printing at this time was part of “the larger phenomenon of the emergence of historical consciousness”.[25] This generation of printers and designers was the first to undertake historic revivals and the most significant early accounts of typographic history were intimately bound with historically based practice. These early encounters with history established a model for a certain sort of combined research and practice which remains influential to this day.

Arts and Crafts

Related to the enthusiasm for typographic revivals was the late twentieth-century Arts and Crafts movement. Also spanning the Atlantic, this movement was similarly prompted by an antipathy for the kind of culture that appeared to have been wrought by industrial technology. But while they might have shared their doubts about the validity of industrially produced form, few of those involved in the mainstream printing trade were as puritanical as those who upheld Arts and Crafts values. The figurehead of the international Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris, went as far as to argue that even the non-mechanised processes of printing detracted from the more worthwhile activities of the scribes.[26] At the time Morris made this suggestion he was himself running a successful press.

William Morris and his adviser Emery Walker have been accused of creating a “dream” an “imagined typography of the past”.[27] But regardless of the veracity of their historical references, the typefaces and books produced at William Morris’s Kelmscott Press were extremely influential. Established in 1891, the press ran at a considerable profit until Morris’s death in 1896. Morris did not value the work of his contemporaries, arguing that “even the best” modern printers pay insufficient attention to historically established rules of composition.[28] But in spite of his rejection of the output of the modern printer, he was surprisingly accommodating of their techniques of production. Morris regularly turned to nineteenth-century print and production methods where they were more efficient,[29] also studying his historical models by having them photographed at a large scale.[30] Sceptics might suggest that Morris’s own romanticised vision of typographic history was most significant in its role as a potent marketing tool.

In the late nineteenth/early twentieth century several private presses were set up both in England and America. By this point the prevailing accounts of the history of printing types were intimately bound to the historically based activities of those who ran these presses and who since have been grouped together as members of the private press movement. Well-known British participants of the movement include St John Hornby at the Ashendene Press, and Emery Walker, Morris’s former colleague, in partnership with Thomas Cobden-Sanderson at the Doves Press. In America, Frederick Goudy was possibly the most significant member of the movement. Goudy did not only publish books at his Village Press, he also released typefaces independently. It has been argued that, like Morris, Goudy took liberties with his interpretations of historical models, but his work was firmly rooted within his own interpretation of history.[31]

Eventually Goudy came to act as an advisor to the Lanston Monotype Company of Philadelphia, and it is through such individuals that the intersection between the apparently high-brow concerns of those involved in the private press movement and the commercial activities of the typesetting machine manufacturers can be traced.[32] The private press movement in Britain and United States coincided with the development of systems for mechanical typesetting. In 1885 the typefounder Linn Boyd Benton invented the means to cut type mechanically.[33] This made the manufacture of mechanical typesetting systems possible and in the last decade of the century a number of these came into use.

Mechanical typesetting

Both of the most important mechanised composing systems, the Monotype and the Linotype, originally came from America. But while Monotype Lanston was founded in Philadelphia, it was the British branch of the company that was to play the more significant part in developing the Monotype technology.[34] While these companies were offering pioneer technologies with which to set type, the designs of the first typefaces that they produced to be set on these machines were simply recuttings of old styles and moderns already familiar to the producers and consumers of printed material. As Beatrice Warde has remarked, “instead of proving an incentive to invention, this new freedom had an opposite effect: manufacturers found it safer to consult and copy old models.”[35]

For the typesetting systems manufacturer, the creation of type was a secondary function. To sell a typesetting system, a manufacturer must be able to offer a convincing library of faces. Since at the outset these manufacturers were not repositories of typographic knowledge and skill, so it is not surprising that their design choices were not adventurous. It took over a decade for the makers of mechanical typesetting machines to begin to offer original typefaces. When they did so these typefaces were the kinds of historical revivals favoured by those involved in fine printing.

Amongst the first of these was Monotype Plantin, offered by Monotype in Britain in 1913. The face was based upon a old style type shown in a specimen book at the Plantin Moretus Museum.[36] Aspiring to contribute to type design, the machine manufacturers fell in line with the views of the prevailing authorities upon the subject. This is somewhat ironic given that many of these typographic authorities were motivated by the desire to fend off the perceived threat of machine setting.

The enthusiasm for typographic revivals that was picked up by the machine manufacturers in the second decade of the twentieth century, was reworked by various charismatic individuals into some kind of creed during the interwar years. Best known amongst these was Stanley Morison, who became the first director of type at Monotype in Britain in 1922.[37] Morison’s position at Monotype was that of a typographic adviser, his role at the Corporation was anticipated only by Bruce Rogers’s appointment as adviser at the Cambridge University Press in 1917. The appointment of such figures suggests an increasingly widespread belief that principles could inform practice.

Morison’s first print-related job had been with the publisher Gerard Meynell, the founder of The Imprint, a publication which aimed to improve standards of printing. Through that job, Morison had come into contact with some of the major figures of the British and American private press movement. Morison became assistant to Gerard Meynell’s son Francis and early in his career he was associated with the publication of small runs of highly ornamented books. In later years Morison was mildly disparaging of these early activities, suggesting that the style was “archaic.”[38]

Morison’s understanding of type design and typography had its roots in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century private press movement. He did acknowledge the movement as an influence in his quest for typographic perfection, yet ultimately was dismissive. Writing about those whose tradition he inherited, Morison remarked:

“Thus has progress towards good printing been definitely assisted by, and no less definitely removed from, the noble but always a little remote enthusiasms of the great amateurs of the nineties”[39]

These ‘great amateurs’ had responded to industrial culture by digging deep within history. Possibly fearing that the onset of machine typesetting might render the craftsman redundant, they had constructed for themselves an unassailable rock of tradition. They offered a view of their craft in which the perfection of the letterform had coincided with the acknowledged flowering of Western culture during the Renaissance. According to this view progress in type design and typography was entirely independent of the march of technology. This history rendered traditional practice immune from the threat of the machine.

Adopted in the second two decades of the twentieth-century by the machine manufacturers, the emphasis of this by now well established history was altered. Rather than seeking to vindicate the craftsman, men like Morison were attempting to assert a full authority over the proper practice of type design and typesetting.

Increasingly, machine-set type was becoming the norm. Given that there were relatively few machine manufacturers, each one of them played a significant role in determining the kinds of typefaces and printed materials that were being produced in the period. While small scale foundries did still exist, and continued to produce a spectrum of typefaces used for small scale jobbing printing, as far as the bulk of printed material was concerned, industrial typesetters such as Monotype dominated. The histories and the sets of rules and principles offered by Morison and his colleagues could be seen as a justification of their typographic power. The responsibility for defending and furthering the practice of type design and typography had been adopted by these companies.

Morison’s own type designs were largely historically based, using models of research already established by other revivers of letterform, such as William Morris. Like Morris, Morison used photographic expansions of existing printed samples, embarking on a painstaking search for the historically exact.[40] But unlike Morris and his associates in the private press movement, Morison attempted to offer a rational for his views upon type design and typography that was independent of tradition. In his statement regarding the principals pursued at the Kelmscott press, Morris refers purely to the printing conventions of previous centuries to justify the practices maintained at the press.[41] Morison, on the other hand, claimed that his work at Monotype was “programmatic”, a systematic response to the foreseeable needs of printing.”[42]

Morison published his ‘First Principles of Typography’ in 1930. These principles have come under scrutiny, not least from his biographer James Moran, for failing to provide the rational set of rules that they promise.[43] Rather they offer opinion, the truth of which is assumed to be self-evident. Although Morison’s work and also the large part of the work that he supported at Monotype was historically based, he wrapped these archival researches in the cloak of the quest for the rational, arguing

“It is useful to encourage a knowledge of history among typographers so that they emancipate themselves from the possibility of following doctrinaires – instead of rationalists – ideologues who must have a style that corresponds with what they take to be certain definitive trends in the arts, irrespective of whether that trend is a strengthening or weakening of legibility.”[44]

While Morison’s attempts to assert typographic principles have been largely disparaged, the essays of Morison’s contemporary and sometime colleague at Monotype, Beatrice Warde, are still in currency today.[45] More convincingly than Morison, Warde was able to translate typographic conventions, derived through tradition, into a set of absolute rules. Warde’s best known essay ‘The Crystal Goblet or Printing Should Be Invisible’ asserted that typography should be an invisible vessel of thought, a “window” between reader and author.[46] Warde argued that the successful achievement of transparency is to be achieved through the combination of an understanding of tradition with the application of self-evident common sense. A reference to basic good sense is a theme throughout Warde’s works, and her main weapon against modernist typography, the influence of which began to be felt in Europe in the early 1930s.[47]

The ATF Library: Typographic history at the service of the corporation

Beatrice Warde did not only set out the principles of typography, she also described the recent history of type design and printing: the route whereby she and her colleagues came to prevail over typographic opinion. In her article ‘Some Notes of the British Typographic Reformation, 1919-1939’ she discussed her first job as Assistant Librarian to Henry Lewis Bullen, the keeper of the Library and Museum of the American Type Founder’s Company. This institution was very significant in the crafting of the history of printing and related activities during the first part of this century.

Founded in 1892, the American Type Founder’s Company, known as the ATF, was an amalgamation of several of the smaller American type foundries. These foundries were prompted to band together when it became evident that, without some kind of rationalisation of their output, they were all going to perish under the pressure of competition from the typesetting machine manufacturers. Bullen was a printer who had been associated with the company and in the first decade of the century he began to pressure the company to set up a library. In an anonymous letter published in The Inland Printer, the American printing journal, he urged the company to set up the library and museum “before it is too late” to preserve the objects that had been in use “prior to the introduction of automatic casting machines.”[48]

With the support of the Company’s president, Roger W. Nelson, the library and museum was set up in the Company offices in New Jersey in 1908. Its purpose echoed that of the commercial enterprise by which it was sponsored, to fend off the threat posed by mechanical typesetting. The early holdings of the library were largely from Bullen’s own collection and he added to the library energetically over the next twenty years. Like Morison, Bullen was the inheritor of typographic opinions articulated first by printers such as De Vinne and then upheld by those in the private press movement. He was a believer in historical moments of perfected typographic form and his collection reflected that conviction.

Beatrice Warde attributes Bullen as being the inventor of the phrase “type family”.[49] Certainly Bullen’s early influence upon the ATF had been to encourage the Company to produce well stocked collections of historic revivals, such as the ATF Garamond. The motives of the ATF. library and museum were said by contemporary commentators to be “altruistic”,[50] but the holdings certainly leant scholarly weight to the commercial business of the Company in the 1910s and 1920s.

The explicit aim of the library, and the activities it promoted, such as touring exhibitions and short courses, was to educate the ordinary American printer. But in spite of this goal, the library was predominantly used by the small community who were already interested in the history of printing. Visitors to the library included Bruce Rogers and D.B. Updike, both owners of small presses and publishers of volumes upon the history of printing and printing types. Bullen, like Morison also wanted to capture the attention of the larger community of commercial printer, but it appears that for the most part both men were addressing a small group of converts.[51]

Warde moved from working for Bullen at the ATF library, an institution founded to resist the onset of mechanised typesetting, to working for Morison at Lanston Monotype, the bastion of machine setting. She claims to have discovered that machine setting could be used to promote good typography after chancing across Gerard Meynell’s journal The Imprint at the ATF library. This journal was produced under the auspices of the Lanston Monotype Company and was set in its own face, Imprint:

“obviously a good face and yet indubitably the product of that supposed menace to good typography, the type-composing machine.”[52]

Beatrice Warde’s conversion to the notion of mechanised typesetting was complete, demonstrated notably in her chiding of D.B. Updike for failing to recognise the significance of the machine in his book The History of Printing Types published in 1922.[53] In spite of some apparent antagonism between proponents of mechanical and non-mechanical methods, it appears that for Warde to travel from one culture did not require any great conceptual leaps. The cultures around foundry type and those adopted by mechanised typesetters endorsed very similar views of typographic history and shared a heritage invented for them by the gentlemen of the private press movement. The extent to which activities of either of these esoteric circles actually influenced the activities of the commercial printer was probably limited, but they shared the aim of reforming the everyday practices of printing.


When the ATF began to suffer the effects of the Great Depression, financial support from the library began to be withdrawn. Eventually the library was put up for sale, and after several years of searching for a suitable buyer, was sold off to Columbia University in 1936. As a resource, the library only seemed justified while ATF was enjoying high profits. Similarly, Monotype sponsored Morison’s activities in research and publishing while the company was enjoying secure levels of profit, levels that they continued to reap until the onset of photo-setting began to threaten the dominance of hot metal. Commercially successful for many decades, the British Monotype company was able to exert an authority over the practices of type design and typesetting within the United Kingdom until well after the Second World War.

In late 1930s, the pace of the revival movement promoted by individuals such as Morison slowed down. Robin Kinross has argued that this was partly because “the stock of typographic history that fuelled the movement had its limits.”[54] In defence of Kinross’s position, it is certainly the case that during the preceeding decades these limits had been thoroughly explored within a network of organisations within Britain. For example, the revival was promoted actively not only by big companies such as Monotype, but also by a number of smaller private presses such as the Curwen and Nonesuch and associations including the Double Crown Club (a dining club founded in 1924 which offered a forum for debate of typographic issues). On the other hand, extensive as it was, it is not the case that the mining of history during this period has exhausted the possibilities for historical revival. If such limits do exist, then they are still being tested: historic revivals still abound, most of which are based on material discovered before the 1930s.

The limits of historical inspiration aside, it appears to be the case that even before the late 1930s a need for something other than faithful historical revivalism became apparent. In the case of Monotype this need was met by the production of Gill’s typeface Gill Sans. Not representing a complete break with traditional models, it is well known that this typeface was based on Edward Johnston’s face for London Underground and firmly grounded in classical humanist letterforms. Even so it created a lot of disquiet amongst those in the contemporary scene. The violent condemnation and passionate defence of the face became the focus of a number of meetings of typographic professionals in the 1930s.[55] For typographic conservatives, history didn’t just offer inspiration for practice, it was believed to define its limits.

Morison’s promotion of Gill Sans was a typographic response to the challenges being presented by modernism, just as his proposals of typographic principals were his answer to modernist typographic models. In his writing about typography, he was always dismissive of modernism, arguing that styles proposed by modernists were valid only for the purposes of advertising. Useful for grabbing attention, these styles violated tradition and necessarily broke anything that it would be possible to put forward as a typographic rule.[56] Morison was still arguing against modernism towards the end of his life in the late 1960s, a period in which for many modernism and traditionalism had become an either/or option.

Typographic modernism

The desire of individuals like Morison and Warde to determine sets of typographic rules in the 1920s and 1930s may well have been their response to an increasing awareness of the issues being raised by European modernists. Loosely associated as the Ring neuer Werbegestalter (Circle of New Advertising Designers) Morison and Warde’s European contemporaries, including Piet Zwart and Paul Schuitema from the Netherlands, El Lissitzky from Russia and Kurt Schwitters and Jan Tschichold from Germany, exhibited their work internationally and produced a number of influential publications during those years. First exhibiting as a group in the Cologne Kunstgewerbemuseum in March 1928, the designers in the Ring used this and subsequent exhibitions to make explicit their typographic aims and means.[57]

Not by any means supporters of modernist typography, many British and American writers on printing and associated subjects felt obliged to keep up with the new modes of enquiry emerging from Europe. Dealing with similar territory, but not as dogmatic as Warde or Morison, was the American writer W.A. Dwiggins. Dwiggins wrote numerous articles and a single full-length book Layout in Advertising. In this book offers a pragmatic, commonsensical view, Dwiggins dealt directly with the question of Modernism, suggesting that “it was a natural and wholesome reaction against traditionalism.”[58] Formally Dwiggin’s work is not modernist in any conventional sense, but the graphic design critic Steven Heller argued that his non-rigid approach to design and his positive feelings toward new technology “built a bridge between traditionalism and modernism... that many American designers would eventually cross.”[59]

Dwiggins’s engagement with Modernism is significant in demonstrating that against the background of the discussions being initiated by Modernists, unquestioning adherence to tradition no longer seemed viable. For example, when D.B. Updike’s meticulous history of the letterform had appeared in 1922, while extremely significant in describing several centuries of history, it already seemed to belong dated in terms of its account of the subject.[60]

The most complete statement of the principles of modernist typography in the interwar years is Jan Tschichold’s The New Typography which was published in 1928. In this book Tschichold is largely dismissive of historical models, dealing with them in a single sweep in the chapter ‘The Old Typography (1440-1914)’[61]. Tschichold also despairs of “today’s typography”. But in complaining that “type production has gone mad,” Tschichold was not referring to the output of contemporary British and American revivalists, but rather to the common practices of German printers and their “senseless outpouring of new ‘types’”.[62]

While they were not the objects of his criticism, Tschichold would certainly not have supported the activity of those involved in the revival. Although in his survey of history Tschichold did pick out certain moments as commendable, for example the ‘modern’ practice of the Didots in the eighteenth century or the efforts of those in the Jugendstil movement to integrate art and life, he did not believe history was the place to search for the forms that were required to express the modern world. Rather than looking to typographic history as the source of the new typography, Tschichold suggested that its principles were derived from new art practices of the first two decades of the century.

In the chapter ‘The New Art’, Tschichold adopted an unprecedented ancestry for his typographic practices. Documenting movements in art since the late nineteenth century, Tschichold argued that, in the wake of the invention of photography, artists had begun to respond directly to the modern world and had been able to forge a “new content” within their work.[63] In his subsequent chapter ‘The History of the New Typography’, Tschichold located the practice of new typography firmly within the sphere of art, citing the work of the Futurists, those involved in Dada and particularly El Lissitzky. Tschichold’s aim was to summarise the typographic principles that he believed had emerged from the work of these artists and make them accessible to commercial printers. Tschichold’s advice to printers was actually fairly practical. He insisted that the sans serif form was “always better” but conceded that printers could use the existing faces, in spite of their basis in historical models, while they awaited more appropriate types.[64]

The significance here of Tschichold’s The New Typography lies in the fact that it was an attempt to draw up typographic principles independent of typographic history. The practice of justifying professional practice through reference to historical models had become entrenched in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Tschichold’s attempts to break free of those models set a precedent for much of this century’s discussion of typography. The extent to which those involved in the new typography actually influenced commercial printing is in debate, but the impact of their theoretical output has certainly been considerable.

Medical and scientific discussions around typography

Tschichold was not the first to base a discussion of type and typography on grounds other than historical and traditional. The search for the absolute determinants of legibility has been a recurring theme in explorations of the subject for well over a century. In the nineteenth-century certain medical practitioners ran tests to determine the conditions of legibility. The first to run a set of controlled scientific experiments into the legibility of printed text was Professor Emile Javal at the University of Paris in 1878. An ophthalmologist, Javal followed eye movements of subjects looking at a page, making his most significant discovery that the eye does not move along the line in a smooth sweep but in fits and starts.[65] Others followed his example, and since that time the issue of legibility has attracted the attention of among others, psychologists, physiologists and educationalists.

Writing in the late 1960s Herbert Spencer, a Senior Research Fellow in the Readability of Print, attempted to summarise the conclusions of decades of experiment in the publication The Visible Word. What Spencer is able to offer by way of laws of legibility at the end of his survey is a set of statements which in no way determine the forms of types or of the printed page. Most of the conclusions warn against extremes, but they do not specify the course of the preferred middle path. In the last chapter of the book, Herbert Spencer addresses various proposals for single alphabetic systems, from Tschichold’s single alphabet designed in the 1920s to schemes proposed by his own contemporaries. Spencer presents no critique of these systems, offering only the designers’ own rationales. His discussion of Crouwel’s 1967 design for a single alphabet, intended to suit the demands of newly emerging digital typesetting, does imply that new technologies might lead to the overriding of conventional type-form,[66] but to Spencer, writing in 1968, the purely utopian offerings of the interwar years might already have seemed hopeless.

Since the late 1960s legibility tests have been repeated sporadically, but usually with a specific aim in mind. For example, Gerard Unger, currently redesigning the Netherlands motorway signage system, is having his designs subjected to a series of rigorous checks, to assess their readability at various distances and speeds.[67] Other recent experiments in legibility include Rosemary Sassoon’s research into typefaces that best promote literacy amongst children,[68] and a research project exploring the legibility of text on screen based at Reading University.

What all these recent explorations of the legibility have in common is the identification of legibility with a specific task. The notion of discovering any free-floating rules of legibility that can be used to govern letterform and typography has been abandoned in the face of uniformly inconclusive evidence.[69] To some this has implied all arguments about legibility are relative. “You read best what you read most often”[70] is the mantra of Emigre, a producer and distributor of unconventional typefaces. This assertion implies, that, given time, the paramount legibility of the traditional letterform could be undermined. The less radical would counter with arguments that were offered by typographic thinkers such as Beatrice Warde. Warde’s common-sensical arguments are based on an assumption that the conventions upon which traditional typography are based are sufficiently rooted so as to be pretty much unassailable.[71]

What has been abandoned since the era in which Tschichold wrote the new typography is the belief that working purely on rational principles you could determine a new form of type design and typography which was more legible in an absolute sense than anything that had predated it. A quest such as Tschichold’s, for new sets of forms which correspond only to the rational demands of legibility and technology, no longer seems valid.

Post-war design philosophies

Famously, Tschichold reacted strongly against his earlier views upon typography in the years following the Second World War.[72] Identifying the dogma of his own early views with that of the National Socialists, he began to return in his own practice to historically based models, many of which conformed to the ideas of those associated with the British and American typographic revival of the interwar years. But, in spite of Tschichold’s own revulsion against the absolutes of the new typography, his ideas and those of the circle around him were to prove extremely influential upon a generation of German and Swiss typographers who were practising in the 1950s and 1960s.

During the post-war decades a mode of typographic practice, which came to be known as the Swiss style, was being formulated by designers in both Germany and Switzerland. Important contributors to this movement include Emile Ruder and Otl Aicher. Emile Ruder taught at Basle between 1942 and 1970, and it has been suggested that his theories are the “quintessence of what is popularly called Swiss typography.”[73] In his 1967 book Typographie, Ruder argued that typographic decisions should be purely rational, derived from a set of absolute rules. He insisted that “the typographer is not free” and that “wilful individuality and emotion have little place in his work.”[74] For Ruder, the practice of typography was the application of a set of principals against the background of a specific technological circumstance.

Otl Aicher’s typographic theories, fully expressed in the 1988 book Typographie, are not so tightly contained. His philosophy is founded upon a freewheeling tour which encompasses everything from hieroglyphs and doodles to the impact of the information society. One of the founders of the Hochschule für Gestaltung at Ulm, Aicher developed a body of thinking about principles of communication which was been very influential, particularly within German typographic education. Incomparable in scope to Tschichold’s or Ruder’s contained sets of principles, Aicher did share a determination to discover the rules which govern typographic practice with those writers.[75] Writing in the late 1980s, Aicher acknowledges that rules might be “social and cultural” as well as “natural”. Defining rules along Wittgensteinian lines, he develops the thesis that typographic rules mirror those of language.[76] In practice these rules often seem to be based on little more than assumed self-evident truth, but this appears not to impose limits upon Aicher’s ambition: to develop a set of all-embracing principles to guide typographic practice.

Aicher was not unique in his formulation of an all-encompassing design philosophy. Thinking along similar lines was his contemporary Adrian Frutiger. Frutiger published his principles eight years earlier than Aicher in the book Type Sign Symbol, and like Aicher he refers to the earliest known forms of written communication in his wide-ranging account of his own practice. Frutiger was the designer of the sans serif face Univers and his book offers a justification of the face written by Emil Ruder. The ambition of the Univers family was to offer a “complete system” that would cover every printing job.[77] Underlying Frutiger’s philosophy is the belief that problems of communication are, in an absolute sense, soluble. His cross-historical survey amounts to an extended defence of his design for the signage system of Charles de Gaulle airport.[78]

A contemporary of Aicher and Frutiger was Hermann Zapf. Although he was somewhat different in outlook to the modernists, Zapf also backed up his practice with principles in articles and lectures, and his thoughts were collected in a single volume, Hermann Zapf and his Design Philosophy, published in 1987. Coming from a background of calligraphy, Zapf’s work is based on explorations of historical letterform. In spite of its title, the book does not amount to a single coherent philosophy but a set of musings upon the letterform, encompassing issues such as design and the new technology, design and copyright and also paying homage to certain individuals.

Zapf’s approach is connoisseurial, and bears the hallmark of the writings of those involved in the typographic revival earlier in the century. He manages to absorb the typography of the modernists, which he calls the “Bauhaus style”[79], into long running historical accounts, as simply another historical style. Zapf’s aim could be summarised as the defence of calligraphy as a noble yet relevant art.[80] His references are rarified, yet in many ways he had a much greater presence in the commercial world than other designers like Aicher and Frutiger whose explicit aim was to deal with problems of everyday communication. He designed a very large number of typefaces for a wide range of typesetting technologies[81] and also occupied influential positions in commercial companies such as consultant to Hallmark cards.

That Zapf’s thoughts on design were collected and published is a testament to his celebrity. The emergence of the design celebrity could probably be dated to the early twentieth-century, but it has definitely become increasingly important as the century has progressed. Increasingly individuals are given room in publications and in lecture theatres to offer thoughts upon their designs.

At the same time as these high profile individuals were promoting their design philosophies, others were, for the first time, taking a critical look at those who made early attempts to establish the principles of modern typographic practice. In the late 1960s Herbert Spencer, already mentioned as the author of the account of legibility Visible Word, offered a ground-breaking account of the early twentieth-century movement toward modern typography. In his book Pioneers of Modern Typography, published in 1969, he concurred with Tschichold’s own suggestions that it was artists, rather than those involved in the trade of printing, who were chiefly responsible for development of modern typographic practice.[82] Spencer kept quite separate the practical research behind the Visible Word and the more art historical enquiry of Pioneers of Modern Typography. Robin Kinross has argued that this separation “obstructed chances of fruitful interplay between simple printing and aesthetic experiment.”[83] That aside, what is significant about Spencer’s Pioneers is that it is the first attempt to offer a serious, culturally grounded critical assessment of the subject of typography. Writing as an academic at the Royal College of Art, Spencer is not aiming to justify commercial practice. The motives of Spencer’s account were very different from those that had preceded it, and also from those of most that came after.

Professional associations and corporate histories

In the mid 1950s several companies with an interest in type grouped together to form the Association Typographique Internationale. The purpose of the Association, known as ATypI, was to campaign for better copyright protection for typefaces. While its policy document suggested that it should also play an educational role, this was recognised as secondary.[84] But, even though in its early days it placed little emphasis on education, it became an important force in determining opinion about type. In its function as a lobbying force, and later as the author of a moral code when it recognised its suggestions were unlikely to become law, the ATypI was required to determine what would count as an original typeface. Arriving at such a definition was not a matter of immediate consensus: for example questions were raised as to whether Futura could be deemed original, the suggestion being that it was based on Johnston’s lettering for the Underground.[85] However the eventual drafting of the code in the 1960s represented a significant effort by those involved in the design and distribution of type to fix the limits of their business.

The campaign for copyright protection was a response to the introduction of photo-typesetting, which induced a fear that typefaces would become easier to pirate than ever before. One of the outcomes of the new technology was to lessen the clout of the established foundries and manufacturers of typesetting machines that largely controlled ATypI. This effectively rendered its moral code powerless soon after it was launched in the late 1960s. An important new force in the type business at around this time was the American company, the International Type Corporation, a distributor of typeface art-work which could be adapted for use on a variety of typesetting systems. One of the founders of ITC, Aaron Burns had been in touch with ATypI since the early 1960s, hoping to expand the Association’s educative role. Burns was rebuffed by the founders of ATypI, who appeared at that point to see no value in information about type escaping the boundaries of their professional community.[86]

Later in his role as founder of ITC, Burns pursued his educational aims, most importantly through the ITC journal, U&lc. This journal was intrinsic to ITC’s marketing strategy, as well as showing specimens of new faces, it published short articles offering contemporary and historical information about type. This was not unprecedented – type specimens often contained historical information – but the journalistic tone of U&lc and its accessible format were very new. This approach to writing about type spilled over from explicitly commercial publications into the design journals, such the American magazine, Print. The U&lc model has become the standard form of writing about type design in the English language, and the boundaries between the history and criticism of type and the marketing of the product have become extremely blurred.


In the 1970s, while ITC became a huge commercial success, other more traditional type-firms found themselves struggling. Monotype, whose fortunes were based on hot metal typesetting did not fare well in this period. Lack of profit led the company to cease publication of the Monotype Recorder, which had become its vehicle for information about type and type technology. The Recorder re-emerged in the late 1970s, but it had become preoccupied with documenting the rapid and bewildering changes in typesetting technology that were occurring in the period. Issues of the new series Monotype Recorder of the late 1970s and early 1980s are ugly to look at and mostly filled with dull accounts of soon to be redundant technologies. Over this post-war period, Monotype began to lose its authority over typographic opinion.

The designer monograph

A good deal of writing on typography and type design since the Second World War has taken the form of monographs of significant figures. Both traditionalist designers and modernists have been deemed worthy objects of one man studies. In 1971 the London-based firm Lund Humphries published James Moran’s assessment of the life and work of Stanley Morison; four years later the same publisher released Ruari McLean’s account of Jan Tschichold. These accounts tend to come from those who are heavily involved in the trade, written more often than not by a close acquaintance of the designer in question. Typical in this respect is John Dreyfus’s 1952 account of the work of his close friend, and colleague in the ATypI, Jan van Krimpen, which included a foreword by Stanley Morison. This is not to suggest these books are of no value – they offer a great deal to the typographic enthusiast – but their enquiry is definitely limited, placing the work of these men into some kind of historical continuum of design rather than examining them in any kind of broader cultural context. When prominent figures, including William Morris and Eric Gill , have been the object of extensive enquiry these accounts have often proved highly salacious. These designers have been scrutinised as much for their personal lives and their business practices as their design achievements.

As in most other fields of design writing, the concentration upon the individual designer at the expense of cultural context has led to the emergence of a canon in the field of type design. Running through the index of writing on individual type designers at London’s St Bride Printing Library, one finds the same figures reoccurring frequently. Many of these well known figures have already been mentioned in this account, for example Bruce Rogers and Frederick Goudy. Writing upon, as well as practising type design and typography earned them a secure place in the history of the profession.

At the same time as these accounts were being written, the actual manufacture of type was very far from being in the hands of any single figure. Makers of typesetting systems maintained large drawing offices in which people toiled to turn the designs of well-known individuals into workable type. Ironically, as typefaces are increasingly becoming the output of individuals (many designers now complete typefaces to a distributable standard) value is being placed upon the efforts of the army of anonymous contributors to various well known designs.[87] But this reass