By John Prince
Most of us know what a “font” is. Some call it a “typeface” or “typestyle.” We speak casually of double spaced 12 pt Times Roman for manuscripts. Helvetica for headlines. Script for flourishes and decorations.
But before 1440 (when Gutenburg introduced moveable type to Europe), the “hand” of the monk or scribe would be the deciding factor in the lettering design. Just as handwriting varies with the individual, so the little nuances of the copier’s lettering could be identified.
Spelling was also a variable. Depending on the accent, geographic area and usage, a word might have a dozen different spellings within the same language.
The printing press with moveable type changed all of that.
Individual letters, cut into wood or cast in metal, might bear the “signature” of the original designer, but then be used thousands of times over hundreds of printed pieces. So, the “font” became standardized, as eventually did spellings.
While there are many thousands of fonts available today, some of the earliest type designs—updated for modern uses—remain popular. Caxton, Jensen, Caslon, and Garamond are good examples.
Early moveable type styles emulated the script of the monks, morphing into styles we recognize today such as Old English. Soon though, type evolved with the lettering appearing more like the Roman styles still visible on monuments over 2,000 years old. Today we call these styles “serif” because they have little “feet” or “serifs” that flow along the baselines to guide the reader’s eye across the page.
Type is still evolving. Go back to a book or pamphlet printed prior to about 1900 and you may find words such as “neceffary,” “fhewing,” or “ftretch,” instead of the more contemporary “necessary,” “chewing,” and “stretch.” Generally known as “ligatures,” these characters apparently sped up the process of handsetting the type by allowing two characters to be replaced by one. Mechanical typesetting spelled the end of ligatures except in a few specialized cases.
Word processors have replaced typewriters (except for a few diehards), but many of the same limitations apply. The word processor can access many more fonts and automatically justify the lines. But line spacing (single, double), kerning (space between letters), and font size have some constraints. The constraints are certainly acceptable in manuscripts, but may not be acceptable for a printed book. In these cases publishing software which allows extreme fine tuning in both vertical and horizontal spacing, font size and line length may be needed.
A question often asked: “Why is 12 point Garamond smaller than, say, 12 point Times Roman?
The answer goes back almost 500 years.
Metal type is measured on the size of the slug or metal piece that carries the single letter—not on the size of the letter. Thus, the slug might be 12 points high, but the letter on the slug only 10 points high. But the type size is determined by the height of the slug, not the letter. Even though you’d be hard pressed to find metal type these days, the digital world still follows the old rules, particularly when it comes to the “original” moveable type fonts.
Fonts today play an integral part in designing almost anything visual. Designers ponder over thousands of variables and choices. Fonts have “personality” and “gender.” Imagine a fashion show headline in Aachen or Old English. Or a cowboy movie title in Wedding Script.
Generally speaking, Serif faces are easier to read on paper (reflective) while sans serif faces are easier to read on monitors (backlit). That’s why most books use serif fonts for the text.
There is a lot to know about type/fonts/typefaces and how they developed.
Click here to download a free PDF of our e-book, Which Type Are You? You’ll find all sorts (that’s a typesetting phrase!) of information and tips on typography.
Enjoy and send your comments.