4.1 Notes on writing as a basis for type design

Writing with a broad nib or flat brush, and with a flexible pointed pen will help a starting type designer to gain more insight into the construction of type. After all, type is a formalized and fixed form of writing, as Gerrit Noordzij states in The stroke, theory of writing (London, 2005), when he describes typography as ‘writing with prefabricated letters’. Writing took a central place in Noordzij’s lectures at the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in The Hague from 1970 to 1990. ‘The way to typedesign via handwriting seems to be unduly long and troublesome at first sight, but very soon complicated and subtle matters become clear and enormous progress is made. Convention is no longer a restricting fence but a vast territory’, as Noordzij writes in A program for teaching letterforms in Dossier A-Z 73 (1973).

Formalized Humanistic minuscule written with fllat brush by Blokland

The importance of (knowledge of) writing for the designing of type has been always shared by many in the field. Stanley Morison wrote already in 1926 (criticizing contemporary type designs in France) in Type designs of the past and present: ‘[…] because they are letters built up by artists who prefer to do all the work rather than let their pen help them—so essential is it to remember that the letters we use are conventions which have grown out of the very nature of the pen stroke.’ On the same page Morison concludes: ‘To-day education is broadcast and nobody bothers to write with a pen.

The design of the a in five (assembly) steps as applied in Blokland’s Archetype

No doubt Morison was influenced by Edward Johnston, who advertised penmanship as basis for the understanding of letterforms for those involved in book production: ‘[…] – even if they “cannot do” their writing “in the old way” – may profit by a study of the methods and principles of that penmanship on which their art is founded’ (from Formal Penmanship and other papers [London, 1971]).

Enlarged detail of Humanistic minuscule (Italy, 15th century; Museum Meermanno col.)

Johnston’s Foundational hand, which finds its origin in late-mediæval hands, plays an important role in type education. For instance Gerrit Noordzij used his own variant of the Foundational hand for his lessons at the KABK, and I use mine there. One has to realize though that the Foundational hand and all related models are interpretations, which were defined long after the invention of movable type. Also Johnston’s model is an enlargement, which requires a more detailed description, i.e. standardization, than the original late-mediæval and Renaissance small-sized hands. Actually Johnston used a ‘lettermodel’ for standardizing, as can been seen on pictures of his blackboard demonstrations from 1930 and 1931. In the image below the model can be found beneath ‘abc’.

Edward Johnston’s ‘Foundational Hand’ and related ‘lettermodel’ on a blackboard

The written textura quadrata that Gutenberg translated into movable type was already very much standardized. For me there is no doubt about the fact that the written textura was the most perfect model for justifying and casting, because it made standardization of widths possible. It is hard to believe that it was pure coincidence that movable type was firstly made from this model. And the more I measure Renaissance type, the more I am convinced that roman type was cast with the same scheme as was used for casting textura type in mind (see: 3.3.1 Notes on patterns and grids). Not only for making casting easier, but also to control the harmonics of the design.

Handwritten breviary (Dutch, midst 15th century; Museum Meermanno col.)

So, the question is, whether the present-day writing models, which are related to the Foundational hand and used in education to prove that roman roman type finds it origin in the patterns and structures of writing, actually show a standardization that was the result of the production process of the archetypes by Nicolas Jenson and Francesco Griffo. If this turns out to be the case, then the writing models are used for circular logic.

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4.2 The LeMo Method

(under construction)

As described in the introduction, the underlying hypothesis for this reserach is that Gutenberg and consorts developed a standardized and unitized system for ‘designing’ and casting Textura type, and that this system was extrapolated for roman (and later italic) type. Humanistic handwriting was literally molded into pre-fixed standardized proportions.

To do still

Pilot Parallel Pen 6 mm

In line with my predecessor and tutor at the KABK, Gerrit Noordzij, I consider writing a good starting point for exploring matters like construction, contrast-sort, contrast-flow, and contrast. Translating handwriting into type is not very straightforward though. Despite the fact that they are trained to work directly from their own writings, students often start to define grids before drawing letters. And usually they look at existing typefaces for the ‘correct’ proportions. Obviously patterning is a requirement for designing type and it is difficult to distill these patterns from handwriting. Could it be possible that type also find its origin in patterning besides in writing, and that this even influenced writing after the invention of movable type?

To do still

To do still

There seems to be no Humanistic handwriting predating movable type that shows such a clear standardization as roman type. My measurements of incunabula seem to prove that character widths were standardized during the Renaissance. The written Textura Quadrata made it relatively easy for Gutenberg and consorts to standardize and systematize their movable Gothic type. When this was accomplished, it was obvious to apply the same system to the new roman type (and decades later to italic type). The clear morphological relationship between Textura and Humanistic Minuscule made this possible.

To do still

To do still

The underlying structure of Textura Quadrata and Humanistic Minuscule made an organic standardization of the handwritten models possible. It was there all the time, but it wasn’t necessary to capture it so literally before movable type was produced. Also side bearings were a natural extension of the handwritten model. This standardization is captured in the DTL LetterModel (LeMo) application.

To do still

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Nowadays it is common practice to design characters first and subsequently apply side bearings. It’s quite plausible that during the early days of typography the proportions and widths of the characters were defined first and subsequently the details were adapted to the widths.

To do still

To do still

As mentioned, the step from handwriting to type design is difficult. Even for me as an experienced calligrapher. I set up a calligraphy course for the Dutch television and wrote a book for it end of the 1980s. Noordzij was very positive about it in Letterletter 12 (June 1991): ‘Frank Blokland has succeeded in bringing the literature on calligraphy on a higher level; his book makes better reading and is a more reliable guide than any other book on the subject.’
The question is, how to combine the outcomes of my measurements with calligraphy in type education. Well, one can make a template with LeMo, like this one for a Pilot Parallel Pen 6 mm. In case of a translation over 30º, the stem thickness is pen-width x sin 60º = 0.87. The x-height here is five times the stem thickness; approximating what I measured in Jenson’s type.

To do still

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Next one can use the template for tracing with a broad nib, trying to apply subtle details. The outcome can be auto-traced and converted into a font. As mentioned, spacing is part of the system, so the letters should form words automatically.

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This basis can be used for further formalization and refinement. For digital type it is not necessary to standardize widths, of course. This clearly is different from what IMHO was required in the practice of the Renaissance punch cutter.

To do still

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The past few days I found some spare time to transform the digitized handwritten letters into formal variants, using the original LeMo-based standardization. I tried to maintain the stem-interval and manipulated especially the lengths of the serifs to get an equilibrium of white space. This way for instance the n is measurably centered on its width; this preserves the equal distances between all stems. I believe that Jenson for this reason applied asymmetrical serifs to for instance the n. The o looks round, but is an ellipse and as wide as its handwritten origin.

To do still

To do still

For typesetting foundry type –specifically for the justification of lines– it is nice if the width of characters and spaces are defined in units. I applied here the most simple system, using the stem-thickness as value. The original spacing was just rounded to the grid.

To do still

To do still

The original character proportions are preserved here; the fitting becomes a bit tighter, but the word spaces in this case a bit wider (three units). So far in the whole process the character proportions and their widths were generated ‘artificially’.

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Next one can double the grid for refinement.

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And this process can be repeated.

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A more refined grid also makes it possible to redefine the proportions of certain letters onto it. Here one enters the world of Kernagic, so that is another story.

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2.1 Notes on perception

Edward Drinker Cope’s drawing of the Elasmosaurus’ skeleton

         1. Elasmosaurus
In the 19th-century the palaeontologist Edward Drinker Cope reconstructed the skeleton of an Elasmosaurus platyurus, and he erroneously placed the head on the tail. After roughly two decades a colleague discovered the error. The tail turned out to be shorter than the neck, and obviously for Cope this was an unexpected proportional relationship between the two body parts. Cope (inadvertently?) manipulated the drawing of the skeleton (above) by not including the back (actually front) paddles.

An erroneous/outdated interpretation of the dinosaurs’ world from 1869 by Edward Drinker Cope

The moral of Cope’s mistake is that the power of the human eye is purely relative to the anatomy of the things perceived. In Art and Illusion (Oxford, 1987) Gombrich notes on this phenomenon: ‘The stimulus patterns on the retina are not alone in determining our picture of the visual world. Its messages are modified by what we know about the “real” shape of objects’. David Kindersley defined in Optical letter spacing (London, 1976) the matter simpler as: ‘It is a commonplace that we see only what we know […]’.

        2. Van Meegeren Aspect
An example of how the perception of the past changes, and to which extent this relies on the available information, is formed by the forgeries in the styles of Johannes Vermeer and Frans Hals, which were painted by Han van Meegeren (1889–1947) in the first half of the twentieth century. Van Meegeren cleverly took revenge on the experts, who to his opinion did not take his work seriously enough. He provided the market with ‘Vermeers’ in Caravaggio’s style, which –according to the experts– Vermeer had made in his younger years and which had to that moment to be discovered still. So, Van Meegeren provided what the experts wanted to see, this way emphasizing their expertise. Basically he dazzled them in such a way that they did not see through his forgeries.

Han van Meegeren in front of one of his ‘old masters’

The forgeries Van Meegeren made in the 1930s and 1940s prove that in that period the work of especially Vermeer was perceived differently than it is nowadays. It is difficult for twenty-first century connoisseurs to consider De Emmaüsgangers (see image below) a genuine Vermeer, because it lacks the finesses now associated with the seventeenth-century master. Since Van Meegeren’s forgeries, many studies on Vermeer have been made and subsequently more information has become available. The ‘Vermeers’ by Van Meegeren are for us very much 1930-like, because decades later the style of the paintings reveals characteristics of that time. I have labeled this effect of contemporary influences on one’s view of the past the Van Meegeren Aspect.

De Emmaüsgangers by Van Meegeren (ca. 1935–1937)

The Van Meegeren Aspect is also applicable on revivals of typefaces. The historic interpretations that for instance the Monotype Corporation made of types by Francesco Griffo (released under the names Bembo and Poliphilus), Claude Garamont, and John Baskerville (released as Garamond and Baskerville) are typical for the way type from respectively the Italian and French Renaissance, and the Classicism was perceived in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Griffo’s type from De Aetna (1495) and (the digital) Monotype Bembo Book

The image above shows an enlargement of Griffo’s type for De Aetna (top) from around 1495, and the digital version of Monotype’s Bembo (originally from 1929) at the bottom. The revival differs considerably from the original. In general the letters diverge in the details, but this seems inevitable because in the original printed type the recurrently used letters also differ from each other, if only because of the squashes (the halo effect around the edges of the letters as result of letterpress).
        But there are major deviations; for instance the weight in the arch of the n is reduced and the contrast-flow has been changed, which results in a different, less ‘Romanesque’, counter. The most obvious and hard to explain deviation however, is the bending of the second stem of the n. The original movable-type n has two basically straight stems and only the h has a curved second stem, like was common in Latin book-hand minuscules. However, the curvature in the stem of the n of Monotype’s Bembo is nowadays considered to be typical for the typeface, and some people might even think that this is typical for Italian Renaissance roman type too.

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1.1.1 Notes on systems and models

The purpose of the systems and models I defined during my research, is to map the aspects and elements that together determine the shapes and consistency of the graphemes in use for representing the Latin script, i.e. the letters and characters, and the way they interact. So, the subdivision of scripts into the systems and models, as shown in the diagram below, is specifically meant to illustrate the Latin script, although (parts of) the subdivision might be applicable for other scripts too. However, this is beyond the scope of my research.

Please note that the classification used here seems to clash in some cases with the traditional, actually rather coarse, nomenclature used in the practices of the calligrapher, type designer, and typographer. For instance the term ‘roman type’ comprises both the capitals and the lower case letters. The term ‘textura type’ comprises both the majuscules and minuscules. But this clash of classifications simply marks the difference between science and the general workfloor; for a detailed description of the underlying patterns and structures of letters, and subsequently typography, a more refined indexing is required.

Block diagram showing (the relation between) scripts and derived systems and models

Scripts form the apex of a system that comprises writing systems, graphemes, grapheme systems, harmonic systems (which can be subdivided in harmonic models), relational systems, proportional systems (which can be subdivided in proportional models), and rhythmic systems. Scripts can be related, like for instance the Cyrillic script shares elements of the Latin and Greek scripts.

Writing system is the orthographic term for a collection of graphemes, and the subsequent rules required to represent one or more (by definition related) languages. Translated into typographic terms, a writing system contains glyphs, which are formalized and fixed (fixed as synonym for incised or engraved) language(s)-specific graphemes.

Graphemes are the units that make up a writing system. They are basically in general the graphical equivalents of phonemes, i.e. the basic units of spoken language. Graphemes comprise letters, syllables, characters, numerals, and punctuation marks (of which there are no equivalents in speech). One can consider this collection as a container with all variants of all informal and formal grapheme-variants, i.e. grapheme systems, used or in use for a writing system, such as for instance capital, uncial, textura, rotunda, Humanistic minuskel, roman type, italic type, fraktur, et cetera.

Graphemes in their written form are by definition modular, because they are the results of the recurrent appliance of relatively restricted movements made with a certain writing tool. In their typographic form graphemes show the same modularity as a result of the transformation of the handwritten forms to formal variants. The extent to which graphemes form coherent groups depends on how consistent these movements are. For instance some graphemes can be made (unintentionally) smaller or wider than other ones, which will result to some extent in an obstruction the rhythm.

Grapheme systems are collections of graphemes which share general constructional aspects. The combined graphemes don’t necessarily have to share the same morphological background; they can be ‘glued’ together by design, i.e. the tweaking of details (see: harmonic models below). The combination of graphemes with different morphologic origins in a grapheme system can for instance be the result of an evolutionary process, but also of the direct interference by scholars, like Alcuin of York’s influence on the shaping of the Carolingian minuscule.
In the Greek and Latin scripts the core of every grapheme system is formed by the alphabet.

The grapheme systems, either calligraphic or typographic, in use for representing the Latin script since the invention of movable type are capital, uncial, book-hand minuscule, and cursive minuscule. Each grapheme system comprises variants, i.e. harmonic systems, which are often the result of evolutionary processes. These variants share the same overall morphology, but their details are different, like for instance inscribed, written, and typographical variants mutually differ.

It has to be noted here that the role of the grapheme system uncial has been relatively small, and its present-day use is restricted to Gaelic, the Celtic language of which exist Irish and Scottish variants.

Harmonic systems are formed by specific variants of grapheme systems. Being subdivisions of grapheme systems, harmonic systems by definition share the same basic structure, but differ in proportions and/or details. For instance the grapheme system Latin capital comprises the harmonic systems Roman imperial capitals and roman type capitals. These two harmonic systems differ in proportions and details, like the form of the serifs, but they share the same basic structure. Also the written Renaissance capitals incorporated in the Humanistic minuscule form a separate harmonic system within the grapheme system capital, because they differ in details from for instance the lapidary and typographic capitals. Still, the written capitals share the same morphology as the regularized and formalized variants. Greek capitals are part of a different grapheme system, due to their different forms.

The same subdivision as for the grapheme system capitals can be made for the grapheme system book-hand minuscules. The minuscules of texture (type), rotunda (type), Humanistic minuscule, and the lower case part of roman type are harmonic systems within this grapheme system. The minuscules of bastarda, schwabacher, fractur, Humanistic cursive, and cursive type form different harmonic systems, which are all part of the grapheme system cursive minuscule.

Harmonic models are subdivisions of harmonic systems based on the morphological origin of the graphemes combined. The consistency of a harmonic system depends on the number of harmonic models it comprises. For instance the lower case of roman type contains two harmonic models. There is a primary, i.e. dominant, one for all letters with exception of the k, s, and the v–z range. The letters which are part of the primary harmonic model are all constructed with the same basic elements. The exceptions form the secondary harmonic model; these letters have a different morphological background, because they find their origin in the grapheme system capitals.

Relational systems comprise the (relative) boldness or weight, and amount of contrast in the graphemes. In terms of the broad nib it describes the relation between the nib-width and the x-height, and the relation between the nib-width and nib-thickness.

Proportional systems describe the relationship between the x-height and the width of the graphemes. It also describes the relationship between the size of the x-height and the lengths of the ascenders and descenders. These aspects are captured in the proportional models (see below). Proportional systems also can comprise cross-grapheme system information, such as the relation between the proportions of the minuscules of a book-hand and the accompanying capitals (or majuscules, if applicable). These aspects are captured in dynamic em-squares (see also: 3.3.1 Notes on patterns and grids).

Proportional models define the degree of compression or expansion in the primary harmonic models. There can be more than one proportional model in a harmonic model, which theoretically indicates that there is an inconsistency in the construction (read: design). In that case there is a usually a primary, i.e. dominant, proportional model and a secondary one.

Rhythmic systems define the intervals of stems and the relation between the counters and the space between the graphemes, i.e. the spacing (fitting). This implies for instance that a change in the proportional system will lead to an increase or decrease of the spacing because it will change the rhythmic system. Irrespective the number of proportional systems there can only be one rhythmic system in a harmonic system, otherwise the spacing will result in separated, i.e. isolated, groups of graphemes.

All systems directly interact, and influence each other. The appliance of multiple proportional systems will for instance result in differently sized counters, and subsequently will by definition obstruct the rhythmic system.

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3.3.1 Notes on patterns and grids

The Romain du Roi is not the first unique example of the appliance of relatively extensive grids in the world of punch cutting. I emphasize ‘punch cutting’ here, because the Renaissance attempts to capture the construction and proportions of the inscribed Roman imperial capitals from the first century into geometric models, like Dürer’s, were made by artists, scholars and calligraphers. For instance Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) was an artist, and Fra Luca de Pacioli (1446/7–1517), who published a section on the ‘true’ shapes and proportions of classical Roman letters in his De Devina Proportione (‘About [the] Devine Proportion’, i.e. the golden section) from 1509 was a mathematical scholar. Giambattista Palatino, who was a calligrapher, also made geometrical representations of the Roman imperial capitals.

Moxon’s 42-line grid (based on his units)

Grids were applied on type before the RdR, as Moxon for instance shows in his Mechanick Exercises (actually indirectly; I had to draw the lines myself based on his units –see image above). I don’t believe that the 42-unit grid shown in this book or the 36-units grids from the Regulae Trium Ordinum Litterarum Typographic Arum were standards though. The fact that I could apply a 42-unit grid on Van den Keere’s Gros Canon Romain (see next image) could be considered a coincidence. But if my theory is correct, any natural division into any number of units could be made, using a simple system, which I describe below.

Van den Keere’s Gros Canon Romain on a 42-line grid

How were these divisions into (a number of) units, i.e. grids, made by the historic punch cutters? Is there for instance a clear relation between the units and the vertical and horizontal proportions of the letters? Is the vertical division of the body into seven parts by both Moxon and Fournier for instance related to the horizontal proportions of the letters? In other words, were the grids artificial, i.e. defined first, after which the letterforms were adjusted to the grid, or were the grids organic, i.e. derived from the proportions of the letters?

Fournier’s Manuel Typographique has become a major source of information on the practice of the punch cutter, and besides Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises there seems not to be much more published on the production of movable type. The dialogue on Calligraphy & Printing, which is attributed to Christopher Plantin (translated by Ray Nash [Antwerp, 1964]) does not provide much info on punch cutting. Fournier was certainly a trained punch cutter, but that does not imply by definition that he knew all the rules and tricks that were applied earlier in the trade.

Pictures & Things
Letters are things, not pictures of things’ is a famous quote by Eric Gill from his Autobiography. Nevertheless, in his An essay on typography Gill basically provides most info on the shapes of letters by using pictures with captions like ‘[…] normal forms; the remainder shows various exaggerations; […] common form of vulgarity; […] common misconceptions […]’. Any basic information on the underlying structures and patterns is missing. This is in line with the way type seems to have been treated since the establishment of typography in Renaissance Italy. The letter shapes (and their proportions) of the Italian Renaissance punch cutters were copied by their French Renaissance successors, and their work formed the basis for the Dutch letter forms from the Baroque. This leads to one of the questions for which my PhD research is meant to provide an answer:

Could it be possible that somewhere during the development of type the knowledge of initial regularizations, standardizations, and unitizations was lost, and that subsequently letters became pictures of things instead of things?

For answering this question, information has to be distilled from historical material, such as prints, punches and matrices. To some extent making assumptions is inevitable and this makes this research also somewhat controversial. And not everyone in the fields of type design and typography likes the idea that the ruling of the ‘eye’ is merely the result of a conditioning based on formalized sets of graphemes.
The models define the rules and their shaping is the result of culturally influenced ideas about harmony and rhythm, and subsequently of beauty. As the graphemes worldwide in use to represent the different scripts prove, ideas of what is harmonically and rhythmically balanced, clearly differ –as those who work on ‘global fonts’ probably will acknowledge.

The Harmonics of Type
To be able to describe the (possible) unitization, i.e. the applied grids, first I will have to summarize here the factors that are crucial for defining the harmonics of type. In 1.1.1 Notes on systems and models I further elaborate on this subject.
1.The relation between the proportions of the letters within harmonic systems (for instance the capitals in roman and italic type, roman-lowercase, and italic-lowercase), and the required adjustments of these proportions to make these different harmonic systems work together.
2. The relation between the horizontal and vertical proportions within and between the harmonic models that form the harmonic systems, i.e. the proportional systems.
3. The relation between the proportions within the harmonic models, and their rhythmic system, i.e. their fitting.
4. The translation of the rhythmic system into a grid.

I will keep this description as short as possible; it is absolutely not my intention (nor am I allowed) to publish my dissertation here, or to reveal all the outcomes of my research. So, I just give a very compact summary of some of my ideas. At the end of this post I will discuss whether it is possible to distill a grid from an existing (digital) typeface, which has proportions related to the ‘archetypes-model’ and give some info on ‘rhythmic’ fitting (as opposed to ‘optical’ spacing).

1. The proportions of the letters
There is no discussion possible about the fact that written letters were initially standardized and eventually formalized by the invention of movable type in the Renaissance. I can come up with numerous quotations here, but I restrict myself to Edward Johnston (Heather Child ed.) in Formal Penmanship and other papers (London, 1971): ‘The first printers’ types were naturally an inevitably the more formalized, or materialized, letter of the writer’, to Robert Bringhurst in The Elements of Typographic Style (Vancouver, 1996): ‘The original purpose of type was simply copying. The job of typographer was to imitate the scribal hand in a form that permitted exact and fast replication.’, and to Stanley Morison in Type designs of the past and present (London, 1926): ‘Handwriting is, of course, the immediate forerunner of printing, and some knowledge of its history is essential to any sound understanding of typography.’

The idea that the Humanistic minuscule was ‘simply’ transferred to movable type, i.e. that it was an imitation of the scribal hand, is in my opinion a gross simplification. The technical implications of the translation of the Humanistic minuscule, and the related design issues must have been complex. I am actually anxious to see the first written Italian Renaissance pages that show such a clear definition of proportional and rhythmic systems that I could distill from Renaissance roman type –so far I haven’t.
One also has to realize that the first punch cutters were engravers and gold smiths, and either they must have made numerous trial punches for (defining) roman type, or they must have been so clever to standardize proportions and widths prior to cutting.

Geometric construction of the ‘lettermodel’

Based on my research I strongly believe that for the formalization and standardization of written letters, Jenson (in contrast with his colleagues Sweynheym and Pannartz and the Da Spira brothers) provided a structure for the relation of the proportions of the letters. And there seem to be ample evidence that the Jenson and later on Griffo used the ‘primary’ (geometric) model for the roman (see illustration above), which forms the basis for the LetterModeller application.

Van den Keere’s Parangon Romain and the ‘lettermodel’

The ‘n b c’ illustration shows the proportions of a couple of letters of Hendrik van den Keere’s Parangon Romain placed on the related ‘primary’ Harmonic model. The same relation between the proportions of the letters can be found in Garamont’s Parangon Romain, of which the proportions can be traced back to Griffo’s and subsequently Jenson’s roman type.

Two different proportional models

Typefaces can be based on a single proportional model, i.e. within the harmonic model there is only one value used for the horizontal stretching, like in Van den Keere’s Parangon Romain, or contain multiple proportional models, like Van den Keere’s Canon Romain (see below). Multiple proportional models especially seem to appear in the larger point sizes during the French Renaissance.

Hendrik van den Keere’s Canon Romain

An another example of multiple proportional models is the condensed m, like can be found in Caslon’s Two Lines Great Primer (see image below), and of which I have the impression that it only was used for display purposes before the seventeenth century. In the Italian and French Renaissance text types the shape and proportions of the m seem to have been based always on ‘twice’ an n  and the relatively condensed m seems to appear in text sizes in the seventeenth century also.

Caslon’s Two Lines Great Primer shows a condensed m

2. The relation between the horizontal and vertical proportions
In the design process, after defining the proportions within the x-height, i.e. proportional model(s), using the primary harmonic model (phm), the next step is to establish the relation between the x-height and the length of the ascenders and descenders. This can be done by defining the (e)m-square like I measured in the archetypes (see also: 3.1.1 Notes on the origin of em- and en-square).

Standardization of horizontal and vertical proportions in Jenson’s roman type

The hierarchical relation between the size of the counters, i.e. the space in the letters, and the length of the ascenders and descenders is catched in this (e)m-square model. Widening the m results in a relatively smaller x-height, and condensing the m in a larger x-height. The proportional model can be used here to define the width of the m, and thus the proportions of the (e)m-square.

Dynamic (e)n- and (e)m-squares used to define all vertical proportions

The relation between the height of the capitals and the (e)m square and the actual lengths of the ascenders and descenders can be calculated using the n-square (see images above and below).

The horizontal and vertical proportions of Garamont’s Parangon Romain

The relation between the horizontal proportions of the (e)m-square and the widths of the capitals, like those of Garamont’s Parangon Romain (see image above), can be defined also using the m (or twice the n in case the m is relatively condensed, like in Caslon’s Two Lines Great Primer).

The capitals of Adobe Jenson placed on a n-based fence

The horizontal proportions of the capitals applied in the archetypes were based on the widths of the m’s. Also the spacing of the capitals in the roman types of Jenson, Griffo, and Garamont was directly based on this system. Hence, the n, which was used twice to make the m, formed the bases for a dynamical system in which the proportions of both lower case and capital letters could be captured. Because all the measures were based on the same system, changing one parameter –either horizontally or vertically– changed automatically all other parameters.

3. The relation between the harmonic system and the rhythmic system

Morphological relationships

The modulation from the written textura to Humanistic minuscule is not more than a matter of reversing the process of condensing and curve-flattening in combination with an increase in weight (see illustration above), which took place in the second half of the middle ages. This process transformed the Carolingian minuscule into the textura. B.L. Ullman writes on this in The origin and development of humanistic script (Rome, 1974): ‘This Carolingian script reached its finest flower in the ninth century, then gradually decayed. By the thirteenth century its transformation into Gothic was complete. The characteristics of Gothic are lateral compression, angularity, and what I have called fusion, the overlapping of rounded letter.’
The transition from textura type to roman type is in the literature on type and typography mostly described as a matter of taste and preferences. Stanley Morison states in Type designs of the past and present: ‘In Italy the gothic letter, though richly and magnificently used, soon began to show traces of influence exerted by the small round letter favoured by the humanistic scholars who thronged the courts and universities.’ As mentioned above, the technical consequences of the transition from textura type to roman type for the punch cutters and especially the casters, seem to have been ignored completely in literature.

The fitting of textura type is basically fairly simple because of the vertical stressing of the letters. The vertical strokes can be placed at equal distances, i.e. stem intervals, and hence the space between the strokes, and subsequently the side bearings, is also in almost all cases equal, as the following illustration shows.

Simple translation of the stem-interval into side bearings

The morphology is in basis the same for textura type and roman type, hence the round parts in roman type can be considered as overshoots of the straight strokes. Defining the side bearings for roman type can therefore be done in the same way as for textura type (see below). It is not impossible that Nicolas  Jenson applied the fitting structure for textura type directly on his roman type. The illustration below seems to prove the appliance of this fencing-method by Jenson.

Translation of the fitting method for textura type to roman type

The grids as shown in the previous two illustrations, are based on the division of the counter of the n into two equal space parts, i.e. the line is drawn exactly in between the stems of the n. This division comes forth from the design itself and the fact that the other letters belong to the same proportional system make it possible to generate a simple unit arrangement system, in which the i is placed on one unit, the n, h, u and o on two units,  and the m on three units.

The division of the width of the n into units

The incorporation of other letters in the fitting system, like for instance the s and e, requires a refinement of the grid. For example the resolution of the grid can be doubled, placing the o on four units and providing the three units required for the width of the s. The grid can be doubled again, because for the placement of the right side bearing for the e a further refinement of the grid could be necessary.

The distance from the center of the n to the side bearings is identical to the distance from stem to stem (marked with ‘A’ in the illustration above). The division into finer units does not have to be the result of doubling; the forenamed distance can be divided into any number of units. In case of movable type one can imagine a smaller number for small point sizes, because of technical limitations.

4. The translation of units into a grid
The division of the body into seven parts by Moxon seems to follow the scheme described above. In the illustration below the grid from his engravings in Mechanick Exercises is placed 1:1 on the engraved ‘lower case’ letters. This implies that the size of the ‘seven equal parts’, which he used for the division of the body, was defined by the proportions of the n (and m). Moxon divided the distance from stem to stem into 12 units. One wonders if the developers of the Monotype ‘hot metal’ typesetting machine knew this system. My wild guess is that they actually were aware of it.

Moxon’s engraved grid placed directly on the engraved letters

Also in the type used by Gutenberg for his 42-line bible, I could distill a direct relation between the horizontal and the vertical grid, as the following two illustrations show. These organic grids are size-independent, just like the inorganic em-squares used in CFF (1000 units) and TrueType (2048 units) fonts.

Gutenberg’s textura-grid from his 42-line bible (1455)

The same grid on Gutenberg’s type in vertical direction

Optical and artificial spacing
To optically determine the character width, i.e. the space that ‘belongs’ to the character, (after spacing) an arbitrary side bearing can be drawn in between the characters, like has been done in the illustration below. This results in a distance between the right stem of the left n and the side bearing. By placing the side bearing at the same distance from the right stem of the right n, the character width is defined.

Defining the width of the character n

Theoretically this is enough information for spacing all other letters and characters, because these can be placed optically correctly, i.e. within the defined rhythm, in between a range of n’s. The side bearings of the ‘n’ mark the side bearings of the spaced letters then. To make the fitting easier (if only for combining roman and italic) the second step in the fitting process is normally to optically center the ‘base’ letters. Letters that share (almost) the same forms, like the 0-related curves of the b, d, p and q, can be spaced in an identical way. Therefore it is not necessary to space every character separately, because groups of (partly) form-related letters can be made.

Alternatively the fitting of letters can be done ‘artificially’ by translating the rhythmic system. This can be done by applying a grid on the fenced letters as described above. This actually implies that the letters themselves have to be designed on the fencing rhythm. This results in groups of equal widths, like I found in VdK’s Middelbaar Canon (digitally measured at the Museum Plantin-Moretus, see also: 3.2.1 Notes on standardization).
A fencing rhythm or ‘fence posting’ standardizes the distances between stems. The traditional approach in type design and typography is that the space between the counters of type for text setting is an optical repetition of the space within the counters. However one can question whether the differences in white spaces as the result of ‘fence posting’ can be seen at text sizes and also whether the casters in the past would have been able to apply the subtle differences, which are more visible for the digital type designer who enlarges the letters on a high resolution screen for spacing. And could it be possible that at small sizes the rhythm of stems is more important than the rhythm of white space?

The spacing of the n on a cadens-unit system

I did some test with the refinement of the grid, and also I looked if it was possible to translate the grid that originated from ‘fence posting’ into values for the placement of side bearings for letters that were not designed on groups of equal widths. A division of the width of the n into 36 units was fine enough to space for instance Adobe Garamond. In the image below the first text contains the original fitting by Robert Slimbach and the second one grid the artificial fitting based on the 36 units for the n.

Adobe Garamond with the original fitting (top) and the artificial one

Spacing via cadence-units is an extremely simple and fast method when applied in a font editor. Just put the n-based grid into the background of a character and place the character in such a way that both sides have an identical distance to a line that marks a unit. Subsequently count the the units as listed in the image below. No knowledge of letters or any experience with spacing is required. For the more advanced type designers it could provide a starting point for further refining.

Of course, I have been thinking of computerizing this simple system and in a rudimentary form it is already part of the latest version of LeMo. If everything goes well, further development will result in a small application (‘RhythmicFitter’[?]), which can be used for the fitting of digital fonts then.

Side-bearing distances defined in units

For those who want to apply the system on their roman type, I supply a range of units above. These should work for a 36-unit grid for the n. My idea for the forenamed application is, that the user can define the resolution of the grid and the related units for fitting in a preference file.

Posted in 3.3 Unitization | Comments Off on 3.3.1 Notes on patterns and grids

3.2.2 Notes on the production of movable type

A recurring argument from historians against my theories on the standardization of character widths, i.e. fixed mould registers, is that the sixteenth century punch cutters were often not the justifiers of matrices, nor that they were the casters. In the fifteenth century these parts of the movable type production process were often handled by the same person, but later in history this situation changed. However, with a standardized system for the widths a punch cutter could theoretically control the spacing of his type ‘from a distance’, and hence the quality of the complete production. If the justifier and caster were aware of such a system and the type was based on it, the widths could be simply distilled from the design itself. The simplicity of such a system could be an explanation for the fact that there is no documentation on this matter from the early days of typography.

Van den Keere’s Moyen Canon Romain: short serifs and tightly cast

As we all know, an incorrect spacing can ruin a typeface. The simplest possible method which might have been used by casters that I could reconstruct (based on the cadens-units system, like shown in the header-image of this site), is to take the n as a basis and to put just a little bit space at both sides of the serifs (the length of the serifs being based on the unit arrangement system). The image above shows the short serifs of Van den Keere’s Moyen Canon Romain and the subsequent tight spacing. The resulting width can then be used for a large range of other letters, and other groups of letters can be placed on widths based on parts (ranges of simple units) of the n.

Van den Keere’s Moyen Canon Romain cast on standardized widths

For instance I could distill this from Garamont’s Gros Canon Romain type and the related Moyen Canon Romain from Van den Keere (see photo above) in the inventory of the Museum Plantin-Moretus, which are attributed to the sixteenth century (there is no documentation on the casting of these specific types and the dating is therefore a bit uncertain; I am trying to get the C14 method applied to the alloy, but it seems that there is not enough carbon in it).

18th century 'set patterns' from the inventory of the Museum Plantin-Moretus

A standardized system would basically simplify the cutting of type, would make the justification of the matrices a bit more work, and would simplify again the casting. Using ‘set patterns’, i.e. example letters for the casters (see photo above), like at least was done in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, is required when type is not made anymore on the proportions of the archetypes of Jenson, Griffo and Garamont, in which the curves are treated as overshoots. Type was condensed in the seventeenth and eighteenth century (the ‘goût hollandois’ or ‘Dutch taste’), and in that case a standardization of the widths in the same way is not possible anymore. Then theoretically it makes sense to shift the standardization part to ‘set patterns’, because the punch cutter does not have a fixed standard for his letterforms, so the matrices cannot be justified accordingly, and a set of pre-cast type has to help the caster to set the registers of the mould by placing the pre-cast type in the matrices when defining the widths.

Dynamic em-square distilled from (Adobe) Jenson’s type

I distilled quite some evidence from historic material that proves that a point size independent and dynamic em-square could have been used to control the proportional vertical relationship between x-height, ascenders/descenders and capital height and the width of the characters, which worked for both textura and roman type, was part of the invention of movable type. I could not find an ‘optical’ explanation for the differences between for instance Le Bé’s Double Canon Romain and Van den Keere’s Canon Romain (see images below), but I could place both in the same geometrically based system. Such a system would have made it possible to change one parameter (for instance for the x-height) and all other measures (ascender/descender, capital height) would change accordingly. Because there is a direct relationship between horizontal and vertical values, everything is interconnected in such a system. I have done some experiments with Jenson’s type and I found more simple standardizations.

Le Bé’s Double Canon Romain captured in a dynamic em-square

Van den Keere’s Canon Romain captured in a dynamic em square

The recent developments of font formats reveal that it is mandatory to foresee as much as possible (future) technical requirements and restrictions and to adapt these prior to the release of the formats. Why shouldn’t the inventors of movable type have done the same? They must have been very clever after all as inventors of one of the most groundbreaking technologies in history of mankind. Besides this, Gutenberg, Jenson, Griffo, Garamont, and many other punch cutters were either engravers or goldsmiths from profession, and this makes it quite plausible for me that applying all kinds of standardizations and regularizations was common practice. The old punch cutters are idealized as artists in our time, but first of all they were craftsmen providing industrial products, I reckon.

Garamont’s Gros Canon Romain (top) and Parangon Romain (Adobe Garamond) compared

I fully agree with the idea that ‘the eye’ of the punch cutter could have played an important role too when it comes to defining proportions, and that my models are to some extent speculative. However, when it comes to visual estimations, it is interesting to see for instance the complete different proportions applied by Garamont in his Parangon Romain and in his Gros Canon Romain (see illustration above). Some unexpected ‘optically defined’ proportions show up especially in the larger point sizes of some French Renaissance type. The proportions of the capitals and lower case in the Parangon Romain are more according to modern ideas of ‘beauty’ and ‘balance’ than the large ascenders, descenders, and the enormous capitals of the Gros Canon Romain are. In the latter type Garamont used three times the x-height for the body and two times the x-height for the capitals. The proportions of Le Bé’s Double Canon Romain are more appealing and I could apply the golden section on it. Van den Keere’s Canon Romain is a large sized type of which the proportions are directed completely to the opposite direction (large x-height), but also seem golden section based, as shown above.

Adobe Jenson on a stem-based grid

I show here some of my most recent findings on possible unit-based standardizations in fifteenth century type. The image above shows the letterforms and spacing of Adobe Jenson on a relatively coarse grid. One can imagine that before transferring the design to the punch, the written letters had to be standardized. If a unit equals the pen width under 30 degrees (0.87 of the pen nib), it is not too difficult for a calligrapher to write such letterforms on a grid. Such a grid should be very helpful for the punch cutter when converting the image to the punch, I reckon. The black lines are indicating the character widths, and the grid-based positioning of the side bearings is almost identical to that in Adobe Jenson.

Some critics will perhaps state that the golden section is a romantic nineteenth century illusion. Amongst others, Renaissance Pacioli already mentioned the ‘divine proportion’ in relation to the Roman imperial capitals, but in line with Morison some people I spoke are convinced that these attempts, i.e. this way of thinking had nothing to do with the practice of the early punch cutters. Besides the golden section rectangle, I applied also root rectangles to translate and extrapolate the horizontal proportions in the archetypes into vertical dimensions, but the golden section was so far the only way I could reconstruct the bodies of a range of (famous) historic types.
Let me underline here though, that it is quite possible that the appliance of the golden section by Renaissance punch cutters was not a goal as such, but the result of a search for standardizing proportions within the body in a dynamical manner.

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5.2.1 Notes on standardized casting

On Tuesday 11 January 2011, type was cast directly from the matrices made by Claude Garamont for his Gros Canon Romain and from Hendrik van den Keere’s matrices for his Moyen Canon Romain at the Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp. The purpose of the casting was to test whether the standardization of letter-widths measured in historic foundry type, which seem to prove Frank E. Blokland’s theories about the standardization, regularization, and unitization of Renaissance type, could also be traced back to the original matrices.

Van den Keere’s Moyen Canon Romain, as cast in the 16th century

The casting was done by Guy Hutsebaut of the Museum Plantin-Moretus. Because there were no moulds available which support the body sizes of the Gros Canon Romain and Moyen Canon Romain, the letters were cast on a body which did not exactly fit. For testing the (standardization of the) width of the letters, the used 19th century mould was perfectly suitable though.

16th century matrices, 19th century mould, and 21st centrury cast type

In the movie Guy Hutsebaut shows the adjustment of the mould’s register using a single set pattern (the o) for a whole group of matrices. The set patern came from original sixteenth century foundry type of the Gros Canon Romain from the inventory of the Museum Plantin Moretus. After the final adjustment of the register (using a small hammer) Guy checked the width of the newly cast letter against the original French Renaissance one. After approving the width, Guy cast several other letters from the same group, which –as expected– did not need additional adjustments of their widths.

Comparing set pattern with newly-cast type

Although apparently less refined than the ones from Garamont, the matrices which Van den Keere made with shortened ascenders and descenders could be applied in the same way, i.e. without any adjustments of the register (see image below). Hence the title of this movie: Standardized Casting.

Matrices of the Gros Canon Romain (left) and the Moyen Canon Romain

The background music is the Est-ce Mars by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562–1621), a recording made in 2004 at the Pieterskerk (St. Peters Church) in Leyden on the famous Van Hagerbeer organ from 1643, as part of the DTL Type & Music Project. The organ player is the internationally laureled Leo van Doeselaar. Sweelinck lived in the same time as Van den Keere (ca. 1540–1580) and Christopher Plantin (1520–1589).

Posted in 5. Research, 5.2 Empirical testing | Comments Off on 5.2.1 Notes on standardized casting

6.3 Notes on the parametrization of creative processes

Parametrization of type design processes is a relatively new phenomenon, and the idea is not generally welcomed in a profession that is preferably more associated with art than with craft. In the world of music ‘algorithmic composing’ seems to be applied and accepted on a larger scale. Hence I draw some parallels between the parametrized composing of type and of music here.

For a relatively long time artificial intelligence is used for composing music. An example is the Experiments in Musical Intelligence (EMI) project of David Cope, who is professor emeritus at the University of California. The EMI Project started in 1981 and can be described as a method to come to new compositions via reusing parts of existing pieces of music, i.e. ars combinatoria. This method requires that the EMI program is able to analyze and decipher existing compositions.

Tables of measure-numbers for the musical dice game

EMI refers partly to the Musikalisches Würfelspiel, a dice game in which the die-eyes determine the sequence of prefabricated bars. Irrespective the sequence, the bars always fit and produce a ‘new’ piece of music. The musical dice game was a popular pastime in the eighteenth century and was played by, amongst others, Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. To Mozart, who died in 1791, a book on the musical dice game appropriately titled Musikalisches Würfelspiel, which was published by Nikolaus Simrock in 1792, has been incorrectly attributed. Also other authors and composer were active in this field, like Johann Philip Kirnbirger (1721–1783). David Levy writes in Robots Unlimited (Wellesley, 2006): ‘In the introduction to his book The Ever Ready Composer of Polonaises and Minuets, Kirnberger explained that the readers “will not have to resort to professional composition” but could now compose their own music.

A project like EMI is not welcomed by everyone, because it places mankind’s creative side in a more down to earth perspective. Sometimes negative opinions are adjusted though. The American scientist Douglas Hofstadter, especially famous for his book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (1979), describes in his article Sounds Like Bach his initial demurs concerning computer-generated music: ‘Back when I was young – when I wrote Gödel, Escher, Bach– I asked myself the question “Will a computer program ever write beautiful music?”, and then proceeded to speculate as follows: “There will be no new kinds of beauty turned up for a long time by computer music-composing programs… To think –and I have heard this suggested– that we might soon be able to command a preprogrammed massproduced mail-order twenty-dollar desk-model “music box” to bring forth from its sterile circuitry pieces which Chopin or Bach might have written had they lived longer is a grotesque and shameful misestimation of the depth of the human spirit. […]’. A quarter of a century later Hofstadter played a mazurka generated by the EMI program in the style of Chopin, who he admires: ‘[…] Though I felt there were a few little glitches here and there, I was impressed, for the piece seemed to “express” something. Had I been told it had been written by a human, I would have had no doubts about its expressiveness […]’.

Agnieszka Wesolowska playing artificial Inventions on the harpsichord

My first presentation on the progress of my research at Leiden University on the 11th of June 2008, was illuminated by the harpsichord player Agnieszka Wesolowska, who performed a couple of original Inventions of Bach and a couple of artificial ones produced by EMI.
Prior to her performance I asked Agnieszka via e-mail what she thought of the artificial Inventions. She wrote me: ‘If I wouldn’t know where they come from, I would probably think they were composed by some good craftsman but not the genius. I could not take them as Bach’s pieces for example.’ After Agnieszka had performed a couple of authentic and artificial Inventions on the 11th of June 2008, I asked her to play two more, but I deliberately announced the original one as being artificial and vice versa. When she finished playing the two Inventions I asked the audience which one they preferred. The majority choose the artificial Invention, which I had announced as an authentic one by Bach. A matter of perception…

Experiments in what could be labeled ‘typographical intelligence’ will probably be welcomed with comparable initial skepticism as Cope’s EMI. The idea that type could be designed in an artificial way and books could be completely designed by software, is perhaps an undesired relativization of mankind’s creative powers. To cite Hofstadter from Sounds Like Bach again: ‘[…] I was going to face this paradox straight on; I was going to grapple with this strange program that was threatening to upset the apple cart that held many of my oldest and most deeply cherished beliefs about the sacredness of music, about music being the ultimate inner sanctum of the human spirit, the last thing that would tumble in AI’s headlong rush towards thought, insight, and creativity […]’.

Technically it is quite possible to develop software that creates type and handles typography in ‘AI’s headlong rush towards thought, insight, and creativity’, I reckon.

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Site index

The links below provide direct access to the pages of this blog.

1. Introduction
–1.1 Purpose and goals
—1.1.1 Notes on systems and models
—1.1.2 Notes on the ‘sum of particles’
—1.1.3 Notes on conventions
–1.2 Background
–1.2.1 Notes on lecturing
2. Perception
–2.1 Notes on perception
–2.2 Notes on the mythical ‘eye’
3. Movable type
–3.1 Em- and en-square
—3.1.1 Notes on the origin of (e)m- and (e)n-square
–3.2 Standardization
—3.2.1 Notes on standardization
—3.2.2 Notes on the production of movable type
–3.3 Unitization
—3.3.1 Notes on patterns and grids
4. Education
–4.1 Notes on writing as a basis for type design
5. Research
–5.2 Empirical testing
6. Parametrized type design
–6.1 Notes on the construction of letterforms
–6.2 Notes on the parametrization of type design processes
–6.3 Notes on the parametrization of creative processes

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6.2 Notes on the parametrization of type design processes

My daily work at the Dutch Type Library, as type designer, font producer, and software developer forms a solid basis for the development of my insight. Working not only on my own type designs, but also on the typefaces from the different designers who work for my company, is very valuable, as is the study of historic models for the development of revivals.

Modifications on a home computer (around 1984)

I purchased my first (home) computer, a BBC Electron, in 1983. There was no software available for editing glyphs for this computer, of course. So, although I am definitely not a programmer, I wrote some simple digitizing (vector format), modification, and interpolation software in Basic. The program was named DrawMonkey, and some of the resulting letters (output from a matrix printer) were shown in the 1987 publication 26 letters. Since that time I have become more and more interested in defining and arranging font production processes.

Two pages from '26 letters' designed by Frank E. Blokland (1987)

Since the end of the 1990’s I have been involved as initiator and software architect in the development of DTL FontMaster, a set of batch utilities for the professional font production. The following diagram shows the workflow I defined and built over time (ten years, to be precise) for the production of fonts at the Dutch Type Library. For this workflow, which is based on DTL’s proprietary software, I wrote the command and script files myself, of course.

FontMaster-based workflow for the font production at DTL

After the development of batch-software for the font production the next logical step was to investigate the automation of type design processes. The models I developed over the years already forced me to parametrize parts of the letter-creation process for my students, if only because the digitally trained students more and more tend to see writing with a broad nib and a pointed pen as a remnant of a past era (see also: 4.1 Notes on writing as a basis for type design). It is partly from this experience that I started to investigate the possible standardizations of the ‘font production’ in the Renaissance.

The development of the LetterModeller (LeMo) application, which can be downloaded from this site, was partly the result of this all. It is a primarily a tool for exploring and further developing my theoretical models, but also a tool that can be used for generating (the basic structures for) letters. For my research I have created a monolinear (skeleton) capital font in the IKARUS format, of which the horizontal proportions are related to the width of the m of the primary harmonic model, and which can be modified using LeMo’s parameters.

Concise overview of the two current variants of the ‘Archetype’ font

LeMo was used for the development of the typeface I am developing for my dissertation, named Archetype. The typeface comprises display and text versions, each containing variants based on proportions and details applied in the Renaissance and the Baroque.

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