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.

About Frank E. Blokland

Frank E. Blokland is type designer (of amongst other typefaces, DTL Documenta and DTL Haarlemmer), Senior Lecturer in type design at the Royal Academy of Arts (KABK) in The Hague since 1987, and Lecturer / Research Fellow at the Plantin Institute of Typography, Antwerp, since 1995. Blokland founded the Dutch Type Library in 1990 and a couple of years later he initiated and supervised the development of DTL FontMaster, a set of professional font tools developed together with the German company URW++. Currently he is finishing a PhD study at Leiden University on standardizations and systematizations in roman and italic type since their Renaissance origin.
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