Behind Every Typeface, a History
It’s easy to imagine the ontological process of a book in broad stages: writing and revision, editing and agent, pitch and publication. Like a layered parfait in a tall, clear glass we might visualize these milestones in clearly delineated blocks, each leading one, sweet step closer to the metaphorical cherry on top.
While it’s useful to understand this trajectory broadly, it also seems important to appreciate the smaller deliberations that populate each major developmental stage. Viewed this way, the path toward publication becomes less like a layered dessert and more like a stratified ocean—magnify even a single drop, and you’ll still find it’s brimming with life.
Every book truly is a team effort; rarely does an author limit their acknowledgements section to a single page. But what of the information that occasionally falls after the acknowledgments section? Those pages that include design information, the publisher's logo, or perhaps even notes on the type? It's this last in which I'm particularly interested.
You won’t find typographic information in every book, but I have come to appreciate it when it’s there. I recently finished reading a novel that outdid itself in this area by including the brief histories of the fonts in which it was printed. From this I learned that the body type, Caslon, was designed by the British typefounder William Caslon in 1734, and that Mittelschrift, used for the book’s headings, was originally designed for use on German road signs and license plates.
1734! German road signs! I loved peering beyond the book, beyond the words, into the history of the letters, these carefully crafted symbols that had travelled such a strange and marvelous trajectory. Like a painting within a painting, I realized the typeface itself carried a vibrant story layered beneath the narrative—lending new weight to my understanding of books as art drawn by several different hands. While as writers we might owe the clarity of our prose to diligent editors, it is to the timeless typefounders that we owe the crisp presentation of our words—rendered “reader friendly,” “clear in any point size,” or “aesthetically appealing,” as various fonts have been described. Seen this way, selecting the appropriate typeface is a notable decision in the development of any published work.
Executive director of the American Academy of Poets Jennifer Benka expressed this very sentiment in the latest issue of Poets & Writers. In honor of the Academy’s eightieth anniversary, Benka recently oversaw the beautiful redesign of the organization’s website, poets.org, which features a newly digitized font designed specifically with poets in mind. “After a months-long process of looking at our history and talking about where we hoped to go in the future, what we wound up with is rooted in typography,” said Benka. “We commissioned a new version of Electra [originally drawn in 1935] for the web...called Poets Electra. So we hope the poems will look absolutely gorgeous to the reader. We want poems online to really reflect that the poem itself is an art object.”
The importance of typography was similarly acknowledged in the March/April issue of The Believer, in which the magazine’s editors responded to an inquiring reader that they did indeed recently switch their font from Bembo to Minion Pro. “Other fonts considered at the time were Centaur, Columbus, Dante, Galliard, Mercury, and Palatino,” wrote the editors. “Minion Pro just had a certain—what do the kids call it?—swag.”
Murmurs on the Internet continue to suggest that the novel is fading, dying, or already dead (this time for real). Yet if a font inspired by the classical, old style typefaces of the late Renaissance can still have “swag,” then surely words as a whole might stay in style for a while yet. One can hope, anyway. In the unpredictable meantime, please remember that Garamond, the font used for Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, first appeared in a 1548 book titled Paraphrasis in Elegantiarum Libros Laurentii Vallae, and that Benjamin Franklin once defended John Baskerville’s famous font against charges that it’s ‘ultra-thin’ serifs and narrow strokes would make blind readers go blind.
Lära Palmquist is the Loft’s marketing and communications intern. Her preferred font is presently Cochin, an old style serif typeface originally produced in 1912 by Georges Peignot for the Paris foundry Deberny & Peignot.