Quest For the Ideal

Text-Matter Letterforms

By Fred Williams
Editor-Publisher, Type & Press
Published Winter 1978

Selection of an ideal text letterform for fine book composition may appear to be a formidable obstacle for a private pressman. He may be, at first, bewildered by the multitude of faces found in specimen catalogues. But serious study will reveal only a few of them are appropriate for elegant composition. And of these, only a meager number are available in foundry form today.

This typographer must avoid the urge to choose a "fancy" letterfor7n because its personal appeal is based solely on eccentricity, quaintness or uniqueness.

Regarding this, type designer Frederic W. Goudy once was reported to have said: "A suitably formed letter should have nothing in it that presents the appearance of being an afterthought . . . that every detail shall at least seem to have been foreseen from the start . . . and when letters are used in combinations to form words and sentences, no one of them shall stand out from its fellows or draw attention to itself at the expense of those with which it is associated."

"Quaint" faces may be desirable for emphasis in display but not as a body type. For extensive reading, no oddity of design should stop the reader in the middle of a sentence to say, "Am I not cute," thereby obscuring the author's thoughts and ideas.

More important than the choosing of a "freakish" face are such questions as: Does this letterform possess legibility (the clearness with which the type may be seen) and readability (the familiarity, interest, beauty of form, action, color and spacing)? Who will the readers be . . . women, men, children, older persons, or collectors of books who recognize fine printing? Will the typeform selected be fatiguing on its readers? What mood or feeling should the typeface convey? What kind of paper will it be printed upon? Will a constant source of the face be available for years to come?

Despite increased use of letterforms without serifs, traditionalists still frown at the concept of setting an entire book in a serifless design. Letters are recognition symbols and in a well-designed letter, serifs assist in the instant recognition of letters plus guiding the eye horizontally along the line, preventing it from losing its place, thus resulting in speedy and comfortable reading. With five hundred years of unbroken use, the roman serifed letter is the most familiar of all.

Modernists advance the theory that a letter designed over five centuries ago is not appropriate for our 20th Century jet age.

Classic typographers, with passionate loyalty to the roman serif design, maintain it matters not when a typeface was originated—type’s most important function being to get itself read.

The renowned type designer, Eric Gill, upon being complemented on his Gill Sans, quipped, "Ah, yes, but how much nicer if they had had serifs! "

One sans serif face that permits good readability would be Hermann Zapf's Optima.

If a roman serifed letterform is selected in preference to a serifless type, further choice must be narrowed down to either oldstyle, modern or transitional.

Oldstyle romans are characterized by serifs that are sloping, rounded and have oval terminals. Their beauty lies in a mellowness of tone, graceful ascenders and descenders. They do not have too much contrast between thick and thin lines, offering a delightful grayish tone when set solid. They are most pleasing when printed on soft antique stocks. Smooth finish papers accentuate their crude details, making them appear unpolished and awkward.

Oldstyle faces include: Caslon, Benedictine Book, Weiss Roman, Kennerley, Deepdene, Garamond, Garamont, Ehrhardt, Bookman, Centaur, Cooper Oldstyle, Cheltenham, Bembo, Forum, Century Oldstyle, Plantin and others.

Modem romans are recognized by their main elements being perpendicular or parallel to the base line. They are noted for the severity and contrast in the thickness of lines and the sharpness of serifs. Their formal, precise style makes them suitable for hard finishes such as enamels. Their light strokes do not print well on rough, antique surfaces.

Modem faces include: Bodoni, Scotch, Torino, Walbaum, Craw Modem and others.

Transitional letterforms originated from oldstyles that were beginning to be modem or modems with some lingering memories of the old. Baskerville, Bell, Cochin, Times Roman, Electra, Caledonia, Bulmer, Goudy Modern, Caledonia, Electra, are such.

Typographers do not fully agree as to whether oldstyles are more readable than modern romans for a page or two, but in works of considerable length, such periodicals and books, oldstyles have been found to be more restful than a prim, precise modem face.

Oldstyles are more friendly and familiar because of long association, their even color and slightly irregular design.

The fact that a type is oldstyle, modern or transitional does not alone determine its legibility. It is a matter of familiarity, reading tests, general design of the characters, proper spacing and leading, page makeup, good ink, paper and presswork.

Faces with a high degree of legibility include: Caslon 37, 137, 337, 540; Goudy Modern and Oldstyle, Kennerley, Mono, Modern #8 and Scotch #36, Janson, Fairfield, Wayside, Caledonia, Riverside, Baskerville, Bookman, Garamond, Garamont and Cloister.

For continuous reading, a narrow or medium-set letter is to be preferred over an extended one. Space savers are: Fournier, Kennerley, Caslon Oldstyle, Cloister Oldstyle, Electra, Fairfield, etc.

If the printer wishes to bulk out a book, a typeface with a wide set such as Egmont Medium, Baskerville, Scotch Roman, etc., may be decided upon.

Space saving is also possible by setting in a smaller size of a face with a large x-height such as Times New Roman which has the optical equivalent of being two sizes larger.

Century, a log-time favorite, is an unpretentious face, making no effort to add esthetic values to the printed page. It is suitable for most subjects. The original Century, a compressed face, is excellent for getting more material into narrow columns. Century Expanded, is just that, with a heavier stroke. Century Oldstyle has sloping, rounded serifs. If a more exotic letterform is required there are Electra, Fairfield, Deepdene, Centaur, Della Robbia, Waverly, Bell, etc.

The selection of a type form which will enhance the appearance and appeal while in keeping with the mood of the copy is important. It is possible to select a letterform that is suitable for almost any purpose. A type may express dignity, refinement, masculinity, femininity, tastefulness, strength, daintiness, nobility, etc.

A letterform of medium to light weight is easier to read than a heavy one. Dark heads are important as points of interest, but in solid or large masses, become difficult to read easily.

When typographic quality is a matter of prime consideration, fonts should be employed that contain a full complement of ligatures, logos, dipthongs, small capitals, tied characters; italic faces should also contain swash and finial characters.

Typefaces featured by prizewinners in the ‘50 Best Books of the Year" exhibitions over the years finds these most preferred: Baskerville, Garamond, Bembo, Janson, Kentonnian, Palatino, Emerson Plantin, Perpetua, Times Roman and Bodoni Book.

Other elegant bookfaces, previously unmentioned, are: Californian by Goudy, Falcon by W. A. Dwiggins, Spectrum by Jan van Krimpen, Apollo by Adrian Frudger, Sabon by Jan Tschichold; Eric Gill's Pilgrim, Solus, and Perpetua; Trump Mediaeval, Albertina and Melior.

Although foundry metal, being harder, is preferred, competently cast Monotype will last for years if cautiously handled and careful makeready is exercised.

Although there are many letterforms that will serve as excellent bookfaces, the disastrous demise of many typefounders has caused many of these faces to become extinct. Private presses might do well to put away sufficient fonts for the dry and bleak future.