Call It What It Is
By John Downer
This text was first published in 2003 in
the type specimen booklet for Tribute.
A discussion of typeface sources seems to
pop up whether a designer admits to being inspired by
historical models or not. Getting the appropriate authorization
when needed, and giving the proper credit, are but two of many
considerations. Other issues such as fidelity to the model,
chronological accuracy, and the pros and cons of revisionist
history get debated and argued at length. The talk can get hot.
Designers always feel the heat.
On the one hand, a type designer who makes
a serious effort to acknowledge certain sources of inspiration
opens himself or herself to criticism concerning the ethics of
appropriating the work of another. On the other hand, a type
designer who fails to cite sources, or, worse, makes a
conscious effort to avoid acknowledging sources, leaves himself
or herself open to charges of impropriety.
One may ask, "Is there no safe and
sound route these days?" I believe there is. In fact, I
think there are several good roads.
To understand the intrinsic differences
between plagiarism (normally regarded as a bad thing) and
preservation (normally regarded as a good thing), we should
look at various means by which newer typefaces are derived from
older ones. There are indeed many approaches. Outlining them
can be helpful in considering the practices surrounding
revivalism in general.
The integrity of a typeface revival depends
not solely on what the designer does to create a workable
version of an old idea; it also depends on what the designer,
or the designer's copywriter or publicist, has to say
about the genesis of the design.
If ad copy, or whatever prose is written to
launch a typeface, is inaccurate or misleading, there might be
grounds for a dispute. In contrast, if the story behind the
designer's effort stands up to the scrutiny of type
historians and scholars, a revival has a far better chance of
being considered a welcome addition to the world of
revivals - not so much for being a "servant" to
a given typographic model as for bearing a relationship to its
Historians regard type history in ways that
type designers and type critics seldom do. This theme was
articulated in a keynote address at the 2002 conference of the
Association Typographique Internationale (ATypI) in Rome by
Paul F. Gehl, historian and curator of a type-history
collection at The Newberry Library, in Chicago.
In his talk, Gehl noted that type experts
(including some effective and influential type promoters, I
should add), have been known to give imprecise descriptions and
fabricate misnomers. Monotype's introduction in 1929 of a
typeface series known as "Bembo," based on the
first roman type of Aldus Manutius, circa 1495, was cited by
Gehl as an opportunity for Stanley Morison, the typographical
advisor to Monotype, to inaccurately characterize Bembo, as he
did with other historically-based typefaces by Monotype in the
1920s. Morison, according to Gehl, "... insisted upon
calling his historical reconstructions of the 1920s
'recuttings' of early types, when in fact most of
them were beautiful new types inspired by handsome old
This observation strikes a familiar chord
among type reviewers. Accuracy often hinges on semantics, so
semantics are important.
It seems that the term
"recutting" could be accurately applied to a
faithful recreation, if it were cut by hand and cast in metal,
but that is not exactly what has been done in the process of
creating usable facsimiles of centuries-old type. To do a
"recutting" in the most literal sense of the word
would ostensibly require a cutter of type to work in the same
manner, and with the same materials, as the originator. The
term "recutting" has come into modern usage partly
by way of inheritance and partly by way of convenience. There
is no real cutting being done by makers of digital typefaces;
namely, faces meant to be fully accepted as recreations of
In the digital medium, a medium without the
physicality of sculpture, what's attainable can be but a
silhouette of facial features produced by carving type at the
size - the only size - it will print, in relief, in
reverse, in steel. Unlike cutting away excess material to
render the form desired, digital type is shaped by manipulating
on-screen descriptions of contours. Any "digital
recutting" takes place merely in a figurative sense.
But don't let pure semantics
completely limit our abilities to label today's digital
replicas of historical types in real and fitting ways. Apt
descriptions are almost always possible if there exists a broad
vocabulary from which to establish appropriate terminology. We
still need new nomenclature for the digital era to replace
outdated language that has lost its meaning or has taken on an
erroneous twist. Oxymorons like "digital
punchcutter" and "digital type foundry" are
common in the trade, but at least they have the word
"digital" as a qualifier. That's a lot better
than not having a qualifier.
The same may be said of the common term
"revival" in describing updates of typefaces that
never fell completely into disuse before being converted to a
new medium. Labeling a typeface "digital revival"
lets us know that the original was born in a pre-digital
medium, most often metal. To do a revival in type is to
resurrect a design that has fallen into disuse, not to rehash a
workable design that never became obsolete or outdated. As Gehl
has noted, "Let's just resolve not to call them
'recuttings,' or even 're-designs'
unless we intend to do just that, reproduce a type that works
like the original."
Gehl further remarked, "... In my
professional capacity as collector, I frequently meet with
designers and design teachers and students. What I have to say
today is thus conditioned not by my sense of what you as
typographers and type writers are doing right or doing wrong,
but by my reading of what practicing designers and design
students make of what you do and say about type."
On that cue, a few definitions would be
handy. Below are mine. I've divided my descriptions into
two categories: one for designs that closely follow the
original, and the other for designs that loosely follow the
Closely based on historical models (metal
type, hand-cut punches, etc.) for commercial or noncommercial
purposes, with the right amount of historic preservation and
sensitivity to the virtues of the original being kept in
focus-all with a solid grounding in type scholarship behind the
Closely based on characters from various
fonts all cut by one person, or cut by various hands, all
working in one particular style or genre-like a medley or an
overview done more for the sake of providing a
"sampling" than for the sake of totally replicating
any one single cut of type.
Closely based on commercial successes (of
any medium) to belatedly muscle in on part of an unsaturated
market, often by being little more than a cheap imitation of
what has already been deemed by experts as a legitimate
revival. "Me Too" fonts, or "Copy Cat"
fonts, as they are called, tend to focus on opportunism rather
than on originality. These don't rate as revivals because
they don't revive.
Loosely based on artistic successes (of any
medium) as a kind of laboratory exercise, often without much
concern for their immediate or eventual commercial viability.
Loosely based on historical styles and/or
specific models, usually with admiration and respect for the
obvious merits of the antecedents - but with more artistic
freedom to deviate from the originals and to add personal
touches; taking liberties normally not taken with straight
Loosely based on commercial successes (of
any medium) as a means of further exploring, or further
exploiting, an established genre; milking the Cash Cow one more
Loosely based on artistic or commercial
successes (of any medium) for only rarely more than minor
advancements in a tried, popular, accepted style; akin to
Loosely based on prominent features of the
model, often with humor or satire as the primary objective, but
quite often also with humor or satire as an unexpected effect.
Centuries ago, loose interpretations were
easier to produce than close (faithful) interpretations because
the level of skill needed to produce punches was high. But late
in the 19th century, the use of the pantograph as a tool in
cutting punches and matrices by machine eliminated the need for
a punchcutter who worked by hand. The speed of replicating
existing typefaces increased. Phototype was yet another step in
the direction of fast copying, and digital type can be copied
in an instant by almost anybody.
Our ability to make digital facsimiles of
types that were cut by hand centuries ago affords us a chance
to render them as we see fit. We can make them look old, like
the original types, or we can make them look fresh. We
can't, however, make them look identical to historical
models, for digital type is not metal type. The two are
different creatures and they manifest separate identities. They
each have their own idiosyncrasies.
Realizing that digital type can actually
only simulate the "look" of old type is an
important aspect of evaluating type revivals. Terms like
"digital homage" or "historical
fiction" can be used to describe what we attempt to do
when we pay tribute to types of the distant past without
relying too heavily upon their design.
It is evident that Frank Heine's Tribute possesses an element of "type
caricature" in its drawing, but this fact doesn't
relegate it to that one category. Heine has really gone beyond
parody, well into an area of personal exploration. He has
challenged many traditional assumptions that we
"connoisseurs" of hand-cut type have maintained in
our attitude toward the historical accuracy sought and loved
and expected in "revivals." The result is a unique
combination of caricature, homage, alchemy, and fanciful
Tribute, I think, recalls Guyot's
native French-learned style, primarily as a point of departure
for an original - albeit implausible - work of
historical fiction, with merits and faults of its own.