Letters From the Hellbox
When he was a child, Martin McClellan would sneak out into the garage where his father kept a hobby print shop. He’d spin the flywheel on the 19th century Golding Pearl press, pumping his leg on the treadle (cast iron in the shape of an ornate capital G) to achieve a great momentum. He’d jump on the treadle and ride it up and down until the energy dissipated and the ride slowed to a stop. To this day looking at great typography gives him an equivalent thrill. He’s awkwardly utopian about design. He lives in Seattle.
Gutenberg and How Typography is Like Music.
I need a hook right now, because if you’ve read much writing about typography, you’re probably only granting me a paragraph or two to grab your attention. At least that’s the attitude I carry going in to writing on letters. Many type essays, despite good intention, are bristling with academic narcissistic maximalism—sometimes to cover up that there is really only a paragraph of content or so, sometimes in an attempt to raise writing about typography to the beauty and evocative mystery of type itself. Such an important subject, so difficult to deliver— which is ironic since the words themselves are set in the subject. But the beauty of the letters is inconsequential unless the text it’s rendering carries its own weight. The opposite is also true: a poorly typeset work of genius will render the work difficult to comprehend and the reader will not blame the type, they’ll blame the writer.
Typography has a visceral and direct effect on everybody who reads. It can inhibit or enhance the feel of reading without being consciously noticeable. It does so by combining specific visuals that echo cultural memories, which are hopefully servile to the words they spell. Not unlike your favorite food tasting better on fine china then on paper plates, the choice of typeface can radically impact meaning while hopefully going consciously unnoticed. Try to exhort that indefinable magic in words, and you may as well be doing that over-quoted dance about architecture.
All this is too bad, because typography, even to those who don’t know it or care very much about it, is historically and factually quite interesting, and to the educated folks of the world, ubiquitous and ever-present. I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts that you know more about typography than you think.
Let’s start with a lie. Johann Gutenberg, the accredited father of printing, was a debtor to a man named Johann Fust. Fust watched him invent the myriad technologies that made up printing, and then when Gutenberg was nearly done printing his famous 42-line bible, Fust came in and seized all the equipment and the books. Gutenberg was in foreclosure.
That’s all true. Here’s the lie: Fust loaded the books in a creaky cart, and snapped the reins to get the ponies moving. He drove them from Mainz to Paris (which recalls the British artist Tom Phillips, who had a series called “I Drove My Big Mercedes from Stuttgart Down to Hades”) where he was called before the church after attempting to sell his bibles. No scribe, they claimed, could make such perfect copies of a book. In order to stop being strung up and murdered in those terribly 15th-century churchy ways, Fust had to reveal his technology. Once he did, he was allowed to sell the bibles and drive his empty cart back to lovely Mainz, pockets lined. This event started a legend of a man in league with the devil. The devil gave him great talents and technology, and the man gained fame and fortune for the cost of his soul. The legend spread, and somewhere in the telling someone stuck an A right after the F in Fust’s name.
I’ve been told this story more than once by typographers. I first heard it in a type class in design school, and to a typographer it’s a believable story because the typeface that those bibles were printed in was a direct copy of the way that scribes wrote at the time. It looked like calligraphic printing, which would be quite difficult indeed to produce multiple exact copies. Remember practicing your signature, the page covered with dozens of tries all very different? The best scribe in the world couldn’t make exact copies each time. Surely the church would think some devil’s hand assisted the production. In fact, print shops have been full of demonic terms ever since, like hellbox, printer’s devil, and printing itself was called the black art.
The typeface you’re reading this in is Times New Roman. Roman refers to the fact that it was derived from Roman inscribed lettering, such as the exquisite example at the base of Trajan’s Column, which inspired a typeface called Trajan that is very popular with movie designers who want to impart seriousness. But the Romans didn’t use any lower case letters (the term “lower case”? It’s from print shops. The small letters were kept in a lower drawer—or "case"—the capitals in the upper drawer). Those lower case letters were inspired by uncial style letterforms that certain scribes were using, and didn’t emerge until printing spread to Italy later in the 15th century. To put to fine a point on it, when Gutenberg created the method of making identical lead letters, he had to decide what the hell they were going to look like, with absolutely no precedence.
The only way to make books at the time was in the scriptorium, where trained scribes spent lifetimes copying manuscripts in the employ of the church. The largest academic libraries in the world in those days had fewer books than the letter limit on your tweet this morning. It was slow, laborious, expensive (imagine the cost of hiring trained labor full time for a year to make a product. Would you buy a book for that much?) and likely inaccurate as well. There were standardized scripts, but they were always evolving calligraphic styles. The scribes in Ireland had a very different method than the scribes in Germany. If you’ve ever worked with artisans, you know that each one had their own opinions and techniques over what is the most aesthetically pleasing, so each scribe used a very different hand to draw those letters.
Gutenberg chose a letterform called Blackletter, specifically a subset called Textualis or textura that is very dense with strong vertical marks. You’ve seen it, or its variants, used in Nazi films, older German newspapers, and black metal album covers. Think “gothic” lettering, and you’ve probably got it (although that term is contentious to type nerds, its popular use will probably evoke the correct visual).
Textualis was popular with scribes for a number of reasons: it was elegant and evocative, a block of text looked impressive with a nice, dark texture on the page. It was also faster to write with than some other lettering forms. There are very few curved lines. Most letters terminate in 45-degree marks.
Gutenberg chose his script, it would seem, to appeal to the book buyers of the day who were used to this look. He wanted his newly invented processes to harken back to the scriptorium, maybe so that contemporary buyers saw a value in the book compared to the price of a hand-copied one, or maybe it’s like newspaper websites trying to echo the look and functionality of newspapers: they don’t know any better yet.
Here’s the funny thing: Gutenberg made so many advances to make this invention—the method of producing type, the alloys used to make it, the method of binding the type into a “form”, the press itself, the ink—that writers don’t pay much attention to the shape of the letters. John Man’s tremendous Gutenberg: How One Man Remade the World with Words doesn’t even have an index entry for “Typography.” He talks about the method, but not the form. Gutenberg’s typography is considered beautiful, but pedestrian. The story goes that he didn’t further the conversation of letters; he just copied what was popular at the time.
But people, this is the very first lead type in the world! This is the beginning of mechanical western typography. It is the inciting incident that has a direct line to the shape of the dancing pixels in front of your eyes. That’s why Gutenberg is the first typographer. That’s why, as well, that death metal band chose some Blackletter font to put on their wicked cover over that upside-down pentagram cast in rusting iron. Because the letters evoke mood and time. They have a shape and life of their own outside of legibility.
This is the birth of typography as a profession, which is akin to the birth of recorded music. Before music could be captured and reproduced, musical performances were heard once by whoever was present, just as typographic works could only be performed once by the scribe and had a limited audience. After recorded music, one performance could be distributed and heard by millions of people. After Gutenberg, one typographer could create letters that made content for millions of people to read.
The half-millennium since the invention of the press has been littered with innovation. Each milestone in that long history marks the time of creation as strongly as Impressionism marks late 19th-century France or early Abstract Expressionism marks mid-20th century New York. Forensic typography has even been used in recent years to disprove a Los Angeles Times investigative report linking P-Diddy to Tupac’s murder—the FBI reports bolstering the case were proved to be forgeries, thanks to master type designers Hoefler & Frere-Jones in New York, working with The Smoking Gun.
This all means that a lone designer can draw a letter, put it on her blog and have the world see it instantly. She is part of the massive design and typography explosion, and also part of a long conversation. Every stroke she makes is an evocation of history and a direct ode to Gutenberg taking the hand-inked letters of his time, and turning them into lead soldiers that print and print and print and print, five-hundred and fifty-four years and counting.
1. View two copies of the Gutenberg Bible on the British Library’s website: http://www.bl.uk/treasures/gutenberg/homepage.html
2. Stephen Fry’s documentary The Machine That Made Us is a great look at Gutenberg and his achievements. If you’re in England, the BBC streams it. Outside, you may be able to find it on YouTube [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Zqgs4iS76c]
3. Goodie Bag’s short film Trajan is the Movie Font shows just how popular Trajan is with movie designers: http://www.goodiebag.tv/episodes/06_trajan_is_the_movie_font.htm
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