dot-font: A New Version of the Old Blackletter

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dot-font was a collection of short articles written by editor and typographer John D. Barry (the former editor and publisher of the typographic journal U&lc) for CreativePro.  If you’d like to read more from this series, click here.

Eventually, John gathered a selection of these articles into two books, dot-font: Talking About Design and dot-font: Talking About Fonts, which are available free to download here.  You can find more from John at his website, https://johndberry.com.

When Jim Parkinson wrote a short booklet about newspaper nameplates (which I reprinted in the book “Contemporary Newspaper Design”), he lamented the lack of currently available blackletter typefaces. Most newspapers, especially in North America, like to use blackletter for their nameplates (that is, the name at the top of the front page, which Parkinson insists should not be called a logo); it’s traditional, and it’s seen as somehow lending gravitas to the paper—or at any rate as being what readers expect.

Although there are a number of digital revivals of historical blackletter typefaces, there aren’t many, according to Parkinson, that are suitable for a newspaper’s nameplate. Now he has released one of his own.

Figure 1: Jim Parkinson’s blackletter typeface Amador lends itself to uses such as newspaper names.

The Goudy Influence

Amador harks back to the Arts & Crafts movement, especially its late manifestations in California in the early 20th century, rather than directly to the origins of blackletter type in Northern Europe in the 15th century. Amador is certainly reminiscent of some of Frederic Goudy’s blackletter designs, as well as popular revivals such as Cloister Black and Engraver’s Old English—all of which tend to reflect the English tradition of blackletter, based on early textura forms, rather than the ongoing development of blackletter in Germany up into the 20th century.

Parkinson specifically alludes to Frederic Goudy, appropriately enough, in describing Amador’s inspiration; surprisingly, he also mentions Rudolf Koch, the famous German calligrapher and punchcutter who created new blackletter faces in the 1920s and 1930s with an eye to tradition but also an eye to the then-recent influence of Jugendstil. The logic of these two influences is not necessarily to be found in the similarity of their type designs, but in Parkinson’s sense that he, like them, is working with an old tradition adapted to new uses in a new era.

Figure 2: Amador owes a debt to Frederic Goudy, among others, in its approach to the blackletter design.

Amador is probably not meant to be a text face; most of Parkinson’s type designs are either display faces or what I think of as “large-text” faces: useful in magazines and other publications for those short passages that aren’t really extended text but aren’t simply display type either. It’s more of a drawn letter than a written letter—a distinction that’s lost on most readers, but that gets argued about endlessly by type designers. The “drawn” quality of Amador makes sense, given its development out of Parkinson’s many re-drawings of short collections of words as the names of newspapers.

It’s also not surprising, given its origins, that Amador should be an especially condensed typeface. Blackletter tends to be compact, especially textura, but Amador is noticeably narrower than most of the currently available blackletter faces. This means that, if Amador is used for a nameplate or a title, quite a long word or phrase will fit onto a single line—a possibility that’s always dear to the heart of an art director trying to set display type.

Modern Heavy Metal

Blackletter, of course, is not a popular style of letter today. It was once used as a text type all over Europe, and until the Second World War it was still quite common in Germany. A well-designed blackletter is actually a highly readable and beautiful typeface, for anyone used to reading it; but it’s hard to decipher for those who only encounter it now and then. These days, blackletter is largely used for its associations with the past: in Germany, for beer labels; in England and America, for ecclesiastical tidbits and newspaper nameplates. (Also, by playing on these associations, some revised blackletters are used in heavy-metal music posters.)

So Amador is a hybrid, looking “modern” because it reminds us of how blackletter was being used in the early 20th century, but at same time looking “old-fashioned.” None of the letterforms are too odd or alien, to the reader whose template is the roman letter. It is not as beautiful as some of the truly amazing blackletter typefaces of the past (which are often in a different style of blackletter, such as schwabacher or fraktur), but it will evoke the nostalgic associations of textura and still be clearly readable. In effect, blackletter today functions as an ornamented letter, and that’s how Amador is most likely to be used.

When I was discussing Amador with Paul Shaw and Peter Bain, the co-editors of the excellent study “Blackletter: Type and National Identity” (Cooper Union/Princeton Architectural Press, 1998), they pointed out something that I might not have noticed: Parkinson has not designed a typeface identical to any of the blackletter styles that he letters for newspapers. He hasn’t given away his own bread and butter.

For a major project like re-designing or restoring the nameplate of a major newspaper, it’s still necessary to call in an expert. But for less rarified work, Jim Parkinson has given us a handy new tool.

John D. Berry is a typographer, book designer, design writer, editor, and typographic consultant. He is a former President of ATypI, and he is the founder and director of the Scripta Typographic Institute.
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