dot-font: Type Tradition in a Digital Age


The history of type on the computer might have developed entirely differently than it did. Instead of having the whole panoply of typographic possibilities quite literally at our fingertips, we might have been stuck with something limited and awkward. Luckily for us all, people who understood type and lettering were involved in the development of the desktop publishing revolution. Among the most influential was Sumner Stone, who has recently been the focus of an exhibit at England’s Ditchling Museum and its companion book, “FONT.”

Sumner Stone, from the photo in the frontispiece of “FONT.”

Sumner Stone is probably best known as the director of typography from 1984 to 1989 at Adobe Systems, where he led the way to make Adobe a leader in the design of digital type and in the promulgation of digital typography. He designed the Stone super-family of typefaces (Stone Serif, Stone Sans, and Stone Informal), and his out-of-print book “On Stone” is — despite its focus on one type designer’s work — one of the best introductory books on type and how to use it.

Last year the Ditchling Museum, an institution in Sussex on the site of one of Eric Gill’s would-be monastic typographic communities, put on an exhibition called “FONT: Sumner Stone, Calligraphy and Type Design in a Digital Age“; the exhibition explored “the relationship between calligraphy, type and the new digital technology through the work of one of the world’s greatest typographers: the American Sumner Stone.” (This exhibition was the second part of a three-part series called “Lettering Today and Tomorrow.” The first part, in 1999, was called “Handwriting: Everyone’s Art“; the third, this year, is “The Flowing Line: The influence of Japanese and Arabic Calligraphy in the West.”)

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Ditchling Museum and the Edward Johnston Foundation published a small, pleasingly made book, also called “FONT,” to document and supplement what was shown in Ditchling. The book contains several well-illustrated essays on type, technology, and the traditions of hand lettering; together, they provide an intelligent snapshot of how these influences, which now seem to go together so naturally, gave us the digital tools and the publishing environment that we now take for granted.

As the introduction by Ewan Clayton and Gerald Fleuss points out, the technology of the personal computer “was developed by computer scientists with no knowledge of lettering or typographic issues. Consequently in the early eighties there was a real danger that the knowledge of the lettering community would be ignored.” But the San Francisco Bay area — ground zero in technical development — “already had a flourishing tradition of fine press printing and a lively calligraphic community. Rather than stand its distance this community got involved. With hindsight this was one of the crucial moments in the evolution of the Roman alphabet and its usage, as important as those early years of the fifteenth century in Florence when a handful of humanist scholars developed the new conventions in manuscript production that would combine with the arrival of print and determine the course of that technology.”

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“FONT” is not a historical document. It’s a living book about contemporary lettering and technology, one that shows how these traditions remain intertwined today.

Basalt: a Roman Sans Serif
The lead-off article in “FONT” is by Sumner Stone; it describes the process of developing a new typeface, called Basalt (one that isn’t available yet commercially, as far as I know). Basalt started out as a fantasy of creating a higher-quality model for handwriting in elementary schools and became an attempt to create “a classical Roman sans serif.” Our well-known serif letterforms have a clear line of descent, from the inscriptions on the Trajan column in Rome and other classical monuments, but sans serif forms have what Stone calls a “broken history.” “Unlike serifed forms,” he says, “where the inscribed lettering of Imperial Rome has served as a model during the Renaissance and into modern times, there is no canonical sans serif letter. The problem of creating one is similar to the problem faced by Virgil in creating a mythological history for Rome.”

His classical sans serif “would be a fiction, like the Aeneid. In my fantasy, Basalt would be the sans serif companion to the most formal Roman inscriptional forms, like those used on the tomb of Cecilia Metalla. If Romans had used computers, it would have been there on every screen, Metalla and Basalt.”

One of Stone’s early sketches of Basalt, from “FONT.”

Basalt isn’t entirely conceived as a fantasy; it has a real-world purpose, too. Stone intended Basalt to be useful as a typeface for signage, and indeed its first public use is for signage in the libraries at Stanford University.

“The signs I am fascinated by,” says Stone, “are those in which text typography is required, such as street signs, directional signs, informational signs, memorials, inscriptions, dedications. These are all examples of public lettering.”

As he points out, “real things are at stake” when you’re dealing with signage: “like finding your way or becoming lost.” Making signs that real people will use is not a hollow, intellectual exercise. “Examples of one of my favorite signage systems can still be found in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, where surviving a winter is a significant accomplishment for a sign. They were made by cutting letters out of steel plate with a torch.”

One of the considerations that Stone kept in mind when designing Basalt was the question of size, or scale. “As you approach a sign, you first see it at some distance, and then you may move closer. Usually, it is desirable to be able to read the sign from as far away as possible as well as when you are close to it.” So the letters have to work both small — or apparently small, when viewed from far away — and large. “The further away the viewer is, the smaller the letters appear. A letter which is four inches tall appears to the reader to be only a six-point character when viewed from the appropriate distance, so in some respects the problem is similar to designing type which is to be used exclusively at small sizes, as in the telephone book or classified advertisements in the newspaper.” But signage type, unlike the type in a telephone book, also has to work at large size when seen up close. At large size, “ugly and awkward letters can be just as distracting as those which are too beautiful or quirky.”

Stone created two versions of Basalt — the normal version (top) and a slightly narrower version (bottom).

Stone’s Basalt is a typeface all in caps, like the inscriptions that inspired it. But Stone discovered that the basic letterforms he was working with would also work when they were slightly condensed, without losing any of their legibility or usefulness. So he created a narrower version and put it into the lowercase position in the digital font. The narrower alphabet “can be used along with the wider forms without looking cramped or drawing attention to itself,” according to Stone.

Space, Geometry, and Cyberspace
Sumner Stone’s “Basalt” is only one of the essays contained in this book, though it’s certainly the central one. The other three essays approach type and technology from different directions and do not directly address Stone’s work.

The most useful of these other essays is “Watch this Space,” by John Dreyfus. Dreyfus succeeded Stanley Morison as typographical advisor to the Monotype Corporation in England, which put him at the center of the typographic world of the mid-twentieth century. He has written voluminously (a collection of his writing, “Into Print,” unfortunately priced beyond the means of most type aficionados, was published in 1995 by David Godine), and his short essay here touches on any number of important questions about how type works and how to practice the art of lettering. Perhaps the most provocative is one posed by a music teacher attended by the theater director Peter Brook: “Why is rhythm the common factor in all arts?” Dreyfus says that, “in typography and lettering, I reckon that rhythm comes from the finely adjusted relationships between the letters in our alphabet which have developed through several millennia of use.” His conclusion (after all, the essay is called “Watch this Space”) is: “If the subtle balances which exist between the shapes and the voids of our Roman alphabet are matched by harmonious spacing between words and lines … then a rhythm will be achieved which can lift typography and lettering to the level of an art.”

The other two essays, “Slouching toward Cyberspace” by David Levy and “The Geometry of Roman Lettering” by Tom Perkins, are interesting but not on the same lively level as Stone’s and Dreyfus’s offerings. The Perkins essay is copiously illustrated, to show the relations between the Golden Rectangle and a number of other classic geometrical forms and the letterforms on the ancient Roman formal inscriptions such as the Trajan column. I tend to find this kind of esoteric geometry a little tenuous, drawing connections where maybe none existed; but it’s perfectly possible that it was the ancient Roman inscriptional artists who got a little carried away, not Tom Perkins.

Design in the Hand
“FONT” is a short book, just 64 pages, but as a paperback in landscape format, with dimensions of nine inches high by just over nine-and-a-half inches wide, it’s a floppy little volume. It’s elegantly designed, using another of Sumner Stone’s text typefaces, Cycles Eleven. Yet there are curiosities in both its design and its execution. Is a classic medieval arrangement of the text block, with a huge bottom margin, wide outer margin, and proportionally decreasing top and inner margins, really appropriate to a two-column arrangement of text in a landscape format? There may be medieval antecedents, but it seems a little weird today. And the proofreading of the typeset text could have been better; among other things, we find different treatments of fractions in different paragraphs.

Nonetheless, it’s basically a well-conceived book, and one that feels good in the hands as you read it. It is certainly worth seeking out.

As a shameless plug, I’ll point out that Sumner Stone will be speaking on October 6 as one of the lecturers at the upcoming Zapfest in San Francisco, which has as its theme exactly the intersection of calligraphic tradition and digital type design that “FONT” so suggestively explores.