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‘The Visual History of Type’ reviewed

Orwell partner and designer, Nick Paul, reviews a fabulous new book that charts the history of type


The Visual History of Type by Paul McNeil. Published by Laurence King 2017


At Orwell we invest time in crafting content that is well written and well designed – we care about the words that we write and we want those words to look good on the page. Words are set in type – think of typefaces as the clothes that the words are dressed in. Through careful selection, different typefaces can help express a particular message – in just the same way that a set of clothes create an impression.

As a designer I am fascinated by typefaces and earlier this autumn I was blown away by the publication of a new book, The Visual History of Type which is is an essential record of every major typeface created since the development of printing with moveable type in the 1450s. The legendary Dutch designer and typographer Wim Crouwel has described it as, ‘amazing, overwhelming, stunning’ and ‘wonderful’ and he’s not wrong. It is beautiful to look at and packed full of information. I couldn’t put it down.

As a graphic design student in the late 1970s, my knowledge and understanding of type was built on what I gleaned from the Letraset catalogue, fusty old art college library books (apart from Sutton and Bertram’s rather good Atlas of Typeforms first published in 1968) and what I saw around me in print. These days, students can raid the internet for information but they will still welcome Paul McNeil’s book, which I’m sure will become the definitive reference guide for students, professionals and anyone else with an interest in type.

Rather than organise the typefaces into categories they have been arranged chronologically which puts them into their historical context and makes it much easier to follow how the design of type has developed. Each typeface is given a spread and a date top right reminds the reader of where they are in time. (In my head I’d always pictured Claude Garamond in a curly powdered wig and thought of his type as being a product of the 18th century but I was reminded that he cut his elegant Roman typeface 250 years earlier in about 1538). Key information such as type style, designer, year of creation, foundry, country of origin and typefaces with similar characteristics, are all presented in a side panel together with four or so paragraphs of text explaining the history and development. Each spread is illustrated with the foundries’ or printers’ original type specimens – which are often beautiful artefacts in their own right such as the wonderful example shown below from c1585 which displays a typeface crafted by Hendrik van den Keere, a Flemish punch cutter who worked alongside Christophe Plantin. (Note the large x-height and sharp contrasting strokes, which are almost a taster of designs that were to follow over 200 years later with faces such as Fry’s Baskerville or Scotch Roman.)

Van Den Keere’s Roman c1570

Early chapters follow the development of book faces – there’s Gutenberg’s Bastarda (1455) designed to look like German blackletter scripts and Jenson (1470), the first of the Roman types that followed the style of Italian manuscripts. It was interesting to discover that when the Protestant Reformation swept across Germany in the 1500s, Protestant propaganda was deliberately printed using Fraktur – a blackletter type, whereas Catholic views were printed in Latin in Roman types – this must be one of the earliest examples of type design being used to help sell a message.

Caslon c1725

Fast forward to the 1800s and the book looks at the explosion in the use of display types designed to be used as headlines in big sizes on posters and advertising. There’s Thorne’s Fat Face (1806), Thorowgood’s Egyptian (1821) and Figgin’s Sans Serif (1832: the very first sans available in caps only) plus the quirky Italian (1821) and French Antique (1862) – some of the first display types to defy convention by making the thin strokes fat and the fat strokes thin.

Italian 1821

In the same year that Vincent Figgins released his sans serif, William Thorowgood produced his own version – a condensed sans with lower case drawn in one size only. It was called Thorowgood’s Grotesque (1832), with the word ‘grotesque’ probably used to describe the boldness and perceived ugliness that some viewed it with.

Thorowgood’s Grotesque 1832

The German type foundries picked up the sans serif baton with the introduction of Breite Grotesk (1890) and Aksidenz Grotesk (1898) which came in a full range of weights and styles. In the USA Morris Fuller Benton developed a number of different sans serif types including good old Franklin Gothic in 1904 (which continues to be a bestseller today and has been a familiar part of my own life having grown up with The Radio Times, Time Out and Campaign magazines – all of which have made use of this enduring typeface).

Franklin Gothic 1904

McNeil’s book is stuffed full of visual and historical goodies and looking through the 1900-1950s chapter I am reminded of the huge number of geometric sans serif faces that were produced in the first half of the 20th century and that captured this Modern age – Erbar Grotesk (1922), Futura (1927), Kabel (1927), Nobel (1929) and the lesser known Metro (1930) designed by William Dwiggins for Linotype in the USA. Metro‘s capital letters follow the fashion of the hard geometric sans but the lower case have a warmer and more human character that give a nod towards the ‘humanist’ sans that would make their appearance in the latter half of the 20th century such as Syntax (1969) and Frutiger (1976).

Metro 1930

I have a favourite chapter: 1950-1980. Here are the typefaces of my youth. Many of these faces have long since disappeared from use (phew…) as they literally followed the fashions of the day – there is Artone (1968) with its huge bell-bottomed serifs and the space age Data 70 (Letraset 1970).

Artone 1968

Letraset’s Data 70

I was disappointed, or maybe not, that the swirling 60s Art Nouveau revivalist typefaces Arnold Bocklin and Davida are not featured in the book. A couple of beauties from the 1960s that capture that swinging, optimistic Mad Men moment are the Italian designed Eurostyle (1962) and Olivetti’s Quadrato (1963) designed for their Valentine typewriter – a funky, lightweight, portable, personal accessory – the laptop of its day. Quadrato had a radical, squarer and more expanded letterform compared to traditional typewriter faces. Another 60s classic that originated in Italy was Forma. It was designed by Aldo Novarise in 1968 and was a beautiful variant of Helvetica but with a larger x-height and a warmer feel. It has enjoyed a recent revival in the Asian Tatler magazine.

Eurostyle 1962

Forma 1968

The New York based International Typeface Corporation (ITC) and their designers Herb Lublin, Ed Benguiat, Tony Stan and others, had a huge influence on graphic design in the 1970s and the book displays delicious type specimens from ITC’s U&lc magazine – there’s Avant Garde (1970), American Typewriter and Lublin Graph (1974), ITC Garamond (1975), ITC Eras (1976) (pictured below) and Benguiat Gothic (1979). Their photoset type allowed designers to have individual letters set very closely together and with tight leading and this became the fashion for headlines in magazines and print advertising.

ITC Eras 1976

Some of these 1970s typefaces, we loved to hate, but there’s no denying the mark that they made. One that has been much derided (but is absent from McNeil’s book) was the hugely popular Souvenir which was originally cut in 1914 but redesigned by Ed Benguiat and re-issued by ITC in 1971. (I remember a typography tutor at college trying to persuade me to use it for a project. I wisely opted for Gill Sans instead.)

Come the late 1980s and we’d thrown out our sheets of Letraset and photosetting was on the wane as desktop publishing raced in. Now we had digital typefaces designed specifically for use on the Apple Mac and many classic faces were digitised for use with the new technology. Font Bureau was one of the new digital type foundries that had sprung up and their type specimens, reproduced in the book, are some of the most attractive such as Belizio (1989) a Clarendon style slab serif (pictured below), and Miller (1997) a re-working of Scotch Roman (1812) that has since become a very popular newspaper font.

Belizio 1989

Until I read the book I hadn’t clocked that a large number of very attractive digital-age, serif ‘book’ faces have originated in the Netherlands and their finely crafted type specimens are a delight to pore over: FF Scala (1991), Collis and DTL Documenta (1993), Capitolium (1998) and Dolly (2001).

Scala 1991

Capitolium 1998

Other choice typefaces and spreads from this period are:

Paul Ellian’s Found Fount (1989) based on his collection of discarded objects found in the street

Suburban (1993), one of my favourite typefaces from Rudy Vanderlans and Zuzanna Licko. The Emigre foundry produced many innovative faces that fully embraced the new Macintosh technology.

Farao (1998), a quirky Clarendon type slab serif from the Storm Type Foundry in the Czech Republic. The Czech Republic appears to have a tradition of intriguing and slightly odd type design and in the book you will find, for instance, Pressing Antiqua (1925), Tyfa (1960), and Storm Type’s Serapion (1998)

Paul McNeil’s final chapter 2000- brings us bang up-to-date with key typefaces from the new millennium – web fonts, re-cuts of old classics and new designs created for specific magazines and newspapers that have quickly become established classics in their own right and adopted by all (Gotham for GQ, Archer for Martha Stewart’s Living and Guardian Egyptian).

Archer 2003

Designers continue to develop the sans serif form in various ways. The powerful NB Grotesk (2008) from the Neubau design collective in Germany has been designed systematically, using an algorithmic process which gives it a raw strength combined with a slightly naive characteristic. LL Brown (2011) is a monoline geometric Swiss face very much in the style of Futura but with delicate tweaks here and there that inject it with a friendly warmth.

NB Grotesk 2008

LL Brown 2011

Other new sans serif faces carefully mix in slightly jarring characters that give the face an edginess – such as the squared off strokes in Euclid Flex (2012), the introduction of the odd archaic letterform in Doctrine (2013) or KLF Kade (2011), an innovative sans based on the lettering found on old Dutch sailing craft.

Doctrine 2013

KLF Kade 2011

The book runs to over 650 pages with 350 illustrations and it took Paul McNeil over seven years to complete. McNeil is a typographer and graphic designer and he works in partnership with Hamish Muir (formerly co-founder of 8vo) as MuirMcNeil. He also teaches as a Senior Lecturer in Typography at the London College of Communication and while working with students on a daily basis, he became increasingly aware of their comparative lack of knowledge of the history of type and this, together with the absence of any definitive publication on type history, prompted McNeil to research and write the book. The result is wonderful and if you love typefaces, you’ll love this book. If you know little about them but need to know more, then this is the book to invest in. It’s designed as a reference book to dip in and out of. I dipped in but I couldn’t put it down, read it from cover to cover and re-surfaced late in the day, wiser and inspired by the creative brilliance of the contents.

Further reading

An interview by FormFiftyFive with Paul McNeil

An article about Paul McNeil and Hamish Muir in Eye magazine no. 84. MuirMcNeil created the 8,000 different covers for the latest issue.