Anthropomorphism & Zoomorphism in Typography

ok, so...I am writing an article on
Anthropomorphism & Zoomorphism of Typography
I have a loose outline with some themes & concepts I'd like to touch on.
I want to get some feedback, good & bad.
Here is what I have.

"The next time you are choosing a font for a project or even if you are considering the next font you'd like to sketch and eventually develop, consider the anthropomorphic qualities of your characters.

Anthropomorphism is the implication and application of human characteristics applied to a tangible object, theme or ideal.
Zoomorphism: the implication and application of animal characteristics applied to a tangible object, theme or ideal.

Most copy text is intended to be gender neutral and have a welcoming, calming effect. If you are going to read a book, an essay or even several length paragraphs, you do not want to be bombarded with masculinity that hinders legibility or with swashes and femininity that distracts from the content: the message of the text.
For instance Centaur, an old style serif typeface, designed by Bruce Rogers, is a formal but inviting font: welcoming you to read the text.

Notice the x-height, swashes, serifs, tails, counters. Does the typeface strike you with a gender? High ascenders (and low descenders) lean towards femininity and low ascenders (and high descenders) have a quieter, more masculine voice.
A blacklister typeface is very harsh with its calligraphic angles... (mentioning something of this being manly and bordering on angry: the far end of playful or childlike)
If the font is ambiguous to gender or mood, can you determine an associated animalistic quality? Do you see a distinct elephant trunk, giraffe neck, monkey tail, platypus bill?

Zoomorphism is ubiquitous in illustrated manuscripts. The Book of Kells contains initial capitals that are snakes and peacocks. This might be more illustrious that characteristic of the letterforms but the concept is rich in the text & images.

There are reasons we use terms like arm, shoulder, spine & ear."

feminine typefaces
Coquette, Mark Simonson
Buttermilk. Jessica Hische
Bree, TypeTogether
Liza, Underware

Century Schoolbook, Linn Boyd Benton
Eurostile, Aldo Novarese
Forza, H&FJ
Rockwell, Monotype

What do you think can be added or subtracted from this to make it a richer, clearer article? Any fonts that are distinctly a specific animal or contain anatomic elements of an animal? Additional thoughts?

I'd also like to know why Matthew Carter named a font Elephant. When I think of the animal, I see a very low contrast creature (in terms of weight) with a stout torso and tree trunks for legs; when I see the font [Elephant], I see a very high contrast font with the ball terminals and hairline shoulders, etc. This might be too far from the rest of the post. Carter is also a hero of mine, so I don't mean the question with ill intent.

Thank you, sorry this is lengthy post.

kentlew's picture

> I'd also like to know why Matthew Carter named a font Elephant

I believe Carter had in mind one of the names of a paper size in the old imperial naming system (which would have been in prevalent use during the period from which this style of type comes), not necessarily the animal, per se.

Carter's design is based on a Five Lines Pica face, which is a pretty large size, by Vincent Figgins. And Elephant was a good-sized paper stock (~ 23 x 28 inches). Seems to be a nice resonance there.

But I might be completely off base. I could try to confirm that supposition with him.

oldnick's picture

Carter's Elephantine alphabet was based on an early nineteenth-century ultrabold Didone of the same name.

Courtesy of Seymour Chwast, an example of ...morphism, although whether anthro- or zoo- is debatable...

Also, if IIRC, there's an old freeware font out there called Monica's Dress, which is decidedly spermatomorphic in design...

matt_yow's picture

@kentlew for the record, I would love to clear that up in the article. (It was my initial thought: the animal's name & the shapes in the font themselves.)

Any more thoughts, suggestions and information is amazing.
thank you!

matt_yow's picture

@oldnick thanks for the note on Monica's Dress. That font clearly has a gender attached to it.

Do you think the information that I've provided in the initial post so far is correct?
Is there a font that might break this hypothesis?
"High ascenders (and low descenders) lean towards femininity and low ascenders (and high descenders) have a quieter, more masculine voice."

Nick Shinn's picture

Matt, this is complete nonsense.
Fonts are like actors and can play many parts: good/bad, masculine/feminine, happy/sad, &c., &c.
It's up to the typographer to do the casting and provide the direction.

cerulean's picture

Ascribing analagous moods and personalities to the qualities of a typeface is natural, and they way we do it is worth exploring. But I would back away from the focus on gender. There are too many steps in the folly of associating type with a gender, because it requires you first to have an idea of what human qualities you think are masculine or feminine, and in this enlightened age, the social construct of gender essentialism is just about too weak to convincingly apply to real human beings, let alone stretch to type. Any attempt to justify your conclusions puts you at risk of throwing your lot in with the evo-psychs.

matt_yow's picture

cerulean, I agree with the gender issue. I just needed someone else to vocalize that, its a blurry issue I'll turn away from now.

Nick, thanks for the input. I understand the thesis might be a little weighty and fantastic. I didn't get too involved because I couldn't gauge my own credibility for this.

nina's picture

Fascinating stuff. But you'll need to be very precise in your wording and the questions you ask – and rigorous in how you investigate them.

"It's up to the typographer to do the casting and provide the direction."
Yes typography can change the way a typeface «acts» on paper a lot. But you can only work against so much; type is not invisible. If you cast a stubbly actor in a female part he's still not going to look like a woman, even if you make him sing really high.

"the social construct of gender essentialism is just about too weak to convincingly apply to real human beings, let alone stretch to type"
Dunno if it's «weak», I'd say it's multi-faceted, complex, and fascinating. If scientists can investigate what sort of typefaces laymen perceive as «friendly», «authoritative», &c then why not masculine & feminine? I'd warn against backing off from looking at how we perceive, ascribe, construct gender just because some will tell you it's either not PC, or not «scientifically sound». Just be sure to view this construction of gender-specifics as largely dependent on reflection in a given cultural context, not of course as something inherent to the shapes themselves.
(Actually, has anybody done any work on this: Investigating what sort of shapes would generally be perceived as masculine vs. feminine in the [Latin] West vs. in other cultures?)

matt_yow's picture

@nina I really appreciate what you said. One of the reasons I wanted to pursue this was because of a lack of information, writings, essays, editorials on the issue.
I am looking at the anatomical construct of the human for when addressing gender, not any sort of stereotype or shallow material.
We use words to ascribe attributes to distinguish male and female and the words we use can also be attributed to typefaces, whether we know it, like it or not. The gender issue was intended to be set back from the foreground issue of assigning animalistic characteristics to type: a much more faceted was of assessing type (than gender).

I don't want to continue the idea, however, it is viewed as "complete nonsense"

Indra Kupferschmid's picture

No, not at all complete nonsense!
I think Nina has put it very well (love the stubbly actor comparison).
Regarding the question about research on the topic—I thought I read about one, but then couldn't find it again. Maybe we should set up a little online questionnaire and post the link here?

matt_yow's picture

kupfers, if you come across that article again, please share.

seml's picture

I believe we do that kind of association a lot. Sometimes in an intuitive way. Although vulnerable to context, we tend to associate shapes iconically. Do you think, for instance, that swash caps and the elegance of italics can be linked more rapidly to a masculine shape or a feminin curve? On the other hand, and giving some support to Nick's point of view, a rude black-weighted sans-serif can be imagined as being injected with testosterone, but what happens if it is put in a pink background, with some flowers? It reminds me of typography as it is, or as it should be: typefaces are not the only criteria of selection when working with text. Do you think it makes sense to put a man in a art nail context, or a lion swimming with dolphins? Context does matter. If we are talking about Rennaissance, Bembo would be a natural choice, but what if the intention is contrast? Things should be seen as a whole, with a purpose, in a context, don´t you think?

matt_yow's picture

going back to what Nick said (its stuck in my brain recently), I think the decisions made on casting those actors to fill those roles is where my interest lies. Why was Aphrodite [Slim] Pro chosen to advertise women's clothing in the place of H&FJ's Forza? What if we saw Forza advertising My Little Pony? and Buttermilk or Candy Script advertising Gillette razors (for men)?
All of this shows the typographer in question didn't do his research on the company and audience: he didn't cast the actors in the proper role because each of those typefaces has a personality and characteristics that make them look so out of place in those instances.
You cannot cast a fragile, elderly man in the role of a HotWheels advertisement, a small boy needs to push those cars along to sell it to other small boys.
In this way, there are animalistic qualities we can recognize (if subconsciously) in typefaces as well.

Instead of viewing typefaces that are in a state of functionality and saying that this thesis doesn't hold water, I think I am trying to communicate that we should view fonts in a vacuum of black and white and then proceed to apply them to the correct scenarios and why we chose that font for that role.

The topic of zoomorphism carries the same weight but might be harder to distinguish, personally. Hence, why I wanted to introduce that idea. What characteristics, within a typeface, tangible or intangible, visually describe to us a specific archetypal creature based on innate notions? I can't quite clarify this anymore, for this thread or for myself, thats where I am looking for a little direction.

I hope that clears up some of the of lack of clarity of my initial post.

hello seb's picture

well said

matt_yow's picture

I am still piecing this article together: this small thread has helped formulate my thoughts into legible sentences, ideas.

poliphilo's picture

I do not just think the matter is all but far-fetched: I would push it even further! While re-designing a late medieval typeface I realized it had some sort of intrinsic phytomorphic nature. So, please: consider to expand your topic as Anthropomorphism, Zoomorphism & Phytomorphism in Typography.

Now, not to get completely lost in an early stage of your research, I would suggest to start from what has been already written about the history of writing. The fact you name The Book of Kells let me think you may like this kind of approach. Otherwise the risk is to forget the fundamentals while dealing with the most recent (and bizarre) typefaces.

BTW: I just noticed there is a website named "Font Garden", but none named "Font Zoo" :D

Nick Shinn's picture

You cannot cast a fragile, elderly man in the role of a HotWheels advertisement, a small boy needs to push those cars along to sell it to other small boys.

Well, Santa would be OK.
But that's not really the acting analogy.
It's more those 30-year olds in high-school movies.
Or Charlize in Monster.

I don't think you're addressing the extent to which the attributes of a typeface are determined by its setting, or the extent to which such attributes are cultural constructions.
Certainly, if one word of an elegant script is compared in a lab with one word of a functional sans, and you're offered a multiple choice including ( ) masculine and ( ) feminine, it's not hard to figure out which box you're supposed to check.

What is the default, or neutral setting for a typeface, for an empirical appraisal of its qualities?
That's like asking what is the default kind of music to compare musical instruments.

Nick Shinn's picture

Continuing with the musical analogy, what you're looking for is something like Program Music.
I do think it is possible for some fonts to have that kind of pictorial quality, e.g. Merlin, which I assembled from fangs, talons, barbs, blades and other injurious items, but the vast majority of fonts are cyphers, far more mutable in interpretation.

David Sudweeks's picture

Stefan Hattenbach's Oxtail
And there's a certain zoomorphic quality to a certain ligature in Zuzana Licko's Mrs Eaves.

blank's picture

A happy accident.

Frode Bo Helland's picture

I must admit gender is often a natural analogue when describing type. The soft, delicate and slender vs. the hard, rough and bold.

matt_yow's picture

I understand the interpretation of searching for "program music" but surely this image of a guitar speaks "heavy metal" versus an image of a banjo (that might instead say "bluegrass"). The image has a mental association to clear sounds of dirty metal - and outside the context of a dingy venue where the metal guitar plays and a mountainside porch where the banjo might be heard.

As for your typeface, Merlin, (I could be way off track with your intent,) I see a clear gender directed towards masculinity as well as a a general structure leaning towards dry land, an ogre in the background; sharp beaked falcons and "fangs, talons". Maybe a little more flora than fauna, but not in a roses and daffodils sort of way; more tumbleweed and briars (or "barbs").
I do appreciate your input.

and David, I see an amphibious, frog-like reflection in the ligatures and ears of the lowercase /g/. Thanks for posting that (and Oxtail).

Nick Shinn's picture

The soft, delicate and slender vs. the hard, rough and bold.

OK, so you don't go for the honky tonk women :-)

I see a clear gender directed towards masculinity...

True, men are more violent than women.
But in the natural world from which I took the beaks, claws and thorns that adorn Merlin, there is no such distinction.

Re. guitars and banjos: banjos were more popular than guitars in the early 20th century (probably because they were louder, pre amplification), used in jazz and popular music, not just on mountaintops. You continue to assume that your own perceptions and cultural associations are universal. But in other times and places...

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