How are calligraphy and type design related?

Chris Dean's picture

I created this thread (re-directed from Tombstone typography in an effort to keep it focused) for people to discuss their different views on the relationships between calligraphy and type design.

russellm's picture

Caligraphy = man (person) made
Type = machine made. But wait... machines are made by people too.

There now. That's finally sorted. Have a great Canadian Thanksgiving, Chis. I know my family and I will.

dezcom's picture

Calligraphy used to be the only way to make books until typesetting came along. The first types were made to look very much like calligraphy. After a while, type moved its own way and did not try to be calligraphy for mass production. There still was a strong visual relationship for many years. Modern tools did not require using calligraphic tools so type lost its dependence on calligraphy, but not its history. Today's type can either mimic script writing better than ever or totally ignore any relation to it. The tools have opened the possibilities to anything imaginable. The tools are still slave to the human who uses them and directs them just as once upon a time when the human directed the pen. The pen had certain limitations that the digital era tools do not. Digital tools may also have limitations but they are much less predictable.

John Hudson's picture

Chris: Calligraphy used to be the only way to make books until typesetting came along.

Better to say that writing was the only means of text production until typesetting came along (block printing of text existed, but it was never a very significant technology). Scribal text production shouldn't be called calligraphy, which refers to a particularly high quality of writing that is treasured for its graphic excellence. Some scribal book production meets that standard, but huge amounts was the written equivalent of what we would call jobbing work.

bartd's picture

Type design will produce letter shapes that can be used in the process of typesetting. After the type designer's job is done, there will be other people doing the lay-out and the printing of the text.
Calligraphy will reproduce text. Calligraphers may or may not design their own letter shapes, but in any case they will do the lay-out and the printing (as in: putting the letters to paper) themselves.

For type designers and calligraphers it may be interesting to discuss the letter shapes each of them comes up with. A conclusion will be that some calligraphers do not invent their own letter shapes. That's fine, as long as they do not claim the contrary. They may discuss kerning as well. A conclusion will be that some type designers do not kern their own letter shapes. That's fine, as long as they do not claim the contrary.
For graphic designers and calligraphers it may be interesting to discuss the lay-out issues each of them deals with. Most type designers will be laymen in these discussions. That's fine, as long as they do not claim the contrary.

So why should this topic be so delicate?

Bart

oldnick's picture

block printing of text existed, but it was never a very significant technology

Gutenberg would be amused by this assertion…Cripes.

Celeste's picture

I agree with John on the distinction between “writing” and “calligraphy”.

It is also interesting that the word calligraphie doesn’t appear in French before the mid-16th century — i. e. at a time when scribal work has been stripped of most of its relevance (in the Western world) by the spread of Gutenberg’s technology. It looks as though Western scribes invented the concept of “beautiful writing” in order to continue to exist in spite of the general demise of “useful writing” — making writing a pursuit of aesthetics by turning it into calligraphy gave it a new, though different, relevance.

oldnick's picture

So…did scribes “think different” or did they think differently? Well I suppose shiny tech toys for idiots ought to be described by grammar for idiots…

hrant's picture

why should this topic be so delicate?

It's because too many type designers remain too convinced of the relevance of calligraphy (better termed chirography) in our craft. In particular there's a minority of type designers who actually practice calligraphy extensively (which of itself is a wonderful and enviable thing) who get disturbingly agitated when the essential difference between the two is pointed out.

hhp

John Hudson's picture

Nick, let me clarify what I meant by 'block printing of text', and it not being a significant technology. By this I meant carving of entire pages of raised text in wood, which does not appear to have ever been a major technology in text manufacture in the West (it was more widely known in Asia). The transition that occurred in book publishing in the second half of the 15th Century is from predominantly scribal production to predominantly metal typeset production. Block printing of text existed both before and during this period, but doesn't seem to have been widely used enough to factor in the transition.

dezcom's picture

Block printing made more sense in Asia where pictogramatic glyphs numbered in the thousands compared to phonetic Latin and Greek based glyphs numbered in the tens. Repeated glyphs in Western languages were quite a bit more frequent. It was simply much more equitable for Westerners.

John Hudson's picture

The nature of the character grid in Chinese script also meant that wood blocks could be easily cut up to produce wood type.

Such type could be made either by cutting the individual character blocks, or by cutting one large block and sawing it into cubes.

dezcom's picture

Yes, the grid system of shapes would be helpful in sawing but distributing (and setting upright) would be quite a bit harder than Latin script.

quadibloc's picture

@hrant:
It's because too many type designers remain too convinced of the relevance of calligraphy (better termed chirography) in our craft. In particular there's a minority of type designers who actually practice calligraphy extensively (which of itself is a wonderful and enviable thing) who get disturbingly agitated when the essential difference between the two is pointed out.

Typography and calligraphy are two means by which a text can be presented to a reader.

As calligraphy, unlike typography, involves forming the letters used by hand, it can also be used as a method of type design.

It certainly is true that types may be designed in a non-calligraphic fashion. One may take Bifur as a simple and obvious example.

Futura, Optima, and Cooper Black might be cited as more conventional typefaces that really don't make one think they were written with nibbed pens.

Although Cooper Black could be pulled off with the right Speedball point. And so could Times Roman, or Copperplate Gothic.

But Roman type, in general, while it owes something to calligraphy, also owes something to the chisel instead of the pen.

So, yes, I will agree that type design is not subservient to, or a branch of, calligraphy. However, despite that, I still also feel that calligraphy is a very useful influence on typography; it's a source of new, yet conservative, ideas that will lead to typefaces that will be readable and find ready acceptance.

While I reject Fraktur as a desirable written style, I think - and hope - that among the various rotundas a starting point for a viable alternative to Roman may yet be found.

hrant's picture

calligraphy is a very useful influence on typography

I think that was true only at the very beginning when type needed help being accepted. That was a long time ago. Now it's a very bad influence because it inhibits progress much more than it helps enrich this already overcrowded party. In fact the party's over, the alcohol and chips are all gone, but the damn slouch won't leave.

hhp

John Hudson's picture

John: But Roman type, in general, while it owes something to calligraphy, also owes something to the chisel instead of the pen.

Given that letters to be cut on stone have almost always been either drawn or written on the stone first -- most famously, Fr Catich demonstrated how imperial Roman inscriptions would have been brush lettered before cutting -- it is hard to conceive of any characteristic of these letters that are owed particularly to the chisel. Stone, especially those kinds most favoured by letter cutters, such as the fine English and Welsh slate, is a high resolution medium: with a sharp chisel of appropriate size and shape, there is pretty much no form that one cannot cut in it.

Chris Dean's picture

Is calligraphy typography?

Another Typophile thread on a similar topic.

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