Modern Day: Synthesis, Sans, Serif and Grunge Type

by Thomas Phinney

Continuing from the previous page, Part Eight of "A Brief History of Typography"


MANY OF THE MOST INTERESTING TYPEFACES of the twentieth century does not fit any of the above categories, or at least not easily. The reason is that they reflect not merely a single style, but cumulative experience, and the merger of different styles. This is perhaps true even of that most mundane of typefaces, Times New Roman (Lardent/Morison, 1931), which has old style, transitional and modern elements.

Synthesis and Serif Type

Zapf RenaissanceAlthough there are many practitioners of this synthesis, the most famous is Hermann Zapf. His Palatino (1948) and Zapf Renaissance (1987) are modern typefaces with the spirit of Renaissance letterforms. Melior (1952), Zapf Book (1976), and the extraordinarily beautiful Zapf International (1977) all reflect an obsession with the super-ellipse, a rectangulated circle, as the basis for letter shapes.

Minion designed by William SlimbachThere have also been many modern revivals of old style which, while close to old style in spirit, are not direct revivals of a specific original, and show modern influences in the proportions or lettershapes. These include the Granjon-inspired Galliard (Carter, 1978) and Minion (Slimbach, 1989).

Synthesis and Sans Serif Type

Synthesis and Sans Serif Type After 1950, many designers began to explore a wide range of starting points as the basis for sans serif designs. Aldo Novarese's Eurostile (1964-5 -- originally the Microgramma typeface, which was later renamed Eurostile with the addition of lower-case letters,) takes sans serif forms and distorts them towards square and rectangular shapes. Zapf's 1958 Optima is a masterful blend of sans serif shapes with Roman and calligraphic influences -- beloved by environmental designers for its clear legibility under stress or in motion. Shannon (Holmes & Prescott Fishman, 1981) is a sans serif based on celtic manuscript proportions.

ancient Greek lettering for a modern sans serif alphabet Several designers have reinterpreted ancient Greek lettering for a modern sans serif alphabet: most popularly Carol Twombly's Lithos (1989), and most recently Matthew Carter's Skia GX (1994). Koch's Neuland (1930?) has a rough-hewn strength. Hans Eduard Meier's Syntax (1969) is one of the earliest sans typefaces which clearly echo renaissance roman letterforms. More recent sans faces often draw on a humanistic background, from Spiekerman's Meta to Vereschagin's Clear Prairie Dawn.

Grunge Font called Droplet Grunge Typography

The most recent typographic wave is one which has sometimes been called grunge typography, after the musical movement originating in Seattle.

Although it is far too early to judge the ultimate impact of grunge, the form is seen as the merger of the industrial functionalist movement called Bauhaus (contemporary with Art Deco, named after the architectural school) with the wild, nihilistic absurdism of Dadaism. Grunge, like many typographic/artistic movements before it, is a rebellion; but this rebellion denies not only the relevance of anything previous, but sometimes even the relevance of legibility itself, in the belief that the medium is the message.

Tema CantanteAs grunge type designer Carlos Segura of T-26 says, "Typography is beyond letters. Some fonts are so decorative, they almost become 'visuals' and when put in text form, they tell a story beyond the words — a canvas is created by the personality of the collection of words on the page."

Grunge typefaces and typography are seen in magazines such as RayGun. Some examples of grunge typography are the work of Barry Deck (Template Gothic and Truth), Nguyen's Droplet and Lin's Tema Cantante.

Now, you can see the top 68 of more than 100 fonts covered in this seven-part series on Typography. We're showing them right now in the Typography Gallery

Special thanks to Thomas Phinney

Thomas Phinney Thomas Phinney typographer at largeThomas Phinney calls himself "typographer at large" but has an illustrious background in the type world, involved in all aspects of typography including research, writing, technical, troubleshooting, history, type design, business, font standards, font embedding, font management, rasterization and web fonts. He designed the extensive font "Hypatia". He has also been involved in forensic typography as an expert witness in court, and has consulted the US Treasury Department, The Washington Post, and PBS’s "History Detectives," among others. He worked in Adobe’s type group in the late 1990s, ultimately as product manager for fonts and global typography and wrote the Typblography blog from its inception in 2005 until December 2008.

If you're a typography fan, as I am, follow Phinney's blog :
more on typography,
more on typography "Phinney on Fonts"
more on typography See the Hypatia Font
more on typography Download the Hypatia Font Hypatia text settings.pdf (PDF)
more on typography Original posting to comp.fonts:

Thomas provides us with these Published Sources

Although much of this information is based on prior knowledge, I also actively consulted the following publications:

  • Bauermeister, Benjamin. A Manual of Comparative Typography. Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York, NY: 1988. ISBN 0442211872.
  • Bringhurst, Robert. The Elements of Typographic Style. Hartley & Marks, Vancouver, BC: 1992. ISBN 0-88179-033-8. The modern classic in the field.
  • Byers, Steve. The Electronic Type Catalog. Bantam Books, New York: 1991. ISBN 0-553-35446-9.
  • Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. Cambridge University Press, New York: 1979. ISBN 0-521-29955-1.
  • Harper, Laurel. "Thirstype: Quenching a Type Craving" in How: the Bottomline Design Magazine, vol. 10, #1, Jan-Feb 1995. Although not usually a thrilling magazine, had several pieces on typography in this issue (see Segura, below).
  • Letraset Canada Limited. Letraset Product Manual. Letraset, Markham, Ontario, Canada: 1985.
  • Meggs, Philip B. "American Type Founders Specimen Book & Catalog 1923" in Print Magazine, vol. 48 #1, Jan-Feb 1994. Contains some interesting info on the effects of industrialization on the type industry.
  • Sutton, James & Bartram, Alan. An Atlas of Typeforms. Percy, Lund, Humphries & Co., Hertfordshire, UK: 1968. ISBN 1-85326-911-5.
  • Morison, Stanley & Day, Kenneth. The Typographic Book: 1450-1935. University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 1963.
  • Segura, Carlos & Nelson, Lycette. "Typography in Context: Never Take a Font at Face Value" in How: the Bottomline Design Magazine, vol. 10, #1, Jan-Feb 1995.
  • Tracy, Walter. Letters of Credit: a View of Type Design. David R. Godine Co.: 1986.
  • Updike, Daniel Berkeley. Printing Types: Their History, Forms & Use. Harvard Press: 1962.
  • Zapf, Hermann. "The Expression of Our Time in Typography" in Heritage of the Graphic Arts. R.R. Bowker Company, New York: 1972. ISBN 0-8352-0213-5.

Personal Contributions
      In addition to written sources, which are identified above, I would like to thank the following for their helpful comments and corrections (any errors are, of course, my responsibility): Robert Hemenway, Mary Jo Kostya, and Dan Margulis.

Reprinted by permission -- all rights reserved, © Thomas Phinney

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