Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Typography For Illustrators: 7. Serif Classifications

Serif Type

Serif type constitutes one of the two major categories of type used for text today. Although appearing to be contemporary in origin, the first uses of serif type date back to Ancient Rome. The serif letterforms were first evident in the marble and stone carved writings on Roman architecture. The letterform style disappeared after the fall of Rome, but reappeared in Western Europe during the mid 15th century. The uppercase letterforms are based on ancient Roman capital letters and the lowercase is based on humanist script of the 14th and 15th centuries.

Serif type can be described as letterforms that have small extensions at the ends of letter strokes. These “serif” extensions are commonly referred to as “feet”. The serifs we are now familiar with were an invention of the ancient Roman stone carvers. What appeared to be serifs in the carvings, were nothing more than chisel marks that the carvers hammered at the end of letterform horizontal, vertical and diagonal strokes. This was done to provide a practical way to finish off carved strokes so they appeared consistent when light was cast on them. Some 15 centuries later, printers and typographers were looking for inspiration to create a more practical, easily producible, materially efficient, and cost effective style of letterform to replace the Gothic letter style that was then is use. The chisel marks were misinterpreted and given their own separate aesthetic purpose.

Another characteristic of serif type is that the letterforms are almost always a combination of contrasting thicker verticals and thinner horizontals strokes. In some typestyles this is dramatically apparent and in others it may be very subtle. The major classifications of serif typestyles include Old Style, also called Humanist, Venetian, or Classical; Transitional; Modern also called Neo-Classical or Didone: Slab-Serif also called Egyptian or Square-Serif; and Italic also called Cursive or Oblique.

Old Style/Humanist/Venetian/Classical

Developed in the mid 15th century and continuing to dominate type design on for the next two hundred years, Old Style letterforms derive their appearance directly from two sources. Capital letters were interpretations of letterforms that appeared on stone carvings in ancient Rome. Lowercase letters were derived from the hand written Carolingian miniscule style script that was still in use at the time, even though it originated in the late 8th century.

Some of the characteristics of Old Style letterforms include less contrast between thick and thin strokes; a calligraphic appearance to lowercase letters; angled chisel-like serifs; lowercase letterforms with a relatively small waist or x-height in comparison to cap-height; the use of slightly angled horizontal strokes; and a central axis to circular letters that leans to the left. The sturdy thicker appearance of thick and thin strokes was to endure the stress placed upon them due to the relatively crude technology used in the printing process of the 15th and 16th centuries. Although they originated several hundred years ago, contemporary typeface designers still create fonts that can be classified as Old Style today.

Examples of Old Style types include Jenson, Bembo, Caslon, Centaur, Cloister, Garamond, Goudy, and Requiem.

Old Style. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Old Style. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Transitional types are those that were created between the earlier Old Style period and the later Modern period of type development. John Baskerville is generally credited with popularizing the adoption of these types. The Transitional style advanced upon the classical references of Old Style types and became the precursor to Modern Style types. This historical typographic movement was relatively short lived, from 1750 to 1800, although the design of Transitional types carries on today. The more refined appearance of Transitional type designs became possible due to technical advancements in printing.

Still retaining some of the structural traits of Old Style types, Transitional letterforms differ in that they have more contrast between thick and thin strokes; eliminate angled horizontal strokes; show more roundness to letters that utilize circular structure; have a vertical central axis in round letters; display larger serifs that rest flat on the base-line and cap-line; and have a balanced waist-height relationship to cap-height.

Examples of Transitional typestyles include Baskerville, Bookman, Bulmer, Century, Fournier, Perpetua, and Times.

Transitional Style. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Transitional Style. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


In 1790 in Italy, Giambattista Bodoni took letterform structure to an extreme by creating type forms that exhibited a drastic contrast between thick and thin strokes. Soon afterward in France, Firmin Didot cut an even thinner and lighter style, and the Modern or Didone type movement was born. Although the model for Modern types is over 200 years old Modern styled fonts are still very popular and continue to be developed today. Again, further advancements in the printing and papermaking technology of the late 17th century allowed for more delicate letterform structures to be printed. With these technical refinements, printed impressions could be achieved without having to place an extraordinary amount of pressure and stress on the cast letterforms. Even if Modern styled cuts were available when the first serif types were being invented, the printing presses of that period would simply not been able to print with them.

Modern types display characteristics that include an elegant relationship of full-bodied thick letter strokes that contrast extremely thin ones; very thin refined serifs that lie flat on the baseline and cap-line; round letterforms that are balanced on a 0-degree vertical central axis; lowercase letters with taller waist-height relationship to cap-height; perfect 90-degree horizontal cross strokes; and large conspicuous counters and eyes.

Modern type examples include Bodoni, Didot, Fenice, Modern No. 20, and Wallbaum.

Modern Style. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Modern Style. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Twenty-five years after the introduction of Modern serif types, Slab-Serif styles began to be produced; around 1815. The Emperor Napoleon can be credited with why they are also called Egyptian. This was due to what type historians thought to be a visual similarity to some characteristics displayed in the drawings Napoleon brought back from an expedition he led to Egypt a few years earlier. Interestingly enough, the structure and appearance of the Slab-Serif style presented the polar opposite to that seen in Modern fonts. This occurred because Slab-Serif types differ in purpose than those that were created as Old Style, Transitional, or Modern styles. The intent of Slab-Serif types was to produce a very bold letterform that would function well in circumstances where printed articles needed to be presented in a public forum and viewed from a distance.

Characteristics of Slab-Serif types include serifs that are the same thickness as letterform strokes; wider serifs than those seen in other classifications of serif types; strokes that display an even-width relationship of thick and thin; and a firmly established horizontal and vertical stroke relationship.

Examples of Slab-Serif typestyles include American Typewriter, Clarendon, Courier, Glypha, Lubalin Graph, Memphis, Museo, Rockwell, and Stymie.

Slab-Serif Style. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Slab-Serif Style. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Italics were among the first styles of Roman type to be created for Renaissance printing; predating some Old Style Roman forms. The original italic was introduced in Italy in 1501 by Aldus Manutius (Aldo Manuzio) and is known as the Aldine Italic. It came about as a response to printers and typographers seeking a new kind of letterform to replace Gothic movable types such as Black Letter and Fraktur. Smaller sized books also began to come into production, which demanded more space efficient types. The Aldine Italic suited this purpose well being patterned after a combination of the Roman stone-carved letterforms still evident on ancient monuments, and Humanistic cursive handwriting styles in use during an earlier part of the 15th century. Although Italic types nowadays are incorporated into most text type families and are used for emphasis in hierarchical typographic arrangements, they originally were stand-alone fonts. 

The main characteristic of Italic types is their slanted appearance. Other stylistic traits of Italic types include cursive styled lowercase letters, many with flourishes; lowercase letter strokes with upward and downward turned endings; and letterforms that appear to join togerther to give the appearance of connected letters to create a flowing "handwritten" look.

There are many examples of Italic types in addition to the Aldine archetype including Old Style, Transitional, Modern, and even Slab-Serif examples. Baskerville, Bodoni, Clarendon, Garamond, Vivaldi to name a few.

Italic Style. Layout courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Italic Style. Layout courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Disclaimer: The versions of historical fonts that are in common use today have been redrawn and adapted to modern technology, and in some instances they have been reinterpreted a number of times over decades and even centuries, so most fonts, although retaining their original traits may be quite different in appearance from their original cut.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Typography For Illustrators: 6. Proportioning

Structural Proportioning

One factor used to classify typestyles is alphabet proportioning, which is based on the width and height relationships of the letterforms that make up a font. This differs from other characteristics that are used to categorize fonts like stroke weight, angle, and/or ornamentation. There are three main types of alphabet proportioning; Old Style, Modern, and Fixed-Width. The letterforms of these three proportional classes vary in their ratio of width to height. For Old Style and Modern fonts the widths of the different letterforms within an alphabet often vary while their height does not. Also, different font styles exhibit a variety of widths with some appearing condensed and narrow, while others appear extended and wide.

Many typestyles have been created as a family of fonts to offer a selection of different letterform weights and proportions. The font family concept began in the 1700's; however, it was Morris Benton who is credited with popularizing it in the 19th century. The purpose of providing various type form versions is to provide flexibility when handling complex hierarchical arrangements. In addition to including a variety of different letterform weights, a large font family will include varieties of width such as, ultra condensed, extra condensed, narrow, condensed, normal, Roman, wide, and extended.

Proportional letterform widths.

Old Style/Humanist

Old style proportioning originated during the ancient Roman Empire and is evident on the architecture and monuments such as the Trajan Column that remain in cities around Italy such as Rome, Pompeii, and Carthage. The proportioning is based on a geometric construct known as the Golden Section. The Golden Section, which was derived from observing plants in nature, was used to determine the aesthetic appearance of each letterform that comprised the Roman alphabet. Letters such as B, E, F, J, L, P, and S have strong vertical 2:1 height to width ratio emphasis, while A, D, H, K, N, R, T, U, V, X, Y, and Z are closer to a 9:8 nearly square ratio. Round letters such as C, G, O, and Q are based on a 1:1 ratio circle. The width of letters M and W extend beyond the height ratio to 9:10.

Old Style proportioning, serif.
Old Style proportioning, sans serif.


Modern is a relative term, and when referring to typography Modern can mean anything from the 18th century onward. Type foundries first introduced what we now call Modern alphabets in the 1790's. These modern proportioned fonts differ from their Old Style predecessors in that the type manufacturers decided to do away with the Golden Section inspired variety of letter widths, to settle on one common width on which to base all the alphabet letters. Although based on one common width, Modern proportioned letterforms have subtle width variations to compensate for optical deceptions; the intention is for all the letters to look as though they are the same width. Letters such as the M and W have been condensed; and C, G, O, and Q, although round letters, are no longer round; to match the common rectangular proportion of the rest of the letters.

Modern proportioning, serif.
Modern proportioning, sans serif.


Also referred to as Super-Shape, the most recent classification, Fixed-Width proportioned alphabets, were introduced in the early 1950’s in Europe. Unlike Modern proportioned alphabets, Fixed-Width letterforms share a common structure, so they not only appear to be the same width; they physically are the same width. So not only do letters like C, G, O, and Q share a common structure, but other letters such as D, E, F, L, S, and U can also be based on an “O” structure. Some Fixed-Width fonts may be comprised exclusively of upper-case letters, while others contain both upper and lower-case.

Fixed-Width proportioning, serif.
Fixed-Width proportioning, sans serif.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Tangents In Illustration

Off On A Tangent

It's time to transgress about tangents; those stealthy compositional gremlins that sneak into illustration compositions and cause all manner of visual mischief; those linear leprechaun's that leap out and steal a viewers attention; those pictorial pixies that spoil a pastoral scene for young and old viewers alike; those magnetic mystics that overpower a center of interest with the simplest touch; those confusing cherubs that place a spell on a viewer who then looses the ability to direct their attention to anything else; those mesmerizing medusas that place viewers in a trance and turn their gaze to stone; those gob smacking ghosts that invade the imagination of illustrators who unknowingly apply them to their canvases.

Illustrators know what they are, and at one point or another, have fallen under their influence. And, some illustrators who have taken to the tangent habit have become unsuspectingly addicted to composing tangents. Indeed, some severely afflicted illustrators mainline their tangents through the point of a very sharp pencil. And the most tragic cases succumb to tangents through the use of indelible India ink.

Acting as if a Las Vegas Justice of the Peace, an illustrator joins two objects in holy matrimony; and as the saying goes, "until death do they part". With surprising regularity, illustrators are able to put two and two together, without ever realizing they actually had any trigonometry skills in the first place. They fly their pictorial planes on autopilot resulting in unforeseen collisions. To put it mildly, shit happens.

The Trouble With Tangents

When it comes to pictorial composition, few things are as powerful as a tangent. Tangents have the power to glue a cloud to a tree or even to a person's head. A tangent can cause a man and a woman who don't even know one another to suddenly be in love. The old familiar phrase "attached at the hip" was a result of a rash of tangents that suddenly appeared in children's books in the 1930's. I once saw a tangent graft a monkey to a dolphin. Sadly the monkey was drowned, appearing to be underwater and all.

Tangential Meditation

Scientists and physicians discovered about 75 years ago that tangents come from an area of the brain called the cerebellum, or "little brain". So with the use of little brain, it is possible for any illustrator to produce an impressive tangent. When, in the 1960's, mind-altering drugs were introduced to illustration, their effect on the little brain could be seen all across the profession. All of a sudden fields of paisley patterned tangents were locked in a floating oil stain of fluorescent color. The profound power of the tangent had finally come to fruition. Why, viewers who gazed upon these tangential explosions actually lost their ability to think. This tangent induced, momentary lapse of reason even influenced one of the best-known rock bands of all time, forcing them to string together a series of hit albums.

From Tangent to Tangent

Like the human race, which has grown from two billion people in 1930 to seven billion people in 2010, tangent use has grown from a mere five or six hundred at the beginnings of art school education a little over 150 years ago, to as of one minute ago, 2.5 trillion and counting. One art school in a European country that shall remain nameless, last year produced 47,722 tangents, with 36,453 from the freshman class alone.


Identified in the late 1930's, tangentitus was brought to the attention of the medical community by, believe it or not, mothers, who upon reading picture book stories with their children, became noticeably annoyed with the number of illustrations that depicted children tangentially tangled in their mother's apron strings. This was exacerbated by the fact that their own children began to mimic the tangents they saw in the illustrations, thus always being under foot. The immediate conclusion was that tangents were contagious, and that they could be spread from an image to a person in a single glance. This explained how a single illustration with a bad case of tangents, when displayed in a showcase, could spread tangentitis to the entire student body of an art school. Even sculpture students were infected. All of a sudden, in abstract work, cubes began to be balanced on one and other by their corners. In figurative sculpture, fingertips began touching nipples and worse. The situation became ugly, not only in sculpture, but printmaking, illustration,  etc. Tangentitis even showed up in industrial design where students began designed vehicles with doors that couldn't be opened.

7 Warning Signs of Tangentitus

1.     The never-ending line. Where lines connect to other objects beyond the object they depict.
2.     The letter "K". Where a shape or a line touches another forming a K.
3.      "X" marks. Where lines cross and form an X.
4.     Edge tapping. Where shapes touch the edge of other shapes or the picture plane.
5.     Fused forms. Where two shapes converge to form a single shape.
6.     Common edges. Where two objects share a single edge.
7.     Implied alignment. Where two separated lines or shapes form a visual grouping.

Never ending line. © 2013 Don Arday.
The letter "K". © 2013 Don Arday.
"X" marks the spot. © 2013 Don Arday.
Edge tapping. © 2013 Don Arday.
Fused forms. © 2013 Don Arday.
Common edge. © 2013 Don Arday.
Implied line. © 2013 Don Arday.

Tangent Therapy

All kidding aside, tangents can, and do, disturb the harmony of a pictorial composition. And the only way to control them is to recognize them when they occur, and to make adjustments as needed. Below are some tips and tricks for identifying and developing sensitivity to tangents.  

7 Treatments to Cure Tangents

1.     Produce refined sketches. Define shapes and lines clearly to improve the readability and recognition of tangents.
2.     Examine object relationships. Look for awkward interactions between shapes and/or lines.
3.     Examine sketch perimeters. Look at the relationship of lines and objects in proximity to all edges.
4.     Turn the sketch upside down. The change of attitude will impose a focused examination of form relationships and minimize distractions related to content.
5.     Flop the sketch. The reorientation will draw attention to uncomfortable or problematic shape or line relationships.
6.     Mask off portions of the sketch. Cut a 1” square whole in a piece of plain paper to mask out all but a small portion of the composition for examination.
7.     View in outline form. An outline version makes it easier to see tangents that are caused by shapes. 

Tangents Can Be Our Friends

Not all tangents are bad. Tangents can also be used to deliberately and very effectively focus a viewer’s attention. They can even be used to form relationships between elements within an arrangement. To do this, tangential relationships of shape and line must be thoughtfully considered and intentionally designed into a composition. Like medicinal vaccines, recognizing tangents; using them sparingly; and/or controlling them completely; can result in an illustration that is immune to boredom.