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Alastair Johnston is a scholar, teacher and letterpress printer. He is the author of "Transitional faces," a forthcoming biography of Richard Austin, cutter of the Bell and Scotch Roman types and his son Richard T. Austin, a wood engraver. He is co-editor of William E. Loy's "Nineteenth-century American designers & engravers of type," and most recently has produced "Typographical tourists: tales of the tramp printer," from his Poltroon Press based in Berkeley, California.
The other day someone sent me a link to a website with the preposterous title of “The 100 Best Typefaces of All Time”. Topping the chart was Helvetica, and that stirred my ire. I dismissed the list because it was based on marketing figures from one source, FontShop, coupled with the opinions of half a dozen Berlin-based typographers, but I was still incensed.
When it comes to, say, boxers, you can handicap the various athletes in the ring and predict that Muhammad Ali would beat Jack Johnson or Jim Corbett and that, therefore, he is number one, but a lot of other factors come to bear on your decision: sentimentality, the fact that Ali is acknowledged (by people like me, with no real knowledge of the sport) to be “The Greatest”; he has name recognition, and so on. But how do you evaluate a typeface? Is it just based on its widespread use? Or its suitability to the subject at hand? Ease of reading? Familiarity?
The Industrial Revolution gave us a new iron age, one of cast iron, which a devotee of Vulcan told me he thought was the highest achievement of man — or, as he put it, “the hairless ape.” In the 18th century, cast-iron bridges sprang across British rivers such as the Tay and Severn. These lovely sculptural archways are resistant to rust, so many are still standing.
Before the introduction of Clarendon as a text face, it could be seen as a display type, for example in Figgins’ two-line Pica in shade, from about 1817. It was copyrighted by Robert Besley of London’s Fann Street Foundry in 1845, and as soon as the copyright lapsed three years later, it was widely copied. Railway timetables, newspaper headings, dictionaries, guidebooks, textbooks and other places that required spot emphasis were its preferred venues at first.
It has been said that "we read best what we read most". This quote was used as a type specimen in Emigre magazine in the late 1980's by Zuzana Licko. It was written in defense of her typefaces, whose elemental shapes—designed with the strictures of the early HP laser printer in mind—challenged the commonly held notions of what made typefaces legible.
The paradigm shift—wrought by the personal computer, Postscript and desktop publishing—should have had a massive impact on the shapes of our typographic characters, just as the advances of the World Wide Web further changed the way we viewed words (even though letterforms change at the pace of the most conservative reader). Thus, radical innovations like Kurt Schwitters' Systemschrift, (a phoenetic alphabet from 1927), are doomed to fail.