22 November 2011

gee whiz

This, from Juliet Shen, type designer and graphic designer working in Seattle.

The small letter gee is close to my heart.
It’s endowed with unique anatomical parts. It succeeds in flaunting its personality to a degree considered to be poor taste among other minuscules. It doesn’t toe the baseline like its siblings. Here are some of the quirky gees that I love, from the early American Type Founders Company (ATF) specimen books (1895, 1906). I think they have a lot of attitude.

Top to bottom: Meriontype, American Italic, Erratick, Lafayette and Quaint Roman No. 2, Houghton

In fact Gee was a bit of a cuckoo in the nest. When it joined the alphabet family, it took seventh place from a letter that waited another two centuries to be reinstated, in last place. So you could say Zed has hard feelings towards Gee, but it’s quite obvious from its flippant ear that the feisty minuscule offspring of the usurper could care less.

Cooper black

The small letter gee gave me the courage to design my first font. I thought that 25 years of designing with numerous typefaces would prepare me to design a font, but experience turned out to be a handicap. I couldn’t think of a reason to add another typeface to the pantheon, and certainly didn’t see how I could improve on existing fonts. Then I discovered Adtype in the 1906 ATF specimen book. Look at that gee! I believed I could do better.

Cooper Black

Okay, so it wasn’t that easy to design my own gee. Here are just a few of my first attempts, and none of these made it into the final version of Bullen, now in the Font Bureau library. But look closely at my efforts and you’ll see Adtype genes at work.

Years ago a therapist told me I could improve my own attitude either by taking Prozac or taking daily walks around Green Lake, Seattle’s popular urban pond (same effect on the brain, apparently). I chose the outdoor cure, and that led to a series of small “letterscapes,” landscapes made from single letters. Here’s to you, gee.

20 November 2011

From G to g: the need for speed

The ‘need for speed’ is one reason for the emergent minuscule letter g from its Trajan parent. The changes in letterforms evolve from a gradual reduction in the number of times the pen leaves the paper, and a tendency to incline the letters as they flow into one another.

Eric Gill’s evolution of the small letter g. Gill, 1931.

Bigelow calls the path of the mark-making tool, the ductus. In the majescule writing of the first century, the G ductus was largely invisible; that is, many more movements were made without the pen being in contact with paper. Contrast this with the ductus of a g written in fifteenth century chancery cursive. It has been economised to such an extent, that a high proportion of the movements of the pen are mark-making.

Illustration redrawn with modifications from Bigelow and Day, 1982

The minuscule hand was not only the result of an economising of pen-movements. It was the result of the influence cursive hands had on formal hands, and vice-versa. At any one time, in the evolution of writing, there is a wide range of styles in existence, varying from the most formal, careful calligraphy to quick notes. (Sometimes quickly scribbled forms accompany a formally written text on the same page of the manuscript). The quicker more cursive notes inevitably influenced the majuscule forms; in turn the scribbled letters re-made by the scribes’ broad nib became a formal hand in its own right,
Roman letter development began with a skeleton alphabet and then occurs on the one hand, a formal characterisation of this alphabet influenced and largely produced by the broad-nibbed pen, and, on the other hand, a less formal characterisation resulting from the scribbling of the educated public: this development, at first controlled by the tool and material – the stylus and wax tablets of the public – was mastered by them, the scribblers, and became an economic development, simplified strokes and linkings or loopings, saving both time and space. The craftsmen in their turn, borrowing the more economic skeleton forms characterised them afresh by means of the broad nib. Johnston, 1913. 

19 November 2011

Describing the small letter g

Here’s an attempt at a standard set of terms to describe the generic small letter g for use in this blog. The terms are applicable to single and double storey gs in their roman, italic, and black letter variant forms.

The ear is the finished stroke to the right of the bowl, and is ‘growing’ from the bowl.
The bowl is the curved stroke enclosing an area above the baseline. It includes oval and angular shapes, as well as circular. The bowl counter is the shape of the space inside the bowl.
The link is the connecting stroke between the bowl and the tail.
The stem is the stroke on the right hand side of single storey gs, linking the ear to the tail.
The tail is the parts below the baseline. It may be open or closed. When the tail is open, it has a terminal. The tail counter is the shape of the space inside the tail, even when it is open.

18 November 2011

Naming systems

I need to stop the history stream here, and lay down a few ground rules. Giving names to things is one way of pinning things down, though in the case of the small letter g, it’s a bit like nailing jelly to the wall. For the pedantic, here’s some naming systems:

Moxon, Mechanick Excercises, 1683. Doesn’t refer to the curve parts of the letters, and most of his terms relate to the activity of punchcutting. He does however coin the term, ‘beak’ to cover the ‘fine Stroak or Touch that stands to the Left Hand of the Stem, [...] yet gs have Beaks on the Right Side of the Stem.

Thorp, in the Monotype Recorder, 1931: ‘The roman l.c. g gives more scope for variety than any other roman l.c. letter, and is generally an identifying letter of any fount. It will be found convenient, then, to distinguish explicitly four parts of the lower case g – the bowl, the link, the loop and the ear.’
‘The bowl is the name given to the upper rounded form of the g’ [...] a loose term to include the oval as well the circular’. To the parts of the tail, Thorp gives the name  of link and loop, regardless of whether it is open or closed. Thus, Thorp considers he has a nomenclature ‘of sufficient explicitness’. Here are some of his descriptions:
Centaur g. Large biassed bowl; sharp-angled link horizontal; flat loop; vertical-sheared ear 
Baskerville g. Flattened horizontal stressed bowl; link horizontal; curved ear; pear terminal. (The terminal here refers to the terminal resulting from the open bowl)
Garamond g. A large bowl; horizontal stressed, acute-angled link, slightly oblique; small curved, ‘blob’ ear, appreciably below mean-line.
Gaskell, A nomenclature for the letterforms of roman type, 1974. The bowl is ‘a curved stroke enclosing the area’; the ear, a small stroke to the right of the bowl; the link, the middle stroke joining the bowl to the tail; the tail, the parts below the baseline of g.

More detail needed, for a proper discussion...

Taking shape

Perhaps because the letter G was a latecomer to the alphabet — all the other letterforms were firmly fixed by 8BC — the G remained an amorphous character. Formal inscriptions aside, there were many ‘acceptable’ letter G variants, often within the same carving or manuscript: variously named the the ‘square G’ (the classic ‘Trajan’ form), the ‘involute G’ (the final swing curls in on itself in a spiral), the ‘bearded G’ (the final swing terminates in a curve underneath the letter) and, a rare and curious C/G ‘offspring’ form. More of that later.

G variants in early roman letterforms, as redrawn by David Jones, lettering artist, 1895-1974. David Jones and the Art of Lettering, Nicolete Gray, Motif No 7, 1961.

17 November 2011

In at No.7

The new G moved into seventh place in the alphabet, displacing the Z, for which there was no need. The Z was later resurrected at the end of the alphabet. In formal roman inscriptions, it most often looked like this Imperial Majescule G, first painted by a signwriter onto the stone, then carved with a hammer and chisel. Here, Father Catich’s imagined brushstroke G next to his redrawn Trajan G from The origin of the serif, 1968.

14 November 2011

Finding its tail

Our story starts with the Latin g sound and its translation into an alphabetic symbol c7BC. At that time there appears to be no distinction between the sounds k (hard c) and g. Both sounds were represented by the letter C, which according to the context could be read as C or G (look at the many inscriptions devoted to the Emporer Gaius or Caius along the Appian Way in Rome). The important development comes comes in 312 BC: a new sign was created by the addition of an accent to the lower end of C, converting it to a G.
Here, at Ostia, Italy: some surviving mosaic lettering, from 1/2BC. I found all these accented Cs in the same inscription.

13 November 2011

G beginnings

Letters are signs for sounds. Letters are not pictures or representations (…) and tho’ our letters may be shown to be derived form picture writing, such derivation is is so much part of the dim and distant past as to concern us no longer. Gill, 1931.
 A little concern for the G’s pre-Latin origins, then, but not too much:
Signs for g-like sounds can be traced as far back as 200BC (Egyptian hieroglyphs), 13BC (Semitic alphabet). There was a Phonecian ‘gimmel’ (11BC), a Greek ‘gamma’ (9BC), an Aramaic ‘gamal’ (8BC), a Hebrew ‘gimel’ (3BC), and a Syriac ‘gomal’ (2BC)… but the symbol remained virtually the same.

09 November 2011

The giraffe of the alphabet

This, from Gerard Unger’s Letters, a collection of texts from a newspaper column ‘Letter en Geest’ contributed to an Amsterdam newspaper between 1989 and 1990:
The g is the most beautiful letter in the alphabet. Not the one on the left, the one on the right. One with an eye and a loop, the other with two eyes, or an eye and a loop. But what do I mean by letter g? Sometimes so hard, as in German, sometimes so soft, as in can be in French — and certainly not the sound that g gerenerally represents in Dutch — that cross between a cough and a gargle that foreigners find so difficult and ugly. And what does beautiful mean? It is a word that we are capable of using totally blindly, and with perfect conviction. Compare: one of the most amazing creatures of the animal kingdom is the giraffe. Certainly a trotting giraffe: with long knobbly legs, crossed and uncrossed again in wide sweeps — without becoming entangled. Above them, that long, long neck, slowly and regally inclined, then held erect again. Beautiful indeed. Pure beauty. A cause for boundless lyricism. And too, a giraffe has beautiful eyes and a beautiful coat. The g is the giraffe of the alphabet: an amazing creature surrounded by quotidian quadrupeds. Most of the small letters are simple combinations of these elements: arcs and straight lines (horizontal, vertical or sloping). Only the a, g and s escape this pattern, the g most of all. Strange is beautiful.

08 November 2011

A nice G

In the early years of the nineteenth century, skilled engravers at the London typefoundry of Louis John Pouchée produced a series of finely-crafted, highly decorative alphabets for use on printed posters. The letters were over 100 mm high and made from single blocks of end-grain boxwood. This G was scanned from a print from the original at St Bride Printing Library.

Why g?

This is a question I’m asked a lot. The short answer is: it’s the best letter. The long answer? This is going to take a few more posts to explain...