“Words originated as gestures of the body. The first typefaces were directly modelled on the forms of calligraphy. Typefaces, however, are not bodily—they are manufactured images designed for infinite repetition.” —Ellen Lupton, Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors and Students (2004)
This line—the first sentence of the second paragraph of Lupton’s Thinking with Type—is misleading. Don’t get me wrong, the book is a fantastically simple guide for the budding designer to get their bearings in the world of typography, 2D design and page architecture. What’s missing are the fun and fascinating elements in typography’s rich history; namely, the recognition of the origins of written word.
Lupton does a fantastic job of describing how script came to be moveable type, but never addresses how script came to be script. Yeah, we adapted our printing press typography from calligraphic script but where did that script come from?
To make a very long story short: the Phoenician alphabet is considered to be a distant ancestor of our modern alphabet and the first phonetic alphabet (previous communication systems were pictorial, eg. Hieroglyphics). The Phoenicians, while at war with the Greeks created the alphabet as a secretive communication strategy. They were ultimately conquered by the Greeks who adapted the alphabet for their own use. In fact, the word “phonetic,” stems from the Greek words “phonetikos” meaning vocal and “phonet” meaning to be spoken; words drafted to describe the Phoenician’s conception of the alphabet. Later, the Romans adapted the alphabet and TA-DA the MODERN ROMAN ALPHABET. Throw in a few stories on the crusades, the spread of Western Christianity during the Middle Ages and Charlemagne and you’ve got the addition of lower case! The creation and development of typography was once wedded to war and conquest.
This is a story that needs to be told more often because A) it allows further respect for the forms of letters through and acquaintance with their origin and B) it supports the fascinatingly disturbing idea that some of our greatest inventions, as a species, are born from bloodshed.
“That’s something that tends to happen with new technologies generally: The most interesting applications turn up on a battlefield, or in a gallery.” —William Gibson, Spook Country (2007)
Arguably, these details are irrelevant to a guide book addressing typographic usage and layout but I disagree: Lupton begins this type journey with a brief lesson on moveable type, Gutenburg, engravery, etc. Why tell half the story? If you’re going to be a guide book, be a guide book; if you want to help people appreciate typography, give them to resources to do so. Karen Cheng already has a perfectly acceptable guide book on the anatomy of letters ( Designing Type) and Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic style deals with grid theory in a far more helpful and technical way. Lupton’s book could’ve benefitted from just a little extra history of typography romancing.
Also, I’m not a huge fan of the DIN / slab serif combo. Just saying’.
But either way … TYPE IS HYPE, YO.