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Leavin’ it out Lupton

“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.

3 comments to Leavin’ it out Lupton

  • Hi Michelle, I also agree that it’s crucial to understand where the characters originated from to understand typography. Chinese and Korean characters stemmed out of human body parts and the simple drawing of the world. Understanding and imagining how the ancestors came up with the shapes really helps to understand the characters and furthermore the typography.
    Typography is such an infinite world where it’s really hard to say that you are a master at it. Not sure I like the statement ‘type is hype’. I actually do like the fact that (non-designer)people are interested in learning about type or try to figure out which is a pretty/trendy type. The interest helps the society to learn about good aesthetics or awareness of what typography is. not to say that there are lots of horrible ones out there, it’s just like ugly commercial visuals that are lavishing on the street. However, where the interest and curiosity lies, it will always improve and grow/flourish.

  • Nancy

    In Walter Ong’s book on Orality and Literacy there’s a great discussion of the invention of the alphabet. The big invention was the divorce from the look/image of the word to the sound as represented by letters. Once that aha! was made it allowed a greater democratization of learning. The idea of the alphabet only needed to be invented has not been replaced (whether you read roman letters, hebrew letters, cyrillic, greek) Type is something else again.. b/c the look of letters facilitates reading (or not) and is appealing(or not) in so many different ways.

    Ong is an essential read. I hope you all get to it some day.

  • Michelle Cortese

    While I entirely agree that typography is an infinite world of its own, we can place a narrative—and therefore finite qualities—around it if we set it in the context of the evolution of letters and the written word. Once that context has been set it’s hard to think about the anatomy of typographic structures without their lineage. I often find myself wondering how the Phoenicians decided what aesthetic forms would represent each sound, and subsequently, what each form can tell us about speech. How does the structure of an ‘B’ represent the sound ‘buh’? What does its curvature sound like, really? It could be interesting to map typographic forms as sound waves and truly listen to our phonetic forms.