What distinguishes a good letter from a bad one?The digital type revolution of the 1980s coincided with a renewed interest in vernacular lettering, lettering made by amateurs. Ben Shahn, one of the first connoisseurs of vernacular letters, wrote in Love and Joy about Letters that it was the existence of machine letters—he had metal type in mind—that freed the artist from the strictures of perfectionism normally associated with lettermaking. It is thus not surprising that a renewed interest in vernacular letters coincided in the 1980s with the onset of the digital type revolution. What is surprising is the paradoxical desire of many type designers at that time to use the computer itself to make “imperfect” typefaces—by roughing up contours, by adding alternate letters, by mimicking “bad” letters, or by “collaging” existing typefaces.

“The artist, the letter-maker, has always thought of himself as making existing forms,” wrote Gill, “and not inventing new ones.” Collaged typefaces such as Fudoni—a combination of Futura and Bodoni—upset dichotomies of old and new or good and bad, yet they retain “A-ness.”

Decorative letters, on the other hand, have never been part of the classicist’s domain of acceptable letters, in part, because many feel decorated letters are closer to drawing than to writing.

There are several ways in which pictures and letters can interact in decorative lettering: figures can inhabit letter strokes, as if frozen in ice; figures can reside in the counterspaces of letters (as in most historiated initials); figures—which may be animal, mineral, or architectural as well as human—can form letters; or figures can replace letters (or their components). Sometimes the figure can not only replace a letter but also serve as a rebus or pun for it, increasing the semantic meaning of the word or phrase in which it appears.

All of us—whether professional lettermakers or laypeople—frequently see anthropomorphic qualities in letters. The standard terminology of letters includes references to feet, legs, tails, shoulders, and eyes. This is even true for classical Roman capitals, those perfect manifestations of clothed Platonic letters. In the sixteenth century author Geofroy Tory tried to balance his rationalist activity with a symbolic, pictorial description of those very same letters in his book Champ Fleury. He wrote: “An A has its legs stretched out and spread wide, like a man’s feet and legs when he is walking along” while its crossbar “exactly covers man’s genital member to denote that modesty and chastity are to be desired above all things in those who seek access and entry to the world of letters, to which A is the doorway, being the first letter in all alphabets.”

Let us enter Tory’s world in which an A is more than an A—even in its purest form—is more than an A, and where a letter is not just a letter. End of Article

Paul Shaw is the principal of Paul Shaw/Letter Design and adjunct teacher of graphic design history at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. He was a faculty member at this year’s Alumni College, which focused on letters, images, and texts.