next page

What distinguishes a good letter from a bad one?paul shaw

This question has long occupied all those who make or study letters: linguists, computer scientists, calligraphers, lettercarvers, sign painters, and type designers.

How we define the essence of a letter, its “A-ness” to use a common term, is a mental construct and a key to distinguishing good from bad letter design. In 1931 English lettercutter and type designer Eric Gill asserted, “Letters are signs for sounds. . . . Letters are not pictures or representations. They are more or less abstract forms.” For Gill, each letter exists as a Platonic entity. He believed ideal letters tend to be conceived of as monoline forms, in effect the bones underlying the familiar second-century Roman imperial capitals epitomized by the inscription at the base of Trajan’s Column.

From this Trajanic skeleton Gill and others have developed a classicist vision of what constitutes good and bad letters. Edward Johnston, the father of the good letter graphicmodern revival of calligraphy and Gill’s mentor, described the qualities that distinguished good letters as: “Simplicity: having only necessary parts. Distinctive-ness: having marked features. Proportion: having each part its proper value.”

As products of the Arts and Crafts movement, Johnston and Gill saw letters as “useful things.” In 1902 Johnston declared, “The student should have nothing to do with ‘artistic lettering’ or ‘quaint letters’ or the novel misarrangements of ‘display’ lettering, his concern is really with good lettering. . . . We must not degrade them from their high office of usefulness to serve the ends of affectation or vulgarity.”

The enemy was not only artistic lettering but Art Nouveau and, by the time of Gill’s essay, Art Deco. Such letters violated the idea of norms of proportion, even in their monoline manifestations. In Art Nouveau monoline letters often undulated in unpredictable ways while in Art Deco letters that “should” be narrow were wide and vice versa. The non-monoline examples of Art Nouveau and Art Deco letters were more troublesome to the classicists because they attacked the very notion of letters having a fixed, skeletal ideal form.

Douglas Hofstadter, a computer scientist at Indiana University, has criticized the notion of a fixed ideal letter from a different perspective. Hofstadter was unconcerned with whether or not letters are good or bad, but only whether or not they conform to the bounds of their essence. He proposed that the essence of letters was located in their parts whose “roles”—not their geometric shapes—constituted the uncapturable spirit of a letter.

In the end, Hofstadter realized that the essence of a letter is not an independent entity but that “letters mutually define each others’ essences.” In terms more familiar to calligraphers and type designers, the identity of a letter often depends upon its context within a word or sentence. This is where theories of ideal letters and good versus bad letters run into the realities of writing—writing not in the narrow sense of joined letterforms but in the broader sense of systems of visual information storage.

The argument between good and bad letters began some 600 years before Gill’s twentieth-century essay. It was first articulated in the late fourteenth century by Petrarch and his Humanist followers as they rejected the Gothic letters of their time in favor of the Roman letters of antiquity (or, more accurately, of the Carolingian era). In the centuries since, it has been linked not only to debates over changing artistic movements but to worries about the effects—inevitably degrading—of machines on writing.

Machines have been viewed as a threat to good letterforms because of their limitations as well as their possibilities. They have been chided for their inability to fully render letters on a par with the best ones made bad letter graphicby hand while at the same time being excoriated for the capability of making innumerable variations (distortions) of such letters. These views are not limited to the computer—but also have been applied to the pantograph, the Linotype, the typewriter, and to phototypesetters such as the Lumitype.

Much of the distrust of machines making letters is a product of the Arts and Crafts movement and its belief that things should express the tools that made them.Gill took a contrary position when he asserted that “The mind is the arbiter in letter forms, not the tool or the material. . . . Letters are letters, whether made by hand or by machine.”

Indeed, machines have proven themselves capable of making good letters just as humans have shown themselves able to make bad ones. The real worry about machines, it seems, is that amateurs—usually defined as individuals lacking the ability to tell a good letter from a bad one—will gain control of the process of making letters and that all hell will break loose. This is precisely what happened in the nineteenth century with the pantograph, in the 1960s with the process camera, and again in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the computer.


next page