Episode 3: Some thoughts on setting a page in the Classical Style

October 15, 2023: Some thoughts on setting a page in the Classical Style​.

Every once in a great while, something comes along that I find I just have to print. Such was the case with watching the 2021 Presidential Inauguration ceremony. When Amanda Gorman read her historic poem, I found myself moved by both the words and her delivery. Several days later, a friend asked me if I had plans to set it in type and print it because he wanted a copy. Immediately, “if” became “when,” and I set to work on a much more complicated project than I had expected. 

I will briefly walk you through my thoughts on producing the broadsheet I privately printed* in 2022 as an example. Given the gravity of the setting and delivery, I felt I had to reach back to classical works to express my feelings for the work. Ultimately, I chose a European Renaissance style, and nothing says “Renaissance typesetting” to me more than ‘Hypnerotomachia Poliphili’ (The Dream of Poliphilus), printed by Aldus Manutius in 1499 using type made by Francesco Griffo. 

*with permission, of course
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili
The image above is in the Public Domain and taken from the Met Museum website:

The design convention of the day allowed odd word breaks and hyphenations, but my admittedly modern preference is a justified text block with no hyphenation, and so the first challenge:. 

When setting a justified text block, you need to consider character count and line endings. The first is mostly so you don’t run out of type, and the second is so you can minimize hyphenated words at line endings. In the past, knowing the character count also allowed you to estimate a text block size by referring to a setting table. These were reference tables of popular faces printed in textbooks as late as the late 1960s. Commercial typesetting houses would often offer sample text blocks set in different text widths and sizes & leading to help estimate the number of characters you should expect to use. Type specification was still easier than rendering type – you actually had to be able to draw. 

This text was hand-set in a non-standard face, so were are no tables to consult. Luckily, I could rely on a page layout program to do all that work, and  it only required a matching digital font. Also, it’s relatively easy to justify type if you have a wide enough set width; narrower widths require careful word spacing and judicious use of spacing materials. Using a Roman face, you can also employ letter spacing, which does not work well with either Italic or Blackletter faces. The text above* is 16D/18 Monotype Poliphilus set to a 46 pica width. 

Then there is introductory emphasis.

 A header with classical ornament is rarely out of place. The names of the poem and author are presented dramatically, couched in this particular pattern of Granjon ornaments which can be traced to 1569.

I tried to make the setting more interesting by employing a rubricated Versal and emphasizing the first three words for a more classical feel. 

The words are kerned by carefully undercutting the type on a printer’s saw, and the baseline shifted slightly downwards for a more pleasing balance. In this case, the Versal also references Ms. Gorman, who wore red and yellow when she delivered this poem at the Inauguration. 

Interestingly, the poem easily lent itself to this style, even to the very last word.  

The trick to setting a ”tail” like this (in either digital or type metal) is to start setting from the bottom and work your way up until you have achieved the full width of the text block. Spacing materials are equal on both sides, and the individual line lengths can be informed by a computer-derived layout.


Printed with permission: “The Hill We Climb” ©2021, Amanda Gorman.

Episode 2: What is good typography, and why shouldn’t I see it?

April 15, 2023: What is good typography, and why shouldn’t I see it?

Good typography is invisible” is a common enough paraphrase, but I think we should just give Beatrice Warde the credit and not argue. She actually wrote, “Good printing is invisible,” but I think you get the point. Before the pedantic among us are tempted to take this argument to its comical extreme, let me qualify that sometimes you DO see good typography, it’s just not very often.

It was Frederic Goudy who, upon receiving a hand-calligraphed award, famously said, “Anyone who would letter space blackletter would steal sheep.” I feel just as strongly about using Blackletter in all caps, which puts me at odds with far too many biker gangs and tattoo artists. I’m not looking for a fight, but I will offer any of them a free typographic consultation if they promise not to hurt me. But more to Goudy’s point, most things you notice about typography aren’t good. Awkward kerning, mixing faces indiscriminately, crash leading… all detract from the message.

Good letter spacing and kerning are essential for words like “FLICKS” and “THERAPIST.” A pleasingly kerned word can be a thing of beauty; awkwardly kerned and spaced words are merely distracting at best. Kerning is the space between individual letters, and Letter-spacing (aka “Tracking” for you digital folks) is spacing between all the letters in a line or paragraph.

Good typeface choices are important – Papyrus and Comic Sans are the whipping boys of designers everywhere because they exhibit a complete lack of self-awareness. Curlz is more aloof because it’s intentionally silly. But even a face as staid as Caslon will suffer if you spend more time focusing on the typeface rather than what it spells out. The goal of type designers should be to create an evocative yet transparent face. An engaging face that can deliver bad news in a pleasing manner.

Emphasis contributes as well. Using caps & small caps instead of boldface can make a stronger statement without shouting. The inherent authority of this combination sneaks up on you, and mixing C/sc and lowercase can change the focus of an otherwise highly-charged statement. 

Monotype Poliphilus & Poliphilus Titling (handset), based on the types of Francesco Griffo c. 1498

An important thing to remember is that good typography doesn’t take itself too seriously, and what we consider “good” is always subjective. Too many rules? Just smile and bend them* or break them in an informed manner. It’s just ink on paper or pixels on a screen. Classic Roman letterforms were far more serious – no punctuation or word spacing, and it was literally carved in stone. Plus, they had several fewer letters to work with.

*The C/sc above are really two different sizes of Titling caps. Monotype never made any small caps for the Titling face.

Here’s an example of a Roman stone carving showing their respect for letterforms:

Arch of Titus, Rome, 1st century CE.

No punctuation or word spacing, and pompous as only a Roman Triumphal Arch can be.

And here is my favorite example of stunt kerning:

Carved marble panel, Baptistry, Florence, 13th century.

What a difference 1200 years makes. So yes, I like to see good typography, but Interesting typography gets my attention every time.

Recent Typography Posts

Episode 1: Robert Granjon’s Typographic Ornaments

Metal type kerning example

Robert Granjon (1513-1590) developed a set of six combinable typographic fleurons (or “arabesques”), which have remained a staple of typographical and academic interest for several hundreds of years. Until now, every example I have seen, and every book written about them, utilize relatively small, decorative showings, which do not live up to the graphic potential of these deceptively simple glyphs. 

Here are the six fleurons and some simple combinations of just one of them.

Developing a feel for setting these ornaments can be intuitive at first, but only experience will reveal the endless possibilities. It’s easy enough to put together simple combinations, but you will find that the larger the pattern attempt, the more difficult it will be to execute successfully. There are a good number of books on the subject, many of which are listed below as “suggested reading.”

(to be continued)

Suggested reading:

A Suite of Fleurons, Ryder, John [1956] Phoenix House, London

Kleins Speil mit Ornamenten, Caflisch, Max [1965] Angelus-Druck Bern – http://jacques-andre.fr/faqtypo/orn/jeux.pdf

The Granjon Arabesque, Offner, Elliot [1969] The Rosemary Press (250 copies)

Printers’ Ornament, Roylance, Dale [?] Columbiad Club (50 copies)

Flowers & Flourishes, Ryder, John [1976] The Bodley Head

Framed with Flowers, Broadribb, Conant [1979] Demi-Griffin Press (100 copies)

An Exploration of the Granjon Arabesques, Tarachow, Michael & Dostale, Mercedes [1990] Pentagram Press (312 copies)

A Granjon Arabesque, Bolton, Clare [1998] Alembic Press (140 copies)

Granjon’s Flowers: An Enquiry into Granjon’s, Giolito’s, and De Tournes’ Ornaments 1542-86, Vervliet, Hendrik D. L., [2016] Oak Knoll Press

A Showing of Fleurons, Gravemaker, Thomas [2023], Bodleian Bibliographical Press (~30 copies)

The Diary of a Printer in Residence, Gravemaker, Thomas [2023], Letterpress Amsterdam (40 copies) See also: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AlTy6OmiSLY

Recent Typography Posts