Saturday, February 4, 2017

Character Traits: The Argument

Letterforms are contingent on the technology by which they are created. Lettering technologies sort themselves into four basic categories—calligraphic, epigraphic, typographic, and digigraphic—and can be simplified for our purposes thus: letterforms that are drawn directly onto a surface using a hand-held tool are calligraphic; those that are incised directly into a surface, epigraphic; those that are cast from a matrix, or mechanically engraved, onto a body of fixed height and depth but flexible width, typographic; and those that are digitally outlined around pixelated clusters, digigraphic. Identifying a letterform’s generative technology gives us insight into the fact that although one variety of letterform may be made to look like another variety, it cannot be made to act like another without, at best, suffering significant loss. For instance, the printed form of a typographic letter may look calligraphic, but typography itself cannot accurately replicate the action of calligraphy. In incunable periods of new technologies, these distinctions take on a deeper relevance as the nascent technology attempts to differentiate itself from other available technologies. This is the period we find ourselves in today with digital letter design.

Although it is generally assumed that contiguous technologies build upon one another, the relationship between them is often quite limited. Fifteenth century book hands provided the initial models for typographic lettering, for instance, but beyond outward appearance there is no meaningful technological connection between the models and their successors. Similarly, typographic lettering (ie. type) has provided the organizing principle for digigraphic lettering, but that is where the relationship ends. Typographic and digigraphic letterforms are subject to different technological limitations, and there is no reason for one to strictly imitate the other. Instead, the goal ought to be to identify and explore the specific technological limitations of digigraphic lettering. This will be achieved by pushing limits.

If we accept the division of letterforms into four general technological categories, then we must also acknowledge that typographic lettering is ontologically distinct from the other three. Every lettering technology has practical restraints, but typographic letterforms are the only ones that are restrained not only in the moment of their creation but in their succeeding existence. They remain subject to the demands of their physical quadratic bodies post partum, in eterno. By contrast, digigraphic lettering, like calligraphic and most epigraphic lettering, is unencumbered by the quadratic grid. (These letterforms may be willingly subjected to a quadratic system, but it is an aesthetic choice, not a technological necessity.) The ontological differences between typographic and other kinds of letterforms suggest that we might find more meaningful lessons for digigraphic lettering by looking to calligraphic and epigraphic models than we will by aping typographic ones.

Lettering technologies embody incumbent practical and aesthetic presumptions that appear universal when they are in fact technologically specific. The gravitational pull of these presumptions long outlasts the transition from one technology to another. An obvious example is the Industrial Age proposition that a single typeface, or a grouping of closely sympathetic designs, is sufficient for the conveyance of complex textual information. In the pre-typographic era it was taken for granted that different kinds of information would be presented in different lettering styles. Early typography imitated this variety in the convention of setting ecclesiastical texts in black letter and secular ones in roman types, in the use of structurally diverse typefaces (often determined by no other means than availability), and in the generational re-interpretation of historical styles. This variety quickly became impractical within the framework of Industrial typographic technology, giving rise to aesthetic presumptions that validated the technology. Such presumptions may have made sense within the framework of their native technologies, but the technological limitations from which they arose no longer exist.

These ideas will be explored in my forthcoming book,
Character Traits. Follow the book’s progress here.