Last week I mentioned the atomic pen, which scientists used to construct some awfully tiny letters one atom at a time. These are small letters indeed: measuring two nanometers in height, they’re about ¹⁄₄₀₀₀₀ the thickness of a human hair, which surely gives their inventor sufficient authority to issue the casual throwdown that “it’s not possible to write any smaller than this.” But it is, of course, and the technique for doing so has been known to typefounders for more than five hundred years.
The issue of space-efficiency is one that’s very dear to type designers, and the tradition of designing around spatial limitations is one that dates to the very earliest printed books. The name most commonly associated with compact typography is Aldus Manutius (1449–1515), the renaissance printer who produced the world’s first octavo edition in 1501, a book small enough to be carried in the pocket. Aldus is remembered for a second important innovation as well: it was Aldus’s punchcutter, Francesco Griffo, who cut the world’s first italic typeface in 1499. Below is this italic as it appears in the oldest book in the H&FJ library, a small volume of verse by the humanist poet Giovanni Aurelius Augurello published in 1505. Not coincidentally this is a very small book, measuring just 3½" × 6¼" (89 × 159 mm); italics and small books have something in common.
Before the italic evolved its modern semantic function as an auxiliary to the roman, it was simply a different vernacular style. Some suggest that Aldus’s selection may have had a cultural component — that just as early Venetian printers used roman types to distinguish secular works from religious ones (which were set in blackletter), Aldus may have chosen italic letters to distinguish verse from prose (which was set in roman.) In any case, a demonstrable benefit of italics that Aldus exploited was their economy: italics are narrower than romans, and more compactly fitted, which allowed Aldine editions to carry more words per page than books printed in comparably-sized roman types.
Just as the hypotenuse is always the longest side of a right triangle, an angled letter I will always be longer than an upright I of the same height. This can be a nuisance when designing type families, since an especially slanted italic will have ascenders and descenders that feel too long, and shortening them would undercut a fundamental visual relationship with the matching roman. But where there is no matching roman, as in Aldus’s case, these strokes can be retracted at will, offering the additional benefit of shortening the alphabet’s overall height. And it’s this technique that suggests a solution to the atomic alphabet challenge: by reckoning letters on a rotated grid, in which there are upright vertices instead of horizontal ones, it’s easier to make letters that can be both shorter and more tightly fitted. A final benefit of the rotated grid is the ease with which it can render horizontal strokes, which are crucial to the Latin alphabet, and otherwise impossible in a hexagonal matrix. —JH