An Enchanted Alphabet

I have a special affection for decorated letters, especially the ornamented designs of the nineteenth century. You know the kind: they're chubby Regency typefaces, slab serifs or high-contrast ‘Fat Faces,’ mostly, whose surfaces are emblazoned with intricate patterns or pastoral scenes. The collection of L. J. Pouchée contains some genuine masterpieces that I’ve long admired, letters festooned with grapevines or peonies or cobblestones, or illuminated with bucolic vignettes of farmer at the plough. “We should really do something in this vein,” I once said to Tobias. “Covered in fax machines, or pigeons?” he quipped. I dropped the topic.

Designer Jeanie Nelson has picked it up. On her blog Jeanie & Jewell, she’s exhibiting a wonderful collection of ornamented capitals of her own invention, and they are absolutely enchanting. There are so many things to love about these that I hardly know where to begin: the cheery colors whose roles change from letter to letter, the witty imagery that conceals more than a few oblique puns, the whimsical way she tweaks the nose of typographic convention whenever the spirit moves her. (Most type designers start with the sober letter H that serves as a template for the rest of the design; Jeanie Nelson’s H, right now, is having more fun than any H that’s ever lived.) I’m delighted by this design not only because of its squirrels, dragons, pineapples and ice cream cones, but because it pays homage to a potent and beloved historical style without ever becoming a stuffy museum piece in period dress. That the koala bear in the K is climbing a letter made of wood just makes it doubly fantastic. —JH

The Alphabet: A Dramatic Reading

This clip of James Earl Jones reciting the alphabet is so disturbing that I can’t believe it actually aired on the Sesame Street of my youth — not without dissuading me from my current career, anyway. All I can say today is that I wish he’d included an “and,” so that I could cobble together a sample of “This... is H&FJ” for my ringtone.

Other videos I’d like to see include Christopher Lloyd reading “lorem ipsum,” and Christopher Walken performing the 1940 type specimen of the Linotype company: “How, is one... to assess, and evaluate, a type face in terms. Of its esthetic. Design.” —JH

Taxonomy Meets Typography

Tina at Swissmiss turned me on to this lovely poster by Decoylab, which wouldn’t you know it makes lovely use of Gotham Extra Light. I’m amazed that designer Maiko Kuzunishi came up with so many recognizable silhouettes, more so that she found so many that are sympathetic with the shape of their initials. (The B is almost a butterfly already, but who’d have seen the J in jellyfish?) Maiko imagines her poster as a fine addition to a child’s room, and I agree: it’s cheerful, engaging, and subliminally inculcates in tomorrow’s animal lovers a taste for fine typography. —JH

Our Middle Name

Last month’s posts about the and the ß prompted a flurry of e-mail inquiring about other special favorites in the character set. Matt McInerney guessed correctly that the ampersand is one for which we have special affection, and asked if there was anything else we could say about it. How could we not? Ampersand, after all, is H&FJ’s middle name.

Though it feels like a modern appendix to our ancient alphabet, the ampersand is considerably older than many of the letters that we use today. By the time the letter W entered the Latin alphabet in the seventh century, ampersands had enjoyed six hundred years of continuous use; one appears in Pompeiian graffiti, establishing the symbol at least as far back as A.D. 79. One tidy historical account credits Marcus Tullius Tiro, Cicero’s secretary, with the invention of the ampersand, and while this is likely a simplified retelling, it’s certainly true that Tiro was a tireless user of scribal abbreviations. One surviving construction of the ampersand bears his name, and keen typophiles can occasionally find the “Tironian and” out in the world today.

As both its function and form suggest, the ampersand is a written contraction of “et,” the Latin word for “and.” Its shape has evolved continuously since its introduction, and while some ampersands are still manifestly e-t ligatures, others merely hint at this origin, sometimes in very oblique ways. The many forms that a font’s ampersand can follow are generally informed by its historical context, the whims of its designer, and the demands of the type family that contains it: below, a tour of some ampersands and the thinking behind them, along with an explanation of the storied history of the word “ampersand” itself.


How We Know Our ABCs

Illustration by Colin Ford. Typeface: Archer

“Collation” is the technical term for the order in which the letters of the alphabet are arranged. Anyone who’s ever glanced at a foreign alphabet has noticed the consistencies that have been preserved over the millennia: our Latin “A, B, C” resembles the Greek “alpha, beta, gamma,” as well as the Arabic “’alif, bā’, tā” and Hebrew “aleph, bet, gimel,” all of which are traceable to the Phoenician “’āleph, bēth, gīmel.” By the time we’ve passed through the Proto-Canaanite “’alp, bet, gaml” to the Ugaritic “alpa, beta, gamla,” we’ve travelled back 3,500 years; what's interesting is that the shapes of these letters are unrecognizable, but their order is utterly familiar.

I came across a passage last night that speaks to the significance of alphabet collation. I’d always imagined that the modern practice of labelling parts for assembly using the alphabet — insert tab A into slot B, etc. — must be a post-industrial innovation, one which relied upon modern standards of literacy. Not so:

Ancient Near Easterners used fitters’ marks, single letters of the alphabet apparently used to indicate the order in which various building materials are to be assembled. Various decorative ivory pieces from Nimrud, Iraq, were letter-coded to show the order in which they were to be inserted into furniture. In a temple at Petra, Jordan, archaeologists found “large, individually letter-coded, ashlar blocks spread along the floor of [a] room ... in the temple structure.” In a 1971 salvage expedition of a ship downed off Marsala, Italy, Honor Frost discovered “letters at key places where wood was to be joined ... the ship assembly [was thus] a colossal game of carpentry by letters, like a modern paint-by-numbers project.”

This is from The World’s Writing Systems, edited by Peter T. Daniels and William Bright. Oxford University Press, 1996. —JH

The Sulzbacher Eszett

Our designers are often asked if there are particular letters that we especially enjoy drawing. Office doodles testify to the popularity of the letter R, perhaps because it synopsizes the rest of the alphabet in one convenient package (it’s got a stem, a bowl, serifs both internal and external, and of course that marvelous signature gesture, the tail.) A quick straw poll names a, r, f and e as popular letters too, as well as the figures 2 and 5, and our resident Cyrillist admits a soft spot for the swash capital dje (Ђ.) The back end of the character set definitely invites invention as well: steely designers always appreciate a well-made paragraph mark or double dagger, and we certainly have our fun drawing them.

One character that’s especially gratifying to get right is the eszett, if only because it so stubbornly resists being figured out. Eszetts can follow any number of constructions, from the romanized long-s-short-s of Archer to the more Teutonic long-s-meets-z of Verlag. Most fonts strike some balance between these extremes, introducing internal shapes that echo other parts of the character set (as in Mercury) or using simplified geometries that reinforce the philosophy behind the overall design (as in Gotham.)

Historian James Mosley has posted an essay about the eszett to his indispensable Typefoundry blog, which sheds some light on the character’s checkered past. (The eszett lives in contemporary German as a ligatured form of the double s, but its very name means s-z; Mosley explains why.) An especially welcome gift from the essay is the correct technical name for the romanized ß: it is the “Sulzbacher form,” after Abraham Lichtenthaler, the seventeenth century printer denizened in the Bavarian town of Sulzbach, who is credited with introducing the character to roman printing type. —JH

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