Elements of Lettering: Originally Published in 1922

Jun 17, 2012 by

ELEMENTS OF LETTERING originally published in 1922 by Frederic Goudy is a yummy book about letters and lettering.

“The alphabet is a system and series of symbols representing collectively the elements of written language; letters are the individual signs that compose the alphabet, each signifying primarily but one thing, what letter it is, i.e. its name. It does, however, have a secondary function, the part it plays in a word, i.e. its sound; but as this second office is not affected by any peculiarity of form or by its legibility or lack of legibility, it is a function we need not consider here, as we are more concerned with the form a letter takes than with its sound. ‘An individual letter, standing by itself, like a solitary note in music, has no meaning, both acquiring significance only upon association with other characters -whereby a relationship is established.’ It may, therefore, theoretically, be discussed independently, but practically, only as a part of the alphabet to which it belongs. Collections of alphabets removed from their original habitats [early stone-cut inscriptions, manuscript books, etc.] do not always present adaptable forms upon which to found an individual style. Such letters while entirely suitable for use for some specific place or purpose might mislead the beginner, until he has learned something of the history and development of letters, into mistaking mannerisms of the scribe for the essentials of structure. For this reason, the pattern alphabets presented here, for the most part, are type forms, since they are the natural and inevitable materialized letters of the scribes, that is, handwriting divested of the scribe’s vagaries and whimsicalities, conceived as forms cut in metal, simplified and formali2;ed to meet new requirements and new conditions of use. They are simple shapes to be modified and given new expressions of beauty just as they themselves were adapted and simplified from the forms of far-off times. And as nearly all lettering is intended to be used as type or in conned:ion with types, hand-lettering comes, therefore, to a considerable degree within the limitations imposed by type. Lettering based on or suggested by accepted type-forms does not deny the artist ample opportunity to shape his letters more freely or space them more precisely than fixed and implacable metal types allow, as he may, by slight adjustment or modification of the shapes of his model letters, persuade his forms to accommodate themselves to each other in a manner almost impossible with ready made types. The use of these type models as a foundation tends also to free the craftsman s rendition of them from any excrescences, meaningless lines or additions not necessary to their fundamental or essential elements; neither will their use as patterns, in any way preclude the thought of beauty to be attained by the perfectly legitimate variations that good taste and common sense may dictate. Well selected and carefully drawn type-forms, copied without radical changes of shapes, will be found to appeal to the artistic sense and add to the decorative value of the page where used, to a degree not airways attained by prim types, since the artist’s handling of line will give variety, a quality of life and a freedom seldom found in types ready to one’s hand. Yet slavish copying of the examples given is not recommended [except as far as is necessary to familiarize one’s self with their structure]; they are patterns to be studied, that the principles of construction and form underlying each specimen maybe discovered. Each letter drawn ought to convey one clear idea, and one idea only — what letter it is — that the eye need not stop to disentangle the essential form from any eccentricities of handling nor be drawn to the conceit of a craftsman intent on a display of his own skill at the expense of the work he is expected to embellish. It is the personal quality he injects into his work, not freakish variations or unnecessary additions to his pattern letters, that will determine its character. There may be times when the decorative quality of a line of lettering is of greater value than easy legibility, but this fad: should not be made an excuse to deform letters for the sake of expediency nor to produce any of unusual or unfamiliar shape without exceptional artistic warrant.”

 

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