Why Did the Modernists Love Sans Serif?

by John Holbo on November 22, 2009

This post is going to have it all: comics, fonts, broadbrush high-lowbrow cultural opinionation, curiously reasonably priced British TV.

We’ll start with fonts. Why did the modernists go ga-ga for sans serif? Take Tschichold, my recent subject of study. Early in his career, he dogmatizes that there is something technically obligatory, inherently suited to the Engineering Age, about sanserif type. What induced him to make such an implausibly strong claim, and induced others to buy it, was somehow a tremendous aesthetic impulse in this direction. This felt so necessary. Human beings aren’t skeptical of arguments that give them exactly what they want, so bad arguments are often most interesting as indices of desire. But what was the Big Deal with filing down all the little pointy bits, all of a sudden?

I’ve been curious about this for a while, but not really sure to what extent it was a question that made enough sense to bother asking. On the one hand, it’s almost impossible to prove why such-and-such suddenly became fashionable then-and-there. On the other hand, in a general sense, the explanation in this case is obvious since seriously overdetermined. W.W. I was over, the old was out and discredited, the new was in and had to be radical. Type design slots in almost self-evidently with architectural and design modernism. If you feel you ‘get’ what Gropius, Le Corbusier and Adolph Loos were on about, and why then was the time for it, the likes of Tschichold don’t take much, if any, special explanation. (Not that Tschichold was just taking his cue from architects.) Sans serif was clean and machine-y and new and rational and future-looking; a sternly ascetic, hence somehow spiritually intense-seeming reproach to all that came before. Clean type for a clean slate. What more could you ask for? (What more can be said?)

A pretty good book on my shelf: Forms in Modernism: The Unity of Typography, Architecture and the Design Arts 1920s-1970s [amazon]. The author, Virginia Smith, doesn’t have anything vastly original to say about modernism. (It’s a short book; its treatments introductory in most ways.) But she makes typography the centerpiece of her ‘visual set’, which is an interesting and valid enough choice. You can ‘see’ the unity of modernism ‘through’ modern typefaces quite as much as in modern buildings or modern furniture designs.

So: what more can be said about why modernism went for sans serif? If you read Tschichold’s The New Typography [amazon] you find, unsurprisingly, that he thinks what he is demanding fits with larger movements in the visual arts, painting and photography. Very roughly, photography is supposed to have freed painting from the subject. So we get impressionism, expressionism, then (even more so) cubism, futurism, constructivism, abstraction. (You can read quite a bit of Tschichold’s book through Google books. The chapter on “The New Art” covers this stuff in particular.) It’s intuitive what modern abstract art has to do with sanserif. That is, when Tschichold aligns himself with what Picasso and Braque were up to, it’s not surprising, but difficult to pin it down. Maybe all you can say is: modernism. In the air. Le Corbusier: “Style is a unity of principle animating all the work of an epoch, the result of a state of mind that has its own special character. Our own epoch is determining, day by day, its own style.”

But I just got a really good book that advances an intriguing and much more specific hypothesis. High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture [amazon], by Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik (1990). It’s a big, lavish coffee table affair, which went with a MOMA exhibit. I like it because it’s got lots of great pictures, it’s really well written – I go for that whole effortlessly New Yorkerier-than-thou Gopnik vibe – and it turns out to be surprisingly focused on type styles and comics. What could be better? (Nothing, that’s what.) OK, I really don’t have time to talk extensively about comics tonight, more’s the pity. But I am completely awestruck to learn that the earliest clearly superhero-style kick to the face by a masked man was delivered by Bibendum, the Michelin Man, with much sang froid. In 1908. Seriously. Why didn’t they give that guy his own comic book? He’s completely awesome.

Right. Sans serif type. Varnedoe and Gopnik note that, as early as 1911, Braque stenciled in ‘Bal’ and ‘Bach’ in a pair of works. See here and here. Then Picasso responded with “Ma Jolie” and “Still Life With Chair Caning” and such. And others, Gris, got into the act. All this collaging. In New Typography, Tschichold specifically mentions that Picasso and Braque pioneered novel techniques for introducing into paintings ‘materials previously considered foreign to them’, and that then others took this further; but he doesn’t mention, specifically, that Picasso and Braque introduced type specimens into their works. Or that the type they selected to paste in tended to be of a particular character: cheaply printed, blocky, ‘grotesque’ slab-serif or stenciled. Newspaper headlines and bits of old-fashioned (even for 1911) ad copy. Quirkily out-of-context joky-hoky stuff. In part, this evoked ‘the street’, the city, newspapers, cafes, the bustle of modern life; in part, it must have appealed to Picasso and Braque the way cheap stuff, particularly dated – but date-able – stuff is appealing to us today. We have an ironic affection-disdain for mass culture artifacts with ‘camp’ or nostalgia value. The quality of the type sampling makes this cubist stuff ‘pop’ art before pop. You get this counterpoint between the superfine high formal hermeticism and the craphounding dive into culturally low materiality.

This reminds me of Tschichold on type (quoted in my review): “None of the typefaces to whose basic form some kind of ornament has been added (serifs in Roman type, lozenge shapes and curlicues in Fraktur) meet our requirements for clarity and purity. Among all the types that are available, the so-called “Grotesque” (sanserif) or “block letter” (skeleton letters would be a better name) is the only one in spiritual accordance with our time.” But why in spiritual accord? What Varnedoe and Gopnik argue is that, oddly, the ‘spirit’ of the earliest attempts to make 19th Century ‘grotesque’ type essentially ‘modern’ was more mocking-affectionate than straight. Then the traffic between high and low got very complex, in a two-way way, especially when you throw advertising in the mix. Highbrows dumpster-dive for print ephemera, then advertisers copy from highbrows, back and forth. Let me just quote the authors, summarizing one nice source they cite.

Mehemed Fehmy Agha, who formed his tastes in Germany in the 1920s and thus had direct experience of the work of pioneering modern graphic designers such as Lissitsky, was called to America by the publisher Condé Nast in 1929. “Dr.” Agha, as he was known, subsequently redesigned American Vogue and other publications in a way that helped bring the United States into the wave of modernization of type styles and layout sweeping Europe. And in 1931, Agha wrote a brief but acute article that gave an overview of one particular element in the changes he had lived through and affected: the emergence of sans serif as the official family of typefaces constituting the modern style.

Picasso, Braque, and Gris, as we noted earlier, recurrently plucked out of newspapers and ads examples from a certain class of typefaces: chunky, utilitarian, and bearing either blocky serifs or none at all. When they did that, around 1912- 15, these forms were hangovers of the crude poster typefaces of the previous century. The first sans-serif faces, after 1800, may have owed something to the emulation of archaic stone inscriptions from antiquity, as a part of neoclassicism; but a great many of the most prominent ones had been devised out of the necessity, in the huge wooden pieces of type used for posters, to eliminate serifs that would have been especially vulnerable to the physical pressures of printing. The Cubists’ selection of these workaday characters from the printer’s bin, dated and utterly lacking in anything one could call style, represented what Agha called “a light Gallic joke,” that then was taken up in earnest by outsiders in Germany and Russia. (The Futurists, too, adopted rudely bold poster type for the masthead of their journal Lacerba; and Picasso responded positively by including that masthead in one of his works. In the context of the broad and fast-spreading influence of the Cubist and Dada innovations in collage and papier collé, outsiders saw the direct simplicity of these letters, isolated or in word fragments, as an essential element in the new look of modernity. And these eager innovators then formulated procedures that would capture that look – by imposing programmatically tilted type lines and sudden scale shifts, and also by devising new, no-nonsense, “functional” sans-serif type fonts. The vogue for the new typefaces, seemingly so attuned to the machine age in their stripped-down bareness, then spread through magazines to expositions and eventually back out into the broadest currents of public print in the 1930s …

Agha saw that the history of sans-serif type was a wheel: starting from the lowest, least prestigious strata of public currency, moving up by artists’ selection into rarefied levels of avant-garde experiment, and from there revolving back around to reenter, and transform, the widest currency of public language. His typographical mini-history involved only matters of the form and style of the modern world of words, rather than more telling issues of its content; but it points out some basic facts of twentieth century history that are useful to recognize. Above all, it suggests that the world of modern public language and that of avant-garde innovation are not irrevocably separate domains, but parallel historical developments, which have recurrently engaged in exchanges, in both directions. The story is one in which modern art was neither simply an enemy of modern commercial culture nor just an occasional poacher on its territory, but a partner in a complex pas de deux of give-and-take: the one drew from the other, and then vice versa. Agha’s wheel is a pattern of linkages and transformations that moves things from one category to another, from one use to another, and from one level of consideration to another. Rather than trying to define isolating barriers and divisions, it sketches a case for the interdependence, within modern art, between playful aesthetic innovation and powerful social activism, and between things that seem merely utilitarian, even shopworn, and things that, in the hands of an artist,’ can become potent, meaningful, and complex. In this sense, the little tale about type may also be a typical tale-and its wheel-like motion worth remembering in the larger cycle of modern art’s interchanges with popular culture. (pp. 59-61)

Now this is waaay too simple to be a magic bullet explanation of why sanserif took off. Varnedoe and Gopnik, by implication, makes it seem as though the likes of Tschichold must have been straight men, not fully in on the Picasso-Braque Cubist hipster joke about good old slab serif & co.: the cheap, strong stuff! But it strikes me that there’s probably something to it. The Agha article – I would like to read it – is “Sanserif” in Advertising Arts (supplement to Advertising and Selling), March 1931, pp. 41-47. The thing about Agha is: apparently he was kind of a genius, but also a commercial art director. It’s hard to believe that you should ever just plain believe what such a creature tells you. Surely he is pulling your leg somewhat, just on principle?

What do you think? Is it plausible that the grandfather of cool, corporate Helvetica was a kind of ironic, high-lowbrow Cubist straddle?

As for the reasonably priced British TV? You can get The Prisoner: The Complete Series, for only $29. That’s seriously a good deal.

Sorry, man. Sale’s over. (What can I offer you? Ooh, how about a free Gentle Giant sampler: In A Power Free Interview [amazon]. I have never been able to decide whether this sort of thing is a guilty pleasure, a righteous displeasure – or, what’s that you say? you just want to listen to the vaguely Zappaesque madrigal section? Fine, fine. (I like the first track. Sounds sort of like XTC.)



tom s. 11.22.09 at 5:46 pm

I get it now. Chris Bertram was just setting up the comment thread on this post.


alex 11.22.09 at 6:16 pm

Indeed, but what about the Palestinians?


Chris Dornan 11.22.09 at 7:38 pm

While you might be right about one strand of the narrative, I am not sure you have explained its rise to near-omnipresence. For that you have to look at other factors and pull back a little I think. Firstly there is its sheer versatility and secondly I would be interested to know about some of the grubby commercial details in its success.

The move away from serifs was surely inevitable. I remember looking at the drawings for the Clifton suspension bridge and being amazed at how fussy they were, compared to what was built. I couldn’t find any images but better I have this from the man himself:

I have to say that of all the wonderful feats I have performed since I have been in this part of the world, I think yesterday I performed the most wonderful. I produced unanimity amongst fifteen men who were quarrelling about the most ticklish subject – taste.

The Egyptian thing I brought down was quite extravagantly admired by all and unanimously adopted; and I am directed to make such drawings, lithographs, etc as I, in my supreme judgement, may deem fit; indeed, they were not only very liberal with their money, but inclined to save themselves much trouble by placing very complete reliance on me.

Brunel had to work hard to win that design competition in 1830 and he sealed the deal by larding on the ornamental exotica. This was not long after Nash’s redesign of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton. Cost pressures apparently led to a much more functional execution, completed 5 years after Brunel’s death in 1865, but I wonder whether they weren’t tiring of all the ornamentation even then.

Of course come the early 20th century Bauhaus was well under way, and it is difficult to see how this can be separated from the rise of mass production. I can’t look at that and but feel that sans serif was inevitable and that something would come to dominate.

[Oh dear, I suppose I am stuck in point 4; at least it is my first outing on this.]


belle le triste 11.22.09 at 7:41 pm

Modernists against mannerism: “But anyone who goes to the Ninth and then sits down to design a wallpaper pattern is either a fraud or a degenerate.” Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime. It’s a provocation; it’s very funny; it’s completely unsustainable; it got to be canon…


Matt McGrattan 11.22.09 at 7:57 pm

The Michelin man doing the kick isn’t that surprising, given the sporting heritage of his nation of origin.


Myles SG 11.22.09 at 8:32 pm

The sans-serif typeface appeals to the modernist mind, as far as the appeal can be rationalized and deciphered, in the same manner, and to the same instincts, as mid-century modern architecture or American modernist art. A good deal of modernism, I suspect, is based upon a reductionist mindset reacting toward the frustrating complexity and senselessness of the post-Great War milieu, of the breakdown in an overarching, historical explanation for the nature of the world as is, by attempting to subject the nature of all things to the reliable comprehensibility of the mechanical machine, by “mechanizing”, in a way, our Weltanschauung so that it finds a way of order, unaffected by the breakdown of our moral and ethical basis of understanding and thus necessarily based exclusively upon impersonal foundations, out of the emotional and psychological ruin that was the post-Great War world.

To eliminate the serif, much like was the case for fussy architecture, or art inspired by moral or metaphysical or even momentarily sentimental themes (Impressionism), was a part of the process of cognitive and philosophical mechanization. It is also, for somewhat the same reason, why I dislike modernist architecture.


Matthew Battles 11.22.09 at 8:34 pm

According to Robert Bringhurst, the first sans serif typeface was cut in 1786, and was intended to emboss raised letters for the blind to read by fingertip.

Tschichold’s description of serifs as ornaments and add-ons is funny, as they’re nothing of the sort. Serifs are integral to the letterforms of which they’re a part; the sans serif as the letter’s platonic ideal is part of the modernist enchantment of the form (just as prior type designers had created serif faces with serifs and line-weights canted at angles as though made by right-handed scribes—the enchantment of moveable type by scribal glamour).

The high-low dynamic described by Varnedoe and Gopnik is abundantly evident in 20th century typeography. I think, too, that there was a dissatisfaction with serif faces clumsily converted to monotype and linotype technologies, which gave the pages of many books printed around the turn of the century a spacey, disjointed look and were discomfiting to read. Suddenly, those serif letters looked stale.

One of the delicious ironies is that serif faces, too, bear the marks of machinic efficiency—after all, they’re among the first “interchangeable parts” in the history of manufacturing. Especially the counters—those negative spaces “inside” letters where the ground of the page peeks through—are designed to be interchangeable among letters, so that fewer punches would have to be cut to stamp the matrices used to mold the type.


Evan 11.22.09 at 9:27 pm

It’s interesting you’ve picked Tschichold, who, I gather, quite changed his mind about sans-serif type: “The sanserif only seems to be the simpler script. It is a form that was violently reduced for little children. For adults it is more difficult to read than serifed roman type, whose serifs were never meant to be ornamental.” (On Typography, 1952)

He’s consistent, I think, before and here: in both cases, he refers to ornamentation. Sans-serif faces fit the reductionist core of modernism, and the greatest typefaces of the era, like Futura, Kabel, and Eagle, are “geometric” faces: the furthest removed from typography’s origins in calligraphy. Designers like Renner were playing with the boundaries of letterforms, and seeing how little of the calligraphic form needed to remain to still be legible, in much the same way artists like Picasso and Duchamp were testing the boundaries of art, and Gropius and Le Corbusier was of architecture. Clearly, Tschichold came to believe they’d gone too far.


Jeffrey Daniel Rubard 11.22.09 at 9:45 pm

U.S. of Aaay


Anderson 11.22.09 at 11:16 pm

Not at all my field, but I seem to recall a good bit of sans-serif in the Vienna Secession. And the whole “no added ornament to typeface” obviously suggests Adolf Loos.


B arry 11.23.09 at 12:12 am

Oh, God. Another frikkin’ font post?


John Holbo 11.23.09 at 12:50 am

Evan, I do discuss Tschichold’s about-face in the posts and review I linked in the post. (Not that I demand you follow up all linkage before commenting, but I do know that he changed his mind.) What you say seems right. There was this playing with the geometrical boundaries. There are drawings in which Renner experiments with even more geometrically simplified versions of – r, I think it was, and maybe g – in Futura. But he drew back because it was too far. The job of an ‘r’ is to look like an ‘r’, and that’s that. Tschichold committed the fallacy, early on, of arguing that because geometry is somehow ‘basic’, and also the language of standardization, that therefore geometrically more basic letterforms must be closer to the essence of the letters. Which doesn’t make a lot of sense.

There’s this rhetoric of testing the limits while pretending that you are exploring the authentic core. It leads to certain confusions, exciting though it can be for a while …

belle le triste, yeah I love Loos. I wrote a bit about him in my dissertation, because Wittgenstein met him. Supposedly Loos said to Wittgenstein ‘you are me!’ The stuff about tattoos and wallpaper designers. It’s for the record books.


John Holbo 11.23.09 at 12:51 am

B arry, c’mon admit it. You love the font posts.


Barry 11.23.09 at 3:58 am

John Holbo 11.23.09 at 12:51 am

“B arry, c’mon admit it. You love the font posts.”

I usually use a classical leather whip for torturing myself – I’m old-fashioned :)
(a sans serif whip, for ‘safe whipping’).


bad Jim 11.23.09 at 10:07 am

Letters started out being sans-serif, which is why some fonts are called “antique” or “gothic”. Look at Greek lettering, and never mind that half the time they’re written right-to-left. That’s not a detail which would have escaped Picasso’s notice. Everything old is new again.

The books I’ve read on typography agree that serifs came in with Roman monumental inscriptions as an elegant way to end a chiseled line, though traditional Hebrew letter forms seem suspiciously serif-like; pushing ink around a page imposes its own discipline. We could quibble as to whether calligraphy’s terminal curves are required by the pen or intended to improve legibility, but we might suppose that the styles that prevailed best satisfied both.

Sans-serif feels more modern because it is obviously unlike the most common evidence of antiquity, Roman and subsequent classical inscription, and because it is flagrantly artistic, art for art’s sake. It says “We are not like all the rest”, which is a classically modernist attitude: this is new and therefore good.

Note: many typefaces were commissioned by pharmaceutical companies which were, and perhaps still are, prohibited from overtly decorating their packages. I noticed the extravagance of the fonts on pill bottles as a teenager, perhaps because of a friend whose father worked in the field, or perhaps earlier. With no other packaging options, who would label a new and presumably revolutionary drug in an old-fashioned font?


chris y 11.23.09 at 10:49 am

Slightly off topic, I have just had an accountant send me a complex procedural document entirely in Comic Sans. I may die of cognitive dissonnance.


Robin Kinross 11.23.09 at 11:12 am

John, your emphasis on letterforms exaggerates their importance, even within the rhetoric of modernism. Rather, try considering these elements both within modernist discourse and in how textual communication actually works:
– the language/script in which the text is written (German? Japanese? literary? fustian? zippy? slangy?)
– the meaningful deployment of space (raises the question of symmetry/asymmetry)
– emphasis of elements through deployment of contrasting styles of letter (especially heavier weights)
– the presence of photographic images (so important for modernist graphic design: much more important than sanserif)
– standardization of the page area
Typefaces are not that important; it depends on what you do with them. Your fixation on letterforms misses the most interesting and most difficult discussion.


John Holbo 11.23.09 at 12:20 pm

“Typefaces are not that important; it depends on what you do with them. Your fixation on letterforms misses the most interesting and most difficult discussion.”

With respect, Robin, you are mistaking a post about letterforms for a belief that typefaces have to be uniquely important for understanding modernism (as opposed to merely important and interesting enough to write a post about).


derek 11.23.09 at 12:25 pm

The problem with the highbrow-lowbrow feedback cycle is it could explain the rise of sans serif at any time. A better explanation would account for when it came to dominate and why it did not do so earlier.


Robin Kinross 11.23.09 at 1:01 pm

a post about letterforms
Well, it’s the response of a typographer when encountering all these laypeople (philosophers even) who think that typography is all about typefaces. It’s as if architecture was only discussed in terms of the bricks or window-frames employed in a building. (Bricks or window frames are of course there in the mix, and they certainly carry an ideological charge.) We typographers would say that choice of typeface is about tenth on the list of decisions to be made in designing something. And often, certainly in the 1920s, there was hardly any choice of typeface. It depended on what a printer could offer.


Bill McCullam 11.23.09 at 1:25 pm

Le Corbusier’s most characteristic “typeface” was the zinc stencil letters appearing on all his plans, which are a serif typeface. Further, his published writings consistently use serif faces. One has to look to Winsor McKay and Walt Disney for sans-serifs faces, in other words, hand lettered fonts.


John Holbo 11.23.09 at 1:49 pm

“Well, it’s the response of a typographer when encountering all these laypeople (philosophers even) who think that typography is all about typefaces.”

Who said typography is all about typefaces?


John Holbo 11.23.09 at 1:55 pm

Look, Robin, I admire your good work producing that nice Tschichold edition, which I greatly enjoyed. And I am sure you know a hell of a lot more about this stuff than I do, so I welcome your opinion, but it isn’t reasonable to assume that just because someone writes a post about x in relation to y, that therefore they think x is the only important thing in relation to y. (Same goes for bricks and window-frames. If someone says ‘let’s talk about window-frames’ it makes no sense to infer straightaway that they think architecture is all about window-frames. Maybe they just wanted to talk about window-frames.)


Anderson 11.23.09 at 4:00 pm

… The point about Loos and the Secession, I suppose, is that sans-serif was part of modernism well before the Great War was even on the horizon, so that attribution to postwar aesthetics seems a bit off. Perhaps it filtered down to the popular level after the war, but it presumably would’ve done so anyway.


Doctor Science 11.23.09 at 4:44 pm

Matthew Battles @7 referred to the enchantment of moveable type by scribal glamour. I propose that this was not “glamour” (in the sense of confusion by the superficial) at all, but that readibility depends on what the eye is used to.

When most text was hand-written, type needed to look like handwriting so that eyes that were used to reading handwriting could easily switch to type. As handwriting styles changed, type *had* to change, so that readers didn’t have to do extra visual processing to read type. This is the converse of the well-known process of learning how to read old handwriting: the modern-trained eye does not find old handwriting readable, so conversely we predict that eyes trained to read old handwriting might find modern text difficult.

One of the standard questions in choosing a font is readability, but I propose that the readability of a given font depends (at least in part) on how much it is like or unlike what the reader is used to. I thus postulate that sans-serif fonts could not become popular until most of the text people read was machine-made: that is, after the invention of the typewriter.

Before the typewriter, most of what the average literate person read was hand-written: personal letters, bills and ledgers, legal documents, notes. Other texts — bibles, novels, even newspapers — were very likely to be read aloud, not one reader at a time. I’m guessing that it took until the end of the 19th century for most readers to be in a world of print, not handwriting.

This is my theory, which is mine.


Tim Wilkinson 11.23.09 at 6:39 pm

Bad Jim @15 seconded: my understanding too is that the serif (and the capital alphabet with its reduced curvature) was a by-product, not necessarily entirely determined, of chiselling – though I thought it was more the lead-in than the finishing-off that underlay the need for some such device. Also that the fast sideways movement with reducing pressure that gives rise to terminal serifs in certain wide-nibbed scripts might be a way to prevent blotting or general untidiness.

And someone (can’t find it now) mentioned serifs being fragile in woodblock print. So there might well be a technological determinant to all this – good old forces of production! – and at one remove, for all I know some such reasoning (perhaps taken to evince some more essentialist or abstract facts) might have influenced the modernisers.

There seems to be some agreement that, at some important point in the web of influences anyway, modernist thinking in favour of sanserif type was along the lines of the elimination of mere ornament in favour of purity or, quite differently, function. (And the account of Agha seems highly speculative for all that is said here, doesn’t it? Does he provide evidence for the ‘Gallic [/Iberian] joke’ thesis? And contrariwise, saving the hypothesis through discounting ‘blocky’ serifs might be thought a bit No-True-Scotsmannish. )

One mooted way in which the modernisers might have been wrong (as it seems they were a little later – if I may add some type-4 colour to this comment – in selecting ‘primary’ colours) is that serifs are after all functional in some or all cases, in terms, presumably, of legibility.

A more intriguing reason suggested for thinking them wrong is that serifs were integral to the letter forms – that introducing sanserif type was actually a more radical change than it appears to the casual contemporary observer who is used to both kinds. Perhaps this view would hold that it was (like) the introduction of a new, simplified (I think we can agree that it is simpler by measures as objective as we could wish for in the context) alphabet.

[Any interesting comparison or connection to be made with the US program(me) of simplified spelling? To European eyes, some examples seem not to be simple elimination of redundacym but to miss something. The fact that AFAIK there are no widely used Latin terms similar in all but the dipthongs ae/oe is a convenient one, but does not establish that nothing essential has been lost – and in the case of verb/noun distinctions based on the letters s/c, as in ‘practice’ (noun), something certainly is – though I’m not entirely sure this was part of the programme(s).]

But given that lower case letters originated in cursive script, is it really the case that serifs were the norm or an integral part of the letter-forms? I don’t know, just asking. Potentially relevant is the extent to which the lines which join letters in continuous script are (perceived to be) part of the letters themselves, and whether they coincide with the placement and form of serifs in printed type.

Indeed, if there had been any examples in which sanserif letters had been used, wouldn’t that establish that serifs were dispensible from the ‘essential’ form of the letters? (I don’t know if such essentialism is relevant here, though.) And in any case, a radical theory that – perhaps in the light of human psychology – serifs were, previously unbeknownst, merely dispensable ornament might be right, mightn’t it? There are plenty more subtleties and potential for metaphysics-in-oblique-context here but this is a bit too long already.

In any case, could there be a democratising or anti-authoritarian intent behind eliminating serifs from type, as a way of rendering it less King Jamesy – i.e. differentiation of an arbitrary kind, not essentially connected to the nature of serifs themselves?


David 11.23.09 at 6:41 pm

Yes, frickin fonts. Gary Hustwit’s delightful documentary Helvetica is a must see. http://www.helveticafilm.com


Tim Wilkinson 11.23.09 at 6:42 pm

In case anyone reads the above, ‘contrariwise’ should probably be ‘in the alternative’. I whimmed the former.


Bloix 11.23.09 at 8:44 pm

One principle of modernism is that things should be what they are – having one thing mimic another is a form of decadence. Metal should look like metal (not stamped and painted to look like plasterwork), wood should express the nature of wood (not carved and painted to look like stone) – the essence of materials should be made clear.

So if you think of serifs as a remnant of pre-printing technology – the beginning and ending of the stroke of the pen, or the finishing of the carving of letters in stone – then they are decadent disguises of the true nature of type, which is the imprint of cast metal on paper.

Get rid of the serifs, and you have the essence of print. That’s the concept, I imagine.


Billikin 11.23.09 at 10:35 pm

Pomos for dingbats!

And vice versa.



John Holbo 11.24.09 at 12:57 am

Going backwards. Bloix, I made a related point in my Tschichold review. Namely, that a mild paradox of type modernism is that ‘form follows function’ is undefined, because the function of an ‘A’ is to look like an A. Therefore, form follows function only if function follows form (prior form). The makes every letterform a necessarily historicist gesture – irritating for a modernist who would like to be done with all that imitating older things in order mediums.

I like Doctor Science’s theory. It makes a lot of sense.

Anderson’s point about Loos being pre-Great War is right. Loos taking away all the windowboxes and frames, leaving those ‘eyes without eyebrows’ that so offended the Viennese, is a modernist gesture so similar to stripping away the serifs that it undermines the ‘it’s all Picasso and Braque and their gallic jokes’ explanation. (I did say in the post that I thought the Picasso/Braque single bullet theory was waaay to simple. Still, interesting.)

An even bigger point: a lot of art nouveau lettering was sans serif. But this makes for sort of an interesting question (or maybe not, depending whether it can be answered): were the modernists more inspired by art nouveau of a few years back, or more struck with the raw, industrial strength of the strong cheap stuff that was part of the urban landscape? Maybe not a question that can be answered decisively.

This story would have to be told together with an account of the urban romance of newspapers and broadsheets and such. Varnedoe and Gopnik talk about all that, but maybe not at sufficient length.


Robin Kinross 11.24.09 at 12:25 pm

but it isn’t reasonable to assume that just because someone writes a post about x in relation to y, that therefore they think x is the only important thing in relation to y.

When someone starts talking about typography and only talks about the letterforms, then it seems reasonable to say that they imagine that type is what constitutes typography.

Apart from that, my suggestion is that discussions of this particular x won’t get us anywhere interesting. Witness the confusion and sense of getting nowhere both in your recent posts and in the comments that have followed. A few pictures would be a start towards clarity.

Maybe not a question that can be answered decisively is putting it too mildly.


John Holbo 11.24.09 at 1:04 pm

Robin Kinross: “When someone starts talking about typography and only talks about the letterforms, then it seems reasonable to say that they imagine that type is what constitutes typography.”

From my post: “We’ll start with fonts.”

Is it really, truly unreasonable to say ‘let’s talk about fonts’, and then talk about fonts? I say it is not.


Robin Kinross 11.24.09 at 1:29 pm

‘We’ll start with fonts.’ But, with typography, you don’t go anywhere else.
I was also thinking of your Berlin Review of Books review of the book about Jan Tschichold. There you mainly talk just about letterforms.
The trouble goes deeper, where typography concerned. Fashion in type is sometimes analogized to fashion in clothing …
In one quick move, discussion of typography is narrowed down to just discussion of type, or letterforms.


John Holbo 11.24.09 at 3:35 pm

Crikey, Robin, if you want to complain about my review, complain about my review. Don’t pretend my post has problems it doesn’t – and especially don’t do that and then complain about the quality of the conversation. Hold up your end, if it bothers you so much when it sags. You surely know enough more than I do about typography that you don’t need to pretend I know less than I do.

As to my review, I talk quite a bit about letterforms, yes, because I decided to focus on one passage about letterforms that recurred four times in the book I was reviewing. So I made it the hinge of my review. But it’s quite clear from the review that I perfectly well know that typography isn’t just type design.

I write: “Fashion in type is sometimes analogized to fashion in clothing …”

You object: “In one quick move, discussion of typography is narrowed down to just discussion of type, or letterforms.”

Look, I was using the fashion point to move into a discussion of the limitations of ‘form follows function’, as a modernist principle, not to suggest that typography is just type design.

What do I say about ‘typography’ in general in my review? I say this:

“Why is ‘Master Typographer’ a good title for a book about Tschichold, when it might be objected that he was not just a typographer, but a book designer and graphic artist as well? Typography is the art of arranging shapes into letters, also the art of arranging letters into shapes. Graphic design is a matter of arranging two-dimensional shapes—some of which are typically letters—into two-dimensional shapes, and book design is a part of that. Tschichold’s contribution was to be a unifier of this field and, at the same time, a distinguisher of it from others.” Now that strikes me as a bit clunky. I could say it better. But surely it is clear enough that I think ‘typography’ doesn’t just mean type design, or even arrangement of type. It’s a matter of arranging elements in space. The review concludes by nodding at the (generally recognized) fact that Tschichold is one of the grandfathers of graphic design, in the sense we use that term today.

Reviews are reviews and posts are posts and, quite often, a reviewer or post author only talks about some things and not others. If someone wants to discuss fonts without giving a general account of typography, or window-frames without discussing all or architecture, or a new book, without discussing the general nature of all books – that’s fine. Indeed, usually advisable.

Now that’s cleared away, I hope, let’s have a friendly conversation. I am genuinely curious because, as I have repeatedly emphasized, I recognize that you know more about type (and typography) than I do: Do you think the Varnedoe /Gopnik passage is objectionable or perhaps sheer nonsense, because what Agha is saying is just too exaggerated, probably for dramatic effect? Or is there, perhaps, a kernel of truth to it? As I say in the post, it’s not the sort of question that will ever admit of definite answer, but I do think it’s interesting to think about. When these modernist type designers were taking inspiration for their type designs, what specific samples were they looking to for inspiration: the cheap, strong stuff – as Varnedoe and Gopnik suggest? Were they trying to refine the ‘low’ into the ‘high’? Is that the spiritual movement here? I like the Picasso, Braque cases because it’s charming to think you can say it started in 1911 when Braque stenciled either ‘bal’ or ‘bach’. It’s charming to be able to trace an aesthetic movement – an emerging style – to a particular artifact. But usually in cases like this it’s a false charm and you find that there are dozens of other likely suspects and there wasn’t anything utterly origin-like about Braque and his stencil.

As mentioned upstream, Loos came earlier and there was art nouveau, but I don’t have a sense that Loos had so much influence outside Austria, and I don’t have a sense that Tschichold and others like him were more inspired by art nouveau (too organic, not Engineer-y enough) than they were by, say, cubism. So you tell me, if you would be so kind: what specific ‘grotesque’ (call it what you will) sanserif type samples were the modernist type designers looking to, for inspiration for their designs? And what charmed them about these samples?


Robin Kinross 11.25.09 at 11:32 am

Here goes, John Holbo:

I read Crooked Timber, now and then, for informed comment about what’s going on in Belgium, or the disputed Lancet statistics of the dead in Iraq since 2003, to take two examples. I don’t read it for someone (this is brutal, but it seems true) conducting his education in public about a rather rarified field of activity. But since the DTP explosion of the mid-1980s, everyone, as the saying goes, has their favourite font, and many people have views about fonts, and some of them sound out in public about it.

Something seemed wrong when you based your discussion on two Tschichold books that are notably uncritical, and one of which (by Richard Doubleday) is permeated by an extraordinary number of mistakes: the spelling mistakes should be enough to let readers know something is up. It worries me that a university teacher isn’t able to see this in these books, even just by skimming the pages. You wouldn’t base your philosophy teaching on a schlocky Bluffers Guide? But that’s just what you are doing in your font-discussions. There are a few good sources out there. I’m glad a copy of Burke’s Active literature is on your reading list now. I might as well say that my own book Modern typography: an essay in critical history is partly a guide to the history / historiography of the subject, and tries to embody standards of critical discussion that would be expected in art-history or philosophy or literature, but which have hardly been there with the topic of design.

To go back to your review on the Berlin Review website. The passage you quote (‘Why is ‘Master Typographer’ a good title for a book about Tschichold, when it might be objected that he was not just a typographer, but a book designer and graphic artist as well? …’) is certainly clunky. I read this as you saying that typography is about letterforms, and graphic design and book design are different activities. Your explication now, to suggest that you mean typography to be about more than letterforms, I don’t find persuasive.

For what it’s worth, I might distinguish the fields of type-design, book-design, newspaper design, advertising & art direction, general/jobbing graphic design, and more. ‘Typography’ might cover the lot of them. Tschichold’s book of 1928, Die neue Typographie, can give us a lead here. He discusses the whole field under the heading of ‘typography’. But terminological discussions don’t bring much reward.

To respond to your last questions. I looked into my introduction to the UC Press Tschichold New typography, pages xxviii to xxx, and think most of it is there. Mainline Central-European modernist designers wanted the anonymous, the industrial; those designers wanted things made by engineers and not by artists. The typeface used in Tschichold’s book would be a good example. Le Corbusier’s adoption of stencil letterforms, which you can still buy in hardware shops in France, is another instance. The Loosian love of well-bred anonymous forms is a further variation on this – and one would probably make a few qualifications in that case.

It’s the curse of design (as taught in art schools, etc) that it represents knowledge: one cannot shake that off to achieve innocence; one cannot design undesigned forms (letterforms).

Mehemed Fehmy Agha, I wouldn’t make too much of. Or, he’s part of another chapter: the passage of European modernism to North America, and the way in which the hard edges got thoroughly softened there. A more vivid case would be that of Herbert Bayer, from the centre of things at Weimar-Dessau, then Berlin, his dalliance in Germany after 1933, before the move into art-direction for corporate capitalism.


John Holbo 11.25.09 at 1:26 pm

But why would I find “Master Typographer” to be a good title if I thought typography was only about type design. That would make it a BAD title. Right? (Wouldn’t I be puzzled be the fact that, even though Tschichold was a typographer, he designed covers and posters and so forth. Also, how could it even make sense for typography to be ONLY about type design? What would that even mean? I’m still even trying to squeeze my head into the small space it is alleged to have been occupying, and I persist in not seeing how a head is supposed to fit in there.)

Oh, never mind. I hereby let it go.

I suppose in a way I’m asking after the source of the glamor that attached to engineers and the industrial. I realize that, in a sense, the answer is: that’s just what seemed exciting. But there is also an ambiguity. Varnedoe and Gopnik say modernists (for some value of ‘modernist’) wanted stuff to be ‘not made by artists’ because they were attracted to the ‘low’ – the street, the vernacular, crude vibrant life of the city. There’s a desire to tap into mass culture as authentic naivete. Urban pastoral, you might say. That’s their whole book. The alternative, as you say, is that modernists wanted what was ‘not made by artists’ because they were attracted to the industrial, the engineered, the rational. Engineered is not the same as ‘low’, however, even though they are both the opposite of ‘artistic’. But engineered products – mass produced stuff – can BE low. So this is two different threads, intertwining.

I think the problem with what Agha says is that he is only getting one thread, but it is probably a real one.


Tim J. Moerman 11.26.09 at 10:51 am

When I saw the link to the Bibendum kick, my heart leapt. Unfortunately, it’s not the image I was thinking of. About five years ago, at a flea market in Paris I saw (but did not buy, stupid stupid stupid!) an old Michelin poster. It’s from I’m guessing probably the late teens, and it’s an ad for some kind of rubber resistance-strap workout device. Bibendum, very jaunty and unconcerned–I think he’s even wearing a monocle–with his walking-stick hooked over his arm. And he’s simultaneously, effortlessly, punching and kicking a pair of very Gallic-looking muggers–kind of one fist going out sideways this way to hit one of them in the nose, the opposite leg striking out the other way to nail the other. A Belle Epoque Charles Atlas ad. I have since scoured the Internet and better poster shops everywhere, looking for a copy of this. No one else is aware of its existence. I’m starting to think I imagined the whole thing.


g 11.26.09 at 3:12 pm

Robin: I know John is officially Letting This Go, but one more thing seems worth saying. How on earth could someone who thinks typography is only about type design possibly say “Typography is the art of arranging shapes into letters, also the art of arranging letters into shapes“? What do you suppose that second bit means, if John thinks or thought that typography is only about type design? Surely the furthest someone could go, while thinking that, would be more like “Typography is the art of arranging shapes into letters, keeping in mind that those letters will later be arranged into shapes”.

I think the position you’re attributing to John is flatly incompatible with what he has actually written. I suspect the root cause is that you’ve seen, and been rightly annoyed by, so many things written by people who know less about typography than they think they do and who think It’s All About Typefaces, that you now have a highly-tuned typographical bullshit detector that is triggered when you see something written by an amateur that focuses on typefaces. That’s a useful heuristic, but I suggest that in this case it’s led you astray (or, perhaps, led you to misdiagnose the variety of bullshit; I am not qualified to tell whether John is in fact bullshitting in some way other than the one you’ve claimed).

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