Exquisite kestrels disappear

The limitations of scale on typography

A priest, a painter and a puppeteer

This essay is concerned with the effects of scale on typography. It features a priest, a painter and puppeteer, as well as — somewhat predictably — typeface designers. Most of the type designers discussed come from the industrial typesetting era (1885–1960s¹). This was a period of technological change which in-turn changed how type was designed. Wherein a new dynamic of scaling affected the process making letters. Despite the many technological advances since the later 19th, early 20th century, this dynamic of scale in the making of type is one that we still deal with today — that is, understanding when and where we can and cannot see.

Seeing is deceiving

Our relation to an object changes our perception of it. That is to say, an object has qualities of colour, shape, scale, motion, distance, lighting, etc, and those qualities affect our perception. Our perception is relative. This is what the seventeenth-century French priest and philosopher Nicolas Malebranche (1638–1715) believed. He explained that the immutable perfection of God’s creation is fundamentally incorruptible. Our (mutable / corruptible) perception is the issue. If we misinterpret an object, it is not the fault of the object but a fault of our perceptions². So, qualities such as scale are not physical but perceptual — these are qualities not of bodies but sensations or modifications of the mind³.

Malebranche had a particular interest in the perceptive effects of scale. He theorised, that scale works as a knowledge filter⁴ through which we interpret and assess the world. This filter can lead to human and ungodly errors of judgement — as in, the far away birds appear small and dark, therefore they must always be small and dark. Such perceptual fallacies are everywhere. So, how can they be managed?

Malebranche considered a universally accurate measuring tool as a solution to our mutable perceptions. A tool which could tell us exactly what everything is like. A tool, for Malebranche, by which to know God and his immutable perfect creation. Something like,

an exact standard: a simple and perfectly intelligible idea, a universal measure that can be employed for all sorts of subjects⁵

This tool could not be based on human bodies because, he theorised, all bodies are different⁶ (previous schools of thought had considered bodies to naturally tend toward ‘average’ human proportions⁷). The tool would be something else. But, this is rhetorical speculation on Malebranche’s part. There is no tool which can render to us the world in its exact form. Something will always be in the shadows, or even behind a hill, we may be colour-blind, or a thing may simply be too small to see (the list is endless). To put it another way — things change depending on how big they are.

For God’s eyes alone

In 1432 the Dutch painter Jan van Eyck (1390–1441), with the help of his brother Hubert, completed the Ghent Altarpiece for St Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. Van Eyck had his own style. He did not paint with the geometrical measured perspective style of Italian painters at the time, like Alberti and Brunelleschi. His method of rendering depth and form were more intuitive and experiential⁸. His painted world was not one of mathematical measurement and guidelines but a human and empirical one depicted in a highly realistic and naturalistic style⁹.

He was able to depict in the series of painted panels for St Bavo’s seventy-five identifiable tree, plant and flower species, a large variety of known birds species (as distant silhouettes in the sky), and clouds so detailed they can be recognised as stratus, altocumulus, cirrocumulus and cirrus¹⁰. However, the Ghent Altarpiece is 3.5 metres in height¹¹ and hangs well above eye level¹². Van Eyck’s method of minute veristic realism — which led him to paint birds so detailed that their species is identifiable by silhouette alone — meant that these animals were rendered so small that to the cathedral-going viewer they were imperceivable. Would a cathedral-goer see those tiny details by candle light even sat in the first row of the pews? Hung over the dim altar as they were, Van Eyck’s kestrels would always disappear. So, as Julian Bell asks in the London Review of Books,

… why did he bother? A pious answer might compare his unerringly aimed globs of pigment — kestrel, burgher, spout — to those delicate carvings masons are said to have added to cathedral spires for God’s eyes alone¹³

For piety’s sake Van Eyck renders a world in such detail as to be become imperceivable to all but God.

Malebranche would have said the kestrel’s are inherently perfect despite the cathedral goer not seeing them. That is the fault of human perception. Scale is an earthly limitation — a filter through which we see. A silhouette of a kestrel may be visible at 30 centimetres distance, but is imperceptible at 30 metres. Van Eyck’s kestrels are for God’s eyes alone. For human eyes, scale affects what and how we see. In effect, seeing is deceiving.

Curves do queer things

The mechanical punchcutting machine, developed by Linn Boyd Benton and R.V. Waldo, brought about the industrial era of type manufacture¹⁴. Small letters could be cut from larger patterns. So, with the advent of this technology, the role of the type designer became removed from production of the final shape of the letter. No longer were three-dimensional objects (pieces of cold metal type) with a 1:1 scale relationship with the resulting letter shape hand-crafted by the designer, as had been practised by punchcutters since Gutenberg. But two-dimensional shapes were now drawn larger, then mechanically (pantographically) reduced to become type — a method of design described by Richard Southall as a shift from the concrete to the abstract¹⁵.

Prior to this industrial era of type design, punchcutters would work at scale. Through a method of filing, punching and counterpunching, the size of letter counter could be 0.5 millimetres wide, or the eye of the lowercase e could be 0.2 to 0.3 millimetres wide¹⁶¹⁷. But it was the industrial era — post-1880’s¹⁸ — the change of practice from 1:1 scale three-dimensional design, to large size two-dimensional design which brought a new dynamic of scale.

WA Dwiggins knew the disadvantages of letters pencilled large then scaled down to their natural size. As he noted in his letter to Rudolph Ruzicka:

Curves do all kinds of queer things when reduced; and the way lines running together make spots is a thing that will surprise you. But on or two tries on these points give you the information you need. I am beginning to get the drift of it and to foresee from the large drawings what will happen in the type. I can modify in the large outline, but so far I can’t originate in that medium¹⁹

Eric Gill also noted the limitations of scale in 1931 when he wrote,

It is difficult enough for the designer to draw a letter ten or twenty times as large as the actual type will be and at the same time in right proportion; it requires very great experience and understanding. It is quite impossible for a set of more or less tame employees, even if the local art school has done its poor best for them, to know what a letter enlarged a hundred times will look like when reduced to the size of the intended type. And when the design is in the least degree fanciful or subtle, these difficulties are infinitely increased²⁰

Gill and Dwiggins acknowledged the difficulty of drawing type ten or twenty times as large as it would be used. In the era of mechanical punchcutting, the effects of scale on proportion and form were difficult to reckon with. A well drawn letter of 30 centimetres height does not retain its form when 10 or 20 times smaller.

Similarly, Fred Smeijers notes when discussing Hendrick Van den Keere’s 7-line roman (1567) — a large type drawn by pencil, then etched into wood before printing — that, a disadvantage of drawing — which must sound strange to anyone who has not worked at true size — is the relatively large scale of work²¹. Shapes and curves drawn then reduced in scale can create unexpected results. It takes experience and understanding²² to work with the perceptual and technical effects of scale — that is, to understand how a letter is both drawn and then used are directly related. Dwiggins’ ability to draw at the ten inch scale was noted by by Jackson Burke as being not for the ordinary designer²³. However, Walter Tracy, thought this may be an exaggeration, and that,

given the opportunity to compare the large letter drawings with proofs of the characters at actual type size, it is possible, after a time, to develop fairly reliable judgement as to what will be the final effect of a letter that is drawn many times larger than life²⁴

There is hope yet for us mortals — experience and understanding of optical effects are key to designing type at scale. Whether that be with paper and pencil as in Dwiggins time (he didn’t use French curves, preferring to work by hand²⁵), or as nowadays on a 27‑inch iMac with Retina 5K display 3.0GHz 6-core 8th-generation Intel Core i5 processor (a tool still not even close Malebranche’s imagined universal measure). Since the industrial era, the design of letters has become an abstract process. A drawn letter will most likely not be at 1:1 scale with how it is used. Scale is a filter through which we perceive and therefore must work.

There is Type and there is Illustration

In August 1892, the American printer T.L. De Vinne — a man of his time — described two styles of printing. The masculine and the feminine. The latter he described as an approach focused primarily on ornamental effect and hairline delicacy²⁶, what Gill might have described as the fanciful ornamentation (or what Jan van Eyck had depicted gliding in the heavens). The former, a style of,

instruction for the reader [whereby] the printer shows the intent of the writer by selecting easily read types of the plainest form and discards every ornament that needlessly diverts his attention²⁷

De Vinne did not shy from criticising the excesses of his predecessors and contemporaries²⁸. His practice set him apart from the turn of the century private press movement in which artistic expression was paramount and text was subordinate²⁹. Yet, despite De Vinne’s choice of terminology, the distinction he made is an important one. A slightly more contemporaneous distinction of the same concept can be seen in Walter Tracy’s critique’s of Jan van Krimpen.

Fastidiously organised and of impeccable quality, van Krimpen’s approach to type (and book design) was that of an artist, a man with a vision of the perfect³⁰. His designs of book and type contained a level of refinement hardly matched elsewhere³¹. However, Tracy believed van Krimpen’s work was based drawing primarily from an idealised concept of Roman inscribed capitals. With this conceptual limitation, it would not have occurred to van Krimpen that,

there is a difference between drawing the lettering for a monumental inscription and drawing an alphabet for a printing type; that is to say, he would not have perceived that one is an end in itself, the other a means to an end³²

De Vinne’s distinction between masculine or feminine printing tracks onto the distinction that a design is either a means to an end, or an end in itself. In other words, a carved letter is a picture of a letter. It will never move, and the purpose of its design is not for reproduction. It may be ornate, hairline and fanciful as it likes. In contrast, a letter of type is (or should be) designed for reproduction. Plain, easily read, and disregarding of ornament that needlessly diverts the attention of the reader. Or as is often cited, a letter is thing not a picture of a thing³³.

One of the targets of De Vinne’s ire was those under the influence of the Kelmscott Press. Kelmscott Press was established by William Morris in 1891 and was a large influence on the small press movement in the UK and US up until the early twentieth century³⁴. Small runs of ornately illustrated books, the press was definitive in the artistic printing movement. However, De Vinne acknowledged that William Morris’ dark heavy pages embodied some aspect of his idea of functional ‘masculine printing’, but this was within months of their appearance and is more likely testament to the influence they had on printing at the time³⁵. The perilous influence of Kelmscott on lesser qualified designers was that of luxury printing … novelty display letters and emaciate text types … dross of novelty display letters and emaciate text types printed on shiny paper³⁶.

In contrast, W.A Dwiggins understanding of the manufacturing process, limitations, and understanding of typefaces and their application, was markedly different from that of Jan van Krimpen³⁷, or those earlier influenced by the Arts & Crafts movement. Dwiggins M-formula (primarily for the design of marionette puppets) was an influence on his type design. He realised that for audience members sat on the back row of a theatre, simpler shapes and forms in the faces of his marionettes made the puppets more recognisable³⁸. More emphatic features, coarser lines, prominent edges and corners, would at a distance, render better faces … and type-faces! Using this formula, he improved the readability of letterforms intended for reading. By simplifying and neglecting ornate, unnecessary and distracting typographic features Dwiggins designed what appeared to be jarring when seen in a large size [but] became smooth and coherent when read on newsprint at actual size⁴⁰.

De Vinne’s stylistic distinction remains applicable today. However, instead of masculine and feminine, a more useful distinction might be between the design of type and type as illustration. The design of type requires a knowledge of scale. But with the concession that a typeface will need to be used in a multitude of environments and is effectively a software tool. However, type as illustration does not have to make this concession. An overly ornate letter will likely go no further than the 1080 × 1080 Instagram post it was lovingly crafted for.The letters composing the text you are reading now, is a thing. The other is an illustration, a picture of thing.

Still, exquisite kestrels disappear (summary)

So, how to understand scale as a necessary filter through which we work? We are no longer burdened by the pace of the Benton-era process. However, Richard Southall’s note that the introduction of the mechanical punchcutting machine brought about a conceptual shift from the concrete to the abstract⁴¹ should not be understated. Working digitally allows a designer to render, print (or post on Instagram) almost simultaneously. The direct (and rapid) relationship between drawing and the final character image means that the work of a digital designer is closer to that of the punchcutter’s, than the industrial era. But like, Gill, Dwiggins, van Krimpen et al, and unlike the punchcutters, we must draw with scale in mind.

The dynamics described by Gill — that of the fanciful or subtle design or Dwiggins lines running together to make spots; or those caused by van Krimpen’s pursuit of ideal pure forms, or the emaciated type of the luxury printing movement — have not gone away since the advent of digital typography. The problem is one of the understanding of scale in the design process (as Dwiggins M-formula does oh-so-well). The drawing of letters is still an abstract, non-concrete, process. Hi-resolution retina screens and almost infinite detail in the production process belie our mutable human perception. There is no tool or method to render or perceive a perfect letter, and so the distinction between the design of type and type as illustration persists. Still, exquisite kestrels disappear.

Citations & Endnotes

[1] Linn Boyd Benton’s Pantograph to the second generation of photocomposing machines.

[2] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Malebranche’s Theory of Ideas and Vision in God https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/malebranche-ideas/ Accessed 14 May 2020

[3] Ibid

[4] Lugli, E. The Making of Measure and the Promise of Sameness, (2019) Chicago, pp.9–10

[5] Pour comparer les choses entre elles, ou plutôt pour mesurer exactement les rapports d’inégalité, il faut une mesure exacte, il faut une idée simple et parfaitment intelligble, une mesure universelle et qui puisse s’accomoder à toute sorte de sujets. Malebranche, pp487–88. Quote referenced from Lugli, E.

[6] Lugli, E. The Making of Measure and the Promise of Sameness, (2019) Chicago, pp.9

[7] Omnis denim nature art defraudations art enormitate rescinditur, proprietate mensurae conseruatur [trans. Everything in nature rejects either lack or excess and is preserved through the property of measure] Tertullian (155–220) See Brennan, R. Describing the Hand of God: Divine Agency and Augustinian Obstacles to the Dialogue between Theology and Science, 2015. Quote referenced from Lugli, E.

[8] Morris, RC. The Times Literary Supplement, A masterpiece, finally restored https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/masterpiece-finally-restored-van-eyck/ Accessed 14 May 2020

[9] The Art Story, Jan van Eyck Artworks https://www.theartstory.org/artist/van-eyck-jan/artworks/ Accessed 14 May 2020

[10] Morris, RC. The Times Literary Supplement, A masterpiece, finally restored https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/masterpiece-finally-restored-van-eyck/ Accessed 14 May 2020

[11] The Ghent Alterpiece https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghent_Altarpiece Accessed 14 May 2020

[12] Siegal, N. New York Times, Up Close, There’s More to the Ghent Altarpiece Than the Lamb (27 January 2020 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/27/arts/design/mystic-lamb-ghent-altarpiece-van-eyck.html Accessed 14 May 2020

[13] Bell, J. Kestrel, Burgher, Spout. London Review of Books. Reviewing Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution, Borchert TH, Dumolyn J, Martens M. (16 April 2020)

[14] Southall, R. Designing New Typefaces with Metafont (1985) Stanford, pp.16

[15] Ibid

[16] Smeijers, F. Counterpunch (1996) Hyphen pp. 145

[17] Explanations of this method can be found in Fred Smeijers Counterpunch (1996) as well as Harry Carter’s A view of early typography (1969)

[18] From the mid nineteenth century new technology began to replace manual punchcutting. Linn Boyd Benton and R.V. Waldo’s mechanical punchcutting machine was patented in 1885 (Tracy, W. Letters of Credit pp.36). This was the advent of the Linotype machine and is the beginning of the industrial era of type.

[19] Dwiggins, WA. WAD to RR, (1937)

[20] Gill, E. An essay on typography (1931) Republished by Penguin, 2013, pp.79

[21] Smeijers, F. Counterpunch (1996) Hyphen pp. 128–9

[22] Gill, E. An essay on typography (1931) Republished by Penguin, 2013, pp.79

[23] Tracy, W. Letters of Credit (1986), Gordon Fraser Gallery, London, pp.193

[24] Ibid

[25] Dwiggins, WA. WAD to RR, (1937)

[26] Kinross, R. Modern typography (1992), Hyphen, pp.41–2

[27] De Vinne, Masculine printing, United Typothetae of America, 6th Annual Convention, 1892, pp. 163–4. Sourced from Kinross, R (1992)

[28] Tichenor, I. No Art Without Craft: The Life of Theodore Low De Vinne, Printer (2005), David R. Godine, pp.240

[29] Ibid, pp.238

[30] Tracy, W. Letters of Credit (1986), Gordon Fraser Gallery, London, pp.119

[31] Ibid, pp.102

[32] Ibid, pp.119

[33] Gill, E. Autobiography (1940), Lund Humphries. Quote sourced from anywhere on the internet.

[34] Horowitz, S. The Kelmscott Press and William Morris: A Research Guide (2006) Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 25, no. 2. pp.60–65

[35] Kinross, R. Modern typography (1992), Hyphen, pp.42

[36] Ibid, pp.41

[37] Tracy, W. Letters of Credit (1986), Gordon Fraser Gallery, London, pp.174

[38] Ahrens, T. Size-specific adjustments to type designs (2007), Reading, pp.19 NB — Ahrens thesis and subsequent book on optical sizing in type is required reading for anyone with an interest how to draw micro through banner-sized type.

[39] Kennet, B. W. A. Dwiggins: A Life in Design. Quoted on https://typographica.org/on-typography/dwiggins-influence-on-contemporary-type-design/ Stephen Coles (2017) Accessed 19 May 2020

[40] Ibid

[41] Southall, R. Designing New Typefaces with Metafont (1985) Stanford, pp.16

Lewis is a Reading MATD (‘19) graduate. He won the Granshan Grand Prize for non-Latin type design in 2019 and was a Finalist in Morisawa 2019 Latin category.

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