Archive for the 'reading' Category

Type foundry digitally preserves vintage stationer’s lettering styles

December 21, 2011

[Guest editor: Tamye Riggs]

The Sweet collection is composed of typefaces based on the engraver’s lettering styles that came into fashion at the beginning of the twentieth century. The collection is anchored by Sweet Sans, Mark van Bronkhorst’s interpretation of the engraver’s sans serif (kin to the drafting alphabets popularized in the early 1900s).

A type designer based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Van Bronkhorst had long been a fan of these historic faces, many of which had all but disappeared from use. A few cuts of the engraver’s sans style existed in digital form, including Sacker’s Gothic (Monotype Imaging) and Engraver’s Gothic (Bitstream), but these interpretations were somewhat limited in their scope.

Van Bronkhorst sought to study the original forms in depth. As a graphic designer, he had worked with an engraving house in the past, and was aware that stationers and engravers used “masterplates” as lettering patterns, tracing letterforms with a pantograph device to manually transfer the forms to what would become the printing plate. He began hunting for masterplates, but found that most had been destroyed as engraving shops converted to digital typography. The majority of these shops had abandoned the tedious masterplate-tracing process in favor of more expedient photographic processes where “pretty much any digital font would do,” Van Bronkhorst says. He decided it would be a good idea to preserve the masterplate lettering styles—some good, some bad, some ugly—as they seemed otherwise destined to disappear unless interpreted as digital fonts.

After doing some digging, Van Bronkhorst discovered a stash of antique masterplates. With Linnea Lundquist, he commenced work on the first typeface in the Sweet range—Sweet Upright Script—likely the first digital version of this vintage social engraving design.

Van Bronkhorst then turned his attention to the engraver’s sans. Sweet Sans hearkens back to the same or similar masterplates as Sacker’s Gothic. Upon close inspection, various masterplates of what would seem the same letterforms varied considerably. The process of interpreting the design was one of selecting various forms and characteristics while leaving others out. The engraver’s sans was typically a cap-to-small-cap combination, yet a lowercase model did exist. Van Bronkhorst decided that Sweet’s interpretation would be broad, including lowercase and small caps, and in weights from Hairline to Heavy, with true italics. The result is a nine-weight sans family that pays homage to the charm and dignity of its model.

Encouraged by the positive response to the first releases, Van Bronkhorst is expanding the Sweet Sans family with a slightly modernized version, and plans to continue to gradually introduce more vintage stationer’s lettering styles in digital form. His goal is to carefully build a collection that accurately represents the genre while offering type users a variety of styles to suit their needs.

The Sweet collection of fonts is available at


Calligraphic Engraving

September 26, 2009

This past week I spent researching calligraphic engraving at the Harry Ransom Center (HRC) at University of Texas at Austin. HRC archives hold many copybook (or copy book) specimens, three “The Universal Penman” by George Bickham, great master of this highly specialized craft in 18th-century England, one beautiful copy is in the fabulous bound Beaufoy, H.B.H., collection of English, German and Dutch writing manuals.

I examined over 1,460 individual engraved plates either bound or tipped-in to these books or the Beaufoy collection.  There are exquisite examples of engraved calligraphy but of greater interest to me was being able to look at the structure of engraved letter forms.  I was able to bring with me, and use, the 3X photographic loop, with excellent optics, so was able to see some great detail.

I will be writing my observations here in my blog.  Meanwhile, anyone interested in the genre can go to this bibliography about origins of letter forms including writing and copy books:

Also, a reasonable copy, offset not engraved, of Bickham’s “Universal Penman” can be bought as a Dover edition for fairly cheap.

My favorite specimen was a complete book by Snell, about 4-5 characters per page, 13 plates in all illustrating the entire alphabet.  At the end of which (and I could not tell if it is part of the Snell book or a random, tipped-in item) was a grid comparing each character in the alphabet for Roman, Italick [sic], two kinds of script, “secretary”, “church”, engrossing and several other forms of types.

I will post pictures in the coming weeks, it takes four to six (weeks) for the HRC to process orders for scanning copies.

Readable Text, New Orleans Style at TypeCon 2009

June 26, 2009


12:00 noon, Type in 20

TypeCon 2009, Atlanta

Nancy Sharon Collins talks about FLOOD BOOK and notions of readable text. Audrey Bennett and Ellen Lupton are cited.


In 2005 Audrey Bennett spoke on this topic at Typecon in Boston, she and I have exchanged emails about this, infrequently, ever since.  I was interested in her talk because I was then teaching graphic design and typography at a university literally down the bayou in south Louisiana where illiteracy rates soar.  Recently at an AIGA leadership retreat in  Portland, OR, I ran into Audrey who I had not seen since Boston.  I was very excited to show her a book I designed and was amazed to discover that she had just purchased a copy.

FLOOD BOOK, * as it is named, is a post-Katrina rant—or repetitive chant—with rhyming verse written in Yat which is a local, New Orleanian dialect. Its a little book, the size of a short novella, with compelling illustrations and simple, classical type.  I wanted Audrey to see it because it became a sell out as a tool for teaching reading to those with severe literacy challenges.   Why had she picked-up the book and what was it that inspired her to buy it?  In this presentation I will talk about the typographic and design choices in the FLOOD BOOK project, the coincidence with Audrey and how Dr. Caroline Musselwhite, assistive technology specialist working in the areas of AAC and literacy, found the book useful in her workshops.

* FLOOD BOOK will be on sale at the SOTA book store.

Dead White Male Author Reading List

April 14, 2009

Not everyone was born after 1979, unfortunately.  But learning from twenty-somethings is fun and very productive.  Sometimes its possible to offer back information from the arcane side of life experience, such as, the list of “Dead White Male Authors”.  See it posted on Typophile:

Dead White Male Authors.

Everyone on this blog must read this book

January 19, 2009

Everyone in the “allied arts” as they used to be called must read the book, THE CULTIVATION OF ARTISTS IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICA edited by Georgia B Barnhill.  It explains how trade schools trained anyone who could draw with skills to job the burgeoning industries that hallmarked the era about which it is written.

Artists where taught to cut images onto copper plates and lithography stones to illustrate the newspapers, periodicals and publishing house flourishing in that time.  Think about it, who drew all those lovely cross-hatched scenes, portraits and products before photography was used in print?  Commercial artists.  And how did they get trained?  Through the apprentice system, until it was compromised by bigger and bigger industry.

So, you think you’re so special?  Read this book.