Doing it Old School

Duncan posted a link the other day: Hoefnagel’s Guide to Constructing the Letters (ca. 1595). Duncan is a semi-professional letterpress operator and hence has a keen interest in type and typography.

The text on the website reads: “Joris Hoefnagel (1542 – 1600) was a pivotal figure in the history of Dutch art, playing an important role both in the latter stages of the Flemish illumination tradition and the birth of the new genre of still life. In the last decade of his life Hoefnagel was appointed court artist to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, and it was in this time that he appended Georg Bocskay’s Model Book of Calligraphy, of thirty years previous, with his own beautifully exquisite Guide to the Construction of Letters, examples from which are shown below. In each he surrounds the typographic diagram with a colourful array of symbolically charged motifs and, for some, an excerpt from the Bible which begins with the letter of focus.

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The creation of roman typefaces (the first picture) has been ongoing since the late 1400s, (see Wikipedia for more) so these drawings have at least a hundred years of development behind them. Still they are lovely and show the mathematical precision that is the fundamental basis of all type design. The drawings themselves are stunning and art unto themselves, but what they show about the history of a typeface that is instantly recognizable 400 years later blows my mind. There aren’t that many things in our history that can last that long without any recognizable change.


Many people call the things we select on our computers fonts but this isn’t technically correct. A font is a specific size and weight of a typeface: 12pt Times Roman Bold. It is so called because in the days of manual typesetting, the typesetter would reach into a big box called a font and select the letters of appropriate size. In the early days of computers (before Adobe developed the first postscript fonts in 1984), computers and printers only came with specific fonts (Times 8, Times 10, Times 12 etc.) so the term stuck when the ability to have infinite variations of a typeface was introduced.

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These are images of an old type case we came across in Saarburg, Germany, showing  the various fonts of the typeface Federzug-Antiqua. This typeface was developed by A. Auspurg in 1913 in a Frankfurt foundry (the name given to a place that designs and builds type) and, as far as I know, never digitized. You can see how the letters are broken up into compartments, the bigger compartments containing the more common letters like e and s.


The history of type and type design is incredibly fascinating and when you stop and think about it, so much of it influences how we perceive and use books and reading in general. The current arguments and discussions on how typography and its principles are going to transfer to ebooks is a topic I am following with great interest, both for what we stand to lose and what we stand to gain.