Just My Type

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BemboThose long legs. Gently sloping shoulders. The swelling curves above and below. The sophisticated line of the throat. Everything to attract me, to draw my aging eye, to warm my heart. The sensual Bembo. She’s my kind of type.

Bembo is one of the great Renaissance typefaces that has since been revived. It was designed by Francesco Griffo and first used in a book of poems and essays by scholar Pietro Bembo, published by printer Aldus Manutius, in 1495. Monotype recut it for modern use in 1929, digitized it in 1990 and more recently, in 2005, redesigned it for today’s printing as Bembo Book.

Bembo Book’s designer, Robin Nicholas, says this of the typeface:

Bembo was drawn to embody the elegance and fine design features of the original but marry them with the consistency of contemporary production methods… (Bembo Book) is slightly narrower than existing digital versions of Bembo, it is a little more economical in use and gives excellent colour to continuous pages of text. Ascending lowercase letters are noticeably taller than capitals, giving an elegant, refined look to the text.

Adobe also made a Bembo typeface, but it seems to have drawn criticism from the admittedly rarefied community of type aficionados. Thomas Christensen, who writes The Typehead Chronicles, says this:

Adobe Bembo, however, has received a lot of criticism in the typophilic community for not living up to the quality of the metal version. It is said to be light and spindly and to produce a palid gray page. (Some of this criticism may be overdone.)
Some recommend Minion as an alternative, but I am not a fan of Minion. Another proposed alternative is Dante, but I think it has an entirely different feel. There are a couple of new versions of Bembo-like digital fonts that might be worth looking into. One is JY Aetna by Jack Yan. Another is the new Yale typeface by Matthew Carter, but it is only “available to Yale employees, students, and authorized contractors for use in Yale publications and communications,” a restriction that is a giant step backward.
Now, in 2005, Monotype has released a new digital version of Bembo, called Bembo Book. It is said that this version restored many of the admirable qualities of the letterpress Bembo…

Although dismissed by Christensen, Robert Bringhurst’s book, The Elements of Typographic Style, is set in Minion (with captions in Scala Sans), possibly because it doesn’t intrude into the language and the message (Bringhurst shows many typefaces in his examples). For the most part, a typeface should not be visible to the reader any more than a  window pane is to someone looking outside.

But it will be visible to a typographer or graphic artist, much like one magician knows another magician’s tricks. The trained eye will see how the text flows, how the eye is directed, how well the elements balance.

I like this style: Bembo may come to replace Garamond, Bodoni or Baskerville in my affections.

Similar or alternative typefaces to Bembo include numerous options: ITC Legacy Serif Pro, Centaur, Cardo, Adobe Jenson, Brioso Subhead, Arno, Spira, Neacademia Text, ITC Legacy Serif (EF), Poliphilus, Goudy Old Style, Palatino, and more.

I already own Minion, Cardo and others (among the several thousand fonts on my system). However, Bembo I would have to buy; not just the regular, but the italic and bold variants as well.

That requires some thought because I need to justify the purchase based on potential use, not simply that I like its sultry curves. Yes, there are many free fonts and typefaces available, but these are often (or mostly) amateur productions. The best, the professionally crafted and well-designed fonts, are commercial products and sold.

You get what you pay for, even in the world of fonts. The vast majority of the free fonts I’ve downloaded over the years remain unused in any document. Enticing as some may be onscreen, in print you usually need something more practical.

I learned a lot about Bembo from reading at random through two new (to me) books recently arrived at home: Letter Fountain, by Joep Pohlen, and The Geometry of Type: The Anatomy of 100 Essential Typefaces (sold in the US as The Anatomy of Type: A graphic Guide to 100 Typefaces), by Stephen Coles. These books add to my admittedly thin library on typography, but certainly are exciting new additions.*

Typography is, to me, a fascinating art, entirely unlike any other I know of. It has fascinated me for decades, ever since I began laying out text for print on an Atari 800, back in the early 1980s. That’s when I began to understand the richness and complexity of the field.

Typography encompasses both the microcosm and macrocosm. Type designers work at the level of the curl on the apostrophe, the length of the serif and the width of the line of the bowl. Other designers work on the scale of the page or even poster; looking at the overall effect and layout, rather than the minuscule details of letter design.

Typography encompasses both science and mathematics within its scope, while the outward expression blends between the aesthetic and geometric. There’s an overlap of disciplines with other arts, too; where the balance between space and content, light and dark, play with the imperatives of writers and editors.

Typography is an evolved and evolving art. Every generation explores and expands on what has gone before, comes up with its own styles and tastes. It has a lineage dating back to the first writing. Type designers often take the work of another designer and enhance it, sometimes for aesthetics, sometimes to meet the challenges of changing technology. Bembo is but one example of a typeface that has a shared parentage like this.

And typography rises above language and culture. Most of the principles and rules apply equally to all languages, whether they are written right to left, left to right or boustrophedon. The general typographic design ideas of space, density, line width, spacing and contrast apply even to non-Latin or non-Cyrillic lettering.

And yet it’s also often the invisible art. We see the words, we see the letters, the shape of the page, the width of the lines, but we seldom think of them. They flow into us, unseen, as we process the letters into words, the words into sentence, the sentences into coherent meaning. We read right past the type, faltering only when the design is so crude it interrupts the flow.

You can look at Van Gogh’s Starry night or Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and see the art. You can see the brush strokes, the swirls of paint that show the hand of the painter. You can see where colours overlap or didn’t quite mix. Look at this paragraph and, unless you are in the business of type, you probably paid no attention to the letterspacing, the serifs or lack of them, the x-height or the kerning between pairs of letters.

In fact, unless you’re in the design business, you probably don’t even know what most of that means. People don’t usually pick up a paperback novel and comment on the leading or the ratio of caps height to x-height. Not even writers and editors are commonly conversant with the terminology. The anatomy, and the glossary of typography are occult arts, shared among the elite practitioners, like the language of a secret society.**

Typography is not commonly taught. You might get painting, drawing, sculpture, music or even calligraphy in some schools, but not type design – although you are more likely in your life to read than to paint or play music.

In his book, The Elements of Typographic Style, Robert Bringhurst, wrote,

Typography is the craft of endowing human language with a durable visual form, and thus an independent existence. Its heartwood is calligraphy – the dance, on a tiny stage, of the living, speaking hand – and its roots reach into living soil, though its branches may be hung each year with new machines. So long as the root lives, typography remains a source of true delight, true knowledge, true surprise.

Bringhurst, as I noted above, chose Minion has the typeface for his book, although he describes Bembo as “serene and versatile” in that work. Nun-like, I suppose you might call it. Not the slinky, seductive characters I see. But then, when I look on his Minion, I see anonymity and functionality; the sort of utilitarian servitude people find in the faceless person behind the cash in a  fast food joint.

It’s very subjective, of course. Like wine tasting.


* Among those titles is Just My Type, by Simon Garfield, a book I wrote about in late 2013 (set in Sabon). Also of interest is typesetter Gerard Unger’s book, While You’re Reading (set in Capitolium, designed by Unger himself, among several typefaces he offers for sale). Robin Williams’ The Non-Designer’s Design Book (4th edn) is set in Arno Pro. Designing With Type (4th edn) by William Craig is set in Century Expanded and Helvetica.

** Through popular computer tools – font editors, desktop publishing, layout programs – the lay person’s appreciation of typography was not merely improved, the language and principles of the trade began to seep over the borders, at least among those who actually paid attention. It was through the early DTP programs like Pagemaker, Ventura Publisher and Quark Xpress that I first discovered the joy of typography.

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2 Replies to “Just My Type”

  1. http://www.citylab.com/commute/2016/01/official-united-states-highway-sign-font-clearview/427068/

    America’s Sudden U-Turn on Highway Fonts

    “After more than a decade of analysis, we learned—among other things—that Clearview actually compromises the legibility of signs in negative-contrast color orientations, such as those with black letters on white or yellow backgrounds like Speed Limit and Warning signs,” says Doug Hecox, a FHWA spokesperson, in an email.