The Ampersand, Etc.


AmpersandAmong my many iPad apps is a simple one called ‘Ampersands.’ All it does is display, in large format, numerous ampersands from different typefaces. A brief introduction tells the viewer it was the designer’s intent to show how the character had become art in it its own right. It accomplished that to some degree, but it is also limited; showcasing only a very small handful of ampersands out of tens of thousands, all simply shown alone on the screen. And it does it without explanation why that particular character was chosen.

Beautiful, but the limitation in numbers makes it somewhat frustrating. The author’s choices are good, but there are others I would argue are even better. That’s because type is, like any art form, deeply personal. What strikes me as elegant others might see as ungainly. What I really want is a lot more examples – as well as some explanation, history – and to see each set in type, in context so we can appreciate its beauty better.

Robert Bringhurst, that maven of typographical design, is almost dismissive of the ampersand, saying simply,

Often the italic font is equipped with an ampersand that is less repressed than its roman counterpart. Since the ampersand is more often used in display work than in ordinary text, the more creative versions are often the more useful.
(The Elements of Typographic Style, 2001, ver 2.4, p.78)

Well, that’s all true, but it doesn’t explain why the italic form is often more decorative or why type designers have chosen that particular character to become so playful and free. Or how it is used in display, and why such use continues to delight and amuse us. And the history is well worth knowing; it’s almost a subversive tale how a simple Latin word, ‘et’ grew into the curlicue character shown above.

Keith Houston, in his delightful book, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographic Marks (Norton, 2013), dedicates a whole chapter to the ampersand: 18 pages of information and examples about a character I suspect few really give much thought to when using it. I am now better educated in ampersand-ish.

PilcrowHouston offers us a wonderful, nerdy, joyful romp through the history and development of some often overlooked (or at least taken for granted) extra-alphabetical characters we use in print. Many of them have a curious history and evolution that is as much comic escapade as adventure. He treats these characters like David Sacks did with the letters of the alphabet in his equally fascinating book, Letter Perfect.

Every writer and would-be writer should read Shady Characters to heighten your appreciation of the typographical menagerie at your disposal and how each one has, in turn, affected not only what we write but how, and how it was formatted for the reader by editors and scribes (just the first chapter on the pilcrow alone is worth the purchase – how many readers are aware of this ¶ character hidden within their typeface? Or what it means?) *

I believe every serious writer is somewhat obsessive over type. Not to be concerned with how writing looks on the page is like a musician not concerned about how notes sound. Writing without some thought to its eventual appearance would reflect Truman Capote’s comment on Jack Kerouac’s assertion he never edited his work: “That’s not writing. It’s typing.”

Yes, of course we get a lot too much of mere “typing” these days – social media abounds with it and some blogs are just words spewed out like a jumble-sale on the screen. Writing is not simply a process of putting words into order and pressing the publish button. Real writing is a wider series of cognitive processes that involves not simply the mechanics of fingers hitting keys.

I will admit to a somewhat more obsessive attraction to the nature of typography than some writers share. But you cannot be a serious writer without at least an appreciation of how typography affects your content. Typographers, on the other hand, may not think about the content of the writing as much as the context of its appearance. It’s how the two disciplines see the forest-and-trees from sometimes opposing perspectives. But theirs is a symbiotic relationship that has developed since the first clay tablets were inscribed in Sumeria, several millennia past.

Typography may seem like an esoteric art to some, but, thanks to the ubiquity of computers, at least our awareness of type and font have become more widespread (if not always correct, as in the common confusion between the terms font and typeface). With dozens of typefaces (‘fonts”) included with most applications, and tens of thousands available for free online, people have become comfortable with the notion that type matters, if not always exactly why that is so.

Thomas Phinney,  senior product manager for fonts and typography at Extensis, wrote:

Typography is like fashion, or furniture. With rare functional exceptions, the world doesn’t “need” new clothing or furniture designs, but people want to look different or evoke a particular feeling or fit with a particular “look,” and there are trends and styles. While true innovation is rare, people consistently come up with variations on existing themes, or combine existing elements in new ways, whether in type design, clothing or furniture…
Typefaces, too, are artifacts that can be aesthetically pleasing and functional at the same time. A great chair is not only visually attractive, but comfortable to sit in; a great typeface can be pleasing to the eye, and perform other functions as well, such as being legible for printing a newspaper, or on screen at body text sizes. Like furniture and clothing design, type design is a craft, blending art and science.**

In his now-famous (and recently re-released) Essay on Typography (1931), Eric Gill wrote:

There are now about as many different varieties of letters as there are different kinds of fools. I myself am responsible for designing five different sorts of sans-serif letters – each one thicker and fatter than the last because every advertisement has to try and shout down its neighbour.

Eric Gill's book, reprinted

The image above (from Creative Review) shows an example from a recent reprint of Gill’s Essay with the same headline set in different typefaces. Even someone not versed in the typographic arts can recognize the emotional difference between them. And these are, relatively, subtle differences that may not be immediately apparent, as they would between, say, serif and sans-serif typefaces.

Writers should think about the geography of the presentation space; about the spacing of words and width of the copy; the rhythm of the words; the sounds they will make in the reader’s mind; the way different fonts and typefaces will affect the context; about how the horizon of letters rise and fall.

However, on the computer or online, we seldom concern ourselves with these and focus simply on the typing aspect. We leave such presentation detail and effort for typographers or layout designers – and because of this the meaning behind our content may be affected by the hand of another. I think that it’s wrong to separate the two: we should at least have some notion of how the final work will look so we can help guide the designer towards our intention.

(One of the reasons I still like handwriting so much is because it is more involving of the whole mind. You have to think about the physical space more than when typing on a computer; you have to plan, to sense, and to feel. I even find the limitations of type and design imposed by this blog constraining and often frustrating.)

Like all arts, typography is awash in the politics of aesthetics. Huge debates swell online; virtual tides that erode the established views and ideologies about type and typefaces. While looking up some data for this post, I came across a challenge to Gill’s ideas and his designs – a heretical assault for some who consider Gill an icon of modern typography. The author, Ben Archer, inflames the rhetoric with such statements as:

…to pick an argument with something that is akin to a typographic national monument might appear unwise; it is so very much ‘ours’. But it is a flawed masterpiece… I contend that the majority of character shapes in Gill Sans are actually worse than in Johnston’s design of fifteen years previous. Gill Sans achieved its pre-eminence because of the mighty marketing clout of the Monotype Corporation and the self-serving iconoclasm of its author. Thus, rather than Johnston’s lettering, it was Gill Sans that became the English national style of the mid-century.

Of course, to the typographic outsider, arguing over the merits of one typeface or another – down to the detail of the width of the stroke or the curve of the descender on a particular letter – may be an angels-dancing-on-pinheads argument. The average reader may get glassy-eyed when encountering comments like:

Gill obliterated the terminus endings of the vertical stroke in ‘b’, ‘d’, ‘p’ and ‘q’; the Monotype drawing office again came to his assistance and revised the forms so that they were preserved in the medium weight (this can be seen on early samples of the series 262). Today however, this feature only persists in the lightest weight of the digital GillSans.

Still, it’s worth reading his essay because it underscores the sort of intellectual and aesthetic debate that occupy one of the spheres of the typographic cosmos. Would that all online discussions and debates were this civilized.

And, of course, it’s worth reading Houston’s book because through it he helps popularize typography; such knowledge will only help us all appreciate how important type is to our writing. The more we know, the better we are able to assess and appreciate how the appearance of our words affects its meaning, often as much as the words themselves.

Besides, aren’t you at all curious to know what  that pilcrow is, now that you’ve been introduced to it?


* As a former newspaper/book/magazine editor I used the ¶ symbol and several others many, many times when marking up text by hand without really knowing much about it. I had even forgotten its name in the decade-and-a-half since I left the editing business. Reading Houston has also encouraged me to drag out several dusty books on typography, type design and editing just to scrape the rust from those old skills.

** To which I might add the analogy of typography and architecture. A homeowner has an inherent understanding that the design, layout and structure of his/her house affects its function, its appearance and its beauty. But it is through a better education in the basics of architecture that the homeowner will appreciate exactly why this is. Typography is to writing what architecture is to home building.

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