Bringhurst vs. Tracy vs. The rest of the world

track and kern's picture

Now that I finally have both the books in front of me, and am re-reading them, I just want to question why it is there are so many different methods for classifying type. I can appreciate Bringhurst, when he eloquently states that it is not yet like the taxonomic classification of animals, yet, he also clearly relates the latin letter to an "animal" itself. The system utilized in his book is based on "periods" where as others seem to "fabricate" terminology such as geralde and transitional for their own proprietary classification systems.

Generally, I would side with Bringhurst, and say forget the rest of the terms that I have already learned, but, what is really the best system here, and which is more widely used and understood? I doubt that if I were to go back to my professors and speak of neoclassical, baroque, or rococo types, that they would have the slightest clue as to just what that meant. I come from a university that used the "fabricated" system, which also seems to be used in most of my other typography books, including Walter Tracy's "Letters of Credit". I think it's just ironic to have two of the three triumvirate books in complete disagreement over which system to use for classification. One would surely be better then multiple, overlapping methods.

p.s.— Why is it that we say Gutenberg invented movable type (or at least most people say that) when in fact it existed almost 400 years before Gutenberg in China by Bí Shēng?

oldnick's picture

p.s.— Why is it that we say Gutenberg invented movable type (or at least most people say that) when in fact it existed almost 400 years before Gutenberg in China by Bí Shēng?

Why do we say Columbus "discovered" America, when its inhabitants at the time had been around for thousands--if not tens of thousands--of years? We "Westerners" are provincial Judaeo-Christian, Greco-Roman putzes...

track and kern's picture


good one oldnick, you made me lol in real life. =p

George Horton's picture

I like Bringhurst's classification, but his "baroque" is a bit of a catch-all. There are at least four strands within baroque type: some maintains the French Renaissance tradition (like Van Dijk's), some moves towards concentrated force (like Kis's), some towards distortion (like Jannon's) and some is rococo (like Rosart's and Fleischman's).

William Berkson's picture

Different systems of classification have different guiding principles. No one system is 'ideal'. It is just a matter of what your purpose or interest is.

That being said, there is some soundness in an historical approach, since most type designs, as all kinds of design, are influenced by reaction to designs of the previous generation, as well as new technology.

Guttenberg invented a system using metal type and oil-based ink, and a press. The Chinese and Korean systems it seems used water-based ink, and rubbing. According to the Wikipedia article it was less suited to mass production. That article credits Guttenberg with the press, not the invention of moveable type. The study of any invention usually shows that the key inventor was in fact key, but there were a lot of precursors that he draws on. That seems to be the case here. The fact is that all mass printing has followed Guttenberg's method, until offset printing with photo type, then digital type, replaced it.

gthompson's picture

The anthropoligist Claude Levi-Strauss has pointed out that we are the only beings on the planet who feel the need to classify things. Most man-made things don't fit neatly into categories, but we put them there as a way of defining them for ourselves so we can talk about them. I teach typography and I would find it much more difficult if I could not generalize about styles of type even if typefaces don't neatly fit into particular styles.

You have to look at every system of classification and be able to move back and forth amongst them. The Baroque-Romantic of Bringhurst helps define certain aspects of historical types, but in the end it's only a way of talking about the characteristics of the types, not a way of separating them from one another.

I felt bad because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no Bodoni

Giampa's picture


"Guttenberg invented a system using metal type"

This needs clarification. Some say the "form" was metal, others say the "form" was wood. The Gutenberg Bible was not PRINTED from "movable type" (dictionary definition), either in wood or metal. (Hint—early stereos) Although, setting the type may have been movable either in wood or metal but—not—printed—from—it. I know this is confusing.

What we do know is that Koster's work predates Gutenberg, Koster's work appears to have been printed from movable type. I would require a fresh look to be positive.

Gerald Giampa
At this hour I am not going to labour it.

typequake's picture

In fact, these two books classify type in two other ways–alphabetically, and by designer. Therein lies the answer: that it is the purpose of classification or juxtapostion which determines the ideal system. To my mind, the systems complement rather than disagree, and having read Bringhurst first I was happy to read something different, rather than more of the same.

oldnick's picture

The anthropoligist Claude Levi-Strauss has pointed out that we are the only beings on the planet who feel the need to classify things.

That's because classification-frameworks-schemata are what make human consciousness unique; without them, we would experience the same bewildering, unfiltered tsunami of raw sensory data -- sight, smell, sound, taste and touch -- which our fellow animals experience, during their neverending quest not to be eaten by larger animals.

ben_archer's picture

Hi Matthew

what is really the best system here, and which is more widely used and understood?

Part of my MA research last year involved a survey of different schemes for type classification; after hitting at least two dozen different schemes I realised that I was working towards a classification of classifications... but as Walter Tracy says in Letters of Credit, ...any classification is simply an aid to study, not an end in itself. Once the student has got the characteristics of the groups firmly in mind and can 'place' any type face without difficulty the actual names of the groups, and their precision and logicality [or lack of it] cease to be important.

George and William rightfully point out that these differing systems are complimentary rather than exclusive; from where I'm sitting, the old Vox-based system (garalde, transitional, modern et al), although now woefully out of date, is perhaps still the most widely used and understood. Its chief advantage at the time of its inception (1967, BS 2961) was that the nomenclature was roughly equivalent in French, English and German standards. It also serves to remind us that until the 19th century, there was only a pressing need to identify the 'old face' from the 'modern' – and maybe something inbetween, ie, a 'transitional'.

Bringhursts classification is elegant and has a good rationale, but as you say, it's not readily translatable to the (old?) professors, and as George H points out, it is not entirely flawless. The work done by Catherine Dixon that Tim cites at the St Brides conference is very interesting, quite complicated and seeks to redress some of the bias evident in older classification schemes. However, that 'Typeform Dialogues' project is not yet published in its own right, one can only find out more by reading the coverage of it in Baines and Haslams Type and Typography.

Both of these newer initiatives may be better in terms of addressing the current complexity of typeface classification, now that there are simply so many more typefaces and kinds of typefaces to choose from. I also teach typography, but whether one is in class or in a busy commercial studio, frankly any kind of system is better than a default font directory listing A-Z. Having said that, I no longer believe that there is likely to be a single 'best' scheme for classifying typefaces.

bieler's picture

What really needs to be asked is when did the classification of typefaces begin and why? How far back does anyone think this was? And what does this tell us?


typequake's picture

"What really needs to be asked is when did the classification of typefaces begin and why? "

No, the original question was fine :_)

John Hudson's picture

Why is it that we say Gutenberg invented movable type (or at least most people say that) when in fact it existed almost 400 years before Gutenberg in China by Bí Shēng?

Different people can independently invent similar processes at different times and places, and it is true to say they both invented these things. Saying that Gutenberg invented moveable type doesn't imply that Bí Shēng didn't, or vice versa. It is generally acknowledged by anyone who knows anything about the history of printing that the Chinese use of moveable type preceded the European, but invented does not automatically mean invented first. At some time in our childhood, most of us invent something that has already been invented by someone else. My niece invented pre-cut spaghetti a few years ago. :)

The other reason we say that Gutenberg invented moveable type, without making a corresponding reference to the Chinese invention, is that it is Gutenberg's invention, not Bí Shēng's, which led to the development of European typography as we know it and practice it. The invention of moveable type in China is an interesting historical fact, but of no direct significance for westerners; the invention of moveable type in Mainz is a major cultural event that affected pretty much all subsequent western history.

Gerald, pretty much all scholars -- including Dutch ones -- discredit the Koster claim.

graphicbee's picture

Throughout the history of print, it has been debated as to who developed the first system of movable type and the production of the first typographic book. We know that in the early 12th century scribes produced books. The Italians were experimenting with silver plate engraving and block printing, possibly before 1400, producing manuscripts with wood block print. Evidence exists to support the theory that Gutenberg did produce the first typographic book and develop the technology that allowed this to be possible.

We know that he perfected the technique of moveable block type. We also know that he made great advancements in the technology of the press. There is evidence to support this in transcipts from his trial with his two business partners, Dritzhen and Hellmann.

The process of Gutenberg’s creation of type was derived from the defects of wood block printing. Since the wood absorbed the ink it was necessary to invent a substrate that would be soft enough to press the letter forms but strong enough to withstand multiple press runs. Gutenberg developed a type material that was 80% lead, 5% tin and 15% antimony; the metal type was moveable and reusable. The process for creating the letters was first to select the letter style. Then each character had to be engraved into a steal bar to make the punch. The letters including all capitals, lowercase, punctuation symbols and ligatures. The punch was then pressed into the metal material to make a negative impression of the type. Gutenberg also invented the type mold. The mold allowed each letter to be placed into the mold and allowed for the thin or wide letters such as “l” or “w”.

So just as it was said before that we credit Columbus with discovering America, we can definantly understand why we credit Gutenberg with movable type. However, his greatest invention was not the movable type but creating a cohesive system that is one of the greatest achievements in type history.

xensen's picture

Credit should be given to the Koreans (not the Chinese, who worked in wood) for the development and perfection of moveable metal type in the first half of the 13th century during the Buddhist Goryeo dynasty. The Koreans printed the entire Buddhist canon, which was then exported to China and was largely responsible for the preservation of the Buddhist texts there. Some of these texts are extent in good condition and are fine examples of the art of printing. (The Koreans also made significant improvements in paper and ink technology.) Because there was more East-West interchange than has traditionally been acknowledged, I'm not ready to say that word of this achievement did not percolate back to Europe -- after all, the Mongol empire ( had direct contact with both Korea and Europe. Korean wood and metal printing was in part a response to Mongol invasion.

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