Typophile Wiki + John Downer's 'Call It What It Is'

ebensorkin's picture

In a thread today I wanted to refer to John Downer's ideas about revivals etc which are available here:


But before I found them there I went looking in the wiki for some shorter possibly more general treatement of the ideas ( many of which were in use before his article) in some form there. I could not find anything at all. Which seems really silly. I started to think about working on it myself but then I realized I aught to chat with the many & sundry about it before I tried.

So here is my proposal : It seems like some set of categories ( heavily indebted I suspect to John Downer) would be reall useful to have in the wiki. I am not keen on using his categories 'as is' in part because that seems like stealing, but also because that would be lazy. We aught to come to a consensus of our own. This does not preculude using his work as a point to jump off from. To that end here is his list:


What do you think?

Stephen Coles's picture

Great idea, Eben. I don't think John would consider it "stealing" to use his categories. (The whole point of his essay was to spread these designations.) But you're right to ask Typophiles to agree on our own set of terms since this is such a controversial topic.

If you're willing to wade through some unrelated bits, there was some discussion on Downer's piece at Typographica.

paul d hunt's picture

eben, i think this is a noble undertaking, but it reminds me of my own experience with trying to come to terms with classifications. that is not to say that we shouldn't try to classify things and that multiple systems can't coexist. i think classification systems are useful, but at some point they all break down. but not trying to derail your topic, i think that many of Downer's terms are generic enough to use without getting into trouble. My own preferences would probably be:
extensions (variations seems to me to belong more with reinterpretations)

this may still be too many, for example, aren't parodies simply exaggerated reinterpretations, for example would Farnham be a reinterp or a caricature of Fleischman?

just 2 cents to get the ball rolling...

funny thing, i was just thinking today of going back to some of the classification pages in the wiki and adding terms pages so that browsers could find typefaces based on different descriptions. i wish our wiki was more dynamic with categories as is wikipedia, that would make doing something like this much easier. *sigh*

Christian Robertson's picture

i wish our wiki was more dynamic whith categories"

Just wait a few more days *wink*

paul d hunt's picture


William Berkson's picture

Personally, the only 'revival' categories I find enlightening are 'reproductions' vs every other kind of adaptation of an old design. Reproductions are an attempt to faithfully revive a typeface in a different medium. With every other kind of interpretation or adaptation, I find it most useful to understand what was the purpose of the designer was. That goes beyond categories, and gets to the individual typeface design.

dezcom's picture

Sounds like that there Christian feller has bin upta sumthin' :-)


ebensorkin's picture

Paul, I like your categories and I mostly like your edits as well. I do agree that this is inherently squishy ground like most things & especially type things. And I also agree that much type is inevitably going to span 2 or more categories.

Thinking further I stated to wonder about the structure above this set of categories. Might it go like this? :

Approach                Novel/New Design
       \                        /
         Intentional/Historically Grounded

* How valid is this anyway?

Dynamic Categories! Woohoo from me too!

PS I don't suggest trying this weird format - I used the HTML " & n b s p ; " and it was a pain. I was just too curious & bullheaded to let go.

paul d hunt's picture

this is a bit confusing for me. i need to understand the difference between naieve/non-historical and novel/new design. i feel these might be considered the same??? also, i might move revivals up one level because althought it IS interpretive, i think in the strictest sense TRY to be as faithful as possible to the source. so perhaps there is no such thing as a revival, per se, because we can never truly recapture the original artist's intention. even if there is a metal version and a digital version by the same designer, they will essentially be different animals.

ebensorkin's picture

I guess what I was getting at here ( or trying to ) is that typeface design exists outside of John's categories too. One area outside of John categories is novel design. Admttedly there isn't much of it & some might argue that even a novel design is only just so novel if it can be read... but I think it's a valid construct for the purposes of discussion. I also think that an area unexplored by John's categories is with the how aware the designer is of type already and specifically with the form they are working in. For example Template Gothic was basically a new design but the designer was ( I supect) grounded in some type history. But if you have for instance a student & they start making type out of squares & half circles they may or may not be aware of the hitorical prescedents - and assuming they are not; they may make what is essentially a naive design which looks derivative but is non-historical in conception. As I say these are rare instances for the most part but it we are building a hierarchy of categories maybe these aspects should have a place in it. Maybe not.

might move revivals up one level

Maybe so. I was imbivalent about creating a category with subcats. Maybe the Super catgory 'Interpretive' isn't helpful.

paul d hunt's picture

i think "interpretive" is a very valid category, but i don't think revivals or clones are meant to be interprative in most cases whereas reinterps, homages, anthologies and variations intend to depart from their source.

so i might do it thusly:

I. Naive/Non-historical
II. Intentional/Historically Grounded
A. Novel/New Design
B. Literal
i. Revivals
ii. Clones
C. Interperative
i. Anthologies
ii. Homages
iii. Variations
iv. Reinterps

although, i might collapse Anthologies/Homages and Variations/Reinterps to 2 categories.

Miss Tiffany's picture

Aren't interpretative and homage very similar?

ebensorkin's picture

I like it! I would keep the distictions between Variations/Reinterps ( Reevaluations? ) because the one has commercial intent context and the other is just intellectually & aesthetically speculative. At least as John puts it. I cannot say that I know of an example of an Anthology:

John's definition is : Anthologies/Surveys/Remixes
Closely based on characters from various fonts all cut by one person, or cut by various hands, all working in one particular style or genre-like a medley or an overview done more for the sake of providing a "sampling" than for the sake of totally replicating any one single cut of type.

What fonts could he have had in mind?

paul d hunt's picture

well, it's not a complete typeface yet, but Junius is meant to sample from several typefaces of Menhart. Someday I'd also like to do a Goudy homage and put everything that I think is good about Goudy into one type family (well maybe not everything). i think i would use Homage where Downer uses Anthologies and vice versa, but i'm not sure there is a significant difference between these two categories.

ebensorkin's picture

I think Interpretive is the broader word Homage has a more specific meaning. But yes, the titles are all pretty close. Too close. In fact Tiff's comment has me thinking that my efforts to frame the ideas for wiki use are not going to work well enough to be worth doing. Maybe the most useful, accurate thing to do would be to create an entry on: 'John Downer's type classification from his article "Call it what it is" ' and then paste in what he wrote. Then the attribution is there. Or simply link to the article. I am saying this because in responding to people's comments it wasn't the titles he chose that were helpful really - it was the descriptions of each kind of intent in making a face that I needed.

Miss Tiffany's picture

I agree with you Eben. John's descriptions were what justified his nomenclature, if you will. I understood what he meant by them, basically, but the way he articulated it out in such a way that even a layperson could get the concept makes it perfect.

kentlew's picture

Eben --

Re: Anthologies -- I believe what John had in mind are designs like Matthew Carter's Galliard, which MC has stated was not an attempt to recreate any one specific Granjon typeface, but an amalgam or distillation of various Granjon characteristics based on long and careful study.

The same could be said, to a certain extent, of Robert Slimbach's Adobe Garamond, which again was not an attempt to recreate a specific font of Garamond's, but a distillation of various Garamond sizes and characteristics. (This is the case with Carol Twombly's Adobe Caslon also.) In contrast, the later Garamond Premier is Slimbach's return to the same source material with the intention of a much more faithful revival of specific sizes of Garamond's fonts.

-- K.

ebensorkin's picture

Thanks Kent!

Before you & Paul explained this the whole idea seemed vague and wobbly but now it seems specific and clear. Thanks again.

So Paul & Tiff,

Do you want to do the honors vis a vis the wiki? Should I? Should we clear it with John 1st? Are we linking or listing locally?

paul d hunt's picture

eben, it's your baby, implement this how you think best. wouldn't hurt to check in with Mr. Downer first.

ebensorkin's picture

Okay cool. I will ask to Tiff for that favor as I have no way of reaching him.

Miss Tiffany's picture

I'll contact John, but I wonder how much of the article we need to actually post in the wiki. Are you thinking of the categories only?

ebensorkin's picture

Yes. That seems like the useful thing to do. And then linking to the full article. But I am open to suggestions/alternatives.

dberlow's picture

"What do you think?"
I'm happy as long as I can do a Variation of a Revival of a Clone from a Tribute to a Sequel of a Burlesque...and at least one person knows what I'm talking about right away.


ebensorkin's picture

So then you endorse the terms used as sufficiently specific already - or you are you just happy to go along with their use as long as we all agree/learn what they 'mean'?

Also, will you explain your new avatar & what it means? I am puzzled. And I have too many silly theories.

ben_archer's picture

That avatar looks like a Star Trek phaser to me...

ebensorkin's picture

I hadn't though of that.

david h's picture

> what it means?

ClearType Tuner ( integrated into Pasta...Vista...) :)

ebensorkin's picture

Tiff, any word from John?

hrant's picture

Nah, must be an Uzi.


William Berkson's picture


More likely a nail or staple gun, for building. IIRC David said at TypeCon last summer that he is addicted to building...

Miss Tiffany's picture

Eben, I'll ping him again. Last I heard he wanted to discuss it with Rudy.

ebensorkin's picture

Thanks Tiff. That makes sense. Worst come to worst we can always give our own brief summary & link.

Re: Uzis etc. I think it's a deliberately primitive T with outlines meant to be

a) a joke about 'novice status'
b) suggestive of the power of letters to change shape
c) his interest in that power or range
d) it's meant to be a primoridial unformed 'T'. Why A 'T' I dont know. Maybe for Type.

or some combination.

e) Maybe a child did it for him...

Okay over-analysis over.

Syndicate content Syndicate content