How did the term 'Humanist' become attached to Sans Serifs?

d_gogarty's picture

It seems that the term 'Humanist' in typography is used solely to describe a certain type of sans serif. But is this really a reference to the renaissance Humanist scribe hands? If so why is the term not used for serifed typefaces that are directly related to this humanist hand?
Does anyone know when the history of when term was first 'coined' in regards to sans serif. Was it just an attempt to categorise, or maybe a commercial reason, to set a typeface design as different from the rest by giving it an saleable tag, one that gave it a mystique, esteem or historical cogitation.
Humanism also has many non-typographic meanings. What does this tag imply to you as designers?

Comments

Nick Job's picture

Loosely speaking, I think humanistic is the opposite of geometric. In a humanist font, the curves were not created using a rule, square and compasses but with a 'free' hand (as per the scribe hands that you mention). Of course, beziers and quadratic splines are hardly humanistic but are now used to create most fonts so I guess its now purely an appearance thing rather than how the font was actually made. When I think archetypal Humanist, I think Frutiger. I couldn't tell you if the tag was being used before that though. Maybe 'humanist' is a catch all for sans serifs that just don't fit into the grotesk or geometric category. Happy to be put straight.

kentlew's picture

This is in fact the very subject of lengthy study by typophile Craig Eliason. He gave a presentation of his research so far at last year's TypeCon.

From the conference description:

This presentation traces the twentieth-century emergence of the term “humanist” as a classification of types. “Humanist” has been commonly applied to many (in some cases, rather different) typefaces. How and why has “humanist” persisted as a label? Craig Eliason’s presentation argues that the term emerged in the context of a surge of interest in the Italian Renaissance among Western historians, and that this interest, in turn, was fed by a sense of crisis of civilization coming from the turbulent political and cultural history of the mid-twentieth-century.

If you're lucky, Craig will stop by this thread to share some of his knowledge.

Nick Job's picture

Cheers, Kent...I now wish I'd let Craig go first!

aluminum's picture

Interesting questions.

To add to that: I don't usually (ever?) hear the term humanist associated with serif faces. Why is it a term relegated to the sans side of the fence?

Jongseong's picture

I'm a bit surprised people haven't heard the term used for serif faces. Maybe it's because of my interest in serif faces in general, or maybe it's the particular terminology used in the type classification I first learned from, but when I hear the term "humanist" in connection with type, I always think of serif faces first.

I know exactly what a humanist serif is; I refer you to the I Love Typography article. By contrast, I'm still not quite sure what is meant by a humanist sans. I can see that sans designs obviously based on oldstyle forms are humanist, but I hesitate when I see something like Frutiger, even though I've often heard it refered to as a humanist design.

My guess is that the use of the term for sans designs is not necessarily connected with humanist serif faces. Perhaps all that is meant is that the shapes are not constructed as in geometric sans or grotesques, but have a "human" touch.

To add another wrinkle, I sometimes use "humanist" to describe a much larger category of type including most Latin serif faces used for text today (humanist, oldstyle, transitional, modern, etc.) that is based on the first humanist forms, as opposed to something like blackletter. I don't know how appropriate this use is.

d_gogarty's picture

I agree with you Jong, logically humanist should refer to serif faces, however if you go to a font website and search for humanist I am sure that 90% of the returned fonts will be sans. There also seems to be a flood of new sans serifs at the moment, most of which claim to have humanist 'touches'. I wonder if perhaps it has become a cool buzzword that is used to sell new fonts? Or maybe the humanist sans is more versatile (than grotesque & geometric) and therefore more in demand?

By the way does anyone know if it's possible to get a copy of Craig Eliason's presentation? (thanks Kent)

Jongseong's picture

Here is a thread on this topic that Craig started a few years ago:

http://www.typophile.com/node/35213

I looked up "humanist" on MyFonts, and the first several results were the Bitstream fonts, like Humanist 521 (Gill Sans), Humanist 531 (Syntax), Humanist 777 (Frutiger), and Humanist 970 (Doric). It may be Bitstream that popularized the use of the term for non-geometric, non-grotesque sans designs. Bitstream uses "Venetian" for humanist serifs, as in Venetian 301 (Centaur). The availability of this alternative and unambiguous term for humanist serifs probably contributed to the semantic shift of "humanist" to cover sans designs primarily.

kentlew's picture

David -- Usually Craig is pretty active on these boards. But it looks like he's laying low currently, probably something to do with the holidays. You might try contacting him offline through his Typophile contact form.

eliason's picture

Here I am. I think many of the suspicions that have been put forward in the thread already are sound.

I think the arrival of new sans designs around the turn of the 1960s (Optima and Pascal within the subcategory, Helvetica and Univers outside of it) were what provoked a more official sorting out of sans types and the consequent invention of the "humanist sans" label.

The earliest published use of the term I have traced so far is the British Standards Institution guide to type nomenclature and classification that was published in 1967. (Thus this predates Syntax, which was proposed in my earlier thread as a possible first.) If anyone finds anything earlier please let me know!

One interesting bit I found from my research (which I didn't have time to go into at TypeCon) is that all of the labels in the influential type classification scheme of Maximilien Vox from the 1950s were intentially "suggestive" neologisms. Terms like "Garaldes" and "Didones" were unchanged in English publications of the scheme, so retained their invented character. But "humanes" (which suggests but is not a word in French - I'd welcome correction from anybody who knows French better than I) was turned into "humanist" in most English accounts. To be true to Vox's intentions, perhaps we should be saying "humanic" instead of "humanist" (as one or two sources I've seen have done).

d_gogarty's picture

Thanks Craig,
I noticed on the synopsis of your presentation at TypeCon, as posted by Kent above, a point about a surge of interest with Italian Renaissance fed by a crisis of civilization.
Was this interest passed down to the public domain from the historians? If so was it part of any political or artistic movement? I suppose the point I'm trying to get at is; to what extent is this humanist tag a form of branding? Although the name does make sense considering the influences that conceived it, is it not just as probable that there is a commercial aspect to it?

billtroop's picture

>Although the name does make sense considering the influences that conceived it, is it not just as probable that there is a commercial aspect to it?

This is spot on. No word can be defined absent context. For example, in Adobe's commercial literature, the word 'humanist' is seldom used without being preceded by the word 'warm'. What warmth has got to do with type classification, I don't know. But I do know it's got a lot to do with marketing and propaganda -- and fuzziness; and fuzzy thinking.
For example, while Robert Slimbach often describes his 'humanist sans' designs as 'warm', he describes his humanist serif typeface Minion as 'cool'. Oops! Did I say 'his' humanist sans designs? I meant Frutiger's and Küster's. It's important to be accurate in a discussion like this, where we're trying to cut through the commercial fluff.

Just for the record, two definitions from the OED:

humanist, noun: Literary Hist. One of the scholars who, at the Revival of Learning in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, devoted themselves to the study of the language, literature, and antiquities of Rome, and afterwards of Greece; hence, applied to later disciples of the same culture.

humanistic, adjective: Pertaining to or characteristic of the humanists or classical scholars of the Renascence; classical.

N.B. There are several other OED definitions of these terms.

billtroop's picture

Craig, perhaps you can clarify something for me?

Is BSI 1967 the first English reference to a humanist typeface? (This is brutal for a start; as we have seen, humanist should be the noun, and humanistic the adjective.)

Is the first non-English reference Vox's humanes? This appears to be an illegitimate Latin coinage. Was it not translated earlier than 1967? I don't see why Vox should be given any particular weight. 'Garalde' is both ugly and silly and to a non-typographer looks like a funny way to spell 'Gerald' - - while one of many previous terms with a long history, Aldine, does just as well. Not the least problem with 'humanes' is that there is no way to learn what it meant without interrogating the presumably now extinct Herr Vox. That is not the way a word's pedigree should work.

. . . . .

Reading about the 1933 Humanist Manifesto and the current 'Humanists' reveals that the current common definition of 'Humanist' seems to be someone who is non-religious but nice --- and warm, possibly fuzzy. What this has got to do with non-geometric, non-grotesque sans serifs is beyond me.

One thing is critical to keep in mind: humanist type, as Morison would argue, comes not from the hand but from the punchcutter's chisel (or asp, or whatever grim thing it was). The type world today is full of minor Morison wannabes who have made, I admit, persuasive cases to the contrary. So chacun a son gout!

The overwhelming sense of 'humanist' today has nothing to do with type. We need a better term and it should be devised by someone without a commercial interest in promoting the term. For example, when speaking of a sans italic that is not a slanted roman, it is better to use the term cursive, which is precisely descriptive, rather than humanist, which is not.

eliason's picture

(David) I suppose the point I'm trying to get at is; to what extent is this humanist tag a form of branding? Although the name does make sense considering the influences that conceived it, is it not just as probable that there is a commercial aspect to it?

Oh certainly, schemes of this sort are set up by commercial interests (who else would care enough to bother?) But I don't assume that something with commercial intent can't also be an expression of the culture in which it appears.

(I should say that my TypeCon talk departed a bit in emphasis from what appeared in the abstract. I'm developing it and hope to publish it as an article some time soon.)

(Bill) Is BSI 1967 the first English reference to a humanist typeface?

No, I should clarify that that is the earliest reference I have found thus far to a "humanist sans."

Is the first non-English reference Vox's humanes? This appears to be an illegitimate Latin coinage. Was it not translated earlier than 1967? I don't see why Vox should be given any particular weight.

Vox's scheme was translated and disseminated soon after he conceived of it in the fifties, and it included "humanes" as a class of seriffed type, but all sans types were lumped together as "lineales."

Vox should be given particular weight (by me as a historian) because his scheme served as the basis for the major national and international classifications of the sixties, and still serves as the basis for many discussions of type classification in our present century.

Not the least problem with 'humanes' is that there is no way to learn what it meant without interrogating the presumably now extinct Herr Vox. That is not the way a word's pedigree should work.

But if Monsieur Vox tried to explain it in writings that still exist, and if we know he was familiar with the use of similar words contemporaneously, isn't it better to venture an undertanding of that meaning from those sources than to accept that dead men can tell no tales to us?

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