Goudy Quote: Am I Being Too Harsh on Alexander Lawson?

quadibloc's picture

Frederic W. Goudy once said:

"If there were an individual, readily recognized quality or characteristic which the type designer could incorporate in drawings that would make any one type more beautiful, legible, or distinguished than another, it is obvious that only type of that kind would be produced."

I understood this statement to mean that if a simple stylistic attribute - such as more or less stroke contrast, a larger or smaller x-height, sharper serifs, or more cowbell - could make a typeface better, then everyone would do it that way. But that we can also be sure that, since typefaces don't all exhibit the same obvious characteristics, there is no shortcut to quality, and the quest for one is chimeric.

And so, when I read on in Anatomy of a Typeface to see Alexander S. Lawson write

"This statement was made by Frederic W. Goudy, a man who spent more than fifty years of his life in pursuit of that 'recognized quality' in a printing type."

... as opposed to actually pursuing real *quality* in the typefaces he designed, rather than wasting fifty years pursuing a false shortcut... I was shocked and annoyed.

Am I getting overly exercised over a minor lapse in reading comprehension (probably occasioned by forgetting that in addition to "quality" in the sense of merit and soundness, it also has the meaning of an attribute or characteristic) or have I somehow misconstrued Goudy's words?

hrant's picture

I'm not exactly sure what Lawson meant.
But I am sure that I don't like Goudy's œuvre.


quadibloc's picture

A lot of Goudy's typefaces are dated. But there are a few gems, such as the ever-popular Goudy Old Style, that show that his reputation was not unmerited. That much of his talent seems to have been wasted on typefaces belonging to categories for which there is little current demand is unfortunate.

Also, though, many people have only seen a fraction of his œuvre.


...thanks to the good people at Circuitous Root.

Nathaniel Hebert's picture

Cheers and many thanks for the link to Goudy's typefaces retrospective... I now know what the weekend will be looking like!

PublishingMojo's picture

My impression of Goudy is that he liked to make sweeping statements that he himself probably didn't agree with one hundred per cent. Under the right circumstances, he might have even letterspaced lowercase.

Both Goudy's and Lawson's statements seem to presume that typographers are all solving the same problem, and thus their efforts must all converge toward one perfect solution.

Typefaces are vehicles. Is a Ford pickup a more perfect vehicle than a Lamborghini? That depends on how much 5hit you have to haul.

quadibloc's picture

You make a good point, but even if one admits there will always be multiple typefaces, because we have multiple applications (such as text versus display), and we assume that both Goudy and Lawson realized that... then we go to the next level.

Would it be a reasonable assumption, say, that there could ever be "one best typeface" for a specific task, such as body copy for continuous reading?

Goudy's statement doesn't seem to assert that. He notes that if some characteristic - say sharper serifs - unproblematically made any typeface better (for a particular application, let's assume) then every typeface intended for that purpose would have really sharp serifs.

That doesn't leave out the possibility of design freedom in other aspects of the typeface. The typefaces would all belong to the "sharp serif" kind, but there could still be only one of them.

But, at least as I understood what he said, he clearly intended the "if" to be counterfactual. We don't see all text faces, or all display faces, or all headline faces, looking alike even in just one, or a few, trivial characteristics. Because his intent was to say that there are no shortcuts to quality.

And so good craftsmanship and good design is the only universal. That is the opposite of a situation where there is a single best typeface, even for a single purpose.

frand2make's picture

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Ryan Maelhorn's picture

I kind of like Goudy Sans. Wouldn't be surprised if I was the only person in the world who did though.

altsan's picture

It seems to me, at least, that neither Goudy nor Lawson meant "quality" in the sense of "merit", but only in the sense of "attribute".

quadibloc's picture

Yes, that is correct.

However, he did talk about merit later in the quote; his point being that no attribute automatically improves merit.

Thomas Phinney's picture

The quest for a single perfect typeface for a general class of application is doomed to failure.

There are differences between individual people, between groups of people, and changes in what people (individuals or groups) are used to over time. There can also be differences in the environment for the consumption of the “same” textual material. With digital material, there can be interesting differences in the devices used to display it, as well.

Not to mention that there can be differences in the mental state of people reading the material. For example, Shaikh and Chaparro (2004) found that people could read text with surprisingly long line lengths (95 characters per line) 6% faster than short to mid-length lines (35, 55, 75). But for just over half their subjects 95 CPL was their least favorite reading condition. In a situation where the reader is forced to read something and speed is important, long lines might be good, but otherwise, one suspects they would be less likely to consume the material, and long lines are bad.

Yes, that was line length rather than a font change. But we see similarly complex issues around choosing fonts (and typesetting) to create “disfluency,” which is superficially attractive yet almost certainly a bad idea in the real world where people may just not consume the information.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying: type design (and typesetting) is complex. Although there is not doubt that poor choices can be made, and that striving for perfection is a fine thing, defining and proving that any particular typeface (or typesetting condition) is literally “perfect” for some application is a chimerical quest.

Chris Dean's picture

…Shaikh and Chaparro (2004) found that people could read text with surprisingly long line lengths (95 characters per line) 6% faster than short to mid-length lines (35, 55, 75).”

I believe you mean:

Shaikh, D. A. (2005). The effects of line length on reading Online news. Usability News, 7(2).

This study examined the effects of line length on reading speed, comprehension, and user satisfaction of online news articles. Twenty college-age students read news articles displayed in 35, 55, 75, or 95 characters per line (cpl) from a computer monitor. Results showed that passages formatted with 95 cpl resulted in faster reading speed. No effects of line length were found for comprehension or satisfaction, however, users indicated a strong preference for either the short or long line lengths.



Shaikh, A. D. & Chaparro, B. S. (2004). A survey of online reading habits of internet users. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting September. 48(5), 875–879. doi: 10.1177/154193120404800528

This study evaluated the reading habits of Internet users across five document types. Internet users completed an online survey indicating whether they were likely to read a document online or on paper using five possible choices. Document types evaluated included journal articles, news, newsletters, literature, and product information. Results revealed differences in the reading habits based on document type. Journal articles were reported to be primarily printed while documents such as online news, newsletters, and product reviews were reported to be read mainly online. Users tended not to use online sources for reading literature. Primary factors determining whether a document was printed or read online were size, importance, and intended purpose of document.

Chris Dean's picture

And how on earth can you trash talk “chimerical” research scientists who are attempting to suport the pool of typography’s anecdotal wisdom with objective measures of human performance and empirical data? They are trying to add substance and scientific validity to what is, for the most part, a traditional, intuitive, and aesthetic craft. Please.

quadibloc's picture

@Chris Dean:
And how on earth can you trash talk [as] “chimerical” research scientists

I thought he was referring to lazy type designers who apply the "more cowbell" approach to type design, just what Goudy criticized.

Thomas Phinney's picture

@Chris Dean:

I did not suggest that legibility research is pointless, nor that the study I cited was pointless. Indeed, I am a big fan of research and scientific method, and I believe it can and should be applied to typography and type design. When I heard about Sofie Beier’s new book on legibility and type design, I literally whipped out my iPhone on the spot, went online and bought it right then, while sitting in a bar at Type Tuesday in Portland. Said book is sitting about a foot from my elbow right now.

However, I *am* saying that we can never identify one lone truly perfect font for any application. We can understand what variables are in play in certain situations and identify key factors that make some fonts worse than others in those situations. But the notion that anyone could ever identify or create a single perfect font for an application, one that could never be excelled, seems to me to be absurd.

That does not mean we shouldn't keep on striving to make and choose better typefaces, btw. Just recognize that we will never reach perfection. It’s like there is an imaginary Platonic form of the best typeface for a given application. (Only worse because it will change over time and between viewers....)

5star's picture

"If there were an individual, readily recognized quality or characteristic which the type designer could incorporate in drawings that would make any one type more beautiful, legible, or distinguished than another, it is obvious that only type of that kind would be produced."

Beside Goudy's use of the word / beautiful / I'm diggin' this quote. To me, as a designer, I understand the quote to mean that those works which seek only to imitate should NOT be produced.

Which I'm sure would send a lot of font peddlers to the curb.


Chris Dean's picture

@Thomas Phinney: I will definitely put that book on my list. Does she reference scientific studies in her work? If so, it will make it to the VIP section.

Thomas Phinney's picture

She not only references, but provides interesting and useful data. I've seen stuff from the 1880s to present, so far.

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