MATD 2012

hrant's picture

http://www.typefacedesign.org/2012/

The balance of quality and diversity makes me smile. Physically.

hhp

John Hudson's picture

Again, Nick, we're talking about different notions or contexts of normative. I'm talking about writing systems and you're talking about typefaces. I don't agree that the set of pi shapes you show parallels the set of y shapes, except superficially, because the latter all evolved in the normal maturation of a writing system, but only the right-most of your pi forms did. The other two are uppercase forms that are alien to the normative Greek lowercase alphabet. That doesn't mean they're not normative within some styles of typeface, nor that such typefaces cannot be popularly or commercially successful. But when you and are use the word normative, our signifier has different signifieds. :)

Nick Shinn's picture

I too am talking about writing systems.
Perhaps the difference is that your concept of the “normal maturation” of a writing system does not extend into the typographic era, whereas I consider that writing systems continue to evolve—just like spoken language, which they represent.

John Hudson's picture

Warning, extended metaphor ahead.

I think what happens to writing systems that have been reduced to type (borrowing a construction frequently used of oral traditions when they are 'reduced to writing') is that they cease to evolve in ways that affect the whole genome of the script. Rather, like human evolution in the civilisational period, what you get are relatively minor mutations that don't spread in the population and only express themselves in fragmented gene pools, in this case genres of type. I think this is quite different from what is observed during the evolution of a writing system in the context of scribal cultures, in which periods of intense creativity produce system-wide paradigm changes that then dominate across multiple languages using the script sometimes for centuries.

Nick Shinn's picture

To engage your metaphor:

Not much biological evolution of humanity has occurred during the civilizational period.
But writing systems are entirely cultural, and evolve with culture.
There is no reason for them not to continue to evolve, as writing technology changes from clay tablet to pen and paper to foundry type to digital fonts and pixel media.

Reading is an important part of writing systems, and for the past hundred years there has been near universal literacy in the West, with most of the reading being of type, and within this century most adult writing being done on a keyboard with digital fonts. That is a system-wide paradigm change as great as any that ever occurred in a scribal culture, so it is reasonable to assume that it has had a profound effect on the normative shapes of letters.

John Hudson's picture

Yes, it has narrowed and mostly frozen them, such that change now only occurs within fragmentary stylistic avenues: mutations that do not spread to the general population of normative forms. I'm not describing what might happen, or proposing counterfactuals, I'm describing what has happened. The evolutionary analogy is actually very apt, because what we see in contemporary type design is an explosion of stylistic mutations that do not take hold on the writing system in anything like the way, to take this back to the original topic, the Byzantine scribal cursive took hold of the Greek writing system, or the naskh and nastaliq styles took hold of the Arabic and Persian writing systems. I don't think it is sufficient to say that writing is cultural and that it evolves with culture without examining what evolution means in this context and acknowledging that what happens in the maturation of writing systems is akin to biological evolution, whereas what happens in typography is actually akin to evolutionary failure, exciting though it may be to watch happening in the petri dish.

Nick Shinn's picture

… what happens in typography is actually akin to evolutionary failure …

I can’t share such a pessimisitic view.
The ecosystem that thrives is not the monoculture, but one where there is diversity to accomodate whatever manner of change it may encounter.

The three-sides-of-a-rectangle pi has in fact spread to the general population of letter forms and become a norm in the Greek writing system, because writing systems in the 21st century are primarily typographic and allographic, with multiple norms of many letters, of which pi is one. This variety does not mean that the variants are trivial and the pre-typographic singularity (if there ever was such a thing) is the only real norm; it just means that there is variety, existing in forms that may be categorized according to typographic style.

Despite the fact that the three-sides-of-a-rectangle pi can never achieve complete hegemony, it is not a worthless mutant but an old species of shape (capital Pi) that now thrives in the lower case sans—ecological succession, if you will.

John Hudson's picture

Hey, no changing the referants mid-metaphor! We were talking about writing systems as if they were species (the level at which the evolution metaphor applies), not ecosystems.

Who said anything about pessimism? Is it a matter of pessimism that mutations in human genetics are now all evolutionary failures, i.e. that they do not propagate to the species? It is simply the observable state of the species in its present situation, and I'd say that the same is true of writing systems in a typographic situation. Writing systems no longer evolve as they used to. This doesn't mean that change doesn't happen, or that the change isn't interesting or even fruitful in a limited way, only that it doesn't propagate at the 'species' level and hence isn't really evolution.

And I still think you are overstating the case for something like the three-sides-of-a-rectangle pi as being in any sense a norm in the Greek writing system. It is a feature of a small sub-genre of typefaces, and that not a writing system norm constitute. And I think it looks rubbish, unconvincing and disruptive of the normal rhythms of the Greek minuscule.

Nick Shinn's picture

We were talking about writing systems as if they were species (the level at which the evolution metaphor applies), not ecosystems.

Looks like the conversation evolved!

It is a feature of a small sub-genre of typefaces, and that [does] not a writing system norm constitute.

There are many norms; a norm is a convention of letter form which exists in different genres of typeface.
Futura, DIN and Verdana/Tahoma aren’t a sub-genre, but a variety of much-used sans faces, ranging from humanist to geometric.
I could have mentioned more sans serifs, such as PF Centro.
It is also designed by a Greek and published by a (very successful) Greek foundry, which is enough to convince me that it is authentic.
Perhaps they have decided it’s time to disrupt the old rhythms.

Furthermore, those serifed types where the extension of the crossbar is nothing more than serifs, such as Rockwell, may also be considered members of the “three sides of a rectangle pi” norm.

John Hudson's picture

As I said earlier, we're using the concept of normative in reference to different things: you're talking about 'different genres of typeface', and I'm talking about writing systems; you're considering typefaces as representing the evolution of writing systems in a typographic ecosystem, while I consider typefaces to be essentially arbitrary stylistic mutations that, due to the nature of the ecosystem, do not represent evolution of the writing system. Both perspectives seem to me valid. I prefer mine because it seems to provide a more systemic and less general sense of evolution -- something other than just a synonym for 'change' --, and because it provides criteria other than fashionable success to make judgements about individual typefaces and genres and, indeed, to make design decisions. The problem of taking typefaces as constituting new norms is that, as with the so-called experimentation of the 1990s, there are no failed experiments.

Nick Shinn's picture

… I consider typefaces to be essentially arbitrary stylistic mutations that, due to the nature of the ecosystem, do not represent evolution of the writing system.

How do you account for the extinction of the long s?

… The problem of taking typefaces as constituting new norms is that, as with the so-called experimentation of the 1990s, there are no failed experiments.…

That’s not the case with the Greek geometrics. The experimental “theta = beta flipped” of Olympia was not adopted by any other typefaces, AFAIK. However, its three-sides-of-a-rectangle pi has become a norm in sans typography, because it has been implemented in a variety of widely-used faces.

Two more faces, serifed, in which this norm exists (note that the Upper and Lower Case forms of Pi/pi are identical): Century Schoolbook and Courier.

Even if those past defaults are to be outmoded by ClearType revisionism, there are sufficient new “rectangular pi” fonts coming online to maintain it as a norm — at least until December 21st when we revert to a pre-typographic civilization.

Thomas Phinney's picture

John:

I'm going to number some ideas for ease of reference. :) Perhaps I'm misunderstanding something in your discussion. But you wrote:

(1) "you're considering typefaces as representing the evolution of writing systems in a typographic ecosystem,"

(2) "while I consider typefaces to be essentially arbitrary stylistic mutations that, due to the nature of the ecosystem, do not represent evolution of the writing system."

For my part,

(3) I consider handwriting and even hand-printed lettering to be dying out. Certainly, I don't see how they can continue to be significant factors in the evolution of written languages for very long. In the case of English, the time is probably ending with the current generation.

It seems to me that if one accepts all the above premises, that writing systems will stop evolving as hand-written glyphs cease to be a major force.

Personally, I see (3) as being a statement that the nature of the "ecosystem" from (2) is changing. I don't think writing will stop evolving. Indeed, modern digital distribution and relative ease of type design means that changes can occur much more quickly.

(I'm not sure whether the rise of the smiley face and emoticons counts among such changes, since they work with plain ASCII and any existing typeface. But they certainly show rapid change....)

John Hudson's picture

Tom: I don't think writing will stop evolving. Indeed, modern digital distribution and relative ease of type design means that changes can occur much more quickly.

Change does not constitute evolution. I know there is a common usage that treats evolution as a synonym for change, but it is imprecise and doesn't allow one to say much of interest about change other than that it happens and, as you note, may happen quickly or slowly. In order for this metaphor to be interesting, let alone enlightening, I think one should first identify the functional synonym of change in the evolutionary model, which is mutation. Change = mutation. Evolution is one possible outcome of mutation: propagation of the mutation through a population, such that one can say that the species has evolved. Individuals mutate; species evolve.

In order for evolution to occur, there must be a mechanism by which a mutation can propagate through a population. In biology, the mechanism is sexual reproduction. Such a mechanism is necessary but not sufficient: in order for evolution to occur the circumstances must also be conducive. It may strike one as ironic, but the more successful a species is in terms of the size and spread of its population, the less conducive its circumstances are to evolution.

[This is the situation that human beings arrived at something more than 65,000 years ago. Simply put, our population is too large and widespread for any mutation to propagate to the species level; evolution is statistically impossible. This is not to say that change, i.e. mutations, do not occur, and might not even spread in some limited local way, especially in populations that live separate from their neighbours, but that as a species homo sapiens is as it was in the palaeolithic period, and isn't expected to change.]

Now, if we're going to apply the metaphor to writing systems as the species-level phenomenon, which I think makes most sense in terms of a parallel to biological classification, then one should ask 'What is the mechanism of propagation of a mutation through the population?' And I think the obvious answer is pedagogical reproduction as practised by professional scribes. The notion of 'hand-writing', as something an individual does, isn't important. What is important in the evolution of a writing system is a profession of scribes, of people whose job is to manufacture texts. And it is a profession that one sees wherever one sees mature writing systems, very often existing as a specialised caste, with reproduction of existing styles being a core activity and pedagogical focus (propagation), and invention of new styles (mutation) occurring within and feeding into that activity and teaching. The Islamic ijazah system of certification in individual styles is a good example of such pedagogical reproduction, which enabled naskh an 8th Century mutation of thuluth by an individual scribe, to propagate to the writing system as a whole and become the dominant text style for a large part of the Islamic world for more than a thousand years. In that context, it makes sense to talk about the evolution of the writing system at the species level, and not just a synonym for change. Similarly, if one looks at the scribal culture of 18th Century England, as I have been doing for the past couple of years, one sees the same active pedagogical reproduction: the teaching of a 'body of penmanship' consisting of a repertoire of existing styles that the professional scribe is expected to master, which simultaneously provides the conducive circumstance for a new mutation, John Seddon's roman of 1695, to propagate and become one of the standard hands within forty years. That strikes me as evolution of a writing system properly understood, with visible propagation to the species-level and a recognisable mechanism by which this happens.

With the decline of a professional scribal class, the mechanism of propagation degrades -- one by product of which is that handwriting becomes a personal, expressive form instead of a mastery of a body of styles --, and I believe the development of graphic design in the 20th Century further produced circumstances unconducive to such propagation. Instead, one sees fragmentation into an ever increasing number and variety of new styles, which is akin to something like a population explosion, resulting in a situation in which, as we all agree, change (mutation) happens very quickly and frequently, but no longer propagates to the species level.
____

Now, having written all that. I'm going to reverse tack somewhat and see if I can find a way to synthesise my view and Nick's, and come up with a way to accommodate the kind of design developments he observes within this evolutionary metaphor. The key, I think, is to introduce sub-species taxonomic ranks, i.e. genera, which enable us to acknowledge that the limited propagation of mutations can result in distinctive, and hence classifiable, styles that belong to the (no-longer-evolving) writing systems. That is, a limited evolution can be said to occur -- in writing and typography -- at the level of the genus, which does not significantly affect the species as a whole, but produces novel plumage, if you'll excuse the pun.

John Hudson's picture

Nick: How do you account for the extinction of the long s?

Lazy compositors. The typeface makers didn't stop including them; the compositors stopped using them. They persisted in writing, though, like most else, until the typewriter came along.

I don't know whether I'd classify this as evolution of the writing system. The long s is still there in the system considered in toto, just something like the appendix or the atavistic bone structure that I have in my ankles.

marcox's picture

I'm enjoying this discussion, gents. Thanks.

Nick Shinn's picture

There were certainly economic benefits to dropping the long s—especially all the italic ligatures—but printer-publishers would not have exploited the productivity opportunity without aesthetic justification. That it was expressive of a larger movement can be seen in this page from Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, 1802 edition, which is the sort of thing that would have given cachet to the practice.


Source:
http://www.jamescumminsbookseller.com/news/?p=156

Compare this process of the normal form of /s changing to one used elsewhere (at the end of words) to that of the traditional π with “overshooting” crossbar being changed to the majuscule form in various typefaces. In both cases, typography has been the driving force in rationalizing the writing system.

That is, assuming that reduction is rational.

kentlew's picture

to introduce sub-species taxonomic ranks, i.e. genera,

Just a small nitpick here, John: Genera are super-species, taxonomically speaking. As I’m sure you know, Genus species is the standard format for scientific names. The sub-species rank is, well, subspecies.

Kids prefer cheese over fried green spinach.

John Hudson's picture

Thanks for the correction, Kent.

Nick, I see the decline of the long s as orthographic reform. I think you are entirely right with regard to the influence of a publication such as Lyrical Ballads: it was actually exactly the same book that came to my mind as an example from the transition period. But the fact that such a reform takes place in publishing, i.e. in a typographic environment, does not mean that it is 'driven by typography'. It is driven by reformist publishers, editors and authors. As I said, the fonts they were using still included the long s, they just opted not to use it.

Many of the world's writing systems contain historical letters that have fallen out of use in modern orthographies. So? Most orthographies are only subsets of a writing system.

Nick Shinn's picture

…the fonts they were using still included the long s, they just opted not to use it.

That’s doubtful—it’s more likely they would have recycled the metal to cast more short s’s.

Syndicate content Syndicate content