Academic journal article Printing History

A History of the "Humanist" Type Classification

Academic journal article Printing History

A History of the "Humanist" Type Classification

Article excerpt

The classification of type designs seems to be a problem that is perennially addressed but never solved. Writing on type classification largely falls into two camps. The first, usually appearing in handbooks or similar instructional contexts, presents type classification as an inherited set of categories that should be understood by the reader as the established jargon of typography. The second camp argues that existing classifications of type designs are problematic for one reason or another, and often proposes a new scheme that is argued to be more responsive to the needs of typographers or to an understanding of the typefaces that populate the current world of typography. However, preservationists and reformists alike have paid little attention to the historical situations that shaped type categories and the terminology used to label them. An examination of the historical contexts of older classification schemes shows that not only type design, but also type classification and labeling, are cultural products. This is revealed by research on the label "humanist" as applied to type.

Humanist is a label commonly used to characterize type designs today. However, historically its applications have been inconsistent. For example, Maximilien Vox's employment of "humanes" in his influential 1954 classification scheme did not codify an already accepted category; before Vox, the term was rarely used for type, and when it was, it sometimes referred to types other than those that Vox would group under his labels. Moreover, the stylistic features that distinguish a humanist serifed font in Vox's scheme are not the same features that distinguish the faces later named humanist sans types.

Given these vagaries of definition, it is worth asking how and why humanist has persisted as a label. I argue that, while the term specifically denotes certain fifteenth-century texts, it was the term's connotations that made it attractive to Vox and that warranted its use in classifications thereafter. Examining the changing meanings of humanism in different contexts and at different times will help account for the persistent attractiveness the term held for classifiers of type designs in the twentieth century.

In this article, I will first look at the origins of the term humanist. Then I will take a closer look at Vox's 1954 classification scheme and its relationship to prevailing terminology in the printing world. I will trace more generally how the word humanist was used, and how those uses changed in the twentieth century. That broader history, I will contend, attracted Vox to the term. In the second half of the article, I will consider how, when, and why humanist has been applied to sans-serif designs by classifiers after Vox. This will require an investigation into the letterforms of, and rhetoric surrounding, two humanist sans-serif examples, Gill Sans and Optima.

The path by which humanist came to be used as a descriptor of letterforms consisted of a chain of associations. The chain began with humanist scholars working in the Italian Renaissance period of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; indeed, the very notion of the Renaissance--a rebirth of classical civilization--took shape in large measure due to these humanists' scholastic interests in classical learning; that is, the cultural and intellectual heritage of ancient Greece and Rome. Humanist was first applied to these Italian Renaissance scholars of classics, and then by association to their books, and only then to letterforms, namely, the scripts in which those books were written.

In 1946, Augusto Compana surveyed the earliest uses of the term, and concluded that, "[i]n its original sense, the word is closely connected with the scholastic system: it qualifies a person as a public or private teacher of classical literature, of the chair of humanitas or umanita." (1) He hastened to add that some of the instances of its use in sixteenth-century Italian texts "point to a second phase in which the word assumes a more comprehensive and general meaning. …

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