Calligraphic tendencies in the development of sanserif type in the twentieth century

MA Typeface Design dissertation 2002, University of Reading

Download full text in PDF format

Sanserif typefaces are often perceived as something inextricably linked to the ideals of Swiss modernism. They are also often thought of as something as far as one can get from calligraphic writing. Yet, throughout the twentieth century and especially in the past decade or so, the design of sanserif typefaces have been consistently inspired by calligraphic writing. This dissertation hence explores the relationship between calligraphic writing and the formal developments of sanserif typefaces in the twentieth century. Although type design is an inherently different discipline from writing, conventions of calligraphic did and till do impose certain important characteristics on the design of typefaces that modern readers expect. This paper traces and analyses the formal developments of sanserif typefaces through the use of written forms. It gives a historical account of the development of sanserif typefaces by charting six distinct phases of sanserif designs that were in some ways informed by calligraphic writing:

  • Humanist sanserifs: Britain 1900s
  • Geometric sanserifs: 1920s–30s
  • Contrast sanserifs: 1920s–50s
  • Sanserif as a book type: 1960s–80s
  • Neo-humanist sanserifs: 1990s

Three primary ways to create calligraphic writing, namely the broadnib pen, flexible pointed pen and monoline pen are studied and linages drawn to how designers imitate or subvert the concentions of these tools. These studies are put into historical perspective and links made to the contexts of use. The focus of this dissertation is on typefaces that are generally known as humanist sans; grotesques and neo-grotesques are not included in the discussions.