Ten Simple Rules for Researching Letterforms

Last fall James Edgar of Camberwell College of Arts in London asked me to contribute something to Whatever Next: a discourse on typography, a small book the college was publishing. The request was last minute so I recycled an essay, “Ten Simple Rules for Researching Letterforms,” I had written originally for Gunnlaugur SE Briem.

I am reprinting my essay yet again for all of those unaware of The Briem Report 2012 or Whatever Next. This is also an opportunity to rectify a drawback to Whatever Next. It was printed in one color, a dove gray, which dulled the three illustrations accompanying my text. Here they are included in full color along with additional images.

Ten Simple Rules for Researching Letterforms

1. Start with the Internet
Do a Google search for the letterforms you are looking for. Try a variety of keywords (style, period, creator, usage, etc.) separately and in combination. Avoid the word “type” since it means much more than typeface and will return too many hits. Don’t forget to search Google Images and Google Books as well as the Internet in general. And try Flickr and eBay. Once you have done these basic searches try more specific ones using institutional catalogues (e.g. The British Library, Columbia University and the Newberry Library) and databases (e.g. the New York Public Library’s Digital Gallery, Medieval Manuscripts in Dutch Collections, and the Codices Electronici Sangallenses). During your search keep track of sites that are useful in general even if they do not help you with your particular search. Bookmark them.

Versal Q RS page from model book for scribes by Gregorius Bock (c. 1510–1517). MS 439, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Rule no. 1 Versal QRS page from a model book for scribes by Gregorius Bock (c. 1510–1517). MS 439, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. I accidentally discovered Bock’s pattern book in the 1980s. This image is from a slide made back then. Now, the entire manuscript is viewable online.

2. Go beyond the Internet
Remember that print is not dead. The Internet does not contain all recorded human knowledge—and won’t for a long time. Even online library catalogues often have as little as 70% of an institution’s holdings. Use libraries, librarians and old-fashioned catalogues to search for information. Go beyond books. Most material on letterforms is contained in magazines and journals. Many, though not all, are searchable electronically through specialized databases that the best libraries subscribe to. Archives and specialized collections are listed online (e.g. the Raymond DaBoll Papers and the James Hayes Papers at the Newberry Library) but not all have online finding aids. These are essential to discovering many examples of modern letterforms. Print versions of finding aids are available at libraries and other institutions (e.g. the Norman T.A. Munder Papers at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore). At libraries don’t forget microfilm. It is tedious, but it is often the only option for many printed sources from the past.

Printers Marks catalogue cover (c. 1919). Design and lettering by Frederic W. Goudy.

Rule no. 2 Printers Marks catalogue cover (c. 1919). Design and lettering by Frederic W. Goudy. I photographed this cover in 2007 at the Newark Public Library. Until now it could not be found online.

3. Go beyond texts
There is more to print research than books, journals, magazines and newspapers. Look at the physical objects themselves (book bindings, magazine covers, etc.) as well as advertisements in magazines and newspapers. And look at ephemera. Ephemera is often poorly identified in catalogues, whether print or online, since librarians and curators don’t always know what they are looking at.

Double page spread from special insert on the work of Guido and Lawrence Rosa in The Printing Art (1919).

Rule no. 3 Double page spread from special insert on the work of Guido and Lawrence Rosa in The Printing Art (1919). The Rosa brothers were leading American illustrators and letterers in the early decades of the 20th century.

4. Be thorough
Don’t be in a hurry. Look beyond the first few pages of Google search hits as letterform items can often be buried—sometimes tens of pages down. Similarly, when doing print research go beyond the subject you are looking for to look at related items. For instance, if you are looking for calligraphy, look also for lettering; or if you are looking for type, look also for printing. This is because 1. librarians are inconsistent in how material is catalogued, and 2. material often fits into one or more categories.

Cadillac Fleetwood Transformable Town Cabriolet advertisement. Designed, illustrated and lettered by T.M. Cleland.

Rule no. 4 Cadillac Fleetwood Transformable Town Cabriolet advertisement (c. 1927–1928). Designed, illustrated and lettered by T.M. Cleland. Search for examples of Cleland’s lettering via clients such as General Motors. Unfortunately, only part of this advertisement can be found online—with the lettering missing! See eBay.

5. Be diligent
In looking for information about letterforms and their makers look not only at obvious sources such as articles in a periodical but also at items that are not included in tables of contents or in databases. Examples are regular columns about news, people and events; “fillers” (the little articles, often untitled, that are used to fill up pages); and advertisements. Don’t overlook the small stuff.

“Everybody’s Business: Forecasting Tomorrow” by Floyd W. Parsons from The American Printer (October 1927). “The Future of Your Business” brochure cover desgned, illustrated and lettered by W.A. Dwiggins

Rule no. 5 Although not listed in the index, the October 1927 issue of The American Printer includes the work of W.A. Dwiggins. “The Future of Your Business”, a brochure he designed (including the ornament and lettering) for papermaker S.D. Warren appears on p. 58 as part of “Everybody’s Business: Forecasting Tomorrow” by Floyd W. Parsons.

6. Be tireless
Don’t give up when a search, online or in libraries, seems to run into a dead end. Look for alternative sources—such as other libraries or collections (in museums, historical societies, etc.)—that may yield the same information but from a different line of attack. For intstance, look for information on the English calligrapher Edward Johnston in sources about transportation system signage or about the lettercutter Eric Gill.

Chemco Insert Folder (c. 1928). Paper company brochure designed and lettered by Walt Harris.

Rule no. 6 Chemco Insert Folder (c. 1928). Paper company brochure designed and lettered by Walt Harris. I found this brochure in a scrapbook in a printing museum while searching through boxes of ephemera. The scrapbook and its contents are uncatalogued.

7. Be skeptical
Don’t take everything you read during your research at face value. Get corroboration. Many people—including those in working in the lettering arts—embellish their achievements, edit their life (leaving out significant items that they consider uninteresting or embarrassing), or just plain forget parts of their past. A common problem is lettering work reproduced without information about materials used, clients, or dates.

The caption for this poster reads Leo Marfurt, “Flying Scotsman,” poster, 1928, Great Britain (Jacques Mallet Fine Arts, New York).

Rule no. 7 The caption for this poster, reproduced in Art Deco Graphics by Patricia Frantz Kery (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1986), reads “Leo Marfurt, ‘Flying Scotsman,’ poster, 1928, Great Britain (Jacques Mallet Fine Arts, New York)”. There is no indication of its dimensions, printing technique or the name of Marfurt’s client. (The Flying Scotsman, an express train from London to Edinburgh was operated by the London and North Eastern Railway [LNER] in 1928.)

8. Not everything is type
Today, all letterforms are often indiscriminately called “type”—even items that predate the digital revolution. In doing research for letterforms it is important to know (and recognize) the difference between carved lettering, drawn lettering, signwriting, calligraphy, and type (whether metal, wood, film or digital). Learn about techniques, tools and materials.

Napoleon poster by Jan Tschichold for the Phoebus-Palast (1927). The title has been handlettered, a fact that is not obvious in reduced size reproductions.

Rule no. 8 Napoleon poster by Jan Tschichold for the Phoebus-Palast (1927). The title has been handlettered, a fact that is not obvious in reduced size reproductions.

9. Context affects content
Letterforms do not exist in a vacuum. Pay attention to the designs they are a part of and to the places they appear (advertisements, magazines, etc.). And look at letterforms in relation to the time and place in which they were created.

Logo for the Detroy Press by Clarence Hornung. From Trade-Marks (1930).

Rule no. 9 Logo for the Detroy Press by Clarence Hornung. From Trade-Marks (1930). Only if one is familiar with foundry type is it clear why the d and p have notches in their stems.

10. The past is not the present
Remember that letterforms from the past need to be viewed from a different perspective than those from the present. Be careful of bringing current assumptions and biases to bear on the work of the past.

An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England by Peter Hunter Blair (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956). Bookjacket design by Michael Harvey.

Rule no. 10 An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England by Peter Hunter Blair (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956). Bookjacket design by Michael Harvey. Although the letterforms appear to have been made with a broad-edged pen, they were actually drawn.

A Summary of Research Steps 
1  look at bibliographies to discover potentially relevant sources. Then look in the bibliographies of those sources and so on. Repeat the process as long as necessary. Stand on the shoulders of others.

2  do an Internet keyword search. Remember to look not only for the name of the letter maker(s) or other topic, but for related or ancillary people and topics. Do not trust Google or other search engines to easily find you the most relevant websites. They search by popularity, and thus many good sites are buried tens or even hundreds of pages into a list. Also be aware that many seemingly useful websites are full of puffery, empty rhetoric and incorrect information. The best place to start with the Internet is with online library catalogues. When using catalogues remember to take advantage of the various searching options: subject, keyword, title, author, journal, etc.

3  look at indexes to periodicals to locate useful articles. Most letterform information resides in articles rather than books or websites. Ask librarians for assistance in identifying and using both printed and computer databases. Some databases may only be accessible from a registered library computer.

4  do an Internet image search using Google Images, Flickr, eBay and digital image collections on the websites of major international libraries and museums.

5  letterform ephemera (artwork, sketches, proofs, printed samples, etc.) is found in archives and special collections. They usually have finding aids, but not all are fully itemized; and many are not detailed online.

Design History Periodicals
[This is a list of periodicals which are of use to anyone researching not only calligraphy, lettering and type, but also printing and graphic design history in general. Those marked with an asterisk are out of print and have to be obtained through used bookdealers, eBay or a library; those marked with a double dagger are foreign. Some of the latter are in English.]

Abitare‡ / abitare.it
A-D [Art Director]* (1938–1942)
Advertising Age / adage.com
Advertising & Selling* (1926–1948)
Adweek / adweek.com
Affiche: Magazine for Cultural and Commercial Posters*‡
AIGA Journal of Graphic Design* (1982–2000?)
Alphabet*‡ (1964)
Alphabet & Image*‡ (1946–1948)
American Printer / americanprinter.com
Annual of Bookmaking* (1938)
The Ampersand (journal of the Pacific Center for the Book Arts) / pcba.info
Archiv für Buchgewerbe und Gebrauchsgraphik*‡ (1920–1942)
Ars Typographica* (1918–1934)
Art Direction*

Baseline‡ / baselinemagazine.com
Baseline from Letraset*‡ (1979–1994)
Blueprint‡ / blueprintmagazine.co.uk
Bookways* (1991–1995)
British Printer and Lithographer*‡ (1888–2000)

Campo Grafico*‡ (1935–1939)
Codex: The Journal of Letterforms
The Colophon*

The Colophon: A Book Collectors’ Quarterly (1930–1935)
The Colophon: New Series (1935–1938)
The Colophon: New Graphic Series (1939-1940)
The New Colophon (1948–1950)

Communication Arts / commarts.com
Creative Review
Critique: The Magazine of Graphic Thinking* (1996–2001)

DA (The Devil’s Artisan)‡ / briarpress.org”
Design Issues / mitpressjournals.org
Design Quarterly* (1946–1996)
Design Week‡ / designweek.co.uk
Direct Advertising [later DA]* (1913–1977)
The Dolphin: A Journal for the Making of Books* (1933–1941)
Domus‡ / domusweb.it
Dot Zero* (1966–1967)
Dot Dot Dot* (2000–2010) / dot-dot-dot.us
Der Druckspiegel*‡ (1949–1987?)

Emigre* (1984–2005) / emigre.com
Étapes Graphiques‡ / étapes.com
Eye‡ / eyemagazine.com and blog.eyemagazine.com
Fine Print: The Review for the Arts of the Book* (1975–1990)
The Fleuron: A Journal of Typography*‡ (1923–1930)

Gebrauchsgraphik*‡ (1924–1943; 1950–1971 )
The Graphic Arts* (1911–c.1924)
Graphic Design:A Quarterly Review for Graphic Design and Art Direction‡ (1959–1986)
Graphis* [originally Swiss but later American] (1944–2005) / graphis.com
Gutenberg Jahrbuch‡ / gutenberg-gesellschaft.de

ID [formerly Industrial Design 1954–1984; not to be confused with i-D magazine] / id-mag.com
Idea‡ / idea-mag.com
Image: A Quarterly of the Visual Arts* (1949–1952)
The Imprint*‡ (1913)
The Inland Printer* (1883–1958)
The International Studio* (1897–1931)

Journal of the American Institute of Graphic Arts* (1965–?)
Journal of Design History‡ / jdh.oxfordjournals.org
Journal of the Printing History Society‡ / printinghistoricalsociety.org.uk

Letter Arts Review [formerly Calligraphy Idea Exchange 1981–1987 and Calligraphy Review 1987–1994]
The Library‡ / oxfordjournals.org
Linea Grafica‡ / lineagrafica.progetto-ed.it
Linotype Bulletin* (1902–1926)
Linotype Magazine* (1924–1930)
Linotype News* (1922–1972?)
Linotype Matrix‡ / linotype.com

Matrix‡ / whittingtonpress.com
Motif: A Journal of the Visual Art*‡ (1958–1964, 1968)
Monotype Recorder*‡ (1902–1940; 1948–1970; 1979–1990)

Neue Grafik /New Graphic Design /Graphisme Actuel) *‡ (1958–1965)
New England Printer [the name is currently New England Printer & Publisher] / pine.org
Novum‡ / novumnet.de
Novum Gebrauchsgraphik*‡ (1972–1996)

Octavo [8vo]*‡ (1986–1992)

PAGA: Printing & Graphic Arts* (1953–1965)
Pages‡ / pagesmagazine.net
Pagina: International Review of Graphic Design‡ (1962–1965)
Penrose Annual*‡ (1895–1982)

Process Work Year Book 1895
Process Year Book 1896–1901
Penrose’s Pictorial Annual 1902–1914
Penrose’s Annual 1915–1916, 1920–1935
Penrose Annual 1936-1940, 1949–1971, 1975–1976
Penrose Graphic Arts International Annual 1972-1974
Penrose International Review of the Graphic Arts 1977–1982

Das Plakat*‡ (1910–1935)
PM [Production Manager]* (1934–1938)
Print [three versions]

Print* (1913–1914)
Print: A Quarterly Journal of the Graphic Arts (1940–1960)
Print: America’s Design Magazine (1961–present) / printmag.com

Printcraft* (1913-1914)
The Printer* (1974–1977)
The Printer: New Series
The Printing Art* (1903–1925)
Printing History (the journal of the American Printing History Association) / printinghistory.org
Progetto Grafico‡ / aiap.it/progettografico
PS (Journal of the Poster Society)*

Quarendo‡ / brill.nl/qua

Share Your Knowledge Review* (1920–1964)
Shining Lines* (1936–1938)
Signature: A Quadremestrial of Typography and Graphic Arts*‡ (first series 1935–1940; second series 1946–1954)
Signs of the Times / stmediagroup.com
The Studio*‡ (1893–1964)

Trace: AIGA Journal of Graphic Design* (2001–2004)
Typographica*‡ (first series 1949–1960; second series 1960–1964)
Typographisches Mitteilungen*‡ (1903–1933)
Typographisches Monatsblatter (TM)‡
Typography*‡ (1936–1939)
Typography Papers‡ / hyphenpress.co.uk [formerly reading.ac.uk/typography]

U&lc [Upper & lowercase]* (1974–1999)
Ulm: Quarterly bulletin of the Hochschule für Gestaltung‡ (1958–1968)

Visible Language [formerly Journal of Typographic Research] / mitpressjournals.org

Wendingen*‡ (1918–1931)