(Some of the material here follows from the discussion of Caslon in my previous article on typographical refinements in LaTeX. You may also be interested in this article focusing more on page layout.)
Although Adobe Caslon Pro is near perfect, I was never completely happy with it, and with most digital fonts for that matter. It is too uniform and disciplined. The letters are sized and aligned to nanometer accuracy, the serifs are exactly the same, it’s like laser, like a robot. It is missing one of the vital characteristics of the original Caslon: the handmade letterpress look. The one faithful digital reproduction of the original Caslon (sample pdf), by Justin Howes, is no longer commercially available after he passed away from a heart attack at the age of 41 in 2005. So I reluctantly settled on Adobe Caslon Pro as the best compromise, and gradually began to accept and admire it.
One day, I decided to visit my university library to see the original specimen sheet printed by William Caslon in 1741, in the library’s rare book collection. It was a timeless experience seeing and handling the specimen sheet itself, not a digital scan of it. It was like a live performance of the Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverein, versus an mp3 on the iPod. Sentiment was awakened again, and I began to look for a way to emulate letterpress printing in my PhD dissertation.
The so-called ‘Dutch Fell types‘ from c. 1670 quickly captured my attention, as they are the primeval typeface from which Caslon was derived and they predate Caslon by about half a century. It turns out that type engineer Igino Marini has embarked on a labour of love in the last decade to faithfully digitize the Fell types, empower it with all the advanced typographic features of OpenType, and make it freely available for the benefit of humanity. As a spinoff from this arduous project, the highly sophisticated mathematical kerning and letterspacing algorithm iKern was born of the same engineer.
Fell is quite a badass typeface, even by letterpress standards. It has an inconsistent x-height and ragged baseline, and no two serifs are the same. But the person who cast these types was no reckless driver. Inspect the characters and you’ll see that underlying all the noise is an exquisite sense of balance not only within any given character, but also in the `flow’ from one character to the next, making it quite comfortable to read despite the noise. Indeed, these qualities characterized similar typefaces widely used in northwestern continental Europe during the time, from the Netherlands (see Enschedé 1978) to Denmark (see Nielsen 1934), and would later go on to take the world by storm in Caslon, and they are still celebrated today. They have the spontaneity of a live performance of a great symphony, in which musical instruments played by humans are never perfectly in tune and occasionally quite far out of tune, and with all the harmonic transients at the beginning and end of every note that make the music breathe like a living organism.
If you compare Caslon and the Fell types glyph by glyph, there are mainly superficial differences. But I realized from viewing the blocks of text as a whole that there is a more significant, though subtle, difference at the level of words, lines and paragraphs. At reading-text optical sizes, the Fell types are slightly heavier in the vertical strokes than Caslon, giving the former not only a slightly darker colour on the page but also a slightly more `picket-fence’ look. In extreme cases, the `picket-fence’ effect can make a typeface harder to read at least to the modern eye (Gothic script comes to mind). This is the one reservation I had with the Fell types at their default letterspacing, compared to what I had been accustomed to with Caslon. The `picket fence’ can make the reader feel a little `held back’, especially in long passages of text. The abnormally large line spacing required for theses only exacerbates the imbalance between vertical and horizontal density.
Igino Marini has very kindly contributed his views, on my request:
The Fell Types project premise was that of reproducing as much as possible the original types without any other active interpretation. Applied both to the digitized shapes and the global spacing tightness. So I can’t say anything about the latter because I didn’t decide it. The punchcutter could. Eventually the original samples from Carter and Morison’s books were set even tighter. It’s obvious that a digital typeface, like Adobe Caslon, conceived in a different century, intended to be used at a different size on different media for a different audience may be somewhat different. The Fell Types were meant to be faithful not pleasant nor modern. — Igino Marini
After careful consideration, I decided to break one of the cardinal rules of typesetting: that one should never change the letterspacing of the lowercase letters, because it has already been perfected by the original creator for optimal appearance and readability. I am perhaps more liberal with this rule, as I believe that typography, like music, is an art that that might be subject to some nuances of interpretation. One should of course be wary of overdoing it. In this case I spaced out all the letters just enough that the vertical and horizontal `resistances’ of the text felt just about equal. The difference between the end result and the original is almost unnoticeable at the microscopic level, but at the macroscopic level there is in my eyes a very subtle and positive release of `pressure’ that allows the text to breathe and read more freely. It is certainly not as far-fetched as Leonard Bernstein’s controversially slow reading (rehearsal video) of Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
But it turned out that that wasn’t the end of the story. After spacing out the lowercase letters it was noticed that the italic type now looked too spaced out, because italic letters resembling handwriting are predisposed to be somewhat more connected together than roman letters. I therefore compressed the italic words back to their default letterspacing, which looked and read better. Then I noticed that the italics in the page headers, which were rendered at a smaller font size, looked too cramped. A re-examination of the 1693 specimen revealed that italics at smaller font sizes were actually set with a larger letterspacing, improving their readability. So I re-adjusted my headers to space out the italics there until they looked perfect, which required an increase in spacing larger than that applied previously in the main roman text. All in a day’s work for typesetting—they had an even harder time positioning every single character individually back then. When I awoke the next morning, the normal-sized italics in the main text looked too tight to my rejuvenated eyes, so I re-adjusted them again. Now they look right. (When I screen-captured the following figure I hadn’t yet made this final adjustment.)
As it turns out, the Fell typeface goes quite well with inline math (and standalone equations) typeset in LaTeX Computer Modern (below). The style and x-height are very similar, but the slightly lighter weight of Computer Modern helps the reader distinguish math from text. As abest practice in typography goes, change only one parameter at a time.
Alas, looking back at it all, it might seem that I have taken things a little too far. There is veritable doubt as to whether a dissertation involving 21st-century computer modeling should resemble a book printed in the Renaissance. Have I broken another cardinal rule in typography, that of using an inappropriate typeface? Here are three possible justifications: (1) no harm echoing the earliest scientific accounts in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, in which Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in 1676 expounded upon the curiosity of animalcules that has fired the imagination of natural philosophers to this day; (2) an atmosphere of nostalgia for bygone centuries would not be wholly inappropriate in a thesis from a university that is more than 800 years old; (3) an even more extreme precedent for time-juxtaposition can be found in Stanley Kubrick’s timeless and profound motion picture 2001: A Space Odyssey. At the beginning of the film, a prehistoric landscape inhabited by ancestral apes is punctuated by the appearance of an unidentified object from a future so distant that it is undecipherable even to the spacefaring civilization of 2001 A.D.
Well, I may end up falling back on good old Adobe Caslon Pro if all this 17th-century letterpress printing ends up freaking people out. The degree committee might even ask me to change the whole thing to Times New Roman…..
Enschedé, C. 1978. Typefoundries in the Netherlands from the Fifteenth to the Nineteenth Century. Stichting Museum Enschedé, Haarlem.
Nielsen, L. 1934. Dansk Typografisk Atlas 1482–1600. J. Jørgensen & Co., København.
Oxford University Press 1900. Notes on a Century of Typography at the University Press, Oxford 1693–1794.