Afternoon in the Library—Counterpunch

On my second day in the library, I picked up Fred Smeijers’ Counterpunch. This was one of the easiest and most friendly reads in the list, much like Hochuli’s Detail in Typography. Perhaps this is so because the book, it seems, came about to explain typography to engineers. A few years ago, Dan Reynolds had written an almost affectionate review of Counterpunch on I Love Typography. I had wondered why one would feel so strongly about a book; having read it, I know why. This post, unlike Dan’s, is not a review. Much like my last post about Letters of Credit, it simply summarizes tidbits from Counterpunch that caught my fancy.

The book introduced me to a new term, linearity. I did not know that deriving fonts for different sizes from a single master design is called that. What I also did not know is that the idea of linear progression goes back to the sixteenth century. Smeijers introduces the romans cut by Pierre Haultin, and highlights that some peculiarities of the design are carried through all sizes. That the same counterpunches were used for more than one size probably encouraged linearity in his designs. This linearity was obviously not the same as the one we see now, but it is clear that Haultin could never have thought along the lines of “last spring I made size 9, this summer I need size 12 too — now what should it look like?” (It is this style of writing that makes reading Counterpunch such a pleasure!).

Having used the Latin alphabet to write only English and some rudimentary French in middle school, it is often difficult for me to imagine how different things look when the same alphabet is used to write another language. I was most glad to find a short section about this in the book. How letter combinations affect the look of a languages on a printed page is something I will have to observe intently and learn better in the coming year.

Another rather obvious thought that had, to be completely honest, never occurred to me was that the forms of the alphabet would have evolved based on their frequency and the combinations within which they usually find themselves. I embarrass myself with my lack of common sense sometimes.

I adore the letter J, after all it makes up one-fifth of my name. It was not too long ago that I had discovered that it is the youngest uppercase letter in the Latin alphabet [link]. Counterpunch speaks about the form of its lowercase counterpart,

If Latin had more use for the lowercase j, then this character would not hang from the x-line as it does, but rather stand on the baseline like n or float like o. The letter j is unique in this; and it is a historical mistake. But languages such as Dutch and English have to deal with it.

The book goes further to talk about ways in which the lowercase j could been designed in typefaces to overcome this historical mistake. The most peculiar-looking of these solutions is the j with a serif resting on the baseline.

Images in this post are photographs from the book.

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