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I love the “a”

I have to be honest, the reason I love the Galliard typeface is because of the lowercase “a.”

When I was in third grade, my older brother Ted was doing something with calligraphy. Like a typical third-grader, I’m pretty sure that I was annoying him by wanting to know what he was up to, since he was the cool older brother. (Warren was the oldest, but he was so old I didn’t see him a lot, and Mark was older than me but close enough so that we got into trouble together.)

Ted could have responded as a typical big brother: he could have told me to go away, or pushed me out the window, or moved to another room to be away from me. But, instead, he gave me a broad pen and a Speedball calligraphy manual and told me to do it myself.

The first calligraphic hand I learned was Blackletter. That’s the ornate style used in late medieval Germany, and is often called Gothic or (erroneously) “Old English.” I got good enough at it to impress the kids at school, and moved on to other styles of lettering. Italic, Celtic, and various invented styles were all part of my repertoire.

While attending college in Waco, Texas, I actually made money as a calligrapher. I went to work for a company there that sold religious knick-knacks; among them was a personalized name card. It had your name (handlettered by me) and a vaguely-related scripture verse. Every afternoon, I would come into their workshop and sit down at a stack of name cards that had been ordered the day before, and patiently write out each name. I was quite good at it, and I like to think that I did good work.

A few decades before that, however, Matthew Carter was working on a new typeface for Mergenthaler Linotype, inspired by the 16th-century typeface of Robert Granjon he cut about 1570. Granjon is more notably known for his slanted type founts that later came to be known as Italic, which is one of the more popular calligraphic styles in the modern era.

Those type faces achieved their characteristic shapes by the use of the flat, broad pen that is now the basis for modern calligraphy. By holding the pen steady at a fixed angle, it makes broad strokes when pulled down, but fine lines when moved laterally. While this makes sense to most people when they see it, it was actually a skill that was lost to the world for several centuries, until rediscovered by the Arts and Crafts movement, whose best-known proponent, William Morris helped to popularize the craft in the late 19th century. (Until then, artists thought that you had to rotate or twirl a fine, flexible pen to achieve the thick and thin strokes, which led to the beautiful but very difficult Spenserian or Copperplate script.)

The “a” of the Galliard font is based on that flat, broad pen, held at a slight angle. The top of the counter (the central closed loop of the “a”) is nearly flat, showing the sideways pen stroke. The ascender is broad, indicating the more vertical, roughly downward, pull of the pen. The rest of the Galliard typeface is informed by the same pen-based mechanics. For example, the serif at the top of the “l” and “i” are wedge-shaped rather than slightly curved, which is easier to do with a pen (the serifs at the bottom are more traditional).

Type design is one of the most subtle of the arts. The distinctions between one font and another are often based upon minimal variations in ratios, and not any absolute, large-scale changes. After all, the glyphs must still represent the letters of the language, and too much variation makes it unreadable.

Glen Campbell
September 29, 2015