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The history of ‘humanist’ type

Craig Eliason examines the term ‘humanist as it has been applied to type. From the 2013 ATypI conference in Amsterdam.

 

The classification of type designs seems to be a problem that is perennially addressed but never solved. Some writers reinforce inherited classification schemes and others propose new ones to replace them.

However, preservationists and reformists alike have paid little attention to the historical situations that shaped these categories and the terminology used to label them. An examination of the historical contexts of older classification schemes shows that not only type design, but also type classification and labeling, are cultural products.

Such is revealed by my research on the label “humanist” as applied to type. “Humanist” is a label commonly used to characterize type designs today. However, historically its applications have been inconsistent. For example, Maximilien Vox’s employment of “humanes” in his influential 1954 classification scheme did not codify an already accepted category; before Vox the term was rarely used for type, and when it was it sometimes referred to types other than those which Vox would group under the labels. Moreover, the stylistic features that distinguish a humanist seriffed font in Vox’s scheme are not the same features that distinguish the faces later named humanist sans types. Given these vagaries of definition, it is worth asking how and why “humanist” has persisted as a label.

I argue that while the term specifically denotes certain fifteenth-century texts, it was its “humanist” connotations that made it attractive to Vox and that warranted its use in classifications thereafter. Examining the changing meanings of “humanism” in different contexts and at different times will help account for the persistent attractiveness the term held for classifiers of type designs in the twentieth century.

In this presentation I will first look at the origins of the term “humanist.” Then I will take a closer look at Vox’s 1954 classification scheme and its relationship to prevailing terminology in the printing world. I will trace more generally how the word “humanist” was used, and how those uses changed in the twentieth century. That broader history, I will contend, attracted Vox to the term. In the second half of the presentation, I will consider how, when, and why “humanist” has been applied to sans serif designs by classifiers after Vox. This will require an investigation into the letterforms of, and rhetoric surrounding, two humanist sans serif examples, Gill Sans and Optima.

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