Enlightened Design

How Enlightenment-era virtues changed typography

Claude Garamond’s fonts prevailed during a revolutionary period in Europe. Starting with the Reformation, the Roman Church faced serious theological challenges. By the 17th century, the new intellectual class was challenging long-standing—if not scriptural—parts of the Church’s cosmology, including orthodox physics that dated back some 1800 years to the time of Aristotle. New insights about the motion of planets and comets invited new theories about gravity and elliptical motion, and in 1687, Isaac Newton published Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural History).

Officially, this was a publication of the Royal Society, an English association of curious men of leisure. The year before, they’d gone broke publishing a lavish(ly unpopular) book on the history of fish. So it fell to their clerk and Newton’s friend, Edmond Halley, to fund the publication of Newton’s Principia. He hired Joseph Streater, a printing heir who kept his press running by stooping to lows that would have made Gutenberg wipe away tears with fistfuls of indulgences: he was a pornographer.

No matter, for Principia, Streater chose a Garamond font, St. Augustine, still popular 126 years after Claude Garamond’s death. Principia’s first-edition run of 400 copies sold out quickly. It was the culmination of the advances in communication technology that preceded it in the Rennaissance; it was also the harbinger of a new era: The Age of Enlightenment.

Back in Garamond’s homeland, France, Enlightenment virtues found their home at the Imprimeur Royale. Ancient emperors had understood that knowledge was power, and built libraries to house their collections of scrolls. Following their lead, King Louis XIII had established a royal press and, therefore, royal control of information. In 1692 his son, Louis XIV, commissioned a new typeface for the royal printer: Romain du Roi, the King’s Roman.

Renaissance Romans, from the De Spiras’ to Garamond’s, were used in machines, but they were created by hand. A punch cutter would hand-cut punches, in order to hand-punch moulds, in order to hand-cast matrices, and so on. The resulting fonts provided uniform letters, but in the details and dimensions of the fonts we find, still, the human touch in all its imperfection, artistry, and character. Romain du Roi, true to Enlightenment-era rationalization, dispensed with the instinct and intuition of a human punchcutter, and replaced it with the rigid regularity of geometry.

Designed by a committee, each letterform of Romain du Roi, was drawn on a grid of points, each point 1/144th of a French inch. The detail was unnecessary: no punchcutter at the time could machine letters to such fine detail, and it wouldn’t have resulted in a visible difference when printed anyway. This allowed punchcutter Phillippe Grandjean the chance to humanize the cold, geometric forms handed to him by Romain du Roi’s designers.

The innovation of the grid opened up a new “intermediate” era of typography. Soon, Pierre Simon Fournier had modified the grid system, using 72 points per Paris inch, and launched his own type foundry, creating fonts with unprecedented contrast between thick and thin strokes. To their own detriment: Fournier’s matrices were prone to shattering. The new division of labour between font design and punchcutting also opened the field to a heavyweight of the era and one of the enduring names in typography, John Baskerville, who designed fonts but left their creation to smiths.

The Enlightenment virtues of rules and regularity served Louis XIV well. His reign was the peak of absolute monarchy, as he established laws to bring the French aristocracy and church to heel. But the power of rules would soon supersede the power of monarchies themselves. Great political changes were underway, with letters leading the way.

Next issue, we'll take you there.