Notes From Meggs’ History of Graphic Design

Some verbatim notes taken from Meggs’ History of Graphic Design.

1. The invention of writing

The invention of writing brought people the luster of civilization and made it possible to preserve hard-won knowledge, experiences, and thoughts. (p.6)

Writing might have evolved because [Mesopotamia] temple economy had an increasing need for record keeping. The temple chief consciously sought a system for recording information. (p.9)

Cuneiform was a difficult writing system to master, even after the Assyrians simplified it into only 560 signs. Youngsters selected to be come scribes began their schooling at the edubba, the writing school or “tablet house,” before the age of ten and worked from sunrise to sunset everyday, with only six days off per month. (p.11)

Writing enabled society to stabilize itself under the rule of law. (p.11)

2. Alphabets

Greek civilization laid the foundation for many of the accomplishments of the Western world—science, philosophy, and democratic government al developed in this ancient land. (p.25)

Initially the Greeks adopted the Phoenician style of writing from right to left. Later they developed a writing method called boustrophedon, from words meaning “to plow a field with an ox,” for every other line reads in the opposite direction. (p.27)

Alphabets remain one of humankind’s grandest achievements. Alphabetic writing became the mortar binding whole communities against limitations imposed by memory, time, and place. Great access to information permitted broader participation in public affairs. (p.33)

3. The Invention of Paper

Dynastic records attribute the invention of paper to the eunuch and hig governmental official Ts’ai Lun, who reported his invention to Emperor Ho in 105 CE. (p.37)

Printing, a major breakthrough in human history, was invented by the Chinese. (p.39)

5. Printing Comes to Europe

The judgement of history, however, is that Johann Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg (late 14th century to 14 68) of Mainz, Germany, first brought together the complex systems and subsystems necessary to print a typographic book around the year 1450. (p.72)

7. Renaissance Graphic Design

The word renaissance means “revival” or “rebirth.” Originally this term was used to denote the period that began in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Italy, when the classical literature of ancient Greece and Rome was revived and read anew. (p.98)

Part of the lasting influence of Jenson’s fonts is their extreme legibility, but it was his ability to design spaces between the letters and within each form to create an even tone throughout the page that placed the mark of genius on his work. (p.98)

A most important member of the Aldine staff was Francesco de Bologna, surnamed Griffo (1450-1518). Manutius called this brilliant typeface designer and punch cutter to Venice, where he cut roman, Greek, Hebrew, and the first italic types for Aldine editions. His initial project in Venice was a roman face for De Aetna by Pietro Bembo, in 1495. Griffo researched pre-Caroline scripts to produce a roman type that was more authentic than Jenson’s designs. This style survives today as the book text face Bembo. (p.102)

8. An Epoch of Typographic Genius

This Romain du Roi, as the new typeface was called, had increased contrast between thick and thin strokes, sharp horizontal serifs, and an even balance to each letterform. (p.122)

Followed by further editions, the 1702 Médailles folio was the first book to feature the new types. As the first important shift from the Venetian tradition of “old style” roman type design, the Romain de Roi initiated a category of types called transitional roman. These breaks with the traditional calligraphic qualities, bracketed serifs, and relatively even stroke weights of Old Style fonts. (p.122)

Caslon’s type designs were not particularly fashionable or innovative. They owed their tremendous popularity and appeal to an outstanding legibility and sturdy texture that made them “comfortable” and “friendly to the eye.” (p.127)

Baskerville’s type designs, which bear his name to this day, represent the zenith of the transitional style bridging the gap between Old Style and modern type design. His letters possessed a new elegance and lightness. In comparison with earlier designs, his types are wider, the weight contrast between thick and thin strokes in increased, and the placement of the thickest part of the letter is different. The treatment of serifs is new: they flow smoothly out of the major strokes and terminate as refined points. His italic fonts most clearly show the influence of master handwriting. (p.128)

Around 1790 Bodoni redesigned the roman letterforms to give them more mathematical, geometric, and mechanical appearance. He reinvented the serifs by making them hairlines that formed sharp right angles with the upright strokes, eliminating the tapered flow of the serif into the upright stroke in Old Style roman. The thin strokes of his letterforms were trimmed to the same weight as the hairline serifs, creating a brilliant sharpness and a dazzling contrast not seen before. Bodoni defined his design ideal as cleanness, good taste, charm, and regular. (p.133)

The Didot type foundry’s constant experimentation led to maigre (thin) and gras (fat) type styles similar to the condensed and expanded fonts of our time. Fonts issued from 1775 by François-Ambroise Didot possessed a lighter, more geometric quality, similar in the feeling to Bodoni’s designs evolving under Baskerville’s influence. (p.134)

Bodoni and Didots were rivals and kindred spirits. Comparisons and speculation about who innovated and who followed are inevitable. They share influences and the same cultural milieu. Their influence upon each other was reciprocal, for Bodoni and the Didots each attempted to push the modern style further than the other. In so doing, each further the aesthetics of contrasts, mathematical construction, and neoclassical refinement to the highest possible level. Bodoni is credited with greater skill as a designer and printer, but the Didots possessed greater scholarship. (p.135)

9. Graphic Design and the Industrial Revolution

Other founders designed and cast fatter letters, and type gre steadily bolder. This led to the invention of fat faces, a major category of type design innovated by Cotterell’s pupil and successor, Robert Thorne (d. 1820), and possibly around 1803. A fat-face typestyle is a roman face whose contrast and weight have been increased by expanding the thickness of the heavy strokes. The strokes width has a ration of 1:2:5 or even 1:2 to the capital height. (p.146-147)

De Vinne was dissatisfied with the thin modern typefaces first used in [Century] magazine, so he commissioned type designer Linn Boyd Benton to cut a blacker, more readable face, slightly extended with thicker thin strokes and short slab serifs. Now called Century, this unusual legible style is still widely used today. Its large x-height and slightly expanded characters have made it very popular for children’s reading matter. (p.172)

Cut in 1923–24, [Lutetia] was the first typeface Van Krimpen designed during his thirty-five-year association with the Haarlem printer Enschedé. For Van Krimpen, typography existed only for book, and all of his typefaces were designed for this purpose. He viewed advertising and the people connected with it with contempt. For him, the reader should never even be conscious of typography; the designer’s one purpose was to make reading as pleasurable as possible and never come between the reader and the text. Fortunately, he usually broke away to some degree from his own rules, and each of his books had something subtly different to offer. (p.189)

During the early 1920s, [William Addison] Dwiggins first use the term graphic design to describe his professional activities. In 1938 he designed Caledonia, one of the most widely used book face in America. (p.192)

[Alber Bruce Rogers’s] 1915 typeface design Centaur is one of the finest of the numerous fonts inspired by Jenson. (p.192)

12. The Genesis of Twentieth-Century Design

The German artist, architect, and designer Peter Behrens (1868–1940) played a major role in charting a course for design in the first decade of the new century. He sought typographic reform, was an early advocate of san-serif typography, and use a grid system to structure a space in his design layouts. (p.242)

The Berthold Foundry designed a family of ten sans serifs that were variations on one original font. This Akzidenz Grotesk (called Standard in the United States) type family had a major influence on twentieth-century typography… The designers of Akzidenz Grotesk achieved a remarkable harmony and clarity, and it became a source of inspiration for other sans-serif typefaces until the post-World War II era. (p.243)

[Edward Johnson on typeface for the Underground.] Johnson sought absolute functional clarity by reducing his characters to the simplest possible forms: the M is a perfect square whose forty-five-degree diagonal strokes meet in the exact center of the letter; the O is a perfect circle; all of the letters have a similar elemental design. The lowercase l has a tail to avoid confusion with the capital I. (p.251)

16. The Bauhaus and the New Typography

Moholy-Nagy contributed an important statement about typography, describing it as “a tool of communication. It must be communication in its most intense form. The emphasis must be absolute clarity…. Legibility—communication must have never be impaired by a priori esthetics. Letters must never be forced into a preconceived framework, for instance a square.” (p.328–329)

19. The New York School

[Paul] Rand understood the value of ordinary, universally understood signs and symbols as tools for translating ideas into visual communications. To engage the audience successfully and communicate memorably, he knew that the designer needed to alter and juxtapose signs and symbols. A reinterpretation of the message was sometimes necessary to make the ordinary into something extraordinary. Sensual visual contrasts marked his work. (p.391)