Friday, January 20, 2012

Interrelations between writing and typography

cover design—Gerrit Noordzij, The Stroke: Theory of Writing

The beauty of letters, whether handwritten or typographic, is that they constitute the black shape and white space of both letter-making forms. The counter form or inner parts of letters and the surrounding white or negative space are integral to the positive black shapes of the letter and word.

Dutch typographer, Gerrit Noordzij writes admirably about this interrelation of positive and negative letter forms in his book, The Stroke: Theory of Writing (2006) (translated by Peter Enneson):
Current studies of writing do not attend to the white of the word, but to the black of the letter. Consequently considerations of writing exhaust themselves in the exploration of superficial differences. The universal vantage point that renders handwriting and typographic letters comparable is not to be found in the black of the letter. The black of a typographic letter is so different from the black of a handwritten letter that as strict comparatives they appear incommensurate. Wherever typography concerns itself only with the black shapes of the prefabricated letters printable on paper, the academic study of writing is coerced into separating the consideration of handwriting from a history of type. (p.17)  
Both writing and typography utilize the relationship in two-dimensional design of the figure and ground design elements. This means that the contrast of negative forms is of equal value to the positive shapes. In letter and word construction the contrast of the black encircled by the white surface or visa versa are enriched with tension.

1 comment:

  1. David,

    I became aware of the book while discussing Henk Krijger's Raffia Initials through e-mails with Robert Bringhurst. He alerted me to Noordzij's work. Noordzij had been in charge of the ATypI newsletter Letterletter and wrote almost all of it's content. Out of these exchanges surrounding Raffia, the idea emerged to do a compilation Letterletter, published in 2000 by Hartley and Marks (Vancouver). After this I decided to translate The Stroke, which I still think of as Noordzij's magnum opus.

    Noordzij and Bringhurst helped me understand the stroke modulation and letter construction scheme underlying Krijger's Raffia.

    When the book came out I started using it's approach and content in posts on

    To see the difference it makes in how type is understood, or how it supplements, for example Bringhurst, see:

    I bring the Noordzij framework into the discussion a ways into each of these threads, and it its effect is transformative for some participants and offensive to others.


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