A head of lettuce. The shoulder of a road. Arms and legs of a chair. It is natural for humans to assign metaphors based on what is most familiar and comfortable to our knowledge. Language is no different.
“We read best what we read most.” —Zuzana Licko
Alphabets are the building blocks of language and are quintessential to human thought and fundamental communication. To see the construction of letterforms take the shape and qualities of the human body is appropriate.
Proportion, scale, contrast, and weight all inform descriptors of typefaces — as well as human anatomy. Balance and rhythm of the body can be likened to the cadence and flow of letters in a sentence. (The Bouma shape abstractly reinforces this idea. Here is a more in-depth essay on the subject.)
I have a theory that there is a direct link between human anatomy and typographic construction; between anatomical nomenclature and typographic vernacular; that there is a transparent connection between how letterforms are addressed and the makeup of the human body. Ancient Egyptians even wrote the human form into their alphabet in the form of hieroglyphics. This essay explores that connection.
In 1529, engraver Geoffroy Tory — printer of The Book of Hours (1525) — published Champfleury. (“Champfleury” translates from French to something like “field of flowers”.) Tory subtitled his work, “The Art and Science of the Proportion of the Attic or Ancient Roman Letters, According to the Human Body and Face”.
In Thinking With Type, Ellen Lupton writes,
The painter and designer Geoffroy Tory believed that the proportions of the alphabet should reflect the ideal human form. He wrote, “the cross- stroke covers the man’s organ of generation, to signify that Modesty and Chastity are required, before all else, in those who seek acquaintance with well-shaped letters.”
This is a fascinating example of anthropomorphizing typography.
Anthropomorphism is the implication and application of human characteristics applied to a tangible object, theme, or ideal.
In Renaissance-era France, Tory wrote and illustrated from a humanistic lens, to showcase man as the supreme being of Creation and therefore the model for all created beings and thought thereafter. Tory used the human form and its proportions to establish a “perfect” letterform and create a harmonious alphabet.
Philippe Grandjean was influenced by the human-based, “scientific” grid to create his Romain du Roi (“King’s Roman”) typeface for King Louis XIV.
There are hundreds of other examples of medieval manuscripts and engravings from late 14th century through late 18th century that cover any imaginable and unruly form of human-letter mutation.
I want to be clear not to highlight typography created exclusively from the anatomy of the human form but rather the nuances of how typographic anatomy and corporeal anatomy are parallel.
The creation and distinction of typefaces is not unrelated to the identity of a human or personality. The use of typography by a designer is like casting fonts into specific roles, much like actors and acting.
Actors have their own physical appearance and persona that establish their
identity as a archetypal characters. Think of a handful of actors: Will Smith, Jackie Chan, or Willem Dafoe, for instance. Each is uniquely different for their respective roles in a film—they could not be easily replaced with another. (Dafoe as a comic kung fu master?) Letterforms and alphabets are no different.
The designer is the director of the play and must cast his actors (fonts) to match the role and the voice they’ll play. Typography is not neutral: letterforms have personality and defining traits. The designer is responsible for recognizing and attributing roles to the fonts that meet the design needs.
In the family
John Baskerville hired a housekeeper named Sarah Eaves. Not without some controversy and drama, Mrs Eaves soon married Mr Baskerville. Nearly 250 years later, in 1996, type foundry Emigre created a font family to honor Mrs Eaves and aptly named it, Mrs Eaves. (In 2009, Emigre followed up with Mr Eaves, a sans serif companion to Mrs Eaves.)
This is a conceptual font family, spread across centuries, based on a literal husband-and-wife relationship. Is this some idiosyncratic typographic ancestry? Perhaps this example is too historical, too straightforward. Let’s consider something more abstract and aesthetic.
Socially and culturally, typography speaks volumes. Typography is saturated with inescapable social and cultural baggage. Typography is a cultural artifact.
Why was Typesenses’ Aphrodite chosen to advertise women’s clothing in the place of Hoefler & Co.’s Forza? And listen to those names: Aphrodite, derived from the Greek goddess of love and sexuality; and forza, meaning power, force, or strength in Italian.
What if we saw Forza used in television advertising for My Little Pony and Buttermilk applied to retail packaging for UnderArmor? Would it seem out of place? Perhaps it could push the boundaries of perception into new and fruitful territory. The application of typography is a connection, a synthesis between consumer and design style: the form and function of the typography. James Edmondson breaches the subject at a recent talk:
What is to be gained from experimentation in the field of type design, and how can graphic designers leverage and build upon the results? Diversity should be celebrated, and by rejecting the vanilla, we open ourselves to indulging in the richness of infinite possibility.
This idea of actors and roles could be framed in terms of instruments and genres when understanding music. A Gibson Flying V can play all sorts of sounds but is most commonly on a long-haired headbanger knee-deep in metal riffs. A Fender Telecaster can play brilliant and bright sounds and might be found playing funk, something soulful, or something indie and relaxed. The two guitars can be interchangeable by genre but replacing them would yield a marked difference in quality and appropriateness. Each was created for their respective purposes and expected outcomes. (Not to mention, the anatomy of a guitar consists of a head, neck, and body—anthropomorphizing musical instruments.)
One of my primary points is to note the way in which we create typefaces: subtly employing the proportions of the human body as the system for the letters and words we read.
It seems apparent but architecture carries similar themes. A door frame fits most humans, no matter their size. The ceiling accommodates even the tallest person. That is to say, the manmade building/structure mimics the very man that made it: we innately and naturally project ourselves into what we create. By design, cars fit the proportions of drivers and passengers. By design, our letterforms and our bodies are congruent.
Traditionally, the average person is seven and a half heads tall, including the head. An idealistic model figure is eight heads tall, when showing grace and perfection. A superhuman figure is eight and a half to nine heads tall, scaling the torso and longer legs.
In detail, a head is five eyeballs-width apart. A sternum is the same length tall as a skull is wide. The length of outspread arms is equal to the height of a man. Et cetera.
These same proportions apply to typography: capital letters carry a stem height that equals about eight widths. Remember Philippe Grandjean’s Romain du Roi? His capital letters were drawn using and eight-by-eight grid, similar to the scale of the human form.
This observation would not be complete without paying attention to perhaps the progenator of anatomical proportion, Leonardo da Vinci and his Vitruvian Man.
Borrowing from Wikipedia,
The drawing is based on the correlations of ideal human proportions with geometry described by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius in Book III of his treatise De architectura. Vitruvius described the human figure as being the principal source of proportion among the classical orders of architecture. Vitruvius determined that the ideal body should be eight heads high. Leonardo’s drawing is traditionally named in honor of the architect.
Further, the way we describe these letters is analogous to our description of our own bodies. A few examples are eyes, ears, arms, joints, legs, shoulders, and feet. Even as insensitive as crotch. (I Love Typography compiled a more complete list of typographic anatomy.)
Can age be imbued in letterforms? What does it mean for a font to have stylistic alternates between a two-story «a» and «g», or a round (u-shaped) or v-shaped «y»? These simplified forms are called infant or schoolbook and are believed to be easier to read, write, and remember by children learning letters. This option for an alternate form communicates a message of intention—even for adults. This identifies age as a metric in letter construction: how to make “young” (or “old”) letters?
It is not uncommon to see these schoolbook forms in logotypes that aim for “approchability”. Asana and Pandora (among heaps of other tech companies) have opted to use the single-story «a» in their logotypes. Google uses a single story «g».
Clearly this implies that a single version of the «a» communicates a specific message while another «a» gives off a different feeling or intention.
Contrariwise, what about Memorie, a font inspired by age and deteriorating memory that loses “memory” with time? Memoire was created by design studio Sub Rosa as a custom solution for an editorial publication. A sort of aging takes place as the font appears over “time” when reading.
Consider Hans Holbien’s Alphabet of Death (c. 1530), sometimes called Dance of Death Alphabet. The letterforms are skeletal, sharp, and menacing—even without Death itself dragging poor souls away.
Animals can’t escape interpretation. Animals also get their share of anatomy-to-letterform translation.
For instance, Vulpa, published by Schizotype Fonts, is a font inspired by fox tails and characteristics of foxes (Latin: Vulpes vulpes).
Zoomorphism is ubiquitous in illustrated medieval manuscripts. The Book of Kells (~800AD) is saturated with initial capitals that are snakes and peacocks and blocks of text enshrined in crawling animals. This might be more illustrious and decorous than specifically characteristic of the letterforms but the concept is rich.
Critter, published by Adobe, describes each animal according to their letter. Literal, kid-friendly, and fantastic. And worth a smile.
These observations are qualitative and subject to my personal evidence and speculation. This is informed but technically unscientific. However, I believe typography to be the most influential element in design and design thinking—therefore a healthy consideration is critical.
With this understanding, realize the impact of anthropomorphism in typography and design, the impact on type design and typesetting, the impact on everything our brains create and our eyes meet. Emphasize experimentation and endeavor to exercise typographic diversity.
Watch Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich give a 15 minute lecture on the relationship of hair and hair styles and typography through centuries. Preview the first four minutes here; buy the full video here for $8. Its fascinating and entertaining.
References to human anatomy and proportions in life drawing are taken from the immutable Bridgman’s Complete Guide to Drawing From Life.