Not Blackletter

Blackletter and Medieval typography’s associations, particularly religious text and Nazi Propaganda, should be deeply unappealing in a secular wannabe-tolerant society. The values the style represents being old, or out of fashion, or out of context, where the other creative arts express modernity through minimalism, technology and ease of use.

Medieval lettering has beauty and mystery, the evocative imagery of having been written by hand, so long ago, with so much skill. The intoxicating complexity of the associated ornaments, the surreal imaginations that produced the marginalia menageries, all are artefacts of their time and a valuable connection with our past. This does not mean of course that it is any more appropriate and useable in design today, and though legibility comes from familiarity, their highly-stylised can seem anachronistic, not seem to lend themselves to ease of use to modern eyes.

However, medieval fonts have been consistently and regularly used. The Victorian era’s love of past values produced various revivals and redrawings, most notably by William Morris and his associates. Mixes of blackletter and latin forms made the Gothic style more readable and accessible, but still old-fashioned, emphasising a sense of history. Because of this sense of history the Nazi party used a blocky, heavy and angular blackletter for their propaganda, before somehow deciding that they were Jewish-derived and switching to latin typefaces. Mid twentieth-century master calligraphers such as Rudolf Koch, Berthold Wolpe, Herman Zapf and Jan Tschichold showed the beauty of old forms and lettering derived from old forms. Their progressive designs used the lettering’s twin associations of expertise of craft and beauty, mixing with contemporary fonts in contemporary layouts, using in a new way, no longer as pastiche.

Designers continue to draw revivals and new versions. Modern forms have been explored by rounding hard edges, super-stretching, reducing forms to hairline thin, or applying to a dot matrix grid. The lettering is used for its sheer graphic impact as much as for its historical reference point. In contemporary popular culture, the Gothic heritage of the form makes it appropriate for the doom laden imagery Heavy Metal band logos, and street-style lettering and tag graffiti often references or takes influence from the decorative strength of the form.

We have explored ways of combining latin lettershapes with the exotic blackness the lettering has, making these expressively angular letterforms familiar and functional. This has always seemed more relevant, more interesting, than a more direct redrawing, a way of updating and reshaping an old form and making it new. Text and Klute do this in different ways. Text constructs letters from a series of graphic shapes, swashy curves suggest writing with a brush, letter elements connected at a sharp point. Its letterforms have the modular similarity of Blackletter styles, maybe five hundred years ago it would have been a text typeface.

Klute mixes references from blackletter and the freer shapes derived from tagging, as if written with a thick marker pen as much as having been carved with a chisel. Harbour attempts to make more readable latin forms, is less angular, its forms again suggest brushwriting but mix these with triangular serifs. It has a clear connection with historic forms but is clearly separate and different. For Another magazine we drew a ‘hard’ typeface taking angular calligraphic forms, mixing reference points including signwriting and the calligraphy of Berthold Wolpe, a typeface that also exists in ‘soft’ brush and script versions.

This isn’t a history lesson on medieval letterforms by the way, I’m using terms like Medieval and Blackletter very freely. These terms cover different styles depending on place and time of drawing. There are a myriad of sources to be found elsewhere that explore their history.

See Text, Klute and Harbour at