Posts Tagged ‘Jan Tschichold’

Most people have the vague understanding that writing their name entirely in lower case characters is a claim to being avant-garde. However, few people have any idea why this connection is made, or exactly what it supposed to signify.

The practice dates to the 1920s. Back then, Germans had a bewildering selection of alphabets to write in, including Roman and Italic characters, cursive characters for handwriting, and black letter characters, all of which used both upper and lowercase characters. Black letter characters, or fraktur as they are sometimes called were especially popular because of the growing German nationalism, because they originated in Germany. However, they were the least legible of the selections and made for old-fashioned, often cluttered page designs.

In this situation, a small group of German typographers rebelled against the layout conventions of their day, advocating designs that were simple and minimalistic. Their ideas were codified in Jan Tschichold’s 1928 book The New Typography.

These ideas included the elimination of all the alphabets available to German typographers except lower case Roman. This choice was made because lower case Roman characters are not only simple, but also distinctive. Unlike with any upper case characters, lower case Roman characters have more distinctive characters, so much so that even if you only see an outline of a word, you can often make a good guess about what the word is.

Today, this idea seems trivial. But in the atmosphere of Germany, which was sliding towards Nazism, all the New Typography’s ideas seemed unpatriotic, even treasonous. In fact, under Hitler, Jan Tschichold was accused of “cultural Bolshevism,” and fled Germany one step ahead of his arrest to exile in Switzerland, and, after World War 2, in England. In other words, using only lower case Roman was daring and progressive, and both an artistic and a political statement.

As the New Typography became known, its ideas were adapted by Modernist designers of all sorts, even among those who had little idea of the justification for using only lower case Roman characters. By the time the idea reached the English-speaking world, only the practice was left, and its justification totally lost.

Today, using a lower case name still has the reputation for being avant-garde, even though after ninety years it is hardly new or daring, let alone any kind of political statement. In fact, ironically, many of the ideas of the New Typography are so far from the cutting edge that they are the nucleus of orthodox design and layout today.

However, one of the ideas that did not become standard was using only lower case Roman. By the mid-1930, many of the leading New Typographers had relaxed their original aesthetic position, falling into practices similar to those used in the English world. Tschichold himself eventually became the lead designer for Penguin Books, producing gem after small gem of typographic excellence for popular use – a worthy accomplishment, but hardly a radical one.

This history is mostly unknown, partly because typographer is an art that most people know little about, including many graphic designers. Even more importantly, although the English-speaking world was influenced by the New Typography, Jan Tschichold’s manifesto for the movement was first published in an English translation in 1998 – seventy years after its German publication.

However, when you know the story, one thing becomes clear: those who insist on only lower case are following a practice that is behind the times instead of ahead of ahead of them, and taking no political or aesthetic position where once the practice could actually be dangerous to their freedom in some places. Whatever meaning the practice might once had, for all they stand out as artistic or political radicals, they may as well be wearing black T-shirts and jeans.

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