Focus: Transitional Typefaces

“TRANSITIONAL”¬†TYPE is so-called because of its intermediate position between old style and modern. Most notable representative fonts of the Transitional Age were¬†Baskerville and¬†Fournier.

Transitional Characteristics

  • A¬†greater contrast¬†between thick and thin stokes.¬†
  • Wider, gracefully bracketed¬†serifs with flat bases.
  • larger x-height
  • Vertical stress¬†in rounded strokes
  • The height of capitals¬†matches¬†that of ascenders.
  • Numerals are¬†cap-height¬†and consistent in size.

Typography has always been intrinsically linked to technology, a fact most dramatically illustrated by the introduction of the Transitional designs. By the beginning of the 18th century, printing technology had not changed significantly from the time of Gutenberg and was crude by contemporary standards. Presses were made mostly of wood and were incapable of applying even pressure from type to paper. Papers were, of course, hand-made and had uneven thicknesses and coarse surfaces, and printing inks were incapable of rendering dense solids.

John Baskerville: One of the chief influences of this period was English manufacturer John Baskerville, who, for most of his life, had nothing at all to do with printing or typography. He was a successful businessman in japanning, which was the decorating of metal articles with coats of varnish and paintings of floral and pastoral images. By all accounts, he was not well liked, being exceedingly outspoken, strong willed, and egocentric. 

Baskerville retired, a wealthy man, in 1750. He had developed a private passion for typography and printing in his later years and promptly set up a printing office in Birmingham. He was critical of the printing quality of his day and had no doubt he could improve almost every aspect of the trade. 

His first goal was to design the ‚Äúperfect‚ÄĚ letterform. Although he much admired the work of William Caslon, he felt he could make significant improvements. Baskerville‚Äės designs were based on thinner hairline strokes and delicate, tapering serifs and, while he considered them to be a great success, they had one major flaw: they were too delicate to be reproduced on 18th century printing presses.¬†

In order to successfully print his types, Baskerville almost single-handedly advanced the state of printing technology. He built a sturdier printing press of metal, capable of even, precise pressure. He developed a process of manufacturing paper with a whiter surface and smoother finish (called wove) and developed ink formulas capable of producing richer, denser blacks.

Baskerville further challenged printing convention in the design of his books, avoiding the predominant liberal use of symbols and embellishments. Instead, he relied almost entirely on type, with added space between lines and wider page margins. His first books were so startling in their appearance that they were much criticized in England, but were enthusiastically received by the rest of Europe. His type became a standard favorite and strongly influenced future type design .

1 Response to Focus: Transitional Typefaces

  1. NancyWLewis says:

    Your post has given me a very special impression.

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