Lettering hasn’t just been around since yesterday, and old books often explain the basics of lettering design more clearly than today’s. Here are five vintage books I always have on hand.
No Showing Off
Hildegard Korger’s guide to writing and designing type is thorough, sophisticated—and practical. It begins with the general basics of design—contrast, rhythm, color—and ends with detailed instructions for all possible uses of hand-drawn type: lettering, certificates, handwritten books, packaging, wordmarks, posters …
In the middle part, Korger lays the foundation with a writing tutorial for beginners. With a tutorial for advanced students, she leads through the history of writing from Roman capitals to the typefaces of the 19th century.
The author was a professor at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst in Leipzig and the book also contains some Cyrillic alphabets—probably because it was first published in the GDR in 1971 and became the definite book on the subject with several editions.
More Than Manual Dexterity
Pedagogically, this book is right up my alley, as the very first paragraph shows:
»The purpose of this book is not to provide alphabet templates which the learner ‘tries out’ in a more or less skillful way, copying and applying them well or badly. Lettering is not only a matter of hand dexterity, even if this plays a significant role in practice and execution. The hand is guided by the head and must be controlled continuously by the eye. Therefore, an attempt has been made to train first the ‘eye for type’ and to acquaint the learner with all the problems of lettering.«
That’s what I keep saying, too!
I found little information about the author Ernst Bentele on the Internet. although this reference book must have been the reference book for sign painters —it is still relatively easy to get hold of a copy. Bentele explains the basics of letter construction and design, with a particular focus on the implementation of large lettering on facades. He introduces the major lettering styles and shows many variations. And even if you don’t read a line in this book—the sample alphabets and lettering in 1950s style are a great inspiration.
Incidentally, Karl Gröner Verlag in Ulm was also the publisher of »Der Schriftenmaler,« (The Sign Painter) a »trade journal for the sign painter and all professions involved in letter design.« The magazines from the 1950s and 1960s show great design examples, give practical tips and allow an insight into the profession of the sign painter during its heyday.
Helm Wotzko also doesn’t think much of copying alphabet templates. That’s why he shows only five basic lettering styles and, as an example of the endless possibilities for varying the basic styles, has drawn dozens of times what he thinks lettering is all about: »Always endeavor to find some interesting variation«. Whith these examples he proves everything he explains in his book. His examples are not exactly extravagant—but convincing in their simplicity.
In the introduction the author writes: »If I had not felt a definite need for this book I obviously would not have undertaken to write it.« Nice, that’s exactly how I felt when I wrote my books.
Variations of the Mother Script
With this book, Eugen Nerdinger lives up to his name: His »Efforts to Type Education,« are not only, as he writes, »necessary,« but also downright nerdy. The 26 chapters are headed with the individual letters of the alphabet; they lead in the three sections »Results,« »Conditions,« and »Technology« from the origins of Latin script through its history to the middle of the 20th century, in which the book was published.
Then, in chapters with names such as »Illustion Influenced Form Effect« and »Mother Script Variations,« the book continues through the principles of lettering design and application. If I think hard enough, I can figure out what these chapters are about, I just wonder if it could have been expressed more simply even almost 60 years ago.
Nerdinger shows that he is serious by the volume of the book, too. It not only has 220 pages of text, but also 136 picture plates with 100 alphabets drawn by the author himself. The same applies to this book: The illustrations alone set my brain on fire with inspiration.
A Promising Specialization
Books—you gotta love them! Because how fascinating is it, please, to read today a book published in the U.S. in 1945 that recommends show card lettering as a promising specialty in the advertising industry and postulates that lettering plays an important role in »graphically telling for the purpose of selling.«
And the instructions and tips in »Commercial Art of Show Card Lettering« are still useful nearly 80 years later. The book provides a comprehensive introduction to »show card lettering,« which—unlike sign painting—is mostly about designing signs and panels for interiors. That’s why it involves working with water-soluble paints on paper in smaller sizes. In addition to the many alphabet templates and tips for individual variations, the chapter on layout is particularly interesting because it gives such clear instructions on how to arrange the elements on a surface.
I don’t remember how I came across this book, but when I was a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I could order books through interlibrary loan from any library in the state of Illinois. The even put 120 year old titles into zip lock bags and I had them the next day. Heaven on earth! You could take out 75 books at a time—the librarians knew me because I was the one who reached that limit.