“Take that Fell type.1 That’s got a quality that I’d like to get into a face — a kind of warm, human, personal quality — full of warm animal blood. How are you going to get that kind of feeling into a type that looks like a power-lathe? We are still human, you know. And if you don’t get your type warm it will be just a smooth, commonplace, third-rate piece of good machine technique — no use at all for setting down warm human ideas — just a box full of rivets… By jickity, I’d like to make a type that fitted 1935 all right enough, but I’d like to make it warm — so full of blood and personality that it would jump at you.”
— W. A. Dwiggins,2 Emblems & Electra, 1935.
William Addison Dwiggins is a household name in typeface design. Yet despite creating some of the most widely-used faces of the twentieth century, like Caledonia and Electra, Dwiggins didn’t draw his first type (Metro) until he was nearly fifty years old. This late start is curious, but it makes a lot of sense once you learn more about his multidisciplinary career: Dwiggins isn’t just the type designer’s designer; he is also loved by folks in book design, illustration, advertising, calligraphy, engineering, and puppetry.
In each of these pursuits, Dwiggins was an innovator. The skills and principles he learned from one craft he often applied to another. Naturally, a good book designer knows what makes a good book typeface, but even Dwiggins’s puppets informed his typefaces. For example, in 1937, Dwiggins devised what he called the “M-Formula”, based on his experiences with carved marionette faces. He noted that those faces with flattened, angular planes were more expressive from the audience’s view, and he called for similar angularity in the edges of letter strokes. Once seen at arm’s length, text type with such contours would appear smooth, yet “energetic” and full of personality, unlike the technically sound but lifeless book and newspaper type of the day.
All of these connections are explored in a comprehensive Dwiggins biography written by Bruce Kennett and soon to be published by Letterform Archive, where I’ve served as a board member for the past two years. The book is the pilot project of the Archive’s nascent publishing program, and they’re tapping into Kickstarter to get it off the ground. The campaign ends tomorrow, April 28, 2017.
Many practicing type makers continue to be influenced by Dwiggins; each generation seems to discover him anew. To wrap up this month of Dwiggins fever, I asked a few designers to describe their relationship to the man and his work.
Type designer, font engineer, typography consultant
Washington, Massachusetts, USA
First Dwiggins encounter: I believe I first became truly aware of Dwiggins through Walter Tracy’s Letters of Credit. The book’s expansive profile and survey of WAD’s type designs really piqued my interest. In particular, there were some superficial similarities that resonated for me — I, too, started as a general graphic designer and spent some time as an illustrator before shifting gears mid-career toward book design. I was approaching my 40s when I decided to pursue my interest in type design; Dwiggins was in his late 40s. So, there was this sense of kinship that fueled my curiosity and prompted me to delve deeper into his life and work.
What makes him unusual: I think more than any other independent type designer of his generation (except perhaps Goudy), Dwiggins really engaged fully with all aspects of the design and manufacturing process. He sketched his designs at the same size as the production drawings. (Linotype director Chauncey H. Griffith even had a special set of drawing-office brass scales made up for him.) He embraced the technical limitations, even as he would challenge them. His was a unique marriage (or contradiction, at times) of the visionary and the pragmatic.
Favorite Dwiggins work: While a lot of attention is given to Dwiggins’s more experimental work, my favorites tend to be his more “mundane” designs — Caledonia foremost among them. It was by far his most successful. It performs consistently well in a variety of settings and contexts, suiting a remarkable range of content. It became ubiquitous in American books of the era. As a result of which, I suppose, it may appear rather commonplace to many. But when you put it under the microscope, it is so full of Dwiggins’s brilliance. (The existing digital versions, unfortunately, capture none of these virtues.)
—Kent Lew, Typophile.com, 2008
How he influenced my work: In addition to Whitman, with its acknowledged influence from Caledonia, there are a few other early designs of mine, filed away, that draw pretty directly on specific works by Dwiggins. But as I have matured as a type designer, I find that his influence has grown less direct and obvious. The more lasting impact on my work is that of Dwiggins’s overall approach to typeface design — his curiosity about every detail and his care and attention for the whole process.
Type designer and cofounder of Monokrom
The most important thing I learned from Dwiggins is how he often treats the inside and outside curves independently, making the letters “sparkle” on the page. I did not learn this directly from studying Dwiggins’s work, though, but rather by looking at the type of other designers who were influenced by Dwiggins. Around 2008, when I started drawing type, this approach to drawing was very much in vogue, and it became quite influential for me. A certain thread on Typophile taught me a lot about this principle. Thank you, node 41687.
Released in 2012, my Satyr has this approach as an important design principle. While it may look like a loose interpretation of a late-Renaissance typeface, it is hardly constructed like one. Satyr contrasts convex and concave curves, “sculpting” letterforms instead of imitating the strokes of the humanist hand, creating tension and drawing attention to counterspaces. There really is no reason we should base our typographic designs on the traces of the broad-nib pen anymore. Although Dwiggins was not the first type designer to show us this (perhaps that honor should go to Johann Fleischman), he did it in a way that became very important for modern type design.
I think Dwiggins to some degree is better in theory than on paper, so to speak. But this is hardly his own fault. Many of his most interesting designs have never been released; others did not make it gracefully into the digital realm. Were I to pick one of his designs that particularly speaks to me, it would be Eldorado. Seemingly quirky and idiosyncratic, much of its perceived weirdness may really be functional devices. Just like, but in different ways, my own Satyr.
Type designer and founder of Kontour Type
Houston, Texas, USA
During my graduate type design class I discovered Charter and was immediately attracted to it. Charter is an unpublished typeface for which Dwiggins designed only a lowercase. It sparked an interest since it seemed rather unusual, and also quite problematic. The combining of the Charter lowercase with capitals from Electra further emphasized the strangeness.
My most memorable encounter with WAD’s work goes back to 2006, when I visited the Special Collection of the Boston Public Library and got to see some of his marionettes for the first time. I was deeply impressed by how much care went into the details of the costumes, in addition to stunning color schemes. During this visit I also had the opportunity to look through a box of WAD’s sketches he produced while working on Charter.
Surveying the material was a bit of a revelation: I found a sketch of decorative caps, which I hadn’t known before the release of the Odile family. From the few obtainable sources I had access to when working on Odile, I was familiar with just a few decorative caps he created for Charter. These loosely inspired the designs for the Odile Initials and Deco Initials. I was positively surprised and mostly relieved that the Odile Initials seem to align quite nicely with Dwiggins’s sketches.
David Jonathan Ross
Type designer at Font Bureau and founder of DJR Type
Deerfield, Massachusetts, USA
First encounter with Dwiggins: My first TypeCon was in Boston in 2006. I came as a student and I didn’t know anyone there, but come on, I was trying to study typography and this was a font conference going on two hours away! There was a whole afternoon of programming solely about Dwiggins. Seeing his work made me realize there is a whole new layer of possibilities for playing with line and shape.
—David Jonathan Ross
What makes him unusual: In many ways he is now the prototypical type designer — maybe not so unusual when compared to contemporary designers, but unusual for his time. He manipulated shape and texture in inventive and highly personal ways, and used the relationships between contrasting shapes to make letters pop. The style of the typeface came second to the shapes used to create it.
Favorite Dwiggins work: Caledonia, just because of its sparkle. You see it in old pulpy paperbacks with the shittiest printing imaginable and it still shines. I also really loved seeing his unpublished designs at the Boston Public Library, but was probably most affected by Tippecanoe. I don’t think anyone considers it to be one of his more successful experiments, but the M-Formula stuff really hits you on the head. For me, it was really cool to see how he set up a problem and then tried (and sometimes failed) to solve it. It helped me understand that a typeface can come from an idea about how shapes can relate, and then when executing that idea you can decide when to amplify that idea and when to soften it, depending on the context and the underlying design goals. And it taught me that not every idea is great!
How he influenced my work: I have always been hesitant to directly use Dwiggins’s work as inspiration for my own, mostly because he had already been such a big source of inspiration for my mentors (take Cyrus Highsmith’s Prensa and Quiosco, David Berlow’s Eldorado, or Kent Lew’s Whitman). But Turnip was definitely my first attempt to channel some Dwiggins, and to focus less on where things got thin and thick but how they got thin and thick. Turnip’s solution was contrasting sharp, crisp inner shapes with doughy outer shapes to create a lively and dynamic texture, and there’s plenty of precedent for that in Dwiggins’s work. I see my upcoming typeface Fern as a kind of extension of that.
Book designer and graphic designer
During my time at Design Academy Eindhoven, I found I had a soft spot for paradoxes. Especially in the works of non-dogmatic creators like Eric Gill, Peter Greenaway, Sybold van Ravesteyn, or Dwiggins. I feel attracted to the tension between the rational and pure side of their work on the one hand, and their more sensuous or baroque tendencies on the other. It is fascinating to see how they turn this friction into original and surprising results.
In the case of WAD, the tension comes from his M-Formula, about which I learned only much later. What caught me first were the arresting shapes of the letters. In Dwiggins’s typefaces there is a motion I had not seen before, from the contrasting shapes within the characters and the sharp counters inside smooth contours. This way of shaping letters can be found in his handwriting as well. I admire it most in his lettering.
In 2012, I was asked to design a logotype for a news show on Dutch national television, and I had the idea of putting in an asymmetrical counter with sharp corners, to give the logotype some liveliness on all TV screens, not only those on the high end. It was only when expanding this logotype to a family with optical sizes fit for print that I remembered Dwiggins and reread the little info I had on him.
Five years later, I find myself making a digital revival of Tippecanoe, Dwiggins’s stab at inserting “the springiness of a steel nib” into the severe (“stodgy”) shapes of Didone faces. So right now this is my favorite face, in all its weirdness.
Type designer at Font Bureau
Boston, Massachusetts, USA
His talent and focus are indisputable, and his body of work is very impressive. But honestly, I’m not that into his style.
With that in mind, my favorite glyph would be the ‘g’ from Tippecanoe, which was not a successful typeface. But I admire such a plucky attempt. When viewed large and purely as shapes, not parts of a whole, the glyphs are quite pleasing. I like the contrast of the straight lines with the gentle curves, and the wavy counter in the bowl. It’s so weird! Everyone who sees it at the Boston Public Library really wants it to work, and then they see the font in use and say, “oh”, disappointedly. It’s a good learning experience. As Matthew Carter says, “A typeface is a beautiful collection of letters, not a collection of beautiful letters”.
Even though I’m not a Dwiggins devotee, I’m certain his work has influenced mine, as I learned typeface design in the Mergenthaler Linotype tradition via the designers at Font Bureau — but to what extent, I cannot say.
Tiffany Wardle de Sousa
Graphic designer and Dwiggins scholar
San Jose, California, USA
First encounter with Dwiggins: The first time I truly realized that I wanted to know more about Dwiggins was at Reading University during one of Gerard Unger’s lectures to the students of the MA in Type Design, of which I was not officially a part. Anyone who has sat in on one of Gerard’s classes knows you go away feeling the same level of passion as was delivered. Later, Gerard and I met at a local Indian restaurant for dinner and he regaled me with even more stories and information about Dwiggins. I’m pretty sure the seeds had been planted at that point for what would eventually become my dissertation.
— Jim Parkinson
Favorite Dwiggins work: The ‘f’ in Metro. Especially in the bolder weights. The slice across the top. I mean, really. Who does that and gets away with it in such a bookish geometric face? Dwiggins!
Type designer and lettering artist
Oakland, California, USA
I didn’t get to know Dwiggins’s work until twenty years after I managed to graduate from art school and work as a lettering artist and type designer. The San Francisco Chronicle had launched into an in-house redesign of the newspaper. The company purchased Metro not long after it was originally designed, and the typeface had become, over several decades, the typographic signature of the paper — without anyone actually realizing it until the possibility surfaced that the type could disappear in a redesign.
I had already started digitizing Metroblack, the Chronicle’s workhorse headline font. When I try to replicate an existing typeface as a digital font, I find myself looking so hard at what the original artist was doing that I almost feel like I can start to understand weird little details that may otherwise go unnoticed. And I came to appreciate Dwiggins’s type design. The Metro fonts that made it into the Chronicle’s redesign were condensed versions I invented borrowing some ideas from Erbar Medium Condensed.
I also designed a text face for the Chronicle based on Dwiggins’s Electra. First, I drew an Electra from the scant research I had. Then I started nudging that Electra towards the proportions of Linotype’s Legibility Group (the series of newspaper faces that included Corona, the Chronicle’s existing text face), and then tweaking the weight through numerous press tests. By that I mean we could put a paragraph of the new text into a back page of the paper and it would be printed. So when I got up in the morning, the paper would be on my front porch with our text test in it. It was based on Electra, but in the end, it was a different typeface entirely. It became a six-font family called Electric.
My most recent encounter with Dwiggins’s work was designing a version of Electra for Rob Saunders at Letterform Archive. After all these years, Rob got me my first look at copies of Dwiggins’s original drawings. With clear details, and caps at eight inches tall, the drawings revealed a lot of the eccentricities that added interest to the overall design. This new version of Electra, optimized for modern book design and printing conditions, will be used in Bruce Kennett’s Dwiggins biography. The fonts are also available as a Kickstarter reward for those supporters who want a little something extra along with the book.
Dwiggins typefaces have a warmth that suggests the human hand (and mind) were at work. A quality that shouldn’t be forgotten as more modern tools sometimes make it easier to tend toward the robotic and away from the romantic. It was rewarding to get even closer to those aspects of Dwiggins with this Letterform Archive project.
- 17th-century type cut by John Fell.⤴
- As Kobodaishi, Dwiggins’s fictional characterization of “the Japanese patron saint of lettering”.⤴
- This article is set in typefaces inspired by Dwiggins: Cyrus Highsmith’s Quiosco (Occupant Fonts, 2006) and Sibylle Hagmann’s Elido (Kontour, 2009), courtesy of Type Network.