Historically, the shape of the letter was dictated by the tool used to reproduce it. It is believed, for example, that the purpose of the serif at the end of the Latin letter was to create a sharp edge during the process of inscribing the letter in stone. Medieval blackletter adapted its shape to the broad, stub nib of the quill, the thick lines being arranged vertically to produce the most aesthetically pleasing effect, as well as the most economical. Cursive, in turn, adapts to the thin, fast flowing strokes of the modern fountain pen. Here, the boxiness of the blackletter transforms into a procession of graceful curves. Early computer fonts had to adapt to the pixel grid if their lines were to be sharp and legible, resulting in simpler curves and boxier forms.
Out of all the tools used for publishing purposes, letterpress printing, including modern ink printing technologies, offer the least constraints. The letterform is rendered sharply on the page and all manner of curves and stroke widths can be easily reproduced. With such freedom of form, what does the letterpress letter look like? The earliest forms imitated blackletter. Later, humanist forms were introduced. The objective was to come up with the ideal shape, to make the page not only readable, but beautiful, too. The humanist form was derived from handwriting, but it was not constrained by it. More modern, transitional styles, straightened the lines, removed the signs of the human hand, aiming at ever more perfect form. Pierre-Simon Fournier, for example, used a very precise grid construction method for his font, resulting in a more systematized design. In the early 19th century, grotesque typefaces, which dropped the serif, began to gain popularity. The 20th century gives us the upright, methodical, clean Helvetica—itself inspired by the 1896 typeface Accidenz-Grotesk—which not only does away with serifs, but drops the italics as well. Wishing to wholly sever the connection with the hand, the italic form is now replaced by the slanted oblique variant. Further, we see the emergence of geometric fonts which seek their inspiration not in the curves and lines that evolved though history but in mathematical perfection. At all stages we see the form in the process of transition, a transformation towards some unknown ideal.
But what is this ideal? What is the perfect letter? The perfect form was never defined. All that we started with were Phoenician scribbles, little pictograms of ox heads, wheels and hooks. These were adopted by the Greeks, undergoing a transformation, becoming easier to write. In turn, they were adopted by the Romans, and, at each stage in our history, were transformed by the tool used to reproduce them. When the constraints of the tool were removed, as happened with the letterpress, typeface design entered another process of transformation, but this time it was directed not by material constraints but by our ideas on what constitutes perfection and beauty. We began to seek the ideal letterform. It began with a process of systematization, of straightening out the lines and smoothing out the curves. It carried on with a process of reduction, of removing the serif, of removing the italics, of replacing the original forms with geometric alternatives. It is certainly true that many typefaces do not follow this trend. Those are typically display faces, used for titling, in which stylistic expression is especially required. But body fonts, fonts used for the main bulk of the text, have always been directed by this obsession towards perfection, and this drive towards the ideal has resulted in a form of design reductionism, whereby the designer seeks the ideal not by working towards it, but by cutting away at what is already there, assuming that what is simpler must inevitably be more perfect.
Therein lies the fallacy, for there is no ideal letter. Such a thing never existed, cannot exist. We recognize letters via a process of pattern recognition. Letters will be recognized as letters irrespective of their style or their weight. As long as the shape falls within certain parameters, as long as we catch and recognize certain cues, we can identify the pattern of a letter, we can tell it apart as such. The precise form of a letter is a question of style, and style is a reflection of our own nature, not an objective quality. Removing serifs and italics does not make a letterform more perfect, though it does transform its style. Removing for the sake of trying to attain the ideal results in senseless reductionism whereby you destroy style, you squeeze out your own subjectivity, for the sake of an undefined ideal. The reduced shape is simpler, and is recognizable, but recognition and simplicity are not the only metrics of quality. A stickman drawing is recognizable and simple, but it is not exactly the embodiment of ideal form. There is a place for stickman drawings when simplicity is required, like on the door of a bathroom, but the style of everyday things would be pretty dreary if such reductionism was everywhere applied.
The alternative is to embrace the freedom by adding instead of taking away, by creating a style rather than getting caught in a loop of endless simplification. There is no inherent need to eliminate the signs of the hand in typeface design. There is no need to drop the serifs. The serif may be “useless”, but it forms the style of the thing, enriching it with its detail rather than taking away. The superfluous element gives the designer more material which they can use for the expression of their style, all without getting in the way of legibility. Such a thing, including italic letterforms, are outlets of expression, their superfluity being the very thing that makes them valuable. By reducing a thing needlessly, we remove these outlets of expression, remove opportunities for our style to materialize itself. I have used the example of the letterform here, but this is obviously applicable beyond typography.
It is worth noting that the transformation from blackletter to geometric was itself an expression of style, a celebration of Reason, at first, then later science and technology. The perfectly straight, systematized lines and curves celebrated the power of rationalism. The simpler sans-serif forms celebrated the power of modern technology and the possibilities it has opened up before mankind. Today, in our technological era, it may be a good time to look a little towards the past, to recognize it, learn from it, celebrate it, and, more than ever, understand our connections with it and how they matter. The ideal form does not reside outside of us as some objective thing—it is what we choose it to be. We can choose simplicity and clarity, yes, but we can also choose beauty and richness. If we have the power to define the constraints of our work, we should see that we do not blindly carry on a pre-existing process, but question its direction, and, if need be, change it to better reflect where we want to be.