Getting Physical With Type (Bodoni, Specifically)


by Kevin Zak

Letters do not achieve their true beauty when done in haste and discomfort, nor when done with diligence and pain, but only when they are created with love and passion.

—Giambattista Bodoni, quoted in Garfield, Simon, Just My Type (New York: Gotham Books, 2011), 203.

Beautifully designed letterforms in combination with fine letterpress printing, has an undeniable quality for a designer and typophile. Sensitively set text, printed on a slightly creamy rag paper, offers the feel of a subtle emboss when you run your fingertips over the surface providing both tactile and visual pleasure.

My introduction to letterpress printing came during my design education. As a class we were introduced to the letterpress and what at first blush seemed to be a generous amount of typefaces available in the banks of cases beside the press.

This was a short lived honeymoon as the realization set in of the very limited choices of actual typefaces and sizes. The assignment was to design, set, and print a single page concerning a weather report. The concept had to be sketched at full size before we were approved to go onto the next step of setting the type, and then going onto the press. This was not just an experience in using letterpress, but an actual assignment with justifiable choices for our decisions regarding type style, size, and leading. The specifications were to be fully indicated prior working on the press.

I was initially intrigued by the stylish letterforms of Bodoni, but settled on the solid, practical, and possibly better choice stylistically for the project at hand, the sans serif typeface, Univers. I clearly recall creating the first proof on the press. Analyzing the sheet, we needed to make sure all the letterforms not only read properly, but were not damaged. We also needed to check the depth of emboss into the paper, ensuring the contact between the paper and all the letterforms was uniform to avoid any “salty” areas where the ink was inadequate. I remember the sound and smell of tacky ink, and the comforting hum of the press and the smooth solidness of gears engaging.

Doing this assignment again, in a more personal way, I can (now) justify my first choice, Bodoni. With a pronounced vertical stress, sharply contrasted thick and thin strokes, and unbracketed serifs, the letterforms of Bodoni have an understated elegance. Designed in the late 1700s by the Italian typographer Giambattista Bodoni, and classed as a “Modern”, his namesake typeface follows the visual preference of the time with pronounced thick and thin strokes taken to the extreme. Bodoni takes advantage of the improvements in printing and paper technology that allowed for finer strokes in typeforms “…without a risk of cracking or disappearing on the page.”1 Designed as a book face, Bodoni, to the modern eye, even well leaded, would not be comfortable for extended reading. But at larger sizes, Simon Garfield, in Just My Type states about the Moderns, “…there may be no finer example of the letterfounders’ art.”2

Set in Bodoni, a more poetic version of this early typography assignment is included here for your cerebral and visually tactile pleasure. It’s what I remember taking away with me. Which in actuality is, I’m hoping, far and above the initial effort.

1 Garfield, Simon, Just My Type (New York: Gotham Books, 2011), 204.
2 Garfield, Simon, Just My Type (New York: Gotham Books, 2011), 205.