By Ashley Ellen February 2007
Baskerville was created in 1757 by the British typographer John Baskerville, in Birmingham, England. Baskerville is a Neoclassic, transitional serif typeface, made to improve Caslon and later to inspire Bodoni and influence the development of the Modern face along with Firmin Didot. John Kane, author of A Type Primer, states that the type of Baskerville, “featured pronounced contrast between thick and thin strokes and a clear vertical stress. [His] innovations exerted a notable influence on European type founders.” Transitional-rationalist serif fonts are characteristic of the mid eighteenth century and represent a deliberate move away from Old Style features with the flexible steel pen and the pointed quill techniques as well as new style elements.
John Baskerville was a man of perfection who continuously pressed on through his life to create his successes. He had a passion for beautiful lettering and books. Baskerville was a printer and a skilled engraver as well as a master writer and calligrapher, which can be seen in the elegant nuances of his letterforms. In order to make finer and more delicate lettering, he prepared his own inks and made innovations to the way metal type was created.
As a typeface, Baskerville can be characterized as sophisticated, elegant, and refined. It has a clarity and simplicity in its regular form, and a beauty and continuity in its italic form. The characters have skilled detail that draws on the purity and fluidity of calligraphic writing. It has a rationalist axis of symmetry and delicate finishes.
In his objective to improve the readability of the types of William Caslon, he aimed to increase stroke contrast between thin and thick lines. The serifs became more hook-like, sharper and tapered as the style would appear in classic penmanship of his time. He shifted the stress of bowls vertically, making them appear more rounded and natural, creating consistency between letter faces.
Some identifying characteristics of Baskerville are the lowercase g, with its contrasting stroke, open counter and swash-like ear. The uppercase c stands out with its barbs on top and bottom, as well as the uppercase g with a similar spur in contrast of the serif below it. The terminal of the uppercase j descends from the baseline. One of the most notable characters is the uppercase q, with its cursive swash-like tail that expresses Baskerville’s talent in penmanship. The italic characters have a very unifying curve to them much like cursive letters. The uppercase italic forms of the j, k, q, t, y and z are very original and recognizable for their curves and contrasting stroke.
There was criticism for Baskerville in its time, and was denounced as being harsh for reading for its contrast in stroke, sharp serifs and standout characters. Ellen Lupton, author of the book thinking with type writes about the, “sharpness and contrast that contemporaries accused him of ‘blinding all the Readers in the Nation; for the stroke heights of [his] letters, being too thin and narrow, hurt the eye.’ ” However it has become one of the most widely used book faces of today, and is often used in display and advertising work. It is currently characterized as elegant and distinctive, giving text the look of refinement, without being distracting to the reader.
German typeface designer, Paul Renner, designed Futura in 1927. “This was the first and remains the best of the geometric sanserif faces,” says Robert Bringhurst, author of The Elements of Typographic Style. Futura is a subtly crafted, geometric san serif typeface that was influenced by Herbert Bayer of the Bauhaus movement. Bauhaus was at the edge of German Modernism in architecture and design. While Renner was not a member of the Bauhaus, he drew on some of its modern models and ideals, such that a typeface should not revive another font, but be completely new in its design.
With its modernist and geometric influences, Futura was an image of efficiency and forwardness. Bringhurst calls it one of the most rhythmical sanserifs ever made. He states that, “Its proportions are graceful and humane- close to those of Centaur in the vertical dimension. This makes it suitable for setting extended text (Which is not, of course, to say that it is suitable for texts of every kind).” A uniform, bold and confident typeface, it was based on the simplest geometric forms. Lupton explains that it, “embodied the obsessions of the avant garde in a multipurpose, commercially available typeface. The bowls and counters are perfect circles. The v, w, uppercase a, and m are based off of sharp, pointed, triangles, and the vertical stroke is rectangular and of even weight. The objectives of Renner’s design were to move away from decorative and classic and focus on the simplicity of form and function. Futura speaks to the definitions of efficiency, boldness, and harsh geometry that also seem to resemble fascist Germany in the time of its development.
Futura is a widely used typeface that is popular with many well-known companies like Best Buy, Volkswagen, and Union Pacific. It inspired many competing geometric san serif fonts, including Twentieth Century and Century Gothic. Today it is often used as a type header, as well as to set body text.
At first glance, Baskerville and Futura are opposites. Baskerville aimed at achieving beautiful, pen-like curved strokes, with subtleties in character, while Futura focused at sheer simplicity, uniformity, even strokes and geometric figures. The contrast of serif and sanserif is probably the most obvious difference. Baskerville was created to imitate the intricate lines in penmanship, and recreate the classical face. Lupton writes how, “Renner rejected the active movement of calligraphy in favor of forms that are ‘calming’ and abstract, he tempered the geometry of Futura with subtle variations in stroke, curve and proportion.” Baskerville would probably be shocked at the sight of a ‘calming,’ geometric, abstract character like Futura’s n. While Renner’s goal was to keep the purity of line and letter, rather than cutting off an apex, or adding the complexity of a serif. The flowing stroke of Baskerville, as well as its unique barbs and rounded brackets are usually its giveaway. Where the sharp apex’s and vertex’s, even stroke, and perfectly circular o are Futura’s most recognizable features.
Though the two have strong differences in their use of stroke, both typefaces are confident and bold in their own unique ways. Each has an objective of rounded counters and bowls, creating more regular characters, with vertical stress and even symmetry. Both of the faces represent a new movement in their generation of type towards modernism and perfection. In the time periods of their creation, both designers were regarded as extremist in their approach. Both faces also took upon the premise of rejecting the Old Style fonts. Baskerville approached the goal by perfecting his own Neoclassic version of the Old face, reviving the influences of proper penmanship, and instilling the aesthetics of beauty in its characters. Renner, however, wanted no resemblance of these contemporaries, and created Futura as a statement of a new direction, rejecting Old Style fonts in their minute details, instating simplistic unity as his own ideal of perfection, and created the first of the geometric sanserifs.
The concept of unity and perfection seems to be a stake in both typefaces and presents a question as to what perfection really is. To Paul Renner, perfection is the principle of Occam’s Razor, taking away every unnecessary element until you can take away no further. Less is more. Perfection to him is in the reduction to a basic geometric form and the simplicity of shape. To John Baskerville, perfection is in the ideal leaf, rose, and snowflake. Perfection in his eyes is in the smallest details of readability, rhythm and continuity, as well as in the natural flowing beauty and curve of calligraphy.
Futura and Baskerville rival these concepts and perceptions. The real contrast between fonts would be the style that is achieved by each, for both faces are suitable for headline text as well as to be set for body text. Personality plays a large part in each face. Baskerville is bold, sophisticated and aesthetically beautiful, when compared to Futura, which commands a presence, gets right to the point and states the facts.
Bringhurst, Robert. The Elements of Typographic Style. 3.1rd ed. Point Roberts: Hartley & Marks, 2005.
Burke, Christopher. Paul Renner: the Art of Typography. New York: Princeton Architectural P, 1998.
Kane, John. A Type Primer. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2003.
Lupton, Ellen. Thinking with Type. New York: Princeton Architectural P, 2004.