Kathleen Meaney | Education

Don’t Know Much About (Type) History

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God—or so we assumed. Did the beginning of moveable type (in Europe) actually commence with Gutenberg’s forty-two-line Bible? Not exactly. (It was, however, the first example of a major completed work.) What predates the word of God, surprisingly, is not a bible but a booklet. Called the Sibyllenbuch, this epic poem is preserved only in fragment at the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany. [1]

These types of discoveries happen when you nerd out at the rare book library with your Type 1 class. [2]

So much is learned through authentic experience! The assortment of books for our viewing and touching pleasure spanned six centuries; the arrangement of which was a physical concept map, if you will, connecting design ideas across time. Illuminations were illuminating. Fonts made impressions. Reading systems evolved right before our eyes, and as they did, curiosities arose, chronologically:

Highlights from our visit to the Rare Book Library: Aldus Manutius’ printer’s mark; diagrams from Erhard Ratdolt’s Calendarium; ornate title page by William Morris; rubrication from de Platea’s Opus Restitutionum| photographs by Elena Jordan-Keller and Mauricio Berrizbeitia
Ornamented initials from the Gutenberg Bible (1455) stole our initial attention. Did they give rise to the contemporary drop cap? Was their purpose decorative, navigational or instructional? Yes. Erhard Ratdolt’s Calendarium (1476) pushed the limits of form through a “modern” title page, ingenious “infographics” and paper fold-outs. Was the idea behind the full title page—first ever in history—such a radical one to endure? Tradition is telling. Who could avert their eyes from the unprecedented text and image integration (and other forms of integration) in Anton Koberger’s Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)? Did this manuscript set a precedent for text wrap and pictorial hierarchy? Remarkably, these woodcuts performed like moveable type, designed to be interchangeable (1,809 illustrations printed from only 645 blocks), revealing print ingenuity at its inception. (It’s worth pointing out that, like Gutenberg, I begin the course with a booklet assignment so students have prior knowledge of reading systems prior to this visit.)

Perhaps comprehension stems from understanding the comprehensive. Research tells us that “putting new knowledge into a larger context helps learning.” [3] Typical type assignments tend to focus on isolated, practical lessons: lettering, typeface design, type-as-image studies, multi-page layout, kinetic exercises, iPad prototypes, etc. Amidst these projects however, how often do we contextualize learning within history? How often do we “build into our courses activities and demonstrations that reveal how our course knowledge is interconnected,” [4] to help students equate learning with lineage? This field trip was part of a teaching strategy to help freshman understand more up front. As one student notes, “it’s one thing to learn about what techniques and graphic elements are accepted / expected in typography; it’s another to learn why.” [5]

Hidden in the parts of the page are more significant inquiries: what do these books communicate; what was their cultural context; and how were they produced? These types of questions take longer to assess; one field trip to the library is not enough. The answer then is a research project (a.k.a. motivational killer) in the form of a poster (a.k.a. motivational enhancer). The net response is apprehension over anticipation. “This project had me worried at first since history is my worst subject [in high school] but I realized I was learning about the wrong kind of history.” (What a profound student reflection on K–12 education.) [6]

Through annotation, students performed a critical evaluation of how these books reflected culture and technology | annotations by Mauricio Berrizbeitia atop Opus Restitutionum Usurarum et Excommunicationum, 
Francsicus de Platea 

Call it what you will, the climax, the crux, the main claim: Type history is one of the most significant—yet absent—course offerings in design pedagogy. The rare book library is one of the greatest—yet underutilized—assets at a university. Consider their combinatory potential. (You put your chocolate in my peanut butter.) Why aren’t we taking advantage of this resource? Consider also the current trend to democratize rare book libraries so that its educational reach is broader than just the “elite scholar.” What a rare moment in time where the tangible replaces the textbook and the archivist reinterprets the author (sorry Meggs). Defining history then, is based upon our own observations and interpretations. Indeed, history is up for discussion.

The project, “Incunabula in Comparison,” asked students to juxtapose two major typographic works across time, and analyze their correlations. It’s a 2-for-1 assignment, designed to use teaching strategies to maximize understanding. (Additional learning happens through comparative lessons, through authentic experience, through research, writing and surmising, and through class presentations—which followed.) The final display of posters turned the classroom into a visual survey course.  History was literally in the making, in the minds of students. James Zull explains that “knowing the big picture of a story is what gives it meaning; knowing isolated details is essential but meaningless by itself.” [7] When all thought bubbles in the classroom merge into one comprehensive overview (a.k.a. “the cloud”), realizations happen. The big picture unfolds. 

Presentations exposed patterns—we noticed that history often celebrated a single participant, rather than the collaboration. Yet, rarely did printers work alone: Peter Schöffer apprenticed for Johann Gutenberg, Edward Burne-Jones designed woodcuts for William Morris, Cesare Cavanna arranged type for Filippo Marinetti, and Victor Lardent designed Times New Roman (who knew?) under the direction of Stanley Morison. Though hardly do we celebrate these partners. 

Presentations exposed realizations—the most profound being that book design reflected literacy rates. When readership changed over time, so too did the design of letters, ink, paper, and form. Knowledge was being shaped, literally. Francesco Griffo’s font (the first italic in history from the word Italy) was a condensed cut, designed for economy to fit Aldus Manutius’ pocket size book—a format designed for mass distribution. Similarly, mass distribution guided the designs of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield which circulated each chapter separately. These chapters also included advertisements in the front matter suggesting that readers were consumers of products as well as language. They had capital and Capitals.

Is this an antiquated assignment? Absolutely. But it’s also forward-thinking. After all, antiquated leads to anticipated. Pick any trendy typeface and it probably took cues (or was derived) from historic sources. Ironically, these typefaces are the voice of the now. Ideas don’t come from thin air but are built from prior knowledge, or existing neural networks. Let’s call these networks history. When we learn, and create new ideas, we connect the networks. Leaps in thought (innovation) are based on what’s already there, biologically and historically. So knowledge of the past helps generate future ideas. History is predictive. Yesterday is something to look forward to. 

And in the end, as in the beginning, was the Word.


Comparing the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) to McGuffey’s Eclectic Primer (1879), poster (detail) | Alexandra Logsdon

Comparing the 42-line Bible (1454–55) to the Merz periodical (1925), poster (detail) | Elena Jordan-Keller

Comparing the Latin Bible (1489) to The Medical Guide (1817), poster (detail) | Justin Donaldson

1. “The early printed examples consist of a fragment of a leaf from what must have been a sizable volume of sibylline poems, and parts of three different editions of Donatus’ little grammar. None of these bears a printer’s name or date, but by comparisons of type and correlation with the information given by documents they have been attributed to Johann Gutenberg at a period when he was experimenting with printing in Strassburg,” from The Art & History of Book,  by Norma Levarie. There is also a chapter on the topic in Printing and Prophecy: Prognostication and Media Change 1450–1550 by Jonathan Green.
2. A kind thank you to Kevin Grace, the Rare Book Library archivist at the University of Cincinnati, whose knowledge and generosity was limitless.
3. Peter C. Brown, Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).
4. Terry Doyle, Learner Centered Teaching: Putting the Research on Learning into Practice (Herndon, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2011).
5. Student reflection by Elizabeth Klare (thank you Elizabeth).
6. Ibid.
7. James E. Zull, James E. 2002. The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning (Herndon, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2002).

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