Who'd have believed that one of the most
startling revolutions in modern-day let¬
tering design, the psychedelic concert
poster lettering of the 1960s, was actual¬
ly a throwback to the Vienna Secession art
movement of one hundred years ago? May
I present Exhibit A, right, a detail from a
poster by Alfred Roller, 1902. Preeminent
Fillmore poster designer Wes Wilson
spotted it at a gallery exhibit in the mid-
sixties and adopted Roller's lettering
style, adding his own unique "spin." The
rest is history.
Left, in 1997 Wes Wilson revisited his poster alphabet in this
typically undulating portrait commissioned by the author.
Below, the fonts Love Stoned and Love Solid with assorted ding¬
bats from my Peace and Love suite. In creating the fonts, I
looked at Wes Wilson's posters as well as at Roller's example
above. People always tell me they can't read psychedelic letter¬
ing and I just look at them pityingly.
©iw wiî miu'H- Mtmter
LOGO, FONT & LETTERING BIBLE
W.A. DWIGGINS seeks font
inspiration from the beyond
It would not surprise me if, in addition to all his other abilities,
Dwiggins channeled lettering spirits. I imagine he thought the following
"Comment," written for a 1938 prospectus of his font Electra, quite amus¬
ing—as indeed it is. Dwiggins reveals the same ethical conundrum with
which we modern designers still struggle in swiping from old lettering
samples while secretly wishing we could initiate our own original type
ideas of equal merit. The question as to upon which planes of existence
this conversation between Dwiggins and his honorable muse purportedly
took place—or whether it actually took place at all—must remain unan¬
swered until one of us can get up there and ask Dwiggins himself.
"But now look," I said, "take that Fell type. That's got a quality that I'd like
to get into a face—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 fit¬
ted 1935 all right enough, but I'd like to make it warm—so full of blood and
personality that it would jump at you."
"All right," he says, "all right. All the personality you want. The more the
better. All I'm saying is that the personality of Jenson or Caslon isn't the per¬
sonality you want. You want the personality of an individual living in A.D.
1935. Take yourself, for instance. You're a student of letterforms. What would
Good design is always practical design.
^•^ •» « Enlarged from a 14-Doint hot-metal specimen of Electra *~S
Got in touch with Kobodaishi and had a long talk with him. You will
remember him as the Patron Saint of the lettering art—great Buddhist
missionary in old Japan.
I told him what I was doing with you people, and said that it would help us
a lot if he could give us a kind of idea what the type style was going to be in
the next ten years—what was to be the fashionable thing, etc., etc.
He wouldn't say directly. He said: "The trouble with all you people is that
you are always trying to reproduce Jenson's letters, or John de Spira or some
of those Venetian people. You are always going back three or four hundred
years and trying to do over again what they did then. What's the idea?'
"Well," I said, "we think those types were pretty good—about the best
that anybody ever made and we'd like to make some like them."
"But why like them?" he said. "You don't live in Venice in 1500. This is
1935. Why don't you do what they did: take letter shapes and see if you can't
work them up into something that stands for 1935? Why doll yourself up in
Venetian fancy-dress costume and go dodging around in airplanes and auto¬
mobiles dressed up fAaf way?"
"I know," I said. "But you can't play tricks with the shapes of letters. If you
do, people can't read 'em. People are used to type that looks like that, and
you have got to keep mighty close to the old designs."
"Used to 1500 types? Don't you believe it. People are used to newspaper
types, and typewriter types. Your Venice types are just about as queer-look¬
ing to your friends in Hingham as Greek letters. What people are used to in
your time... That's no argument."
I didn't say anything for a little while and just let him smoke, and then tried
to get him back to giving me an idea of what the trend in typeface fashion
was going to be.
"Electricity," he said, "sparks, energy—high-speed steel—metal shavings
coming off a lathe—precise, positive—say it with a snap." I waited to see if he
would get closer to something I could use. "Take your curves and streamline
'em. Make a line of letters so full of energy that it can't wait to get to the end
of the measure. My God—these Lino machines that you tell me about—what
kind of letters would they spit out if you left it to rAem? 1500 Venetian? Not!"
Enlarged from a 14-point hot-metal specimen of Electra
your personality be, expressed in a type?"
Of course, this pretty much put it up to me, and I didn't know what to
say. "I'll show you," he went on. "I'll show you..." and he showed me these
"Whose design is that?' I asked.
"It's your design. It's a design that you are going to make. And it gets pret¬
ty close to your idea of what a modern roman type letter is like." He grinned
at me. I had to admit that it was more or less the kind of letter I would make
if I weren't trying to please somebody else—if I were just making letters to
please myself. "What's it called?" I asked.
"It's called ELECTRA. The Greeks spelled it Elektra—but the Greeks had
nothing to do with it, so ЕСТ goes. Now notice how you are going to get the
'personality' you mention out of the unusual shapes of some of the charac¬
ters—and see how the letters ramp along the line—and, more than anything
else, notice how they fuse and melt together, into words. What about it?"....
Well.. .1 don't know.. .it looked the way Kobodaishi said, when he showed
it to me. But when I look at it now, cut, cast and printed—I have a feeling
that the Saint knew more about his lotus ponds than he did about power
lathes. Maybe I didn't keep my own hand out of it enough—changed his
design here and there.. .It's active. It moves along the line nicely. But I can't
quite see the metal shavings part, the high-tension power lines and those
There are a couple of touches
that I'd like to point out, though.
The weighted top serifs of the
straight letters of the lowercase:
that is a thing that occurs when
you are making formal letters
with a pen, writing quickly. And
the flat way the curves get away
from the straight stems: that is a
speed product. Things like that
were what Kobodaishi meant, no
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