Specimens beyond the ABCs

Arabic, Hebrew, and Sanskrit letterforms

One of my long-term research and writing projects is a history of the type specimen as a visual form and professional practice. Written (and illustrated!) for design educators, students, and practitioners, it contextualizes this long-lasting and still-present form of typographic expression. It’s difficult to find historical context for images like these, because historical information about type specimens tends to be hidden away in highly specialized journals and limited-run small press books. As a design educator, it’s important for me to offer my students access to historical and critical context for the projects we undertake in the studio. This book project is all about sharing that kind of access with a wider public audience. One of my priorities right now is expanding the image library to include global examples of specimens of non-Latin alphabets. It’s difficult but very rewarding to look for specimens which were produced locally, for and by audiences who used these languages for everyday communication. The process is ongoing and the details in the image above are snippets from my digital archives research process: a 1732 treatise on magnetism published by Ibrahim Müteferriqa in Istanbul, a stop along the way in my search for a locally-produced Arabic alphabet specimen; a page from Berthold’s 1924 specimen of Hebrew types, designed for the then-flourishing local Jewish community in Germany; and a page from a 1930 Gujarati Type Foundry specimen, printed in Bombay around 1930. It’s exciting to connect the visual research taking place in today’s graphic design studios with a diverse and (for most novice designers) as-yet unknown global history of typographic practice.

The photo details in this post show less than 10% of the following publicly available images: Nick Sherman’s Creative Commons image shared under this license, a detail of this Wikimedia Commons image, and a detail from this Pinterest post.