Frederic Goudy – Typographic Genius

Recognition of a man’s genius may come at the beginning of his career, or after long years of patient labour.
Medals and honours have been won by generals for past military exploits, for victories where armies clashed, and gained a few metres of enemy territory. Scientists have been acclaimed, political leaders awarded honorary university degrees, and philanthropists had their names inscribed over art galleries and museums. Such honours are customary and expected.

Frederic Goudy
Frederic Goudy in 1924

Typographic Genius

Less dramatic accomplishments and contributions to the culture of modern civilisation by artists, artisans and designers have been but little publicised. It was in 1937 that a mild-mannered, quiet and kindly man was recognised as a real genius – Frederic W. Goudy, one of the most famous type designers in the world!

His work had been a gradual unfolding, beginning with a modest attempt at lettering and rewarded by moderate success. His life has been dramatic, a complete reversal of what his boyhood friends looked for; and his final victory a culmination of a lifetime devoted to his craft. At 30 years of age, he was a bookkeeper out of work. Towards the end of his life, he was one of America’s prolific type designers. The typographic world agrees that Goudy may call himself a humble type designer, but the typographical world described him as a great artist. In the history of visual and graphic design, he is one of the most accomplished in his field at the time.

His equals would be Johann Gutenberg, who invented movable type and set and printed the famous Gutenberg Bible; William Morris, Jenson, Caslon, Garamond and other great designers of an earlier time. These masters of the past designed and executed only a few typefaces each. William Morris became famous for two.

A brochure cover hand lettered by Goudy in the early 1900’s

In 1898 Frederic Goudy sat beside the window of his boarding house, idly sketching the capital letters of the alphabet. Finishing, he mailed it to the Dickenson Type Foundry in Boston. He asked five dollars for it, and they sent him twice that. He called it Camelot, thinking, perhaps, of the old Arthurian legends. This began his career.

He was called the modern “glorifier of type,” and authorities agree that the beauty and clarity which he had brought to the printed word revolutionised typography both in Europe and the United States.

How do you design type?

To design type, it requires making some 80 separate drawings to scale. He then traces them in turn onto four-ply hard drawing paper will, cutting out each character carefully by hand and mounting it on another sheet of the drawing board to form patterns. This is only the beginning. The final steps are technical problems requiring long study and intimate knowledge. The actual working methods of a skilled and highly intuitive artists are difficult to describe — even from the man himself. When lecturing on lettering at university, he was asked by a young student, “how do you design type?”

“You think of a letter, and then you mark around.” He said when interviewed, “there did not seem any reason why I should turn out to be a type designer, except that I wanted to. I wanted that more than anything else because I believe there was an opportunity to improve typography — to secure more beauty, dignity and readability.”

Frederic Goudy
“Printing” by William Morris, as reprinted by the Village Press, run by Goudy with Will Ransom, c. 1903

Frederick Goudy was somewhat of a sentimentalist at heart, as are many artisans. He dedicated his hundredth typeface to his wife, “this conscientious and talented craftswoman who was my beloved companion for many years.” It was she who encouraged him — he wrote in the dedication, “when my courage faulted; uncomplaining she enjoyed the privations and vicissitudes of our early companionship. Her consummate craftsmanship made possible many difficult undertakings; great attainments, that the claim which rightfully was hers should come, instead, to me. She unselfishly aided me in my work in the fields of type design and typography and enabled me to attain a measure of success which I could not have achieved alone.”

On Genius

“Genius is the expression of a strong individuality and extends the limits of tradition instead of attempting to inventing a new one. Genius cultivates old fields in new ways. While a designer of strong artistic personality may modify the laws of tradition more or less according to his strength and ability, he is nevertheless, seldom free from its influence; and in fact, few great artists have ever become great by deliberately disregarding tradition. As for myself, I have made designs that reverted for their inspiration to the lapidary character of the early Romans; others that were based on the classic types of Jenson, Ratdolt, Aldus etc. ”

Frederic Goudy
Frederic Goudy Booklet cover 1911 the claxton book

In his later years, he admitted that he had a degree of artistic freedom. “I draw with practically no reference to any of the sources mentioned, but rely largely on the broad impressions of early forms study and practice, and governed by a technical knowledge of the requirements of type foundries and typography.”

teamSimon is a Sydney based digital designer. He is the Director of a boutique digital design studio, Bailey Street Design located in the vibrant inner west suburb of Newtown.  Simon studied graphic design at Shillington College and specialises in web design for small and medium size businesses.  Simon and his team (Toby the studio dog) are passionate about visual communication in the digital environment

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