Reverse-contrast typefaces

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Reverse-contrast "Italian" type in an 1828 specimen book by the George Bruce company of New York.[1] Shown below it is a "fat face" design, a type also popular in early 19th century printing.[2][3] Both typefaces are very bold, but the fat face's thick lines are the verticals as normal and the Italian's are the horizontals.[a]

A reverse-contrast letterform is a typeface or custom lettering in which the stress is reversed from the norm: instead of the vertical lines being the same width or thicker than horizontals, which is normal in Latin-alphabet writing and especially printing, the horizontal lines are the thickest.[5][6][7] The result is a dramatic effect, in which the letters seem to have been printed the wrong way round. Originally invented in the early nineteenth century as attention-grabbing novelty display designs, modern font designer Peter Biľak, who has created a design in the genre, has described them as "a dirty trick to create freakish letterforms that stood out."[8]

Reverse-contrast letters are rarely used for body text, being more used in display applications such as headings and posters, in which the unusual structure may be particularly eye-catching.[9][10] They were particularly common in the nineteenth century, and have been revived occasionally since then. They could be considered as slab serif designs because of the thickened serifs, and are often characterised as part of that genre.

The reverse-contrast effect has been extended to other kinds of typeface, such as sans-serif designs and designs more suitable for extended text passages.[7][11] The design style, also known as "reverse-stroke" or "horizontal-stress", has no connection to reverse-contrast printing, where light text is printed on a black background.[12]

Historical background[edit]

Diagonal angle of stress in the typeface Centaur, based on 1470s Venetian printing. The narrowest part of the stroke is at top left/bottom right, so the axis is diagonal.

Throughout the development of the modern Latin alphabet with an upper-case based on Roman square capitals and lower-case based on handwriting, it has been the norm for the vertical lines to generally be slightly thicker than the horizontals. Early 'roman' or 'antiqua' type followed this model, often placing the thinnest point of letters at an angle and downstrokes heavier than upstrokes, mimicking the writing of a right-handed writer holding a quill pen. (The Hebrew alphabet, in contrast, is normally "reverse-contrast" from a Latin-alphabet perspective, as the verticals are lighter.[13])

From the arrival of roman type around 1475 to the late eighteenth century, relatively little development in letter design took place, as most fonts of the period were intended for body text, and they stayed relatively similar in design and rooted in traditions of Italian humanistic handwriting.[b]

A Didone type, Bodoni, from the late eighteenth century. The contrast has been increased and the axis of the contrast made more purely vertical.
A conventional slab-serif typeface, Rockwell.[c] The serifs have been thickened and the contrast is minimal.

Starting in the eighteenth century, typefounders developed what are now called transitional and then Didone types.[d] These typefaces had a far greater amount of stroke contrast than before, with the difference in stroke width much greater than in earlier types.[e][15][16][17] These had more constructed letterforms, matching the steely calligraphy of the period, and daringly slender horizontals and serif details that could show off the increasingly high quality of paper and printing technology of the period.[18][19] In addition, these typefaces had a strictly vertical stress: without exception, the vertical lines were thicker than the horizontals, creating a much more geometric and modular design.

A second major development of the period was the arrival of the printed poster and increasing use of signpainting and printing for publicity and advertising material, for example in newspaper adverts. This caused a desire to develop eye-catching new types of letters.[20] As a result, new styles of lettering and "display type" began to appear, such as "fat face" bold faces, sans serif letters, apparently inspired by classical antiquity, and then slab-serifs.[21][3][22][23][24] These letterforms were a new departure and not simply larger versions of traditional serif letters.[25][26] Presumably to be more eye-catching, these new styles of letter were often extremely bold.[2]

The first reverse-contrast types[edit]

The earliest known reverse contrast typeface dates to about 1821. It was created by the H.W. Caslon company in London, presumably as a parody of the crisp, high-contrast "Didone" typefaces and lettering of the period.[5][8][27][28][29][30] A caps-only design, the foundry's steel master punches survive in the collection of the St Bride Library, London.[5][f]

The Caslon company called the type 'Italian'. Several display types at the time received exotic names: around the same time, 'Egyptian' was applied to sans- (and then slab-) serif types and 'Antique' to slab-serifs; this became increasingly common later in the century as more fanciful display faces were made.[25][31] Nicolete Gray was prepared to believe that it was "probably" Italian in origin, however she was influenced by the French writer on printing Francis Thibaudeau, who claimed in his 1921 book La Lettre d'Imprimerie that the style appeared in France during the First French Empire (1804–1814/15), before its first appearance in Britain.[31][32] Shields (2008) rejects Thibaudeau's claim: "Thibaudeau seems alone...and does not credit any French foundry with this type's origination. In my investigation so far I have found no evidence of examples earlier than Caslon & Catherwood's...the first French specimen with a confirmed date is Laurent & Deberny's 1835 broadside".[7] Reverse-contrast designs do slightly resemble capitalis rustica writing from Ancient Rome, which also has emphatic horizontal serifs at top and bottom, although this may be a coincidence.[33] Other names such as Egyptian were also used.[8][34]

Regarding design, the Caslon Italian typeface is very clearly "conceptual" in design, deliberately taking aspects of the fat face and one by one inverting them; Nick Sherman comments that it "shows a very literal approach to reversing stroke weight, so thicks become thin and thins become thick."[10][35] It has very thick serifs, so the gap between the serifs and the main strokes making up the letters is very small, as can be seen on letters such as 'E' and 'S'. To make the effect even more shocking, the triangular serifs were inverted (becoming thinner as they met the letter, not thicker), and the thicker line on the 'A' was moved from its normal position on the right (the natural position matching the handwriting of a right-handed writer) to the left, making a letter that seems to have been drawn the wrong way round. Writing for Print magazine, Paul Shaw described it as "one of the most bizarre slab serif types of the 19th century."[36][g] Barnes and Schwartz describe it as "perverse [but] done with sureness and confidence."[5]

Within a few years of their introduction the printer and social reformer Thomas Curson Hansard had described them as "typographic monstrosities":

Fashion and Fancy commonly frolic from one extreme to another. To the razor-edged fine lines and serifs of [Didone] type...a reverse [of sans and slab serifs] has succeeded...the property of which is, that the strokes which form the letters are all of one uniform thickness! After this, who would have thought that further extravagance could have been conceived? It remains, however, to be stated, that the ingenuity of one founder has contrived a type in which the natural shape is reversed, by turning all the serifs and fine strokes into fats, and the fats into leans. Oh! sacred shades of [eminent typefounders of the past] Moxon and van Dijck, of Baskerville and Bodoni! What would ye have said of the typographic monstrosities here exhibited [shown], which Fashion in our age has produced?[38]

In contrast, Walter Tracy described the design in 1986 as "a jeu d’esprit, not meant to be judged in conventional aesthetic terms."[39][40]

The design was apparently successful, since it rapidly spread to the United States and elsewhere.[7] For example, the George Bruce company of New York displays Caslon's Italian (or a close copy) in its 1828 specimen book.[1] Many versions of similar design were released, both as metal and as wood type.[41][h] Expansions of the concept included italic faces, confusingly called "Italian Italic", backslanted and sans-serif versions.[7]

Peter Biľak's Karloff is a sophisticated revival of the original reverse-contrast faces designed partly through mathematical interpolation. Biľak's group digitally inverted the contrast of a conventional Didone font: this allowed Biľak to create a family of normal and matching reverse-contrast fonts with upper- and lower-case, together with a low-contrast slab serif design, all with the same basic structure. These have been released as Karloff Positive, Negative and Neutral, the name referring to Boris Karloff.[8][30][45][46] Village Type's Arbor like Karloff adds a lower-case, while Match & Kerosene's Slab Sheriff is caps-only, with a 'A' featuring the conventional stress on the right.[47][48] A revival with extremely high contrast is Kris Sowersby's Maelstrom.[49][50][35] Other unreleased revivals have reportedly been made for private use by Paul Barnes and Justin Howes.[40][51]

French Clarendon[edit]

French Clarendon type (top) compared to a conventional Clarendon design.
Original French Clarendon wood type, showing its highly condensed design.
French Clarendon type on a 1914 poster from Ljubljana.

The reverse-contrast idea fused with a separate genre of slab-serif face, known as Clarendons. In the mid to late nineteenth century, it became popular for type foundries to offer reverse-contrast variants of Clarendon, a popular slab serif type genre, especially in the United States, creating large block serifs at the top and bottom of the letter. This was known as "French Clarendon" type.[52][53] The advantage of French Clarendon type was that it allowed very large, eye-catching serifs while the letters remained narrow, suiting the desire of poster-makers for condensed but very bold type.[54] French Clarendon designs were often created in wood type, used for large-print letters on posters. They are often associated with "wild-west" printing and seen on circus posters and wanted notices in western movies, although the style was really used in many parts of the world during this period. The style is sometimes called 'circus letter'.[9][52] The practice was less popular with more artisanal printers: DeVinne commented in 1902 that "To be hated, it needs but to be seen."[34] In Europe the style was sometimes called Italienne, matching the Caslon name. In contrast to the original Caslon type, which features horizontals in the middle of the letter (like the cross-bar in the H) that are often but not always thick, French Clarendon types have the only thick lines at the top and botton, and all inner horizontals thin, and are generally less "conceptually" reverse-contrast, with serifs in a more conventional alignment apart from the thick strokes at top and bottom.[33]

Although Bodoni and Didot fuelled their designs with the calligraphic practices of their time, they created new forms that collided with typographic tradition and unleashed a strange new world, where the structural attributes of the letter-serif and stem, thick and thin strokes, vertical and horizontal stress-would be subject to bizarre experiments...Fonts of astonishing height, width and depth appeared: expanded, contracted, shadowed, inlined, fattened, faceted and floriated. Serifs abandoned their role as finishing details to become independent architectural structures, and the vertical stress of traditional letters canted in new directions.[55]

Ellen Lupton

David Shields reports that the first type of the genre is the "French Antique" face of Robert Besley & Co. (which had released and copyrighted the first Clarendon face) in an 1854 specimen.[7] The University of Texas at Austin, which maintains a large archive of American wood type, reports that the first known wood French Clarendon type was issued by William Hamilton Page in 1865.[56][57] Their collection shows the many other names used for wood type which display reverse-contrast characteristics, including 'Celtic', 'Belgian', 'Aldine' and 'Teutonic', as well as Italian again and sometimes 'Tuscan' or 'Etruscan' also.[58][59][i] (At the time a separation did not fully exist between genre names and typeface names, so these may be the names of individual types, or if they proved popular the name of the subgenre they created.[25][60]) At least one sans-serif typeface with reverse contrast was developed in this period.[61]

A variety of more modern adaptations have been made of the style, including Robert Harling's Playbill (1938) and more recently Adrian Frutiger's Westside, URW++'s Zirkus and Bitstream's P. T. Barnum.[33][53][62][63]

Writing on why he created a design in the genre, Frutiger, a designer better-known for his work in the sans-serif genre, commented:

As a type designer I wanted to draw something in every style. It's a matter of professional pride...I found the existing Italiennes with their big feet too harsh and strict...the fine curves in the serifs give Westside its own expression. A text set in this typeface looks like a weaving pattern...I really enjoyed drawing it. For one thing it was great fun.[33]

Frutiger decided to return to the Caslon type's pattern of all horizontals being thick apart from those on 'a' and 'e', which he felt could not be fitted into this system.

Modern reverse-contrast types[edit]

Because of their quirky, hand-made design, lighter versions of the French Clarendon style were popular for uses such as film posters in the 1950s and '60s.[64]

A well-reviewed modernisation of the style has been Trilby by David Jonathan Ross, who has written and lectured on the history of the genre.[65][66] Released by Font Bureau, it is reminiscent of Clarendon revivals from the 1950s. It attempts to adapt the style to use in a much wider range of settings, going so far as to be usable for text.[67][68][69][70] Bigfish is another modernisation inspired by lettering, in which the thickest stress is at the top.[71] Some other adaptations have preserved the concept but changed genre, presenting sans-serif or script typefaces in the same style.[11][64][65][72] Antique Olive of 1966 by Roger Excoffon is a well-known sans-serif design with subtle reverse-contrast aspects, particularly visible in its ultra-bold 'Nord' style, while Signo is a sans-serif reverse-contrast design from 2015.[73][74]


  1. ^ The fat face design is Elephant by Matthew Carter, a modern revival of the genre.[4]
  2. ^ This was not the only way in which fonts could appear different, however: differences in x-height, spacing, condensation and colour on the page can make body text fonts look different in design even if individual letters are not that different.
  3. ^ Rockwell is actually from the 1930s, but early slab-serif typefaces were very similar.[14]
  4. ^ Some elements of what became transitional typefaces appeared from the very late seventeenth century, as lettering and from the groundbreaking Romain du Roi alphabet of the French crown, but generally typefounders stayed using typefaces of conservative design into the eighteenth century.
  5. ^ Didone types were at the time called 'modern' for their sophisticated image; the name has fallen from use as they have become less common in body text from around the end of the nineteenth century.
  6. ^ Barnes and Schwartz show images of surviving punches for the Five Lines Pica size from the 1830s, which was not the first size to be released.[5]
  7. ^ Slab-serif letterforms were new at the time. The earliest dated example is woodblock lettering on an 1810 advertisement from London, then a series of fonts from Vincent Figgins of c. 1817.[37]
  8. ^ Other digitised specimen books of the period showing Italians are Caslon 1841,[42] Bruce 1869,[43] Boston, 1880.[44]
  9. ^ The defining feature of 'Tuscan' fonts is that they have diamond points protruding from the letter and/or ornate serifs, but some were reverse-contrast also.[55]


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