Electra

Last year, I had the pleasure of reading Don McKay’s Deactivated West 100, a book of eco-poetic magnificence that I quickly devoured. The beauty of this book extends past its text and into its production – not only is it carefully composed, but its printing and binding is made very intentional. It demands a haptic experience whereby each page is exquisitely textural and packaged under a cover that has indented illustrations. By deliberately choosing Gaspereau Press, a small Canadian publisher for his book, Don McKay is able to pay close attention to the layout and visual organization of his work. At the back, he adds a note:

“Electra was designed for machine composition by the American type designer W.A. Dwiggins (1880-1956) and released by the Mergenthaler Linotype Company in 1935. Although Electra was originally issued with a sloped roman italic, Dwiggins added a cursive italic in 1940 which is preferred by many typographers. This book was set using Adobe’s revival of Electra and its cursive italic” 

Dwiggins is credited with coining the term “graphic designer” in the early 1920s for his work within print but the term did not enter the vernacular until after World War II (Livingston et al.). He worked at Mergenthaler Linotype Company and was in charge of the company’s commercial text efforts – he designed Metro, Electra, and Caledonia to name a few (The Font Bureau).

According to Linotype, Electra has been a “standard book typeface since its release because of its evenness of design and high legibility.” This serif font has weighted tops on straight lower case letters and flat curves on straight stems that resemble trends when handwriting formally and quickly – Dwiggins himself stressed the importance of “warmth” in this particular typeface (Merganthaler). He also criticized the trending sans serif fonts and asserted that “founders should provide ‘a Gothic of good design’ and he mainly put the blame on capitals” (Connare). The creator of Electra put a lot of value on calligraphy and craft, thereby seeing the geometrically based pure and modern designs coming out of Germany in the 1930s as reductive, obscene and unsophisticated.

Electra is a fairly common body typeface for books and has distinct cross strokes on the “t” and “f” letters. It is meant to reflect the modern age of the 1930s and have metallic flicks and sparks associated with it. In addition to a sloped roman font, Dwiggins created a traditional cursive italic later in 1944 that was widely accepted (Connare). The imbalance of top strokes and lower strokes gives pizzazz to Electra whose sharp angles between thin curves and strong stems make the font snappy. 

Up until a few years ago, I had never paid much attention to type, other than ensuring that my paper was 12 point Times New Roman. Then, after reading a treatise on the importance of type by Stephen Fry, I began to pay close attention to the ways fonts are constructed and letters are designed. I learnt that the medium of a message is just as important as the message itself whereby typefaces carry with them different weights (pun intended) and essences. The font of a text highly curates and determines the reading experience as shown by the experiment with Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “Eldorado.” The first stanza is in Euphemia – a simple, sans serif typeface with large spaces that allow for easy legibility, quick consumption and indulgent clarity. Meanwhile, the second stanza in Brush Script is difficult to read and requires more strain from the eyes due to its child-like unevenness. The cursive letters do not have much balance and evoke a much less serious perception of the poem. The Futura and Zapfino stanzas similarly imply different impressions and tones when reading Poe’s piece.

While I have begun to pay more attention to the typefaces presented in posters, advertisements, books, and any other graphics, it is difficult to fully comprehend the impact of different typefaces on my reading experience. There are many subconscious associations made between fonts and previous texts that may unknowingly permeate into my reading experiences. However, I believe it is very neat to appreciate the complexity and history with which typefaces are expressed and employed. For example, the famous World War II British poster that demands “Keep calm and carry on” was hand drawn but subsequently, a font by the name of “Avenir” was created to match that text. On the other hand, all official text and advertisements by the University of Britsh Columbia are printed in the Whitney font – a patented font that UBC has contracted for $15,000. Such contexts may not directly affect the book but definitely enrich experiencing a text.