The need for the creation of Vs. (Versus) arose after serious deliberation over the transcripts of the round table discussion that took place between Nicolas Barker, Matthew Carter, Takis Katsoulidis, Jerome Peignot and Hermann Zapf during the “Greek Letters: From Tablets to Pixels” international conference organized by the Greek Font Society, back in 1996 (ed. Michael S. Macrakis, Oak Knoll Press, New Castle, Delaware). Although this discussion, concerning the history and future of Greek text typefaces, took place nearly 20 years ago, I really believe that, on the one hand, little or no attention has been paid to the resulting conclusions, and, at the same time, the discussion was never formally completed (at least within Greek borders).
Some of the most important and serious issues that surfaced in my mind include the following:
- Is historical typographical purity, which some would call ‘greekness’, still an issue when it comes to Greek typography or have we long gone past that stage of discussion? And if it is still an issue, do we still need to discuss current and ever-changing typographical design trends in advertisement and other ephemeral applications, or is it mainly a text typefaces’ issue?
- Are we done with any improprieties of the past (e.g. the wrong or excessive use of serifs in Greek letters, wrong use of ascenders and descenders, simply copying Latin letters and using them as Greek – e.g. n as η, s as ς, x as χ, z as ζ, etc.) or have we just (for better or worse) learned to live with them? Were they really improprieties and based on what principles were they defined as such? What should our predetermined and objective evaluative criteria be when coping with such improprieties: (a) functionality, (b) historical authenticity of the letterforms, or simply (c) the ability of a typeface to respond to modern design standards and trends? And how should a Greek designer stand against current standards? Should she accept them per se and try to ‘hellenize’ them, or should she try to find ways to incorporate historical authenticity into them?
- Are there degrees of ‘greekness’ and, if so, what could these degrees be (on a scale ranging between a fully ‘latinized’ typeface and a fully ‘hellenized’ one)?
- Can a contemporary, fully ‘hellenized’ typeface actually work in today’s globalized, digital and overly-designed visual landscape, without looking irrelevant or outdated?
- How is it possible that half a millennium since the first Greek typefaces were designed we are still arguing about the basic shapes of Greek letters and whether they are right or wrong, pure or contaminated(!)? Do such arguments have any intrinsic value and what is to be gained from them?
- What does it mean for a typeface to be ‘too Greek’ today? Where does historical authenticity stop and absurdity begin?
- In the long run, is the answer to all the questions raised and discussed 20 years ago concerning the basic form of Greek lowercase letterforms simply ‘Απλά’ (essentially their characteristic ‘non-conformist’ and inconsistent contrast axis and occasional reversed-stress strokes, see Fig. 1 on the pdf specimen) as proposed through the majority of Greek typefaces (if not all) designed mainly by (non-Greek) professional type design studios? And finally, what scope is there today for innovation in the design of contrasted Greek text typefaces?
Versus is a low-contrast text typeface with a vertical axis, whose latin letterforms are influenced –to a lesser or greater degree– by the work of Fleischmann, and other, mostly transitional designs such as: Christian Swartz’s Farnham, Hoefler & Co’s Mercury, Gerard Unger’s Swift, Kris Sowersby’s Newzald, Peter Biľak’s Brioni and Greta, Matthew Carter’s Georgia and Linn Boyd’s Century. The design of the Greek letterforms in Versus however is quintessentially an attempt to cope with some of the aforementioned questions; still, what it eventually succeeds in doing is to raise even more questions:
- Judged by historical standards (primarily the Απλά paradigm), even the use of a strict and consistent vertical or inclined contrast axis in Greek letterforms is inherently wrong. But is this really the case?
- Even though they can be found in historic Greek typefaces e.g. in the work of Bodoni (Fig. 2 on the pdf specimen), purely round or tear-shaped terminals are rare and occur mainly as the result of fluid, dynamic movement, as opposed to being merely decorative elements, as is the case in several corresponding Latin designs. Can such a device, however, actually work as a functional element in Greek letterforms (e.g. as a visual balancing device at the upper right ending of letters γ, δ, κ, ν, ς, υ and ψ – see Versus level 2, p. 9 on the pdf specimen)? And, if so, why should such a practice be considered wrong or to be a form of ‘latinization’?
- The same argument applies to the existence of serifs in Greek letterforms (which are considered to be a ‘latinization’ element). Some would say that these elements serve only a decorative purpose, which is superfluous in the Greek alphabet. However, one could argue that they provide a vital visual balance in certain letterforms or that they enhance text legibility, thus raising the question: can such elements be ignored at the risk of losing any benefits, solely in the name of maintaining purity of form and avoiding ‘latinization’?
Eventually, there are some more practical and urgent issues:
Versus four degrees/levels of "Greekness"
- Are there Greek letters that could be ‘hellenized’ further, and if so, which should these be?
- Should there be more/less degrees of ‘greekness’, and, if so, how could these degrees be distinguished? Could there be, for example, an additional degree on the scale where the strict vertical contrast axis is replaced by an inconsistent, ‘unconventional’ contrast axis, similar to that of Απλά? Would this be the last degree on the scale or should we go even further back in history, to forms based on handwriting (e.g. Les Grecs du Roi, Fig. 3 on the pdf specimen), or go as far back as Byzantine letterforms?
- The typeface is accompanied by an italics variation and a set of small caps, but lacks, however, a heavier weight. These variations are sufficient for use in flowing text (e.g. in literature). The idea, however, is to use the different levels of ‘greekness’, available as OpenType stylistic sets, as a means of creating hierarchy and/or emphasis in a way similar to using heavier weight variants. Can such an approach work effectively, or are the differences between the different degrees of ‘greekness’ too subtle to perform effectively in such a role?
- Eventually, can such an approach to the design of a contemporary Greek text typeface, that provides a variety of Greek styles/degrees of ‘greekness’ instead of weight variants, work? Does it make an interesting and practical point (if at all) or does it have nothing more to add to the discourse regarding Greek typography than simply creating yet another academic hypothesis?