Epicene design information

Epicene Text & Display are Baroque typefaces inspired by the work of two 18th century maestros: J-F. Rosart and J.M. Fleischmann. Typographically, Epicene’s exaggerated details add rigour at small sizes and vigour at large sizes. Culturally, Epicene says one thing: typefaces have no gender.

6,565 words by Kris Sowersby

The rivals

Jacques-François Rosart (1714–1777) and Johann Michael Fleischmann (1707–1768) were very good typeface designers active in the Low Countries during the 18th century.¹ During their careers they both made fonts for Joh. Enschedé, the renowned Dutch type foundry started by Izaak and Johannes Enschedé.

I’ll use the contemporary term “typeface designer” instead of the more accurate “punchcutter”.

Johann Michael Fleischmann. Portrait by Cornelis van Noorde, 1769. Rijksmuseum.

Jacques-François Rosart. Portrait by Cornelis van Noorde, 1759. Rijksmuseum.

Izaak Enschedé. Rijksmuseum.

Johannes Enschedé. Rijksmuseum.

Fleischmann was born in Germany and moved to Amsterdam in 1728. He worked for a few foundries before opening his own in 1735. He struggled to run the business side of the foundry, so Rudolf Wetstein took over and Fleischmann continued as the foundry punchcutter. After Wetstein died in 1742 his son sold the company to Izaak Enschedé of Haarlem, forming the nucleus of Enschedé’s type-founding business.

Three years previously, Rosart settled in Haarlem and set up as a type founder. He too struggled for a few years, but his luck soured considerably when Enschedé bought the Wetstein foundry and shipped their stock — and Fleischmann — to Haarlem. “That meant installing in Haarlem itself the most formidable competition for Rosart — that of Fleischmann, who had cut the best of the Wetstein material, and who for a further twenty-five years was to be the chief collaborator of the house of Enschedé.”² Business got worse for Rosart: his request to set up a printing office was rejected by the local Guild, Enschedé’s success overshadowed his, he couldn’t pay his mortgage, he cast seals to repay loans. He even sold punches to another foundry — the equivalent of “giving up all rights and depriving oneself of all possible profits from a typeface”.³ In 1752 he sold his foundry, by 1756 “Enschedé swore only by Fleischmann. Their firm was now the most important, not only in Haarlem, but in the country.”. In 1759 Rosart quit Amsterdam, sold his remaining stock and moved to Brussels.

Fernand Baudin and Netty Hoeflake, “The type specimen of Jacques-François Rosart, Brussels, 1768 – a facsimile”, (1973): 19.

Ibid, pp21.

Ibid, pp25.

Rosart had a bitter, one-sided rivalry with Fleischmann. His work was considered “inferior” by the owners of Enschedé. There are recorded instances of their disdain and criticism of his work, despite commissioning him to cut fonts. “He thought, rightly or wrongly, that the Enschedé’s treated him shabbily and unduly favoured his rival, Fleischmann.”

D.B. Updike, Printing Types, Their History, Forms and Use, Vol.2 (1927): 40.

During their careers both Rosart and Fleischmann cut fonts for all sizes. For my money, Rosart’s best fonts were for large sizes, Fleischmann’s for small. Enschedé agreed, where “types for small bodies were concerned, they gave the orders to their own punchcutter, Fleischmann, but for large types they went to Rosart.”

Harry Carter, Netty Hoeflake, Typefoundries in the Netherlands, (1978): 245. Budding type designers: I would highly recommend buying this specimen. It’s not expensive and has letterpress prints of original, historic type.

Fleischmann for small sizes

Fleischmann’s Nº 76, “A Selection of Type From Six Centuries In Use At The Office Of Joh. Enschedé en Zonen…” (1930).

Fleischmann’s Nº 58, “A Selection of Type From Six Centuries In Use At The Office Of Joh. Enschedé en Zonen…” (1930).

Fleischmann’s Nº 68, “A Selection of Type From Six Centuries In Use At The Office Of Joh. Enschedé en Zonen…” (1930).

Fleischmann made the first typeface specifically marketed for newspapers, the Bourgeois Roman Nº 76, cut in 1745. This typeface exemplifies formal construction qualities now known as goût Hollandois, the “Dutch taste”. This means letterforms that are darker and narrower compared to preceeding types like Garamond. They have a large x-height with short ascenders and descenders. Their thrifty construction meant more words per line, saving money on the printing press. Fleischmann didn’t start the trend, he was “only continuing the fashion of the school in which he was trained”.

Over the years I’ve read that Fleischmann’s fonts “sparkle” on the page, or they’re “blobby” and “organic”. I don’t see them this way. They feel refined and “baroque”, for want of a better expression. It’s easy to understand their economy through the lens of goût Hollandois, but that’s a dry, technical observation. Fleischmann’s types feel very deliberate and focussed. There’s a cheekiness to them, a sly wink manifested in small details. Large ball terminals harmonise with bold punctuation, the hint of a lachrymal terminal in the bowl of p, the bowls of b d which are smaller than the x-height, ¹⁰ the happy little y and full-tailed t. Taut linework and generous curves tie it all together for some of the best text types ever designed.

Alternatively, A.F. Johnson suggests of goût Hollandois that “the earliest designs to be cut were large sizes intended for use in preliminaries, a fact which suggests that economy of space was not the controlling motive. German printers preferred the new style because they thought in terms of fraktur”. A. F. Johnson, Selected Essays on Books and Printing, “The Goût Hollandois”, (1970): 373.

Ibid, 376.

A typographic term for a “tear drop shape”. Isn’t it lovely? You can add that to your word-of-the-day list.

I’ve always wondered about this. I assume it’s on purpose, but what was his purpose? Shortening ascenders but preserving optical length? Maybe he was just copying Garamond et al.

Fleischmann’s Nº 69, “A Selection of Type From Six Centuries In Use At The Office Of Joh. Enschedé en Zonen…” (1930).

Fleischmann’s Nº 57, “A Selection of Type From Six Centuries In Use At The Office Of Joh. Enschedé en Zonen…” (1930).

Fleischmann’s italics are superb. They’ve captivated me for decades, and I only recently felt confident to do them justice. They’re fast, fluid and dense on the page. It feels like they’ve been written in ink. The curves and stroke ends swell ever so slightly, leaving a subtle impression of ink pooling naturally where a pen slows down. The overall effect is controlled dynamics, a true italic masterclass.

Fleischmann, Dubbelde. “Typefoundries in the Netherlands”, (1978).

Fleischmann, Blackletter. “Typefoundries in the Netherlands”, (1978).

Fleischmann, Blackletter. “Typefoundries in the Netherlands”, (1978).

Fleischmann, Dubbelde. “Typefoundries in the Netherlands”, (1978).

Fleischmann’s standout feature are scalloped serifs on E F L T Z. They’re unique and captivating. I hesitate to say unprecedented — my knowledge isn’t that deep. But they’re certainly rare, the scalloped form hasn’t travelled through the subsequent centuries. I wonder where, exactly, the scallop comes from. The remaining capitals are perfectly serviceable, and the C S G terminals are harmonious but not exactly the same. I’m tempted to speculate they were influenced by his blackletter fonts, resonant with florid details. He cut many styles during his career, including roman and blackletter fonts. I assume some of these were executed in parallel — the cross-pollination of details may have been irresistible.

Regardless, they harmonise beautifully with other details in a body of text. Under magnification they’re obvious, but at normal viewing distance they remain subtle and add to the distinct atmosphere. Ironically, at larger sizes the scallops become obvious and awkward. Perhaps this is what Enschedé sensed, and why they hired Rosart to cut large sizes.

Rosart for large sizes

Rosart’s Nº 780, “A Selection of Type From Six Centuries In Use At The Office Of Joh. Enschedé en Zonen…” (1930).

And he did not disappoint. The bigger his capitals got, the better they got. Rosart refined his scalloped serifs, making the terminals sharp and elegant. They harmonise better with C G S. Big curves in B D G O P have a constructed, geometric feel. Like they’ve been drawn, rather than written. His standout capitals are A and R. The unapologetic stance of A with the scooped apex, wide serifs and high crossbar is a statement all in itself. The leg of R sways down gently, terminating in a long sharp point. It’s always reminded me of a kneeling horse — the same combination of power and grace.

Rosart, 2-Line Great Primer. “Typefoundries in the Netherlands”, (1978).

Rosart, Petite Canon Romain. “Typefoundries in the Netherlands”, (1978).

Rosart’s lowercase is less powerful, but there are still moments of baroque beauty and weirdness. The a is all exaggerated curves, a smallish belly making way for a big ball terminal. Arches on h m n u are deep and fluid. The weight stays in the curves slightly longer than it should, adding a subtle horizontal darkness. The e and c are full and round with pointed underbites. The best detail is the lacrymal terminal in the bowls of d and p. Like the scallop, I don’t know where this comes from, but it’s bloody lovely. Sometimes one’s thirst for aesthetic nourishment is quenched by the smallest detail.

Rosart, Italic. “Typefoundries in the Netherlands”, (1978).

Rosart, Italic. “Typefoundries in the Netherlands”, (1978).

Unlike my admiration for Fleischmann’s italics, I struggled with Rosart’s. His italic capitals are great, a good amout of slope and weirdness. The lowercase, though, is badly spaced, awkward and shrill. It’s got a few salvageable details, but it’s surprising how it’s almost the exact opposite of his fluid roman.

Rosart, Two Line Great Primer Roman Nº 783, first state. “Typefoundries in the Netherlands”, (1978).

Rosart, Two Line Great Primer Roman Nº 783, second state. “Typefoundries in the Netherlands”, (1978).

Fleischmann, Two-line English-bodied Black Letter Nº 564. “Typefoundries in the Netherlands”, (1978).

Both men cut superb numerals. They are everything you could wish for: functional, dynamic, interesting. In the second state of Rosart’s Nº 783 you can see a more confident, balanced set of numerals moving towards Fleischmann’s style. Rosart’s long, flat-topped 5 is noteworthy. Fleischmann’s swan-like 2 is particularly graceful. 6 and 9 have powerful, tense stems, contrasting with the fluidity of the other numerals. Rosart put a spur at the end of the horizontal stem in the first state of his 4, aligning it with 2 5 and 7. Fleischmann scallops his 2 and 5. Both missed an opportunity to introduce the scallop to all of them, a natural place to continue the detail.

Despite the bitterness of their rivalry, they shared a similar sweetness in their work. Epicene is not a straight revival of any of Fleischmann or Rosart’s fonts. Rather I’ve reconciled details from across their body of work, integrating gestures and forms into a cohesive whole.

Reconciliation

Rosart Nº 780.

Epicene Display Medium.

Epicene Text Medium.

Fleischmann Nº 70.

My first task was re-thinking the scalloped serifs. Each man’s approach only worked for a few capitals at specific sizes. I needed something that would adapt to small and large sizes, work across all the capitals, numerals and — if possible — lowercase. The solution takes the smooth inner curve from Rosart and the sharp outer scallop from Fleischmann.

It works well to preserve the fierce dynamics of Rosart and the florid charm of Fleischmann. Happily, it adapted beautifully to the deeper character set, including accents and numerals. Even thought it’s quite an obvious detail, it disappears somewhat in small sizes in Epicene Text, adding to the general texture and atmosphere in a paragraph.¹¹

This is a similar optical effect I observed in Signifier: the sharpness is obvious large, but subsumed when small.

Black: Rosart / grey: Epicene Display.

Black: Rosart / grey: Epicene Display.

Black: Rosart / grey: Epicene Display.

Black: Rosart / grey: Epicene Display.

Black: Rosart / grey: Epicene Display.

Black: Rosart / grey: Epicene Display.

Black: Rosart / grey: Epicene Display.

Black: Rosart / grey: Epicene Display.

Like balloons floating near a thorny rose bush, Rosart’s letterforms have a tension between generous curves and sharp points. He understood implicitly what display types were for. Large letterforms are allowed to perform, they only have a small obligation to function. In other words, they’re designed to be seen, rather than read. Epicene Display takes some of Rosart’s letterforms verbatim, but all of their gestalt.

Fleischmann.

Epicene Text.

Fleischmann’s Nº 58, “A Selection of Type From Six Centuries In Use At The Office Of Joh. Enschedé en Zonen…” (1930).

Epicene Text Regular.

Epicene Text was deliberately blunter than Fleischmann’s cuts. Digital environments can amplify sharpness, and that’s not what I wanted. The essence of Fleischmann’s work is the balance between exaggeration, style and function. His individual details flirt with parody, but remain cohesive as a set. Epicene’s ball terminals spiral in more, triangular serifs are scooped, ascenders are slightly longer because printed-page economy is no longer a contemporary consideration. Aspects of the goût Hollandois remain in the slight narrowness, but are evened out across the character set. Note the variation in widths, compare Fleischmann’s wide o to n.

Black: Fleischmann. Grey: Epicene Text Light Italic.

Black: Fleischmann. Grey: Epicene Text Light Italic.

Black: Fleischmann. Grey: Epicene Text Light Italic.

Black: Fleischmann. Grey: Epicene Text Light Italic.

Fleischmann Nº 69.

Epicene Text Light Italic.

Epicene Text style and weight range.

Epicene Text italics are about as close to facsimile that I’ve ever come. You’d think copying/restoring/reviving would be the easier option, but this was painfully difficult. I kept wondering, “what would Fleischmann think?” Natural, but ultimately fruitless because the dead don’t think anything. What really matters is what I want, not the imaginary approval of Fleischmann. Like Rosart, I wanted to capture his gestalt, but to make sure it worked across the weight range.

Black: Rosart. Grey: Epicene Display Light Italic.

Black: Rosart. Grey: Epicene Display Light Italic.

Black: Rosart. Grey: Epicene Display Light Italic.

Black: Rosart. Grey: Epicene Display Light Italic.

Rosart.

Epicene Display Light Italic.

My first instinct was to make display versions of Fleischmann’s italics, which failed. I resolved to embrace the Rosart style I didn’t like, perhaps it was possible to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. It’s worked for me before,¹² but this time it was much harder. I looked past the bad spacing to identify a few key glyphs and gestures to set a new course. The fast fluid curves of m and n, start deep and ascend quickly. Like Rosart’s romans, they keep the weight in the arch longer. Their sharp entry and exit strokes flick in and out, almost closing in on themselves. The counter of o is clean and squarish, showing the “Transitional” influence. This was enough to set the foundation. Rosart’s a b d p q bowls look sad and deflated. I took the fluidity of m and the cleanliness of o to bring them back to life. Sprightly moments like Y and z were kept for vitality.

Domaine and Domaine Sans both tackled styles I didn’t like, but now do.

Transitional influence

Renaissance, 15th & 16th centuries. (Heldane Display).

Baroque, 17th century. (Epicene Display).

Neoclassical, 17th century. (Big Moore, Carter & Cone).

Romantic, 18th and 19th centuries. (Le Jeune, Commercial Type).

But what exactly do I mean by transitional influence? Fonts from this era are usually classified into the Transitional genre.¹³ It’s a hybrid of chronology and style, a “transitional” point between Garamond (Garalde/Renaissance) and Bodoni (Modern/Romantic). It’s a broad term, covering about 350 years. Stylistically, the Transitional genre represents letterforms moving away from humanist, pen-influenced diagonal stress towards a more rational, geometric construction and vertical stress. It’s the mid point between writing letters with a pen and drawing letters with a ruler and compass.¹⁴

At the time of writing, ATypI was formally de-adoptingthe Vox-ATypI typeface classification. Typeface classification is a thorny topic, seemingly defying consensus for decades now.

The chapter “Enlightenment origins” in Modern Typography details the influence of the Romain du Roi, the first planned/drawn typeface.

The usual Transitional exemplar is Baskerville, made at a similar time to Rosart and Fleischmann’s fonts. It’s easy to see it as a mid-way point between Garamond and Bodoni. Baskerville is a beautiful, but bloodless typeface. This highlights one of the problems of typeface classification: combining style and era into the same category is a double-edged sword. It describes the construction but not the spirit. Robert Bringhurst’s classification into art-historical groupings is a bit more useful here, but still flawed.¹⁵ He considers Baroque as an era and as a style.¹⁶ Rosart and Fleischmann’s work can be classified as transitional, they’re drifting away from calligraphy towards geometry. But, unlike Baskerville, they’re exuberant, detailed and flourished. They feel warm and alive, while being extremely functional. This is the key to understanding them: they’re an intoxicating mix of function and form. They’re the Bacchanalian orgy to Baskerville’s tea party.

It gets weird: “Elegiac Postmodernsim? Geometric Postmodernism?” Once you decide to use art historical classification it's easy to paint yourself into a corner. Robert Bringhust, “The Elements of Typographic Style”, (2001): 12–15, 119-136.

Bringhurst categorises Fleischmann as “Rococo”, but it seems like a category made specifically for his work alone.

But the orgy didn’t last. What happened? Why didn’t they become a genre, like Bodoni? Was the scalloped serif simply too idiosyncratic? Why aren’t Rosart and Fleischmann default fonts in our operating systems like Baskerville, Garamond and Caslon? The eminent, opinionated typographic historian D.B. Updike explains:¹⁷

D.B. Updike, Printing Types, Their History, Forms and Use, Vol.2 (1927): 42.

Mr Enschedé, speaking of this period, says that “the taste of the public changed, and in a manner which one could not approve of. The art of the type-founder retrograded from all points of view… The French Revolution, which overturned so entirely the old order of things, brought nothing in better in place of it to our art, and the assortment of types by Fleischmann… became, as if by enchantment, old-fashioned, after the foundation of the Batavian Republic, and had to give place to characters of a more modern cut… The name Fournier, formerly so well known among us, had already been eclipsed at this period by that of Didot. What Fleischmann had formerly been [to Dutch type-founding] Didot was at that Epoch”. There was not a single foundry which did not try to advertise itself by Didot types or copies of them, and this was the case not only in Holland, but in Germany and indeed all throughout Europe.

What Updike describes is a simple change of taste. The late 1700’s were the end of the Baroque era. Art, architecture, sculpture and typography were changing. Rosart and Fleischmann were somewhat forgotten, buried behind a subsequent Cambrian explosion of typographic genres. Writers like Updike were hugely influential in their time. He and other men at the helms of the type industry decided what was good, what was revived and marketed. They were not shy about vocalising their opinions.¹⁸ Updike, for example, is savage towards Flesichmann. In the 1920’s he wrote, “his types are singularly devoid of style, and usually show a drift toward the thinner, weaker typography which was coming in Holland… He uniformly extracted all interest from his fonts, partly through lightening the cut, which gave monotony of colour, and partly by his large, round lower-case letters, made more rolling in effect by shortening the descenders in a very modern way. ”¹⁹

They’d take to Twitter like rats up a drainpipe.

Ibid, p 37–38.

Criticism from typographic heavyweights continues near the end of the century. Harry Carter, usually effusive in his Fleischmann praise, wrote “it was an exercise in making a Fleischmann out of a Kis, turning the humane and literate schoolmaster from Kolozsvár into the accurate drudge from Nuremberg”.²⁰ Robin Kinross writes generally of Fleischmann, “[it] shows characteristic “Dutch” features of that time: lateral condensation and a slightly ungainly purposefulness.”²¹ John A. Lane comments that “his romans lack the staid majesty and subtle curves” of John Baskerville’s delicate typefaces of the same period. James Mosley wrote that “Fleischmann was undoubtedly a virtuoso punchcutter, even though there is something rather arid about his hard, angular types.”

Harry Carter, A Tally of Types (1999): 120.

Robin Kinross, Modern typography, (2004): 188.

I disagree with all of them for different reasons. Updike is plain wrong, Fleischmann’s types are all style with substance and presence. Mosley must see something I don’t, his types are hard but far from arid. They’re fleshy and visceral, you can almost see the blood coursing through their veins. Lane’s comparison to Baskerville’s “subtle curves” is a self-defeating argument: the Baroque was not about subtlety. And despite the problems of art-historical typographic categorisation, we must consider the work of Rosart and Fleischmann as Baroque through and through.

The Baroque

Giovanni Baglione, “Sacred Love and Profane Love”, (1602).

François Boucher, “La Toilette de Vénus”, (1751).

Caravaggio, “ The Entombment of Christ”, (1603–04).

Peter Paul Rubens, “The Four Continents”, (c. 1615).

Baroque painting, sculpture and architecture revelled in drama, detail, contrast and movement to achieve a sense of awe. It was used by the Catholic Church to communicate the sublime power of God, and by nobility to communicate the financial power of man. Baroque painting emphasises and dramatises, but not into caricature. We see clearly the human form and poses in paintings, they’re not distorted, but exaggerated.

Much like posthumous criticism of Fleischmann, the Baroque era was also savaged. The name “Baroque” itself was a pejorative term. The brilliant art historian E. H. Gombrich explains:²²

E. H. Gombrich, “The Story of Art”, (Pocket edition, 2006): 329.

Baroque really means absurd or grotesque, and it was used by men who insisted that the forms of classical buildings should never have been used or combined except in the ways adopted by the Greeks and Romans. To disregard the strict rules of ancient architecture seemed to these critics a deplorable lapse of taste — whence they labelled the style Baroque.

And the Wikipedia entry is full of ancient burns:

The pioneer German art historian and archeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann also condemned the baroque style, and praised the superior values of classical art and architecture. By the 19th century, Baroque was a target for ridicule and criticism. The neoclassical critic Francesco Milizia wrote: “Borrominini in architecture, Bernini in sculpture, Pierre de Cortone in painting… are a plague on good taste, which infected a large number of artists.” In the 19th century, criticism went even further; the British critic John Ruskin declared that baroque sculpture was not only bad, but also morally corrupt… The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) associated the term baroco with “Bizarre and uselessly complicated.”

Willem Kelf, “Still Life with the Drinking-Horn of the Saint Sebastian Archers’ Guild, Lobster and Glasses”, (c. 1653).

Johannes Vermeer, “Het melkmeisje”, (c. 1660).

Gombrich is much more open-minded and nuanced in his understanding of the era. In The Story of Art he reminds us of Baroque’s context in culture and society. He identifies an important discovery of Dutch Baroque painting: “But just as there is great music without words, so there is great painting without an important subject matter”. A painting like Willem Kalf’s Still Life with Drinking-Horn demonstrates his love and mastery of form, textures, harmonies and contrasts. What is essentially fancy 17th century dinnerware chucked on a table with cloth and a lobster is elevated by his Baroque mastery. Gombrich describes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid “like a photographer who deliberately softens the strong contrasts of the picture without blurring the forms, Vermeer mellowed the outlines and yet retained the effect of solidity and firmness. It is this strange and unique combination of mellowness and precision which makes his best paintings unforgettable.”²³

I see the same Baroque mastery in Rosart and Fleischmann’s letterforms. They confidently step away from Garamond towards the fleshy glamour of their own details. They take plain, everyday letters and dial up the drama and contrast with “mellowness and precision”. Compared to their Renaissance predecessors, the curves are bigger and deeper with a sense of bodily fullness. Scalloped serifs are exaggerated and precise, italics crackle with sprightly Baroque energy.

Ibid, p 329.

Notes on camp

Hyacinthe Rigaud, “Portrait of Louis XIV”, (c. 1700)

RuPaul, photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vogue (2019).

In Susan Sontag’s groundbreaking essay Notes on “Camp”, she identifies the Baroque as a high period of camp.²⁴ She suggests camp can’t be explicitly defined, but characteristics can be identified. Her essay is a list, and for Nº14 she writes:

Susan Sontag, “Notes on “Camp“”, Partisan Review, 4, (1964): 515–530.

Still, the soundest starting point seems to be the late 17th and early 18th century, because of that period’s extraordinary feeling for artifice, for surface, for symmetry; its taste for the picturesque and the thrilling, its elegant conventions for representing instant feeling and the total presence of character — the epigram and the rhymed couplet (in words), the flourish (in gesture and in music). The late 17th and early 18th century is the great period of Camp…

Ever since Sontag elucidated a vocabulary for camp, drag has slowly but surely become mainstream. Camp is an essential element of drag. In true baroque fashion, drag queens typically exaggerate and dramatise female gender signifiers. What is superficially a playful gesture is fundamentally a critique of socially-constructed ideas of sexual identity and gender norms.

During 2021 I regularly drove past a massive billboard for RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under. I wondered if this would have been possible in Aotearoa New Zealand 10 or 30 years ago? Would such a staunch, camp display of sexuality and gender been acceptable? I grew up in a culture underpinned by binary gender roles enforced by toxic masculinity. Once you know what you’re looking for, it’s not hard to see. And I see it in design and typography.

Theodore low De Vinne was and remains a respected figure in the type canon. In 1892 he gave a talk at a printers convention, eventually published as Masculine Printing. He kicks it off with:

I call masculine printing that is noticeable for its readability, for its strength and absence of useless ornament. I call feminine all printing that is noticeable for its delicacy, and for the weakness that always accompanies delicacy, as well as for its profusion of ornamentation.

Twenty years later, during the ascendency of modernism, Adolf Loos delivered his famous lecture: Ornament and Crime. It was subsequently published and taken seriously as a manifesto for the new style. Loos wrote his polemic during the height of Art Nouveau in Austria. Like earlier criticisms of the Baroque being “morally corrupt”, Loos claimed ornament “immoral” and “degenerate”. An insidious picture starts to emerge: ornament is feminine, weak, useless, corrupt, degenerate.

These primitive attitudes still permeate design thinking and conversation. Despite the good work done by many institutions and organisations to achieve gender parity and let the air out of stereotypes, they still linger on. Most recently in my orbit, Josie Young wrote about it in her post Gendered language in design.²⁵ A creative director invoking “too masculine” to describe a logo isn’t new, but that’s the point. “Most of us have been raised in a binary world of blues and pinks“ writes Young, “so when it comes to describing the work we’re doing, of course we fall into those familiar patterns.” These familiar patterns are not benign. The masculine/feminine binary is corrosive for everyone because, “in a patriarchy, masculinity is considered superior to femininity.”²⁶

Josie Young, “Gendered language in design”, 28 April 2021. Retrieved June 29 2021.

Lisa Wade, “We’re Only Protecting Them From Themselves”, 28 January 2010.

Arbitrary gendering

JeongMee Yoon, Jake and His Blue Things, (2006).

JeongMee Yoon, from The Pink and Blue Project.

JeongMee Yoon, Noelle and Her Pink & Purple Things, (2006).

Around the time Loos declared ornament criminal, colour started to be gendered for children. Before it settled into the girl-pink/boy-blue binary noted by Young, the opposite was suggested. “The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger colour, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”²⁷ It wasn’t until the 1940’s American retailers settled on the current arrangement. The baby boomers were the first generation raised in “gender-specific” clothing. The marketing industry figured out arbitrary colour gendering and personalisation shifted more units.

It’s mildly amusing to read pink-strong-boy/blue-dainty-girl, because we’re so embedded in the opposite. Marketing switched the colours but kept the gendered language and stereotypes. As a kid I remember the burning shame of wearing my favourite pink sweatshirt, only to be chastised that “pink is a girl’s colour”. It was repeated like a fact, but it’s simply an arbitrary decision made in the 40’s parroted by boys in the 90’s desperate to be “real men”.

Jeanne Maglaty, When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?, (April 2011).

Have you wondered what gendered icons look like,²⁸ or if your website is accidentally sexist?²⁹ The tragedy with these well-meaning articles intending to “smash the patriarchy” is they’re founded on the very stereotypes they’re trying to dispel. Saying “masculine” icons have “straight, sharp edges” and “feminine” icons have “smooth, curved lines” plays right into the original binary. Describing fonts with the same qualities is no better:

Orana Velarde. “What is Gender-Neutral Design?”, 05 November 2017.

Saw Charman-Anderson, “Is Your Website Accidentally Sexist?”, 20 December 2017.

Studies show that we make consistent judgements about whether a typeface is masculine or feminine: Masculine typography has a square or geometric form with hard corners and edges, and is emphatically either blunt or spiky. Serif fonts are also considered masculine, as is bold type and capitals. Feminine typography favours slim lines, curling or flowing shapes with a lot of ornamentation and embellishment, and slanted letters. Sans-serif, cursive and script fonts are seen as feminine, as are lower case letters.

Perhaps they’re referencing such studies as Communicating brand gender through type fonts³⁰ or All Dressed up with Something to Say: Effects of Typeface Semantic Associations on Brand Perceptions and Consumer Memory.³¹ These studies reassure marketing departments that “font categories are easily identifiable and distinguishable, and consist of numerous individual type fonts that managers can use to communicate brand gender.” But they’re flawed with arbitrary choices, like:

Bianca Grohmann, “Communicating brand gender through type fonts”, (2014).

Terry L. Childers, Jeffrey Jass, “All Dressed up with Something to Say: Effects of Typeface Semantic Associations on Brand Perceptions and Consumer Memory”, Journal of Consumer Psychology, Vol. 12, No. 2 (2002): 93-106.

The control serif font was chosen because serif fonts are perceived as ‘all purpose’… and thus not associated with femininity or masculinity.

This directly contradicts the previous statement that “serif fonts are also considered masculine.” So what’s it gonna be? Please tell me, studies! Are serifs masculine or feminine? Perhaps, like colours, the gendering is utterly arbitrary. Perhaps showing a bunch of people stereotypes, noting their response and re-promoting the stereotypes simply reinforces the stereotypes into a self-sustaining feedback loop of bullshit?

And if it’s not studies, then we can rely on our Freudian subconscious. We’re reminded of immutable font genders in mid-90’s mainstream typography marketing books, like Branding with Type:³²

Rögener, Pool, Packhäuser, “Branding with Type”, (1995): 18.

The subconscious knows if a typeface is masculine, and which script faces signal individuality, wildness, or tenderness. It knows that type with fanciful loops means luxury and that finely made letters reflect the delicate form of a woman.

MyFonts “masculine”, “feminine” and “girly” font tag results.

Creative Market “masculine”, “feminine” and “girly” font tag results.

Since then we’ve moved online to buy and sell fonts. Like the departments stores of the 1940’s, the biggest retailers are more than happy to leverage lazy gendering to move units. Here is what Myfonts tags “masculine” and “feminine”.³³ For bonus cringe, here’s “girly”. Creative Market isn’t much better: masculine, feminine, girly. Linotype’s delightful blurbs dig further, Impakt is “an ideal choice when a commanding, masculine effect is required”, and Etica “successfully combines masculine force with female delicacy”. They’ve even gendered temperature. Veto “tends to be considered a cool and slightly masculine font that is more closely related to Frutiger® than to the warm and more feminine appearing Univers®.”

Some enterprising souls are capitalising by tagging their fonts with both or all tags. Does this suggest the system is somehow flawed? Or is it simply desperation in the face of naked capitalism?

And on it goes. These tags and blurbs are a digital link to De Vinne’s corrosive analog stereotypes. Thankfully this is different era, people are actively discussing and pushing back against gendered language in typography. The first clear, public statement I read was Victoria Rushton’s article on Alphabettes.³⁴ She starts strong: “Here’s the deal with describing type or lettering as feminine or masculine: Don’t.” When Paul Soulellis recently examined the question, “What is queer typography?”, he states:

Victoria Rushton, “Type and Gender Stereotypes”, (September 14 2015). Retrieved June 29 2021.

Alphabettes was started in reaction to a toxic, male-dominated typography forum.

Paul Soulellis, “What is queer typography?”, (May 2021). Retrieved June 29 2021.

Female, male, intersex, trans, personal, non-conforming, and eunich. I don’t think it’s useful to categorize typography this way, to examine or classify type according to gender, or the other way around—this isn’t valuable in today’s discussion about queerness. Gender is not a metaphor.

Describing things as “masculine” or “feminine” in design and typography is historically and culturally loaded. Language is powerful, typography makes language concrete. Language has a shared meaning and heritage. The typographic ancestry of “masculine” and “feminine” traces a direct bloodline to people like De Vinne and Loos. When they write “delicate and light” is feminine, “strong and bold” is masculine, they’re really saying “women are weak, men are strong”. It’s that simple. This language is corrupt and bankrupt in today’s society. Gender shouldn’t be used as a metaphor when better, simpler language is available.

Epicene

The entire Epicene project took about a decade. Despite trying to construct a linear narrative here, it was a messier process. Formal font design and drawing happened in fits and spurts, Baroque art and type history research was sporadic. Reading articles and essays about gender and sexuality in society bubbled alongside everything else, underpinned by my longstanding, but unarticulated sense that gendering fonts (and other things) is wrong.

Sontag’s Notes On “Camp” was the conceptual anchor. It wove together the disparate threads I was working with: baroque, gender, camp and style. Epicene takes its name from Sontag’s essay, specifically point Nº11: “Camp is the triumph of the epicene style.” To be epicene means to lack gender distinction, to have aspects of both or neither. In applying this notion to a typographic context, I am calling out the tendency that codes modern, functional or ‘neutral’ visual forms as ‘masculine’, while equating anything ornate or decorative with ‘feminine’ traits.

The gendering of ornamentation seems borne of cultural amnesia or myopia: decorative fabrics and accessories are commonly worn by both men and women today, especially by non-Europeans; highly-decorated illuminated manuscripts were made when men dominated artistic production; and during the 18th century, lace, leggings, wigs and high heels were worn equally by men and women.

While attentive to history, Epicene is not a revival typeface. It is an experiment in modernising Baroque letterforms without muzzling their ornamental idiosyncrasy nor falling into the trap of gender codifications. It’s a firm statement that fonts have no gender.

All fonts are indeed epicene.

My sincere thanks to Dina Benbrahim for her time, expertise and sharing of gender & typography resources. Thanks to Indra Kupferschmid, Elizabeth Carey Smith and Caren Litherland for their help and guidance. Thanks to Kelvin Soh, Simon Oosterdijk and Paul Gerring for the Epicene campaign.

Further reading

Online articles & resources

Books

Research & studies

Featured fonts

10 styles
10 styles

Notes & references

I’ll use the contemporary term “typeface designer” instead of the more accurate “punchcutter”.

Fernand Baudin and Netty Hoeflake, “The type specimen of Jacques-François Rosart, Brussels, 1768 – a facsimile”, (1973): 19.

Ibid, pp21.

Ibid, pp25.

D.B. Updike, Printing Types, Their History, Forms and Use, Vol.2 (1927): 40.

Harry Carter, Netty Hoeflake, Typefoundries in the Netherlands, (1978): 245. Budding type designers: I would highly recommend buying this specimen. It’s not expensive and has letterpress prints of original, historic type.

Alternatively, A.F. Johnson suggests of goût Hollandois that “the earliest designs to be cut were large sizes intended for use in preliminaries, a fact which suggests that economy of space was not the controlling motive. German printers preferred the new style because they thought in terms of fraktur”. A. F. Johnson, Selected Essays on Books and Printing, “The Goût Hollandois”, (1970): 373.

Ibid, 376.

A typographic term for a “tear drop shape”. Isn’t it lovely? You can add that to your word-of-the-day list.

I’ve always wondered about this. I assume it’s on purpose, but what was his purpose? Shortening ascenders but preserving optical length? Maybe he was just copying Garamond et al.

This is a similar optical effect I observed in Signifier: the sharpness is obvious large, but subsumed when small.

Domaine and Domaine Sans both tackled styles I didn’t like, but now do.

At the time of writing, ATypI was formally de-adoptingthe Vox-ATypI typeface classification. Typeface classification is a thorny topic, seemingly defying consensus for decades now.

The chapter “Enlightenment origins” in Modern Typography details the influence of the Romain du Roi, the first planned/drawn typeface.

It gets weird: “Elegiac Postmodernsim? Geometric Postmodernism?” Once you decide to use art historical classification it's easy to paint yourself into a corner. Robert Bringhust, “The Elements of Typographic Style”, (2001): 12–15, 119-136.

Bringhurst categorises Fleischmann as “Rococo”, but it seems like a category made specifically for his work alone.

D.B. Updike, Printing Types, Their History, Forms and Use, Vol.2 (1927): 42.

They’d take to Twitter like rats up a drainpipe.

Ibid, p 37–38.

Harry Carter, A Tally of Types (1999): 120.

Robin Kinross, Modern typography, (2004): 188.

E. H. Gombrich, “The Story of Art”, (Pocket edition, 2006): 329.

Ibid, p 329.

Susan Sontag, “Notes on “Camp“”, Partisan Review, 4, (1964): 515–530.

Josie Young, “Gendered language in design”, 28 April 2021. Retrieved June 29 2021.

Lisa Wade, “We’re Only Protecting Them From Themselves”, 28 January 2010.

Jeanne Maglaty, When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?, (April 2011).

Orana Velarde. “What is Gender-Neutral Design?”, 05 November 2017.

Saw Charman-Anderson, “Is Your Website Accidentally Sexist?”, 20 December 2017.

Bianca Grohmann, “Communicating brand gender through type fonts”, (2014).

Terry L. Childers, Jeffrey Jass, “All Dressed up with Something to Say: Effects of Typeface Semantic Associations on Brand Perceptions and Consumer Memory”, Journal of Consumer Psychology, Vol. 12, No. 2 (2002): 93-106.

Rögener, Pool, Packhäuser, “Branding with Type”, (1995): 18.

Some enterprising souls are capitalising by tagging their fonts with both or all tags. Does this suggest the system is somehow flawed? Or is it simply desperation in the face of naked capitalism?

Victoria Rushton, “Type and Gender Stereotypes”, (September 14 2015). Retrieved June 29 2021.

Alphabettes was started in reaction to a toxic, male-dominated typography forum.

Paul Soulellis, “What is queer typography?”, (May 2021). Retrieved June 29 2021.

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