What is the role of binary thinking in Western typography?

In an extract from her new co-authored book Extra Bold, Ellen Lupton breaks down the binary structures of typography.

4 June 2021


Written by Ellen Lupton and Jennifer Tobias, Extra Bold: A Feminist, Inclusive, Anti‑Racist, Nonbinary Field Guide for Graphic Designers, is “part textbook and part comic book, zine, manifesto, survival guide, and self-help manual” for creatives. You can purchase Extra Bold, published by Princeton Architectural Press, here.

Binary categories are under attack. Advocates for racial justice have challenged racial binaries, which marginalise people of colour while enshrining white supremacy. LGBTQIA+ activists are dismantling the male/female polarity, which enforces gender norms and compulsory heterosexuality. Environmentalists are unravelling oppositions such as nature/culture and human/animal, which justify human domination and destruction of the planet. But what is the role of binary thinking in Western typography?

Invented in Germany in the fifteenth century, printing with metal type became the first form of mass production. Mechanised letters hastened changes in religion, science, literature, law, and commerce. The rapid spread of typography coincided with the age of Western colonial conquest and techno-scientific exploitation of the Earth’s resources. Typography – a tool and medium for these world-changing developments – quickly adopted binary structures. All the while, alternative modes of expression have challenged strict polarities.

Consider the opposition of roman and italic. In Western typography, italic type styles are typically viewed as secondary to the roman norm. In semiotics (the theory of signs), this kind of relationship is called marked and unmarked. The unmarked category is the neutral default (roman), while the marked category stands out as an exception (italic).

This opposition has not always existed in typography. During the first century of metal type, roman and italic flourished as separate dialects, unbound by any binary relationship. Early typefaces were based on handwriting styles, each with different purposes and properties. The printer Aldus Manutius worked in the busy commercial city of Venice at the turn of the fifteenth century. He published many beautiful books, including low-cost, small-scale volumes, using an italic typeface designed by Francesco Griffo. These early italics were inspired by casual, cursive scripts that working scribes could write quickly and inexpensively. Griffo’s italic lacked uppercase letters, so roman capitals were inserted where needed. Tall and fluid, Griffo’s italics conserved space, making them a cheaper alternative to the romans used in more deluxe printed books.

By the early sixteenth century, roman text became the norm in many regions, while italics were reserved for emphasis. Type families created by Claude Garamond and other type founders included italics whose x-heights and line weights conformed to the dominant roman style. The typefaces of this era also featured uppercase and lowercase characters in matching styles. These relationships – roman/italic and uppercase/lowercase – became standard components of typography.


Extra Bold: Text adapted from Jonathan Senchyne, The Intimacy of Paper (Copyright © Extra Bold, 2021)

“Designers have multiple tools for marking (or not marking) differences.”

Ellen Lupton

What is an italic letterform, anyway? Is it a mere shadow of its roman master or does it assert its own unique personality? The italic alphabets of Garamond and Caslon are quite distinct from their roman partners, despite having strong family ties. Their strokes are more fluid and relaxed, with lilting serifs leading one letter to the next, while their single-storey a’s and g’s are designed to comfortably accommodate the letters’ narrow proportions and snug spacing.

Sloped or slanted romans take their cues from a roman template. These italic forms are made by tilting the basic roman character, rather than designing a unique yet sympathetic partner. In many sans serif type families, the italic style is called oblique, meaning slanted. Software tools such as Photoshop and InDesign can add a slope to any letter — usually with awkward results.

In traditional typesetting, italics establish contrast with no change in weight. Italic letters (slanted or not) are one way to perform this function; other techniques include underlining, letterspacing or introducing a new typeface altogether.

In Western publishing, foreign words are set in italic unless those borrowed words have become commonplace. For example, in written English, the French words “cliché,” “café” and “cul-de-sac” are usually set in roman, while less familiar phrases, such as pompe a chiasse (diarrhea pump) or sans-couilles (without balls), are set off with italics. Some bilingual writers reject this native/foreign language binary. Dominican American novelist Junot Díaz sets Spanish words in roman rather than mark them as other and thus presume that the typical reader speaks only English.

Designers have multiple tools for marking (or not marking) differences. From commercial printers to champions of the avant-garde, designers have questioned canonical binaries within typography and the broader culture. Serif and sans serif typefaces exist on a spectrum. Letters with horizontal stress are bucking the patriarchy of the vertical. Typefaces built with inconsistent parts have been championed by activists and people with disabilities.

Typography’s strongest binary is black versus white. Many medieval books are multicolour productions, written on vellum writing surfaces that aren’t stark white. According to Jonathan Senchyne, the black/white opposition coincides with the rise of printing. Image and text both expressed this polarity. Wood engravings were produced with type-high blocks, manufactured so that they could print simultaneously with text. Engravings were printed in pure tones of ink – usually black.


Extra Bold: Francesco Griffo, the roman and italic fonts designed in Venice for printer and publisher Aldus Manutius were conceived as separate designs (Copyright © Extra Bold, 2021)

Senchyne writes that ultrawhite paper became the ideal printing surface in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While some printers rebelled against the brilliant tones and hard finishes of state-of-the-art paper manufacturing in favour of softer shades and overall tactility, white paper dominated as a standard of quality. White paper was often compared to a virginal White woman, a pure blank page awaiting the writer’s mark. Printers’ obsession with white paper reinforced White society’s fierce devotion to the Black/White racial binary. The supposed purity of the White race could not withstand a single drop of “Black” blood, just as white paper had to be rigorously defended against smudges of wayward ink.

The eighteenth-century English printer and type founder John Baskerville engineered his own inks and his own paper in order to maximise the contrast between black and white. Although some critics condemned the glittering brilliance of Baskerville’s work, the hunger for contrast continued unabated.

The typefaces created by Firmin Didot and Giambattista Bodoni at the turn of the nineteenth century have extreme contrast between thin and thick strokes, enhancing the difference between black ink and white paper. Bodoni’s Manuale Tipografico (1818) describes typography as a system of interchangeable parts: “Analysing the alphabet of any language, one not only can find similar lines in many different letters, but will also find that all of them can be formed with a small number of identical parts.”

Bodoni aimed to eliminate subtle gradations of form in favour of “marking the differences which are required in a most outstanding way”. Despite Bodoni’s own classical, austere sensibility, his modular approach helped open the profusion of inventive display types created for the burgeoning advertising industry in the nineteenth century.

The opposition between serif and sans serif is another binary structure. Typefaces with blunt terminations – now called sans serif – began appearing in the early nineteenth century. Type designers tricked out the alphabet with deep shadows and fancy scrollwork. Serifs ceased to be staid and dignified finishing details; they shed their inhibitions to become expressive elements in their own right. Created for advertising and commercial signs, these display typefaces flaunted curly-topped serifs, chunky slabs, or no serifs at all. These variations were not polar opposites so much as scrappy siblings cohabiting typography’s strange new reality.

“Furthermore, a lowercase alphabet would challenge social hierarchy – all letters would now be equal.”

Ellen Lupton

In the twentieth century, the sans/serif binary took on the weight of ideology. Jan Tschichold, evangelist for rational, machine-age typography, wrote in 1928: “Among all the types that are available, the so-called ‘Grotesque’ (sans serif) or ‘block letter’ (‘skeleton letters’ would be a better name) is the only one in spiritual accordance with our time....Sans serif is absolutely and always better.” Tschichold struggled to find the right terminology. The letters he idealized not only lacked serifs but have uniform line weights as well. His phrase “skeleton letters” describes the monoline, serif-free typefaces that became the backbone of modernist graphic design. (Slicing the serifs off of Bodoni is not what Tschichold had in mind.)

Yet just as italics take multiple forms of expression, the serif is an elusive thing. Typographer John Berry’s taxonomy of letter endings suggests that if a serif can be so many things – from a spiky spur to a massive, blocky slab – it might not be a thing at all. Letters that lack serifs also take many different forms. Stems and strokes that swell, bend, pucker or flair resist neat binary categories.

Attacking the uppercase/lowercase binary, Bauhaus master Herbert Bayer sought to eliminate capital letters and thus reduce the alphabet to its skeletal essence. He argued that unicase fonts require fewer characters, are easier to learn and would lower the cost of printing. Furthermore, a lowercase alphabet would challenge social hierarchy – all letters would now be equal.

Although the bid to eliminate capital letters failed to become a standard in the West, designers today use lowercase letters in posters, ads, branding and publications to signify a relaxed, conversational tone. Writer bell hooks spells her name in lowercase to question patriarchal naming systems. Our book Extra Bold uses lowercase chapter titles and headings to undercut the power-based concept of typographic hierarchy.

Because of their kingly status, capital letters can signal dignity and importance. In the 1920s, Civil Rights leader and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois pressed editors and publishers to spell the word Negro with a capital N in order to confer respect on an oppressed people. Likewise, many publications today capitalise the word Black to show respect for Black identity.

What about the word white? Historian Nell Irvin Painter advocates capitalising Black, White, and Brown when referring to race or ethnicity. Capitalising the word White racialises this ostensibly neutral, invisible category. (Some writers prefer to write white in lowercase to avoid giving credence to White nationalism.) Painter asserts: “One way of remaking race is through spelling – using or not using capital letters. A more potent way, of course, is through behaviour.”


Extra Bold: A Feminist, Inclusive, Anti‑Racist, Nonbinary Field Guide for Graphic Designers (Copyright © Extra Bold, 2021)

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Extra Bold: Romain du Roi, in 1695 the official French alphabet known as the Romain du Roi (king’s roman) was drawn on a grid; the italics were drawn on a slanted grid. See Jacques André and Denis Girou, “Father Truchet, the Typographic Point, the Romain du roi, and Tilings,” TUGboat 20, no. 1 (1999): 8–14. (Copyright © Extra Bold, 2021)

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About the Author

Ellen Lupton

Ellen Lupton is a writer, curator, educator, and designer. She has authored several books on the subject of creativity, from Thinking with Type to Graphic Design Thinking, and mostly recently co-authoring Extra Bold alongside Farah Kafei, Jennifer Tobias, Josh A. Halstead, Kaleena Sales, Leslie Xia, and Valentina Vergara.

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