Spring 2003

Hoofdletters, Tweeling- en Meerlingdruk

An eccentric typographic proposal from the 1950s

In every field of endeavour there are instances of outsiders who arrive ready to challenge its long-held conventions. This is certainly true of graphic design, where creative interlopers are freely accommodated. Their provocations, whether artless or well informed, are welcome and refreshing, though occasionally ill-judged, too. Someone whose work might be so described is the Dutchman Prof Dr George van den Bergh (1890-1966), with whom few designers are likely to be familiar. Van den Bergh was a professor of constitutional and administrative law at the University of Amsterdam and, from 1925 to 1933, a member of the Dutch parliament. He was also an astronomer and an inventor who in 1945 devised a ‘Euro-clock’ allowing workers across Europe to best exploit the hours of the day he thought most productive: those of natural light. As an educator, Van den Bergh directed his socially engaged inventiveness towards making the materials of learning more widely accessible, and in 1958 published Hoofdletters, Tweeling- en Meerlingdruk, a radical scheme of typesetting, printing and reading, demonstrated in a portfolio of proofs and real-world applications.

The basis of Hoofdletters was Van den Bergh’s observation that books were expensive, especially for students. Many had either to buy and use them co-operatively, rely on heavily borrowed library copies or, worst of all, turn to abstracts and summaries. He was convinced that when buying books students were mostly concerned about cost and that high prices discouraged them from acquiring their own. To address the difficulty, Van den Bergh saw some potential in microfilm though he concluded that its format was too demanding psychologically and the equipment needed to view it too costly. Hoofdletters, on the other hand, was conceived precisely with convenience and economy in mind. The objective was to use the paper a book was printed on as efficiently as possible. It was a sensible goal in itself, but also one that grew out of chronic postwar shortages of raw materials that beset the Netherlands throughout the 1950s.

To save paper, Van den Bergh’s strategy was simple. He examined a typical page of printed text to see where the paper went unused. One place was between the lines. Here he noticed that the uppercase, and the ascenders and descenders of the lowercase required vertical space that was not needed by other characters. If text settings were restricted to only uppercase characters (hoofdletters) and the lines of text were moved closer together, the ‘wasted’ space was reduced. It was, in fact, theoretically possible to remove interlinear space altogether. This, accompanied by smaller type sizes and the expansion of text areas to page edges, would generate considerable savings. Van den Bergh anticipated that such features might be seen as an ‘outrageous heresy’ against conventional notions of text setting. But he, and the many people he summoned (figuratively) to his support, thought all-uppercase was better than the jumble of upper- and lowercase – a ‘heritage of the flourishes of medieval manuscripts’ whose advantages the experts overstated. Indeed the ‘inviolable’ rule that uppercase in any appreciable amount was less legible or readable was simply wrong.

To demonstrate the claim, proofs 1-7 of Hoofdletters together with three newspaper mock-ups, illustrated both conventional and progressively compact uppercase-only settings. But while texts with no interlinear space whatsoever did reduce the area they occupied by as much as half, even Van den Bergh conceded that at this extreme reading was difficult. So to retain the ‘solid’ setting but reintroduce interlinear space, he advanced a rather extraordinary idea in proofs 8-11. To begin with, lines of text in a single column were interposed. This involved running a text on consecutive odd lines until the bottom of the column was reached; returning to the top, the text then continued on the even lines. To filter the lines thus interposed, a ‘reading-screen’ was provided. This was made of transparent celluloid overprinted with opaque white ink, except where a series of very thin slots, or windows, were left. Their height and width matched the type height and measure of the text lines while their vertical spacing corresponded to every second line. When the reading-screen was correctly aligned, the column’s odd lines were revealed through the slots while its opaque areas at once blocked out the even lines and created interlinear spaces. After the odd lines were read, the reading-screen was shifted down to reveal the even ones. This was tweelingdruk, or ‘twin-print’.

Anticipating objections to twin-print,Van den Bergh attempted to answer them in advance. He offered no defence for the reading-screen since it surely warranted little criticism. The complications that twin-print might bring to text production and use could be dealt with. Footnotes, for instance, should be supplied as endnotes or, better yet, avoided entirely. To ease the work of proof-reading and emendation, texts might be set conventionally, then interposed after checking and correcting. But Van den Bergh was impatient about this concession: he would instead ‘greatly applaud a regulation to the effect that an author can only rewrite a proof at his own expense.’ He did admit that although interposing lines of metal type might prove awkward at first, he was optimistic that conventional typesetting equipment could be refitted with an auxiliary device to perform the operation. As an additional economy measure he recommended that bindings be got rid of. They were, like paper, a recurring (rather than a fixed) expense and should be replaced by a reusable ‘book-jack’, a loose-leaf binder supplemented by one or, at most, a few differently configured reading-screens. Books without bindings were not only cheaper, they took up less space too.

Using the ‘logic’ of twin-print, Van den Bergh set out several permutations. The first were ‘triple-print’ and ‘quadruple-print’ (collectively meerlingdruk, or ‘multi-print’), shown in proofs 12-21. Here three or four sets of text lines, respectively, were interposed in a single column with reading-screens configured accordingly (i.e. to reveal every third or fourth line). Multi-print was particularly well suited to multilingual publications and to illustrate this, proof 22 was in ‘septuple-print’ – seven interposed languages. Another twin-print permutation was ‘turn-about’ print. Rather than reading an interposed text on one page before continuing to the next, turn-about print required the reader to follow one set of text lines from the beginning of a book to its end, then rotate the book 180 degrees before reading the other set in the opposite direction. This meant that on every page, one set of lines was printed upside down. Turn-about twin-print had permutations too: as turn-about triple-print – a book read out, back, and out again – and turn-about quadruple-print – out, back, out and back again, with two of the four sets of interposed text lines printed upside-down.

But Van den Bergh’s most inspired proposal was coloured twin- and multi-print, shown in proofs 23-34 and 40-41. Here, a text was interposed as twin-print, one set of lines printed in red, the other in green. Dispensing with reading-screens, two pairs of spectacles were employed instead. Each had coloured lenses: green in the spectacles for reading the red text (i.e. filtering the green text while adding green to red to produce a black text); and red in the spectacles for reading the green text. If a reader so wished, the spectacles could be replaced by red and green reading lights switched on and off alternately. Naturally, interposed red and green lines might next be configured as turn-about twin-print. But more elaborate was superimposed coloured quadruple-print. Here, two already interposed twin-print texts, one in red, the other in green, were overprinted in alignment. Filtering these texts required both sets of spectacles and a reading-screen. It was particularly well suited to learning and teaching languages since the translation of one could be superimposed on a second. A permutation of it was – almost unbelievably – superimposed coloured turn-about quadruple-print in which the correct reading order, screen placement, text orientation and donning of spectacles defies easy comprehension.

Hoofdletters, Tweeling- en Meerlingdruk was published in early 1958 and soon after given a lengthy review by G.W. Ovink in the Saturday, 26 April edition of Amsterdam’s daily newspaper Het Parool. Ovink, a respected historian and commentator on typography who had himself studied aspects of legibility, was patiently sympathetic to Van den Bergh’s intentions but raised serious objections to Hoofdletters.

The first, not surprisingly, was to all-uppercase text: not only was it more difficult to read, its use for space economy was misguided. Although lines of uppercase set solid did save vertical space, a more sensible approach was to customise an upper- and lowercase type for horizontal space economy – something Dutch type designers had already been doing for several centuries. Next, Ovink rounded on the reading-screen whose correct and accurate alignment would prove difficult. But more important was the likelihood that reading-screens would themselves be manufactured by various publishers to no particular standard and so be usable with some books but not others. And this objection led to a more fundamental one, that Van den Bergh’s invention would only succeed if deployed on a mass scale, and in a centralised and well funded manner, something Ovink thought unlikely in a free market. His conclusion: Hoofdletters had no future.

Following its publication, Ovink’s prediction of Hoofdletters’ imminent irrelevance was not wholly borne out. In early 1959, Van den Bergh reissued his Euro-clock proposal as L’Heure commune Européenne with French, English, Italian and German texts set in quadruple-print. Soon after, he published Hoofdlijnen van het Nederlandse Staatsrecht (Outlines of the Netherlands Constitutional Law) in twin-print. Its 82 pages would, he claimed, have required 275 if set conventionally. And later in 1959, Hoofdletters was favourably profiled in Typographica 16 – by Van den Bergh himself. It was an edited version of the original publication, supported by new data on cost savings and refinements to his arguments. He ended with the promise that further developments of multi-print would soon appear in a supplemental publication. But one cannot help thinking that editor Herbert Spencer’s decision to include Hoofdletters in Typographica was based less on its merits as a viable publishing format and rather more on its irresistible novelty, an opportunity to recreate parts of the eccentric original, complete with red and green spectacles supplied in a glassine envelope.

Over the longer term, Hoofdletters did seemingly suffer the fate Ovink foresaw, though a thorough search for examples would give a clearer idea of its subsequent career, if any. Recently, elements of the invention have been revived in an emasculated, postmodern form. Rick Vermeulen, in Typographers and Erasmus (1999; see Eye n0. 32 vol. 8) used triple-print with well honed irony to render several chapters of Praise of Folly (1509) Erasmus’s satire on, among many other things, scholarly life and learning in renaissance Europe. And in The best of Wim T. Schippers (1997; see Eye no. 40 vol. 10) Dutch and English texts were superimposed in red and green (colour filters provided), a presentation said by one of the book’s designers, Thomas Widdershoven, to be in the spirit of Shippers’ work as marked by ‘anarchy, freedom and irritation’.

Casting a cold eye over Hoofdletters, Tweeling- en Meerlingdruk, it is difficult to see it as anything more than an earnest but bizarre solution to what was undoubtedly a real problem in postwar Europe, and the Netherlands in particular. Most designers, typographers and readers will probably find its technically deterministic contravention of long-established typographic practice merely naïve, resulting in a harmless curiosity that merits little consideration, only incredulity. But if Hoofdletters is designated a practical failure, a typography in extremis, something stops us from dismissing it out of hand. With a warmer eye it resolves into an enlightening object of mirth. While there is no indication that Van den Bergh regarded Hoofdletters with anything but complete seriousness, 45 years on it, too, operates, if accidentally, as an ingenious satire – on the preoccupations of legibility research, or the promise of technology so readily associated with the period of its invention. It is, in any case, a finely crafted demonstration of where a literal and unrelentingly logical approach to typography and reading can lead, and so becomes paradoxically a teaching tool of considerable value. For this, if for nothing else, the Professor would surely be pleased.

Thanks: Gerard Unger, Fred Smeijers