>I am interested in your reference to Dwiggin's M-formula. Where can I
>find out more about this?
Again, sorry for the delay in responding.
There aren't many places to find out more about Dwiggins's M-formula. The only published treatment of the matter that I'm aware of is Gerard Unger's article on WAD's Experimental No. 223 (Hingham), which appeared in the Dutch magazine Quarendo, vol. ix no.4, 1981. Unger discusses the M-formula in the course of tracing Dwiggins's exploration of newspaper type design.
Tiffany Wardle also touches on the M-formula in her dissertation from 2000, including an appendix with a transcription of the entire letter where WAD spells out his ideas.
One of these days perhaps I will find the time to treat the matter fully in an online essay on my website.
For now I can summarize. The M-formula document was a letter written by WAD to C.H. Griffith at Mergenthaler Linotype on July 3, 1937. It consists of four short "memoranda" -- brief observations that all orbit around an idea for treating type letters in a new fashion.
The first of these is a hunch that advertising printers are interested in a type letter that "will carry a good charge of ink . . . and still look crisp and finished instead of blobby and squz-out."
The second is a reference to an article by R. Hopper in Printing Art Quarterly, March 4, 1936, entitled "What Will Be Tomorrow's Types" which predicts a return to classical forms, but with less imitation of hand-lettering and with a new crispness and refinement influenced by precision machines.
The third memorandum is the famous observation which gives the concept its handle "M-formula" -- M for marionette. This is Dwiggins's observation while cutting marionette faces that in order to really get the head of a young girl to "read" from the back seats, he needed to cut otherwise soft features as sharp planes -- "These sharp-cut planes, when viewed on the stage, by some magic transformed themselves into delicately rounded curves and subtle modellings; and the faces looked like young girls from clear across the room, as well as from the front benches."
The final memorandum refers to his stencil ornaments -- which he jokingly called "geometric spinach" -- and observes how curves and lines go together to create a dynamic grace. I quoted from this passage in my earlier message.
Dwiggins pulls these all together, saying "I have been cogitating the matters touched upon in Memoranda 3 & 4, with a view to discovering from them a method for modelling type-letters in some other than the traditional way -- to produce in the printed words the quite astonishing results I get with marionette heads and with geometrical spinach." He also includes some illustrations of his points and some trial letters for Griffith to consider.
The practical essence of the M-formula was summarized by Dwiggins a year later as "a method to trick the eye (in viewing objects much reduced) into seeing curves that aren't there."
Although the image of Dwiggins having some grand epiphany while carving wooden marionettes has some romantic appeal, I think far too much is sometimes made of this "M" aspect of the M-formula. It's a catchy handle, no doubt, but the letter of July 1937 is really a culmination of ideas that Dwiggins had been formulating for at least a year before. In fact, about five months earlier, WAD had written another letter to CHG which laid out most of these exact same points -- referring to the Hopper article and talking about applying aspects of his ornaments ("junctions sharp and square") to type letters -- without any mention of the whole marionette thing.
Also, one quibble that I have with Unger's article is that it gives the impression (unintentionally, no doubt) that the M-formula was developed specifically in the context of newspaper type design, which, in my opinion, is not true. It is not until a year later that he applies the idea to a newspaper typeface in development. And even then, it is only one of five possible directions he presented.
The M-formula document is filed in the Griffith archives with the dossier on the newspaper type Hingham. And Hingham is unquestionably one of the fuller explorations of these ideas. But, in my opinion, the original letter was conceived more closely in connection with the Falcon design where, as I've said, Dwiggins also poured many of these ideas in search of a sharp-finished oldstyle, only to abandon it in the end.
Again, sorry for the lengthy and slightly academic tome. I hope it has proved at least somewhat interesting to some on the list.
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Kent Lew | Book Design & Typography
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