Fonts are all around us. When you begin to pay attention to them, you suddenly notice them on every poster, magazine, building sign. The evolution of fonts and their importance in conveying a message beyond the words they represent is a fascinating history. Learning more about fonts can help us to not only stylize text but also to date it.
The Polish contribution to graphic design is pretty impressive (I’ll write more about that in future posts), so it’s no surprise that it would make its mark on typography. Below are some typefaces that you may have seen or used that have their roots in Poland.
But First... Some Background
Typeface vs. Font: Time for some definitions: typeface and font are technically two different things. When most people say they like a certain font, they are usually referring to a typeface. A typeface is a family of fonts. It is the stylistic look and feel of the lettering. Font, on the other hand, is the difference in size, weight, leading, kerning of the typeface. For example: bold or 12 pt. In modern days, it also refers to the digital encoding of a typeface.
Serif vs. Sans Serif: One of the first and easiest ways to group typography is to categorize them as serif or sans serif. A serif font is one that has a small line or stroke capping off the end of a longer line in a letter. The absence of these lines makes it sans (French for “without”) serif font. Sometimes serif typefaces are referred to as Roman typefaces (as it was the Romans who first introduced this element into typography), while sans serif typefaces have also been called Grotesk or Gothic.
The earliest text ever to be printed in the Polish language was known as the Statuta synodalia episcoporum Wratislaviensium, or the Synodal Statutes of Wrocław Bishops. It was printed in Wrocław, then under Hungarian rule, by the first Polish printer (and a canon of the Catholic Church) Kasper Elyan.
On 9 October 1475, 35 years after Gutenburg’s invention of the printing press, Elyan published the book on Cathedral Island in Wrocław, which contained a collection of laws and acts passed by the synod. Three Polish prayers are included in the collection, amongst the mostly Latin text. They are “Our Father”, “Hail Mary” and the Nicene Creed. Only two copies of the Synodal Statues survive to this day; they can be found in the University Libraries of Wrocław and Prague.
The font created by Elyan became known as the Bastarda Elyana and is the first-known Polish font. Along with the works he published, Elyan’s font is one of the earliest examples of Polish printing.
This old, somewhat forgotten serif font has gone through a recent revival with its digitalization. The font was literally found by Janusz Tryzno in 2016 when he was going through some boxes of old typesetting matrices. Intrigued, he asked two designers, Przemysław Hoffer and Borys Kosmynka to restore the font in a digital version. Ania Wieluńska and Andrzej Tomaszewski, under the direction of Mateusz Machalski of the Warsaw Type Foundry, Capitalics, joined in the work to digitize the typeface.
The team analyzed the typeface and could not find it outside of one foundry catalog in Poland from 1954; there was no evidence of it ever being a published font, though its roots dated to the interwar period. They came to the conclusion that this was a truly Polish font – one that had not seen much attention even when it was first developed.
There was a lot of research involved in order to put together the type family. Eventually, the team was able to trace the origins of the typeface to the interwar period (1928) and, with its characteristic letter style, to the designer most likely responsible (although there is still no proof) for its creation: Adam Połtawski.
Antykwa Połtawskiego/Połtawski Nowy
Adam Połtawski (1881-1952) was a printer, typesetter and graphic designer, as well as editor of the magazine “Grafika”. He was one of the most prolific Polish graphic artists, designing, among others, the first banknotes of the Polish Second Republic.
The typeface Antykwa was specifically designed for the Polish language by Adam Połtawski between 1923 and 1928. It was the first Polish font to be designed from scratch, not basing itself on other existing designs.
The latest digitalization of Połtawski’s Antykwa in 2020, known as Połtawski Nowy, was competed by the Warsaw foundry Capitalics, the same one who pieced together Brygada 1918. They also expanded the font to include characters from other languages, like thai and navajo.
The typeface endured the turbulent Polish history of the 20th century, although its popularity has waned as new graphic styles have emerged. Still, it remains as the first “truly Polish” typeface and has served as the inspiration and basis for other modern fonts produced around the world.
By far the most recognizable of the Polish typefaces, Lato (which means “summer” in Polish) was released in 2010 and created by Lukasz Dziedzic, when he was commissioned by a bank to create a new typeface for their brand. The brand eventually decided on a different direction but Dziedzic thought his font had promised. He shared it on the internet for free where it reached world-wide appeal.
Since its release, it’s become a very popular font, ranking third on Google’s most served list with more than 9.5 million websites using it. It’s popular for a reason: this sans serif font is clean and modern, wide and thin, which give it a very open and inviting appearance as well as excellent readability.
The designer likens typeface to a musical score in a movie in it’s subtle power: it can create and change the mood of what we read (or watch). Before designing a font, he asks himself what purpose it will serve and this will dictate it’s design.
Dziedzic is also responsible for other fonts, including FF Good, FF Clan, and Empik Pro (which was designed for the giant Polish retailer Empik in 2007).
The list of Polish fonts and typefaces is hundreds long and stretches all the way back to the Middle Ages. It’s my hope that this article has piqued your interest in Polish graphic design. I’ll be writing more in future posts, so please consider joining my mailing list if you find these tidbits of Polish history and culture interesting.
History of Typeface:
For a longer history, watching Struthless’ very informative and well-researched video that summarizes the impact typefaces have had on the way we communicate and see the world.
Antykwa Połtawskiego/Połtawski Nowy: