Form Follows Tool

Lesson 4:
Form Follows Tool

In the last lesson, you learned how the distribution of weight in the letters plays a role in readability. You also read that the most readable letters are based on the Renaissance form principles, which are based on letters written with a broad nib. In this lesson I will explain the theory of Gerrit Noordzij, which is easy to understand, but a very powerful tool for teachers and students alike.

Gerrit Noordzij (2 April 1931 – 17 March 2022) was a Dutch typographer, typeface designer, and author. He started teaching letters and calligraphy at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague in 1960. Motivated to make type accessible to his students, he identified the stroke of the pen as the central idea in the making of letter forms. What began as a method to make his students into better graphic designers grew, in various iterations and publications, into a comprehensive approach to type design. The contrast cube became an iconic model of his ideas. Noordzij recognised the possibilities of the computer in type design early on. He encouraged his students to not only study the pens and their shapes, but also adopt a critical view on making digital tools (and doing the math). By the time Noordzij retired in 1990, his methods were in use in type classes and workshops all over the world. His book The Stroke has been translated in (amongst others) English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Croatian and Russian. And of course, it has been the practical and theoretical foundation of the KABK TypeMedia master for over twenty years.

Source: Wikipedia

Gerrit teaching my former classmates Mauro and Donald. Btw. Donald is the founder of the type foundry Vette Letters, which also distributes my fonts.
Image Source: Dutch Graphic Roots

The Gerrit Noordzij Cube

“The Stroke, theory of writing”, 2019 and the Dutch original “De Streek, theorie van het schrift”, 1985

On the cover of the book “The Stroke, theory of writing” you see the famous cube by Gerrit Noordzij. What you see here are all the “relevant” principles of type design, according to Noordzij. As in the table of readability Albert-Jan Pool there are two extremes, the form principles deriving from writing letters with the broad nib (Renaissance / Humanistic / Dynamic) and the form principles deriving from the pointed pen (Classic / Modern / Static). Similar to a Variable Font all in-between states are interpolated. Pool refers to the typefaces in between the two extremes as “Baroque / Hybrid / Transitional”. In the Noordzij cube, you have another two extremes, or masters as you would call them in a variable font, low contrast, and high contrast. This way of looking at typefaces is very interesting as commonly a low-contrast typeface would be classified by most designers as Sans Serif fonts because most typefaces without serifs have a low contrast. Putting all Sans Serif fonts into one category ignores their subtle differences which yet play a big role in their design and ultimately in their readability. By focusing on as few form principles as possible, the theory becomes easy to understand and teach, while other classifications need many categories which are based on a mix of different principles.

Translation and Expansion

Gerrit Noordzij calls the contrasts generated with the broad nib pencil, translation and the contrasts generated with the pointed or flexible sharp nib pencil, expansion. This drawing by Noordzij from his book “The Stroke, theory of writing” illustrates why. While the contrast writing with the broad nip appears from the angle in which the pen is held, the contrasts from the pointed nib appears by expanding the stroke by pressing down the nib and separating its parts.

Source: The Stroke, theory of writing, Gerrit Noordzij

For many years not all interpolations between the four extremes, translation, expansion, low and high contrast were visible. Just van Rossum animated the cube with Drawbot and made it visible. Petr van Blokland writes: The animated cube is the ultimate result of Gerrit’s theory building up over the years. Originally starting as two squares, he combined the separate principles of contrast later by interpolating between them. Just van Rossum animated the cube in Daily Drawbot, showing what is behind the layers. As a static image (e.g. used on the cover of Gerrit’s “The Stroke of the Pen“) most of the layers at the back are hidden. The squares are respectively called translation (front) and expansion (back), names for the construction of thick-thin in letters. Translation relates to broad nib pencils where expansion is based on the contrast created by flexible sharp nib pencils.

Source: Just van Rossum

Another interesting example of how Noordzij’s students explored new ways to show more interpolations than Noordzij did on the cover of his book “The Stroke of the Pen” is Erik van Blokland’s Metal Cube.

Source: Erik van Blokland

For a more in-depth presentation of the Noordzij cube, I really recommend watching Erik van Blokland’s brilliant Type at Cooper lecture: The Cube: practical research in theoretical models.


If you have the time and motivation, I recommend reading and watching the sources I listed in the footnote section. Some of the bibliographic sources have links to PDFs and you might be able to get one of the last copies of “The Stroke” at Typotheque. Me, being a former KABK student and KABK teacher, Noordzij had a big influence on my understanding of type design. A deep understanding of writing will help you with type design, even if it is a modular type design.

Next Lesson:
Form Follows Grid


Watch Gerrit Noordzij in German, interviewed by Jürgen Siebert.

Noordzij explains sketching type during his talk at TypeMedia 2010.

Writing by GN

  • Reading the journal, The Journal of Typographic Research, vol.4, no.1, 1970, pp.85-90.
  • Broken scripts and the classification of typefaces, The Journal of Typographic Research, vol.4, no.3, 1970, pp. 213-40.
    Note: One page is reproduced here, not the entire article.
  • A reply to Alexander Nesbitt, Visible Language, vol.5, no.1, 1971, pp.85-7.
  • A program for teaching letterforms, Dossier A-Z: Association Typographique Internationale 1973. Andenne: Rémy Magermans, 1973, pp.80-8. F.Baudin and J.Dreyfus (ed.).
  • Handwriting as design: report for discussion at the Congress of ATypI, Warsaw, 1975. Tuil: ATypI, Committee on Education in Letterform [22 pp].
  • Die Hände der sieben Schwestern, In navolging: een bundel studies aangeboden aan C.C. de Bruin bij zijn afscheid als hoogleraar te Leiden, Leiden, 1975, pp.180-8. M.J.M. de Haan, S.J. Lenselink, et al. (ed.).
  • Die Hände der sieben Schwestern, Nederlandsch archief voor kerkgeschiedenis, vol. 56, no.1, 1975.
  • Haags ABC, Compres, no. 3, 1978, pp.13-19.
  • Zeis en sikkel: de kunst van het maaien, Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1979 [80 pp].
  • Het verzamelde misverstand van Gerrit Noordzij: de dingen, als je ze op hun kop zet, worden niet altijd duidelijker maar dikwijls wel leuker, Amsterdam: Universiteitsbibliotheek, 1980 [24 pp].
  • Papier: weet ik veel, Finish, vol.3, no.5, 1980 [12 pp].
  • The stroke of the pen: fundamental aspects of western writing, The Hague: Koninklijke Academie van Beeldende Kunsten, 1982 [? 52 pp].
  • De burgundische Bastarda: Vortrag am 29. März 1983, .
  • Inleiding, Letters in studie: letterontwerpen van studenten in het Nederlands Kunstonderwijs Eindhoven: Lecturis, 1983.
  • De nieuwe letters van de keizer, Tirade, vol.27, no.288, 1983, pp.514-27.
  • Deliciae: over de schrijfkunst van Jan van den Velde., Haarlem: Enschedé, 1984 [80 pp]. GN & Ton Croiset van Uchelen.
  • Letterletter, no.1 (winter 1984-1985′). The art of quibbling, Münchenstein: ATypI [4 pp].
  • Schrift en spelling, Compres, no.9, 1984, p.65.
  • De streek: theorie van het schrift, Zaltbommel: Van de Garde, 1985 [80 pp].
  • Letterletter, no.2 (spring 1985), Münchenstein: ATypI [4 pp].
  • Das Kind und die Schrift, Munich: Typographische Gesellschaft München, 1985 [56 pp].. [ PDF ]
  • Letterletter, no.3 (February 1986), Münchenstein: ATypI [8 pp].
  • Letterletter, no.4 (May 1986), Münchenstein: ATypI [8 pp].
  • Zetten bij Thieme, Nijmegen, Nijmegen: Thieme, 1986 [82 pp].
  • Inleiding, Letters] Den Haag: Rijksmuseum Meermanno-Westreenianum, 1986.
  • Letterletter, no.5 (spring 1987), Correspondence on research in writing Münchenstein: ATypI [8 pp].
  • Letterletter, no.6 (autumn 1987), The seven-times table. Münchenstein: ATypI [8 pp].
  • De staart van de kat: de vorm van het boek in opstellen, Leersum: GHM, 1988 [112 pp].
  • Letterletter, no.7 (spring 1988), Münchenstein: ATypI [8 pp].
  • Letterletter, no.8 (autumn 1988). The grammographic polyglot, Münchenstein: ATypI, [12 pp].
  • Letterletter, no.9 (spring 1989). The historical fact maker, Münchenstein: ATypI [12 pp].
  • Letterletter, no.10 [autumn 1989]. A matrix of writing, Münchenstein: ATypI [8 pp].
  • Ikarus op Macintosh: 1, Compres, 27 June 1989, pp. 31-7.
  • Ikarus op Macintosh: 2, Compres, 18 July 1989, pp. 17-23.
  • Letterletter, no.11 [1990?] The truth about the serif, Münchenstein: ATypI [12 pp].
  • De streek: theorie van het schrift, Leersum: ICS Nederland, 1991 [80 pp].
  • De start van de kat: de vorm van het boek in opstellen, Leersum: ICS Nederland, 1991 [112 pp].
  • Letterletter, no.12 [June 1991]. The logic of book design, Münchenstein: ATypI [12 pp].
  • The shape of the stroke, Raster imaging and digital typography 2: papers from the second RIDT meeting, held in Boston, October 14-16, 1991 New York, 1991, pp. 34-42. Robert A. Morris and Jacques André (ed.). [ PDF ]
  • Jan van Krimpen, 1892-1958: een keuze uit de collectie, Amsterdam: Universiteitsbibliotheek van Amsterdam, 1992 [8 pp]. GN & Mathieu Lommen.
  • Letterletter, no.13. The Burgundian issue, Münchenstein: ATypI [16 pp].
  • Ruse on trial, Hurwenen: The Enschedé Font Foundry, 1993 [1 sheet].
  • Het domein van de typograaf, De Gids, vol.165, no.4/5, 1993, pp.267-80.
  • Chiaconna in e flat: classifying type, TypeLab Gazette, 27 September 1993, Antwerp: ATypI Antwerp, pp.17-19.
  • Die Schriftentwürfe von Gerrit Noordzij, Typografische Monatsblätter, no.2, 1994 , pp.9-16.
  • Letters kijken: 1995 [calendar], Leersum: Bankiva [12 leaves + covers].
  • Vergeetboek: de expansie van het boek in zijn ontwikkeling van leesboek tot naslagwerk, van rol tot rom, Den Haag: Colofon, 1995 [44 pp].
  • Rule or law, Jan Tschichold: reflections and reappraisals. New York: Typoscope, 1995, pp.25-31. Paul Barnes (ed.). [ Text ]
  • Oorzaak als gevolg (filosofische kruimels), Filosofie & Praktijk, vol.16, no.4, 1995, pp.214-15.
  • The mannerist writing-book and Stanley Morison, Quaerendo, vol.25, no.1, 1995, pp.59-71.
  • De betekenis van Jan van Krimpen, Vormberichten, no.7/8, 1995, pp.30-1.
  • Letterletter, no.14, 1996. Mannerist writing, Zaltbommel: The Enschedé Font Foundry [16 pp].
  • Letterletter, no.15, autumn 1996 On copperplate, Zaltbommel: The Enschedé Font Foundry [16 pp].
  • Een eenvoudig verzinsel, Haagse letters: letterontwerpen aan de Koninklijke Academie van Beeldende Kunsten Den Haag. Amsterdam: De Buitenkant, 1996, pp.6-9. Mathieu Lommen & Peter Verheul (ed.).
  • Het primaat van de pen, Van pen tot laser, Amsterdam: De Buitenkant, 1996, pp.204-11. Ton Croiset van Uchelen & Hannie van Goinga (ed.).
  • Reply to Robin Kinross, Typography Papers, no.3, 1997, pp.89-90.
  • Letterletter: an inconsistent collection of tentative theories that do not claim any other authority than that of common sense, Vancouver: Hartley & Marks [xii + 180 pp].
  • De handen van de zeven zusters, Amsterdam: Van Oorschot [382 pp].
    Note: dated 2000, but published in February 2001
  • The Gerrit Noordzij Issue, Alphabet [San Francisco: The Friends of Calligraphy], vol. 26, no. 3, 2001, pp.3-29. [ Paul Shaw ]

Writing on GN

  • To the editor, Visible Language, vol.5, no.1, 1971, pp.82-4. Alexander Nesbitt.
  • Gerrit Noordzij: master of crafts, Penrose Annual, vol.72, 1980, pp.121-8. Huib van Krimpen.
  • The stroke of the pen [book review], Typografische Monatsblätter, vol.102, no.3, 1983 pp.28-30. Jost Hochuli.
  • ”Vijfenzestig lettertekens per regel, niet meer en niet minder” [interview], NRC Handelsblad, 14 March 1987. Ewoud Sanders.
  • Die Schriftentwürfe von Gerrit Noordzij, [preface], Typografische Monatsblätter, no.2, 1994 , p.9. Max Caflisch.
  • Het midden der aarde, Leeslint, vol.6, no. 1 (15 April 1996), pp.1, 4-5. Stijn Verbeeck.
  • Een A is gauw gemaakt [interview], NRC Handelsblad, 31 October 1996. Bas van Lier.
  • Type as critique, Typography Papers, no.3, 1997, pp.77-87. Robin Kinross,.
  • Spaces and difference in typography, Typography Papers, no.4, 2000, pp.92-130. Paul Stiff.
  • Gerrit Noordzij: een eigenzinnig typograaf [interview], De Uitgever, October 2000, pp. 12-13. Hans Bouman,.
  • Het primaat van de pen: een workshop letterontwerpen met Gerrit Noordzij, Den Haag: Konklijke Academie van Beeldende Kunsten, 2001 [48 pp].
  • Heilige letters: uit de grabbelton van Gerrit Noordzij [interview], HN, vol.57, no.11 (17 March 2001), pp. 6-7. Jan Goossensen,.
  • Reviews of De handen van de zeven zusters, Willem Dijkhuis, Financiële Dagblad, 10 March 2001, Mathieu Lommen, Items, no.3, 2001, pp.98-99., Guus Middag, NRC Handelsblad, 2 March 2001, p.33, Maartje Somers, Het Parool, 16 February, 2001, Lisa Kuitert, Vrij Nederland, 10 March 2001, p.65.
  • Gewone Letters, Gerrit’s early models, Amsterdam, de Buitenkant, 2013. Jorn Henkes, Rogier van der Sluis, Thom Janssen. [ GeenBitter ]