Received typographic wisdom holds that blackletter (“Old English”, “Gothic”) text only looks good in lower case or with initial capitalization — never with capital letters in series. However, in the last couple of decades, all-caps blackletter type and calligraphy have become normalized in a few cases where reading speed is unimportant. Specifically, decoration in "cholo" gangster culture and album cover artwork have adopted it, often in laid out in the shape of an arch; examples follow.

Apparently, some designers are doing what was previously forbidden. In light of the cover of the record by No Doubt (a major-label band), has all-caps blackletter gone mainstream? Did breaking the old rule lead to a new understanding?

Teen Angels magazine cover Dark Funeral band logo "Barragán" tattoo No Doubt album cover

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    It's a counter-culture, rebellious "look." Some like it, some don't. It's a personal choice. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.
    – Stan
    Jun 10, 2019 at 18:26
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    The only taboo in design is bad taste
    – user120647
    Jun 10, 2019 at 18:48
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    I find most of those impressively hard to read. If your goal is low legibility then go for it. The only upside to choosing such low legibility is that IF someone spends enough time reading it then their vested time would translate into remembering what the text says without the need to actually read it in the future.
    – MonkeyZeus
    Jun 11, 2019 at 12:47
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    What does that tattoo say, anyway? Looks like "Barragan" to me, which means the person is likely getting their own named tattooed on themselves and is that really someone you want to emulate? Jun 11, 2019 at 13:55
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    @SFinSF: Where are you seeing an "r" in the first word? Teen Angel's was an indie magazine back in the 80s
    – krb
    Jun 12, 2019 at 22:20

2 Answers 2

  1. You can't use tattoo art as a reference. Tattoo art often fails to follow any rhyme or reasoning. It's always a one-off and created with the intention of a very narrow audience, not broader viewing. (And there's always someone at hand to immediately say: "No, it says xxxx.")

  2. Bad design happens. There's no "Global Design Tribunal" which determines what one must or must not do with respect to design and will punish offenders. – The "Dark Funeral" logo/symbol falls into this to me. It was probably created by one of the band members or their friend who has no formal training and just wanted something which "looks evil". So, they thought that "looked evil". Black metal bands are notorious for horrid type design. I think it is unwise to prescribe traditional training thoughts or guidelines to anything related to music industry or band "logos". They are rarely created by trained designers.

  3. Sometimes it may be intentional. The No Doubt album, with it's poor blown-out photo, and bad typography all seem very intentional to me to avoid a "slick" record industry look. Sometimes when bands which are seen as more alternative start bordering upon being seen as "selling out" they go specifically the other direction with design and stage productions to try and curb those comments.

None of this means all cap blackletter is a good choice in general – or a common choice. It's merely a choice they made in your samples.

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    For there to be good design there has to be bad design ;)
    – joojaa
    Jun 10, 2019 at 18:23
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    @Gusdor As somebody seeing it for the first time, it took me several seconds to parse "funeral", letter by letter, reading like a four-year-old. I guess that's technically "legible", in about the same way that [your least favourite fast food place] is technically "food". Jun 11, 2019 at 15:41
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    @DavidRicherby its highly possible that I have simply become aclimatised to truely horrific logos like Dark Throne and Ingested.
    – Gusdor
    Jun 11, 2019 at 17:54
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    :) "Black metal bands are notorious for horrid type design." :)
    – Scott
    Jun 11, 2019 at 20:12
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    @popctrl While I see your point that some bands were formed in the 80s, the scene really picked up in the early 90s (especially 91). Since Dark Funeral was formed in 93, and it's now over 25 years later, I still consider them an early influencer to the genre. Jun 12, 2019 at 16:02

Received typographic wisdom holds that Blackletter ("Old English", "Gothic") text only looks good in lower case or with initial capitalization — never with capital letters in series

If you ask me (and all sources I have ever read about the matter), the problem is not that all-caps blackletter does not look good. It just is very difficult to read due to the various decorative elements.

Therefore if you do not care about readability that for whatever reason, using all-caps blackletter is at least not completely insane:

  • All your examples feature titles, logos, or similar. It is only one or two words that are difficult to read, and they are usually not meant to be read at all. In particular consider the tattoo: It mostly exists to please the wearer (and he has to use two mirrors to see it). Everybody else who gets to see it probably has enough time to decipher it.

  • One historic use of all-caps blackletter was for printer’s locations on titles, such as here:

    all-caps blackletter used for location on a title (Source)

    all-caps blackletter used for location on a title

    Again, this is not a case where readability is very important.

  • Another historic use of all-caps blackletter was for God, Jesus, etc. in religious texts:

    Example of “GOTT” (God) and “JESU” in all-caps in a German text

    Example of “JESOM” (God) in all-caps in a Sorbian text

    I think we can safely assume that the authors/typesetters of these texts would not have chosen all-caps here if they considered it ugly. Also, given that this is limited to a very few, usually isolated words, the impact of readability is not big.

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    At least your “religious text” examples, and I think also your “printers mark” examples, come from documents using blackletter for their main body text, and are from cultures/times when readers were accustomed to blackletter as the standard script for printed text. As such, they don’t really tell us anything about the perception of blackletter today, either in aesthetics or readability. Jun 11, 2019 at 7:49
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    @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine: As such, they don’t really tell us anything about the perception of blackletter today, either in aesthetics or readability. – Yes, but the “received typographic wisdom” against all-caps blackletter on which the question is based is similarly old. What I am showing is that it was never as strict as the asker perceives it.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jun 11, 2019 at 10:55
  • Just because you and I find it hard to read doesn't mean that the original intended audience found it hard to read. And perhaps the intent was to slow down your reading at the words you were supposed to focus on? Jun 11, 2019 at 14:16
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    @MichaelKay: I don’t have any sources at hand right now, but readability was generally cited as a reason against blackletter all caps. Also, for whatever it’s worth, I can read blackletter fluently (see my profile as to why), and I still struggle with blackletter all caps. Finally, while there are typographic reasons that all-caps blackletter is difficult to read, readability is also a chicken–egg problem: You can read easily what you are used to. And given the scarcity of all-caps blackletter in printed work from that time, I think it’s safe to assume that readers weren’t used to it.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jun 11, 2019 at 15:14
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    @RosieF: Yes, but it is still blackletter (which is what was asked for). Also, I don’t think that this affects the conclusion that much as the arguments against all-caps blackletter are the same.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jun 12, 2019 at 17:00

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