A rather nasty ‘ten commandments of typography’ infographic prompted me to think about what might be more useful for designers needing to work with type. This quick runthrough aims to highlight the relevant issues and shed light on the considerations that can help you find answers.
A type system is like a colour scheme: there are no laws about which colours are best or worst or how many colours are too many, but pick them well and everything will click. Picking a palette of typefaces needs to be done based on the needs of the text. Text with many levels of hierarchy and emphasis will need a broader, more complex range of styles to effectively signal the different levels. Each font you use needs an identifiable role or function on the page. Ask yourself, what is the work this font is doing? If a reader can see what the change of fonts signifies, scanning and comprehension will be easier.
Picking the right font
It makes sense to pick your body text font first, since that will have to work the hardest, and needs to have the right tone of voice for the words it’s conveying. If setting long stretches of text, remember that the overall texture is a result of the repeated occurrence of many tiny details, so check how your intended font looks in text blocks, not just looking at zoomed-in shapes. Use fonts you like. Bookmark foundries’ websites and stay up-to-date with their releases. Feel free to semi-ignore people who tell you serif fonts are more readable than sans serif ones. I recently enjoyed reading a novel entirely set in Frutiger. I think readability is more about the internal rhythm of paragraphs and unambiguous wordshapes or letterforms than about stylistic details.
Finding fonts that work well together can be hard. Type superfamilies with an abundance of styles can be a good trick in situations that need a high degree of consistency; conversely, uniform letter structures across a family can look too rigid and produce a somewhat plain effect overall. For headings, a contrasting font can add visual interest and set it off from the text better. Look around you and try to see what works or doesn’t work in the text you read.
Designing type is an exercise in parallel thinking. On one level, it’s about coming up with interesting ways to inject each letter with some visual interest and simultaneously respond to the brief chosen. But on another level, it’s about ‘designing the design’, as we’ve seen before. What is it about the letters that hangs them all together? How can a set of ideas be applied consistently and logically so that it can be called a design rather than just a set of shapes? The answer to that is one reason why to me, designing a text face is so sublime: it’s necessarily about eliminating everything that doesn’t gel with everything else, refining and reducing the idea behind it to its clearest, most elegant expression.
Getting everything to gel together means everything has to be considered in light of everything else, or at least in light of the parts of everything-else that are related by the application of the design rules. (This of course also implies a certain circularity, which is why type design is a recursive process). For example, my design rules might prefer the /c/ and the /f/ to have similar terminals at their tops, but that terminal may or may not be related to the /r/ or the /j/, depending on my idea of the design. So this is what ‘designing the design’ actually means.
Some of these parallel considerations spill over between scripts too, when we attempt to harmonise different kinds of writing systems. The links may be explicit, with shared formal attributes, or more subtle, with an intangible link that makes the styles belong together without copy-pasting outlines between scripts.
With my brain now used to thinking in parallel (or at least getting a bit more comfortable with it), it’s naturally started to wonder about the parallel histories of the Brahmi scripts that I’m interested in.
The Thai, Khmer, Lao and Burmese scripts are related through their Brahmi origins, and I’m starting to see why piecing together that history is a useful exercise.
(Schematic of Brahmic scripts. There is no universal consensus and mistakes are mine alone. Larger image can be found here.)
I’ve always noted similarities and discrepancies between Thai, Lao, Khmer and Burmese. Some of the forms have clearly evolved from common roots: Lao ຈ and Thai จ are unmistakable cognates, as are ດ with ด and ຕ with ต. Pairs like ທ and ท may be less obvious, with different proportions but the same topology. Burmese and Khmer are less readily matched up, mainly because the different styling imposed repeatedly through history has now become part of the letterforms. Burmese is mainly circular, while Khmer prefers zigzags. But Burmese ခ and Khmer ខ match up, as do ဃ with ឃ and ဍ with ឌ. (Depending what font your browser chooses, these may or may not look similar) The story gets more interesting when you also notice parallels creeping in between Old Burmese and Old Thai, or even more distant cousins Rakhawanna, Chakma, Lao and Khmer.
(Ordering the writing systems in the traditional Brahmi articulatory fashion shows common threads between them.)
As well as these similarities, there are also large discrepancies between scripts. Undoubtedly the tools and substrates in different areas had a great influence. But also the differentiation of these scripts took place through a gradual alphabetic Chinese Whispers, with stonecarvers and manuscript writers preserving aspects of each character that they thought were essential, but inevitably leading to a gradual morphosis. Getting to grips with that long slow game leads to useful insights for the type designer:
1 Although the different scripts have their own look, the differences are often quite superficial, to do with styling rather than architecture. The underlying topological structures are often very similar. Even when they don’t initially look very similar, considering them together shows unexpected links, for example where disconnected strokes have become joined using a point of inflection or a knot. Understanding how the individual letters have evolved to be the way they are today gives us the design space available for taking our own designs in unconventional directions.
2 If the underlying architecture of the letters (or the writing tool’s ductus) is so similar, the look of each script is very largely determined by proportion and the way strokes are modulated. Old Burmese and Khmer may not look very similar, but focussing on the track of the tool rather than the modulation reveals their shared history. Writing Burmese with a broad-nibbed pen makes it look almost like a different alphabet. While it’s perfectly possibly to play with these conventions, the results are too far outside the normal expectations to be suitable for text typography, instead making an impact that can be useful in display settings:
(Top, Burmese styled with a broad-nib pen. Bottom, Thai styled to look Japanese.)
3 Over the course of time, the letters of a script begin to develop a coherence. Practical needs, such as the use of a particular tool, or the expediency of writing at a constant speed, the methods of punchcutting or casting type, or even the ease of reading, ensure that letters that are used together tend to end up looking uniform. For example, the ancestor script to all these writing systems is Brahmi, a script that uses elemental shapes like crosses, semicircles and diagonals. The letterforms have different degrees of complexity and angularity, and different amounts of whitespace. But as Brahmi evolved into different writing systems in different places, and with typography playing a significant role, all these aspects are evened out. (There are of course exceptions, such as Tamil with its very disparate letterforms.)
4 There are aspects of the letterforms that are not determined by the three previous factors, and which can be played with…
5 Scripts like to have their own identity. Repeated stylistic features are a way to bring cohesion to a script as well as introduce new ideas. The knots and loops of Thai, the zigzagged heads in Khmer, the notched instrokes of Pallava or Pyu, the circular forms of Burmese or the tick-shaped head in Telugu are now so embedded that they are the distinguishing features of those scripts. Often these features can be reinterpreted, simplified or exaggerated in different styles of writing (and type) but cannot usually be omitted altogether.
(Showing how stylistic details have become identifiers of different scripts. Excuse my lack of finesse with these unfamiliar scripts!)
The Ampersand Conference is always great because it brings many of my friends from the type community around the world to my hometown. This year was extra special because I coordinated the first ever exhibition of student typeface work from around the world.
The exhibition included 111 entries from around 40 design schools worldwide, with students from as far apart as Chile and Japan. This meant a great deal of diversity in students’ aspirations, abilities and approaches, some designing heavy-duty text typefaces, others designing illustrative lettering for graphic design purposes, and one or two icon fonts. For this reason, we were not inviting people to compare or judge the entries, more to see how students get to grips with type projects, to demonstrate the many faces of type design and the enthusiasm and new ideas that design education is all about.
Along with the A3 posters, I also produced a substantial catalogue for delegates to take home, and used my MATD typeface, Lumen, in its first real-life setting to see how well it would perform.
Thanks to the teachers and students who helped get this project off the ground, I had a lot of positive feedback at the conference, and may be able to take the exhibition to other conferences later in the year. Watch this space.
So gratifying to see all the hard work paying off. I’m directing the first ever international student typeface exhibition at this year’s Ampersand conference, and have been busy mustering together all the entries, editing the descriptions, sorting out PDF colour profiles, writing press releases and generally learning what putting on an exhibition involves. Good experience!
How can you design a typeface for a language you don't speak?
This is a question I’m often asked by people who haven’t come across type design before.
Letters are unique in their use and quite unlike any other representational form. A seasoned type designer realises that one is not exactly focusing on the individual shape of each letter, though that does come into it, but more closely scrutinising how the letters set together. Each letter has to fit with every other letter in a regular rhythm to enable the reader to parse the wordshapes into meaningful semantic content. At the same time, the type designer has the difficult job of balancing the opposing goals of unique characteristics (to attract people to the typeface) and readability (which requires the letterforms to be unintrusive and to facilitate the most direct reading experience without catching the reader’s eye on unexpected details).
What this means is that designing type (at least text type) is about seeing how shapes fit together in a consistent pattern with a degree of visual interest that is necessarily subtle. The design brief will certainly define other characteristics, such as the typeface’s intended usage size, mood and tone, set width, length of extenders and more.
In the title question, of course, there’s the hidden problem in the conflation of language with writing system, which is a common mistake, though it should not be difficult to see that the Latin writing system is used for many language families across Europe from Finland to Portugal. There are language-specific writing systems like Armenian or Thai; also there are language-specific variations of a writing system, like Bulgarian variant forms in Cyrillic.
And this is where the next level of detail arises in designing scripts for other languages. A language and a writing system are closely related. Although they use the same script, Finnish sentences and Portuguese sentences look very different on the page. Finnish has a high proportion of double letters (geminates), a lot of diagonal letters (kvwxy), and a grammar which means words can be very long (agglutination). Portuguese, like other Romance languages, favours the round letters (acdegopsu) and uses accents like the acute, cedilla, circumflex and tilde. If writing systems are musical instruments, the languages they play are different genres of music, with different rhythms and chords. But the music they play cannot sound harmonious if the instruments are badly designed.
The job of the type designer, then, is like the job of the violin maker. The craftsperson carefully assembles the instrument from components that have been designed to work together to resound with a pleasant tone, and to allow violinists to play the notes and chords they expect when bowing the strings. The maker does not need to know all the pieces of music that are going to be played on the violin, but does need tacit knowledge (one would assume) of timbre, harmonics, resonance and ergonomics. In the same way, the type designer needs to gain a familiarity with the writing system, to recognise how the language makes the letters look together, to learn to see the letters as letters rather than just as shapes, and to see whether every letter sings with the same voice.
This means keeping a keen eye on the way the letters compose typographically into words and paragraphs, staying focused on achieving even colour and spacing, and implementing consistent forms and styling. The group of letters needs to follow clear gestures that make each letter what it is. (‘Gestures’ is not quite an ideal word, since constructed typefaces, not based on handwriting, are a worthwhile genre to explore. What I mean is that each letter has identifiable stems, arches, bowls, loops, junctions, counters or apertures that makes it different to the other letters.) In my view, the difference between a mediocre typeface and an excellent one is the amount of time the designer has put into regularising and unifying all these disparate shapes into smooth conformity. Notice that none of these factors directly requires knowing any vocabulary.
People learning exotic languages need to learn the new alphabet before they can start reading. What this means is that on some level, we learn to recognise the letters separately from the words they build. It’s also true for languages that use our mother writing system: a language like Basque may be unknown to most outside Spain even though many people are familiar with the Latin writing system it uses. This is exactly the same familarity type designers need: recognising the letters as letters, and maybe ‘reading’ the letters without necessarily attributing semantic content to the words.
Of course, the designer obtains markedly more convincing results when informed about relative letter frequencies, common letter combinations, and the relative importance of marks. It certainly takes time to thoroughly research a script and build this knowledge. The designer needs to study handwriting from different hands, fully understand and internalise the ‘gestures’ of each letter or component, and explore a wide range of existing typefaces to see how the essentials and idiosyncrasies of written forms have been conventionally converted into typographic forms.
This week, the annual ATypI conference is taking place in Hong Kong. Unfortunately I’m not going to be attending, but its theme, ‘Between black and white’, has prompted me to think in more depth about how the principles of notan can be implemented in typeface design, not just as a curiosity, but as a pragmatic tool to enhance readability.
One of the attractions of type design is in the breadth of its influences, and a natural borrowing is from the Japanese concept of notan. The term refers to the art of balancing the opposition of black and white in Japanese paintings, and it has been somewhat hijacked of late by type designers referring to the interplay of the black (foreground) and white (background) elements we design with when creating type. Specifically, it alludes to the dissociation of the two, allowing the designer to intentionally mould the counterforms (white areas) as desired, not just to be determined by the black lettershapes. The byproduct of this separation between letter and counterspace is that it forces the type designer to abandon the stroke model and instead adjust letters’ outlines in isolation. To me, how this can be utilised in a pragmatic way is a massively interesting area for the discipline of type design, not least because it is so little explored.
As I mentioned when starting out on my MA typeface, Lumen, my aim was to make the letters flow together, so that in dictionary settings, where things are often rather choppy, smooth reading would be enhanced by legato, connected word-images. The ultimately connected type style would of course be a script face, with joined up writing. For obvious reasons this is not suitable for immersive reading or for setting a dictionary. How then can letters be linked together? How about making the white, rather than the black, be the part that joins up? A perfect opportunity to employ original creative responses to foster the principles of readability.
This sort of ‘pure’ design had been tackled by Evert Bloemsma in his Legato typeface; as Kris Sowersby notes, the design is ‘free of stylistic conceits’ with the important decisions made in pursuit of the goal of connectedness. What Bloemsma had done was rotate (or skew) the inner counters in the opposite direction to the outer black forms, breaking up the letters’ rigid uprightness and giving the white space a direction, rather than letting it simply exist as a dead space or byproduct of the black letters. While I didn’t want to follow this logic to the same conclusion as Bloemsma, I found in his theory a seed for further development.
Above: in most typefaces, based on a tool-and-stroke model, the white counterspaces are simply a byproduct of where the edges of the tool fall. In Zapf Chancery, the track of the pen (green) and the width and angle of the nib (yellow) determine the edges of the stroke at every point, and the stroke’s edges form the boundary between black and white. Now type design can be emancipated from the tool-and-stroke model with interesting results.
I took the idea of designing the whites semi-independently, but sought to make them connect across letters. Underpinning the architecture of every letterform was the theory that the white space should bend and flow to lead the eye smoothly along the reading line. The inner contours of letters mainly project outwards towards the adjacent letters, and employ curves of a lower frequency than the outside black edges. As well as helping the letters compose into harmonious images, this flattening of the counters emphasises the horizontal reading direction from left to right.
The image above shows that the countershapes in Helvetica are directed inwards (or at nothing), making the letters stand alone, referring only to themselves; the lack of activity between letters also creates dead space that breaks words apart. In Lumen, the countershapes have been designed to harmonise and lead the eye across intervening letterspaces.
These days, people are increasingly asking whether there is any need for new typefaces and whether everything interesting hasn’t already been tried. I’m strongly opposed to their arguments: type design, like the disciplines of architecture or music composition, is a response to particular circumstances of time and place, and at its best, blends together personal expression, original and critical thinking, an appreciation of type history and underlying theories, and skills polished through extensive practice. In our increasingly connected world, the interesting question is what other concepts can type design borrow and benefit from?
Our fantastic year at Reading is now complete, and the class of 2012 has dispersed to make way for the incoming students — a talented looking bunch judging by some of the websites I’ve seen.
The final weeks of term and the summer holiday flew past, with our typeface submitted towards the end of June, along with the Reflection on Practice that charts our progress and explains our decisions. The summer months saw us fully absorbed in research and writing, with everyone working their hardest and going about with anguished dissertation faces. Oddly enough, at the start of the course, the dissertation was the one part I was not looking forward to, but my topic — Burmese printing types — is an area that has not been studied before, making it extremely rewarding to pull together the histories into a coherent narrative. The amount of material covered was quite astonishing, as the topic covers two hundred years of printing, and involved multiple visits to London’s libraries, a whole lot of Googling and careful examination of type specimens to see how the metal types were composed. Hopefully I’ll be sharing some of the interesting parts in a future blog post, since the story of Burmese type parallels the developments in type of every other world script, and was at least for me, very enlightening.
I’m now back in Sussex, working on freelance commissions. I’ve got three typeface projects on the go, and graphic design jobs to fill up the gaps, so I plan to keep this blog going as I develop and produce more work. As one typophile said, the Masters is just a beginning :)
Recently, we were visited by Will Hill, ex-Reading student and now Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design at Anglia Ruskin University. His lecture touched upon something that’s been bothering me for some time…
From printing’s beginnings, type has taken its cues from inscriptional lettering, handwriting and calligraphy. Over the next 500 years, type started to diverge from hand-tooled forms, becoming slowly emancipated from these external sources, and becoming more standardised; new typographic environments and developments in technology both fuelled and fed off the evolving spectrum of typeforms.
But until the end of the 20th century, type designers were still constrained to using the traditional technologies of production: drawing letter patterns by hand, cutting punches and casting metal type. With the advent of digital type drawing, those technologies are slowly being left behind, with many type designers nowadays drawing letters, unmediated by paper, directly on screen.
In The Stroke, Gerrit Noordzij reduces typeforms to handwritten strokes: letter shapes are unavoidably composed of the strokes of our pen or pencil. The stroke is the unassailable basis (‘fundamental artefact’) of a shape. For Noordzij, outlines do not define a shape, they are simply the bounds of a shaped stroke. Unfortunately, this is only one way of seeing things, and it relies on drawing letters from the inside, as though tracking the ductus with a tool. It is not clear how his theory could apply to computer-generated outlines not conceived with penstrokes in mind.
However, Noordzij is right that most of what we read is based on models of how we write. Adobe’s Robert Slimbach states “It makes sense that type designers look to the established archetypes for inspiration…Because the familiar, traditional form — which grew out of centuries of handwriting practice — remains embedded in readers’ minds, it is crucial that designers of text typefaces work within its bounds.” (Quote from the Arno Pro specimen.)
But let’s step back and think about this: why should what we read and what we write be related? After all, the physiology of the eye and that of the hand do not in any way imply a logical connection. Are the letterforms that come out of our hands when we write the best possible forms for reading?
Some people seem to think so. So-called ‘infant’ typefaces with the single-storey /ɑ/ and /ɡ/ are very popular among children’s book publishers. But perhaps these publishers have conflated reading and writing. Studies have shown that children do not find ‘adult’ versions of these letters especially problematic, and understand that one version is for reading, the other for writing. (Sue Walker, 2003). Adults generally don’t find variant forms problematic (though some people prefer their handwriting to use typographical forms of the /a/ and /g/). And letters in other scripts often have differences between handwriting and type. Doesn’t this imply the connection between reading and writing is not as causal as we tend to think?
So here’s the question: type is not writing. So why has the influence of writing persisted for so long in type design?
Will Hill cast an interesting light over the matter in his lecture. He sees the stroke-and-tool paradigm as a model that ensures coherence in type design. It provides a set of ‘relational constraints’ or a ‘behaviour pattern’ that makes all the letters in a design belong to each other. Our firmly entrenched and largely unquestioned conservatism in following the stroke-and-tool model acts as a kind of safety net that gives us a set of design parameters that ensure consistency in our typeface.
If that’s the case, and with technology now at a stage where designers can work directly on screen, one would now expect there to be a quiet revolution in the way we think about type, and new models should have the chance to spring up.
Jeremy Tankard’s new Fenland typeface shows that this is indeed the case. Instead of basing Fenland’s ‘relational constraints’ on the stroke paradigm, the letters are formed by bending hypothetical steel tubes. In direct contradiction to Noordzij’s theory, Tankard abandons a stroke model and begins his drawings with outlines. The curves bend around the letterforms instead of following the shape of some internal ‘skeleton’. The curves really do unexpected things, collapsing in on themselves as they go around corners and throwing away the conventions of where thick and thin strokes appear.
Which brings us to a second reason why the stroke paradigm persists. All the questions the type designer needs to ask in designing letters can be answered by considering the stroke model, what tool is used and what logic is being applied to that stroke. Therefore, it is a paradigm that sets out sufficient parameters for designing type. Additionally, as Noordzij shows us, the model provides enough variability for different forms to emerge: expansion, translation, running and interrupted constructions can be freely combined to different degrees, generating a huge spectrum of possibilities.
Much as Tankard’s tubular premise is fascinating and original, it isn’t quite sufficient to provide all the answers to how the letters should look. For example, he has had to also define a particular ‘stroke’ order, which strokes are primary, and whether they connect in a ‘running’ or ‘interrupted’ way: the tube model itself says nothing about these matters, and the answers have to be decided on a letter-by-letter basis. This doesn’t promote the consistency that the stroke paradigm is so good at ensuring. The skill in Fenland is in Tankard’s ability to reconcile the letters consistently without a sufficiently explicit behaviour pattern.
In my Mint typeface, started in 2009, I began to see the outlines as primary, rather than the strokes. Although the strokes are still very much apparent, conceiving things this way allowed some fresh thinking. The outlines alternate between shaping the black letterforms and locking in the white counterspaces. The interplay between black and white (similar to the Japanese design concept of ‘notan’) gives the white page a more active role in the typography of the text block, in a way the stroke model wouldn’t naturally elicit. But again here, the ‘outline’ model doesn’t provide exhaustive parameters to ensure consistency.
The MATDs have now submitted their typefaces (woo!) and are moving on to the next projects, but it’s definitely time to experiment with these questions and see what alternative models can offer.
David Březina (@MrBrezina) came to visit us last week, to talk through his career in type design and his award-winning, multi-script foundry, Rosetta, to critique our typefaces, and to ask us an impossible question. What he wanted to know was how we plan to create original work in our typeface design careers over the next ten years. A ten-year plan is not something I’d naturally sit down and think about, so it certainly struck me as an intriguing question. How on earth can I set about planning my long-term creativity? It was the kind of meta question that demands you take several steps back from the process itself and consider how one approaches one’s approach.
David suggested one way to respond to this question might be to map the design space in which to plot typefaces, and use this to identify areas that have not yet been exploited. Maps have always seemed useful, so I started to sketch out how I personally categorise designs. It turns out that I judge typefaces based on two axes, which seem to run from functional/sober to artistic/characterful and from humanist/calligraphic to constructed/experimental.
However, I quickly realised that there are two aspects to a typeface: its form and its styling. These aspects may need to be categorised separately — for example Gill Sans Shadowed has rather restrained and conventional forms, but more eccentric, trendy styling. This may mean typefaces need to be classified twice, once according to their form, and once for their styling.
I plotted a few typefaces to see if the map would work:
This sort of thing is hugely subjective, but could be useful in talking to clients, especially if illustrated with example typefaces. I suspect it could be useful in finding contrasting typefaces that work together nicely.
From this map, I wondered if everybody isn’t trying to achieve the same goals in type design: the design space in the middle of the chart should be some sort of sweet spot where ‘perfect’ tension arises through the interplay of conventionality and playful creativity. Nobody generally wants a bland or cold typeface, but neither do they want a wacky, overstated thing that won’t stop shouting. Therefore the best way to create original work is to avoid the crowded space where everything blends together. One option might be to think about balance rather than blending. Somehow the idea of yin and yang popped into my head, where the black contains a spot of white and the white has a spot of black. Why not let’s try and apply this to design? Instead of blending the opposites, draw on them both but keep their characteristics distinct. I’m sure some interesting possibilities lie that way.
There could be some other approaches that promote originality. Originality seems to stem from individuals creating work that is truly personal. FontLab’s bezier wrangling interface results in certain kinds of curves, but sketching with pencil and paper produces shapes of a different quality. So it follows that using a range of different tools (and I include different software in my definition of ‘tools’) will result in more personal outputs.
It seems also to make sense to study a range of different typefaces to see how others have solved certain problems, and broaden our repertoire of what constitutes ‘acceptable’ or ‘conventional’; also, to plot new areas on the map. Reading about type allows deeper, theoretical or historical concepts to inform our choices.
Lastly, typefaces solve problems, so seeking new problems is very likely to lead to original ideas.
Following David’s stay, we were delighted to welcome Reading alumnus Paul Barnes (@paulobarnesi) from independent foundry Commercial Type to talk about his approach to type. Paul emphasised the way originality can be grounded in a sensitive appraisal of historical sources. His main interest lies in 19th century British typefaces in the ilk of Baskerville, but his expertise also includes European influences going back to the 17th century. He finds original ideas evolve, interestingly, from being faithful to traditional letterforms, perhaps treating them in new ways stylistically. For example, his typeface developed for the National Trust took traditional English letterforms from the 17th century, converted it to a sans-serif design and applied Optima-style modulation:
Paul’s typeface experiment, Marian epitomises this approach: he took a selection of typefaces that represent different historical eras, and wondered what they would look like if stripped down to their barest form. He rigorously consulted thousands of sources to develop a very well rounded judgment of the typefaces’ inherent characteristics, and then drew their strokes in the thinnest hairlines. The result is an unexpectedly elegant family of display faces and I’m looking forward to seeing how graphic designers treat and use it.
Originality in typeface design, then, is personal to each of us, so we shouldn’t aim to be prescriptive. It is somehow linked to inspiration, and to a full understanding of historic context and precedents. It can be offering a new take on a well-loved model, or it can be driven by a synthetic exploration of concepts. It’s been a fascinating start to our final term, and the meta-thinking will serve as a continual, quiet reminder to produce better informed work.
With thanks to David and Paul for their generosity and encouragement.
The year has flown past at an alarming speed — not that it’s over yet, but as our project deadlines are in June, it feels like we’re very much in the final stretch. After our fantastic field trip to Antwerp, Amsterdam, the Hague, Haarlem and Bussum, the Easter break gave us some much needed breathing room to get down to some serious business with FontLab.
My serif face now has the complete character set (aside from Thai, which I’ve started but am not sure whether to continue — spending time on it could seriously compromise the quality of my other styles) and spacing is almost done. The sans face was feeling a little bland or rigid or something, and I’ve added more warmth and softness by drawing it slightly away from where it started. One thing I’ve realised through the year is that even with the strongest concept behind a design, or perhaps especially with a strong concept, there is a time to let go of one’s fixed ideas about a typeface and realise that things can evolve in their own direction and gain a stronger identity. So although I had begun with some fusion of Excoffon’s and Bloemsma’s ideas, I’ve allowed myself to open the gates to my own expression. I think that’s happened in a few areas of my typeface, so perhaps there’s some higher conclusion one can draw about being attentive to a design maturing and outgrowing its origins.
Of course it’s not always certain which way to take a design, so I tried a couple of possibilities before settling on a more humanist option. Top row shows the design that wasn’t quite working for me, middle rows show exploration of a couple of new options, and bottom row shows something I’m more comfortable with.
Bold is currently under development, then I’m hoping to give condensed a go, if time permits.
Our Spring term has flown by, and progress on my typeface was honestly a bit disappointing. Perhaps I tried to tackle too many things and ended up spreading things a bit thin with unresolved attempts at Greek and Thai, or perhaps it was the packed timetable of workshops, visiting lecturers and assessment deadlines, but I was expecting to have achieved more by the end of term. I was especially unhappy that I didn’t have very much new stuff to show Gerard in his two visits of the term, as I’d been focussing on the non-Latin designs rather than bold, italic or sans fonts I’m also trying to develop. On the plus side, however, my Latin lowercase in the regular weight is now accomplished, including most of the spacing, so I’m freezing that now to work on the caps and Burmese.
One of the problems with designing Burmese type had been nagging me since the start: Burmese script seriously challenges a type designer because there are ostensibly very few things you can do with a circle: make them circular, or make them circular? At the end of the day, a circle is still a circle. Referring back to my brief, those words ‘active, fluid, lively and cheerful’ seemed incommensurate with drawing a circle. Whoever heard of a lively circle? And with letterforms so completely removed from the Latin, what could be translated across to harmonise the scripts? The interesting lesson was learning to see beyond these limitations, think about how those adjectives could be implemented in different ways, and design at a higher level. I’ll try to explain how.
In this sample from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, using a font called Myanmar2, we can see that a good proportion of the circles in Burmese are connected (and some of the connections have not been well implemented). My first response was to look at how I’d made the junctions in my Latin letters and transpose this onto the Burmese shapes. This meant substantial thinning at the junctions to brighten the joins. At the same time, I’d responded to the requirement of ‘fluid’ by smoothing the joins into one continuous stroke.
Unfortunately, this had unwanted side-effects. The stress in the second circle has now moved around to the right side of the shape, and more importantly, the shape now bears no relation to the way it is drawn.
This image from John Okell’s indispensible Burmese: an introduction to the script shows clearly the consonant Ta is composed of two strokes, with the tool lifted off the page between strokes. Although my typeface is not strongly calligraphic, it seemed unwise to contradict the stroke construction only so that it would seem fluid. It also seemed the continuous construction didn’t give enough definition to the joins. In addition, the vowel sign Aa needs to connect to differently shaped consonants as a distinct mark, so having different joins just looked inconsistent.
It was at this stage I realised the strokes and components of Burmese needed to overlap each other rather than join in a Latin way. I also remembered Fiona saying that Indic scripts tend not to thin much at the joins.
The result above seems much more assured and less contrived.
Wraparounds and verticals
These highlighted parts in digital fonts always seemed so out of character for such a round script, and my original intention was to make them much less intrusive by ironing out the straight lines and sharp corners. My first attempts looked too clumsy, with inconsistent stress and shaky verticals. By the time I created my most recent version (third line below), I’d realised the problem with other fonts was not the verticality of the forms, but their squareness and sharp corners.
What about those adjectives then?
Yes. Active, fluid, lively and cheerful. As mentioned above, the simple way didn’t work out. Lightening the joins and making the strokes continuous ended up with a style that contradicted all the evidence. Instead I chose to lighten the interiors of the circles by taking weight off the inside strokes (resulting in a new way to avoid the problem of too much monolinearity and creating a pleasant balance of thick and thin strokes). I also brought in more energy and bounce to the leaf shapes by making their counters much more open. (Image above shows two letters with the leaf shapes.)
The Adobe Font Development Kit for OpenType (AFDKO or simply FDK) is a set of command line tools that Adobe makes freely available for font developers to help with production and testing. If, like me, you’ve struggled with FontLab’s glitches only to end up with incompatible font names, duplicate encodings or extra features you didn’t write, FDK seems like a better way to do things. Unlike glyph-editing software like FontLab, Fontographer, Glyphs or DTL BezierMaster, the FDK’s strength is in directly wrangling your fonts’ behind-the-scenes properties, such as naming and compiling extensive font families (especially from multiple masters), scripting the OpenType code that FontLab can’t manage, and comparing stem widths to expedite hinting.
Miguel Sousa, Adobe’s Type Team Lead, (and alumnus of the MATD programme), visited last week to teach us how to use the FDK, and even came to the department on Saturday to explain pretty much everything there is to know (or at least everything we wanted to know!) about multiple masters and hinting.
The FDK model is based on CFF/PostScript outlines, which are compiled with a set of text files into an OpenType font file. The text files set out all the font’s properties (font tables) like naming, style linking, hinting, glyph positioning (GPOS) and glyph substitutions (GSUB), The compiling is instructed mostly through the command line, but there are also several Python macros that can be run directly in Fontlab.
We started off working with Adobe’s multiple master font AdobeSans, which is built into Acrobat to generate instances that mimic the width and weight of missing fonts in .pdf files. After generating a regular instance of the font in .pfa format, we created the FontMenuNameDB and GlyphOrderAndAliasDB files. The former determines the weights in the family, and how they appear in menus, whilst the latter sets the order of glyphs, converts working (friendly) glyph names to final (production) names, and assigns Unicode values to the glyphs. After a couple more skeleton text files were complete, we ran the MakeOTF command, and out popped a functioning font file.
On day two, Miguel took us through the CheckOutlines function, which is very similar to FontLab’s font audit function, checking for points at extremes, sharp junctions, crossed paths, incorrect contour directions, and overlaid points. The resulting text file listed the errors Miguel had introduced for the exercise, and after I’d corrected them, I was delighted to see CheckOutlines processing the revised .pfa smoothly without encountering any problems. The next task was to run the AutoHint tool, which is more intelligent than FontLab’s inbuilt routines, in that it reports inconsistencies in stem width (when individual hints don’t quite match up to the user-specified stem widths).
By the end of the second day, we’d created a family of eight hinted fonts from the AdobeSans masters, and the whole process seemed very promising. With a bit of practice, the FDK model is quite logical and more powerful than FontLab. The only thing I struggled with was setting up the correct directory structure, as certain files apply to the family and others need duplicating into the subdirectory for each weight or style.
Day three took us through Type 1 hinting, from alignment zones to stem widths to all those odd ‘blue’ settings that have always been so opaque. In a well-rehearsed and methodical way, Miguel managed to make even the most advanced production techniques completely clear. For example, the blue scale defines at what resolution (in fact PPM) the overshoot zones are rasterised: below this level, all overshoots are trimmed. Blue shift, on the other hand, determines the minimum amount of overshoot you wish to control: overshoots less than the blue shift amount will still be suppressed if they would rasterise smaller than half a pixel. We fiddled with these settings and output the resulting font to a .pdf. Acrobat has the ability to set the on-screen resolution (under Preferences/Page Display/Resolution) to allow direct on-screen proofing — a highly useful feature I hadn’t thought to look for.
By popular demand, the workshop continued into the weekend. Although nothing was planned in advance, a number of us wanted to understand better how to set up and manipulate multiple masters, how to do TrueType hinting and how to get our complex scripts working with anchors and mark positioning. Again, it was wonderful to have such complex ideas explained so expertly, building on the concepts from the previous three days.
Many thanks to Miguel and Adobe for a highly beneficial workshop.
In Europe, the various strands of typography came together over centuries. Even before the arrival of printing, there were many styles (and sub-styles) of writing: the Greek and Roman inscriptional capitals and everyday ‘rustic’ letters, the Carolingian and insular uncials, and the textura and rotunda gothics to name only a few key elements. Printing types started in the fifteenth century by mimicking the forms of handwritten letters, and thenceforth, developments in type included bicameralism (including upper- and lowercase versions of letters in one typeface), the integration of uprights with italics, and the gradual movement away from humanist models to the elegant swelling lines of the “modern’ types. Later we see the introduction of sans-serif faces, and the invention of the fat, poster faces that gave us our bolds.
The result has been that Western typography now has a huge repertoire of type styles. In turn, each new development has allowed new ways of presenting text on the page. Thus, ‘typography’ was born from the union and interplay of type design and printing.
Compare this to the historical context for non-Latin scripts. Burmese, for example, was first made into type in Rome for the Vatican’s printing arm Propaganda Fide in the 1770s. The church of course needed to print bibles in ‘exotic’ types for their missionary activities, but the interesting point for designers is that such text is very ‘flat’ — that is the text is very simply structured. It just starts and goes on until it ends. Aside from section headings, there’s no typographic hierarchy, no different kinds of information that need signalling, no different voices on the page. The functions the typeface was required to perform were therefore not complex enough to spur the production of different styles, and even by 1833, when France’s Imprimerie Royale cut their Burmese, only two sizes of the same style were made.
Fast forward to the twentieth century (my dissertation will explore the story of the in-between), and we’ll see that Burmese type still doesn’t offer an exciting repertoire of styles. Yes, there’s a vibrant sign-painting scene and a bunch of funky display fonts made by graphic designers, but Burmese type for reading has not really moved since the days of Monotype, and one finds only this same monoline, rigid style (essentially one type design) used in every imaginable typographic context: advertisements, newspaper articles and editorial, hotel receipts, novels, grade one children’s schoolbooks, Buddhist books, technology magazines, arts magazines, maps, business cards…the list goes on.
I had the chance to talk to Dan Rhatigan, Monotype’s Senior Type Designer, about these issues recently. He recalls discussions with clients who commissioned him to design new Bengali typefaces. These clients had very specific views of how their script should look, and seemed to have conflated the idea of a design with the idea of an alphabet so when they were presented with functional, slightly different typefaces, they thought he was trying to change the alphabet.
So where does all this leave the type designer? There’s little point in perpetuating the same old design — imagine being a newspaper editor condemned to only ever have the choice of Helvetica or Arial (and only two weights of each). The point is that type designers are there to offer a multi-purpose toolbox to people who use type: book publishers, newspaper editors, web designers, graphic designers and end users. The text they set has complexities which cannot be represented by the limits of the current typographic palette. Monoline, geometric forms (even with bold companions) don’t work in every situation and don’t articulate to the reader the differences in the kinds of information presented. Information or communication design should be a response to the content of the work, so a one-type-fits-all approach leaves the work of deciphering the content to the reader, a fundamentally anti-design stance.
This does not mean turning the conventions on their heads, westernising the Burmese script or taking wild liberties with letterforms. Luckily, and although it sounds slightly paradoxical, there’s a way to design an authentically Burmese typeface in an original way.
In her article ‘Translating non-Latin scripts into type’ (Typography Papers 3, 1998), Fiona Ross berates the Imprimerie Royale’s Bengali typeface of 1819. Why? Because those bits of metal were cut by people far away from Bengal who had little appreciation of the language, heritage or current practices in how the script was written. She encourages the designer to look beyond the typographic precedents of a script and get familiar with the calligraphy, inscriptions, handwriting and roots of a culture’s writing system.
To this end, I’ve been studying palm-leaf manuscripts, folding paper parabaik books, children’s writing primers, the evolution of letterforms and people’s handwriting today. Thus it should be possible to gently draw the Burmese script away from its 20th century incarnation in mechanical type and into the 21st century where new doors can be opened.
There’s a phrase that pops up from time to time in the department; it’s probably a Gerry-ism. ‘Designing the design’.
My take on it is that before we start drawing letterforms and thinking about details like what style of serifs we’d like, there’s the important matter of how the thing should look holistically. Can I visualise the rhythm and texture on the page, the way the letters perform together? Am I aiming for a particular mood and tone? What connotations and atmospheric values would I like to suggest?
For a text face, these questions are primarily answered not at the glyph level, but at the level of the paragraph. The image below shows that typography also has an part to play, as the two pages are set in (different?) cuts of the transitional-modern face Baskerville. Even though a certain letter may not change much in its details, the countless repetition of those details can lead to a very different impact:
Dan Rhatigan, Monotype’s Senior Type Designer, (and Reading MATD alumnus) visited us last week, and suggested by this stage of the academic year, it is quite easy for students to let their designs get carried away, away from the briefs we set ourselves at the beginning. By now, everyone tends to be enjoying seeing their design take shape and there’s a temptation to experiment with all sorts of new ideas as we get more familiar with FontLab and our skills and knowledge increase.
This advice sent me deep into my paperwork to dig out the brief I’d filed away in November. Luckily, it’s quite a strict brief, so I hadn’t really needed to keep referring to it, as I have a clear idea what I’m aiming at. What was useful was looking back at the bits that dealt with what sort of typographic tone I wanted the letters to elicit, and I’d been very explicit in defining this, using words like ‘liveliness’, ‘flow’, ‘forward motion’ and ‘bright, cheerful shapes’.
Somehow, after pondering these ideas, I was able to clearly visualise how my Burmese should look on the page. My first attempts had been dominated by a fixation on individual letterforms and stylistic details, but following advice from Gerry and Fiona, I needed to have more unity and an overall plan for the script. Although I’m referring to Burmese lettering, signwriting and manuscripts for inspiration, the key to a readable typeface is having all the letters click together in paragraphs and not draw attention to their actual forms.
In the first line, I was trying interesting patterns of stress where the heaviest part of the stroke was opposite the apertures. I’d been inspired by 18th century metal type, which followed this pattern. However this didn’t lead to any consistency, and the shapes seemed to be fighting with each other. The lower sample shows a more considered approach to stroke modulation, and a smoother, much more even and harmonious tone. My Burmese now feels like it has a direction, which will no doubt be further refined as I go through the rest of the year.
I decided to take advantage of Gerard’s third visit of the year to finalise the relationship between my Latin serif and sans serif designs. Several people had remarked that the sans was looking too skinny, too small or too light, but I wasn’t really sure whether fixing it meant stretching the thing or redrawing completely. In the end it was an illuminating and actually quite easy process, despite the many dimensions at play.
The first thing to fix was the width. The sans was feeling too condensed, and Gerard advised me that the proportions of the lowercase /n/ for example should match between the serif and sans design, so I compared the ratios of height to width of both together, and found they were almost identical (in fact I’d pulled in the stems in the sans 5 units to compensate for the lack of serifs):
I used InDesign’s character menu to mechanically stretch the letters horizontally in steps from 100% up to 108% and ran some test prints:
When comparing my printed proofs with the serif design, I found that a horizontal scale of 102¼ % fitted nicely. In fact anything over 103% began to look as though the letters were a larger point size.
The next thing to fix was the stroke weight, which I did by hand in FontLab. I increased the width of the heavy strokes in increments of 4 units and found that 8 units was the right amount to give the same text colour as the serif face.
Finally, the expansion had messed up the letterfitting, so I had to reduce all the set widths to compensate. Again, I used InDesign to quickly proof different settings. The result was a reduction of 12 units all round, and this matches the serif very nicely. Both cuts may still be spaced a little widely, but as long as I remember to tweak them both at the same time, it should be no problem to alter the overall fitting.
Compared to the original, the final result (above) had a width of 102.25%, an increase of 8 units in stem weight and a negative tracking of 12 units. The image also shows a difference between two of the printers in the department: the Xerox on the right gives consistently darker results than the HP on the left. It goes to show that we should continue to proof on as many printers as possible, rather than relying on the results of one which may be an anomaly. Luckily we have six laser printers at our disposal in the department and can also use the offset press from time to time.
With these two styles reconciled, I’ve been trying to fix my Greek! Gerry had been a bit underwhelmed by my first attempt, which wasn’t altogether surprising as I’ve never drawn Greek letters before and don’t read the language. Due to my unfamiliarity, it seemed that I’d been focused on the stylistic details like terminals and stroke junctions instead of looking at the fundamental architecture of the letterforms. Interestingly that resonated with what Fiona had been getting at with my Burmese: try to settle on the essential proportions and relationships between letters before thinking about the modulation and stylistic treatments.
I’m really struggling to assimilate this advice, as I have a strong inclination to experiment with unexpected styling and dissonant harmony whilst keeping such details under the radar for text sizes and immersive reading. I need to remember not to run before I can walk. It can’t be all exciting until the basics are grasped, even if the forms look boring to start with. Step one leads to step two. I guess I’m seeing the forms and the styling as one process, enmeshed and depending on each other. Another problem is my typeface is trying to steer away from the stroke-and-tool model, and I want to let form and counterform have some independent rationale not following the ‘internal skeleton’ of each letter.
My solution so far seems to be to figure out what combinations of form and styling work well together. To help with this, I’ve started the Greek twice, with opposite modulations that affect the forms somewhat.
I’m not yet decided which model to follow, so I’ll keep working on both sets and make a decision later.
We’ve definitely moved up a gear or two this term as our timetable becomes filled to bursting point.
My seminar on how designers respond to technological constraints was well received, with students enthusiastically remarking how interesting it was and with Gerry’s approval that I’d covered the salient points. The gist of the presentation was that successful type designs accommodate the needs of technology, but don’t depend on them. A talented designer will always develop their typefaces to work with more than one technology, and let their eye for aesthetics be the final arbiter over design decisions.
Next up, we had John Hudson visiting the department from Canada for an enjoyable and highly useful two-day workshop. John co-founded Tiro Typeworks with Ross Mills and they produce award-winning typefaces for major clients including Adobe, Apple and Microsoft.
Our mission for the two days was to collaboratively produce a typeface. John had drawn five characters /HOion/ of a heavy poster face (below) and we each took a random selection of the remaining characters to draw.
After we’d each drawn our first six glyphs, we printed proofs and had a group critique. John had to go to an appointment, but in fact that worked very well as we then had to manage our decision-making processes ourselves, and decide which glyphs should lead the design and how to harmonise everyone’s designs. Apart from variations in overshoot and proportion, there were decisions to be made about ball terminals, counter shapes and openness, speed of modulation between thicks and thins, the flatness or pointiness of diagonal junctions, the weight of hairlines, shape of inner brackets and many other stylistic features.
The exercise revealed the multiplicity of design decisions that need to be made deliberately, consistently and coherently. Following the critique, we all made changes to our glyphs and then took another batch of characters to draw. It was an instructive exercise for many of the group: some had never seen a currency sign (¤) before, others had to get to grips with components and blue zones.
By the end of day two, we’d produced quite a consistent typeface, and the hope is to continue polishing it into a useable font. I found the collaborative approach really useful, as the benefits of everyone’s different styles and approaches led to better decisions based on more possibilities, which outweighed the loss of control I could have worried about. Our speed was also surprising: to be able to have a basic Latin character set after only two days felt really good!
After a good winter break it’s now time to put our brains back in gear and prepare for a packed term. Our dissertation proposals are due at the end of next week; this is where we outline our topic, how we want to approach it, and where we’ll find information, resources or people to write about. I haven’t yet started mine, as I’ve been also occupied with writing my seminar, which is also due next week, and which counts towards our final marks.
During the year, everyone has to give a 10-minute presentation on an assigned topic, with an accompanying handout that covers the topic in more depth. Luckily, I have an interesting topic: embracing digital technology in type design. I’m reviewing how designers kept up with technological changes since the decline of hot metal type, by looking at photo-typesetting, the Apple 4 bitmap fonts, laser technology, the advent of TrueType outlines, screen fonts and Microsoft’s ClearType engine. Each stage of technology has presented its own particular implications for typeface designers, and the seminar aims to shed light on the various approaches designers have taken to address the technical requirements of their day. It’s been fascinating to research because every book and journal I’ve read has opened more doors.
Our first week back is also focused on our practical projects, with several critique sessions in quick succession. Independent type designer Jean-Baptiste Levée visited on Monday and gave a good presentation of not just his work, but how he works through questions and design processes with his clients. Jean-Baptiste showed us slides of his sketchbook, saying that he enjoys doodling not as part of his design process, as they’re not an efficient way of exploring ideas, but that doodles are a good way to get the ideas out and make way for new ideas to grow.
His biggest project in 2011 was to develop a corporate typeface for AirInuit as part of their rebrand. Interestingly, the typeface had to include support for the Inuktitut writing system, a set of geometric letters that rotate and flip to inflect phonemes differently:
A couple of tips if you’re designing Inuktitut: the Latin word space isn’t big enough to separate words of Inuktitut, so make it wider; and Inuktitut will require extensive kerning due to the different letterforms and vertical positions.
Of course, Jean-Baptiste was hugely excited to finally see his typeface plastered across the fuselage of a real Boeing 737!
Jean-Baptiste went on to talk about some of his other clients and typefaces, but the most interesting part for me was when he was talking about the challenges of setting up a small independent foundry. Luckily France has particularly good laws regarding intellectual property and typeface designs, names and code can all be protected by copyright. The most time-consuming and costly parts were to draw up a legal framework for the business, drafting contracts and licence documents with lawyers. Another big job was building and promoting the company website (BAT Foundry).
Due to the nature of being a small independent foundry, Jean-Baptiste has to work on commissions from clients, which means fewer resources can be devoted to building retail fonts. However, with the help of his colleagues, BAT Foundry is busy preparing several new typefaces for release in the coming months.
Jean-Baptiste then spent the afternoon reviewing our typefaces and offering critique, and on Tuesday, Gerry also did a critique session, and today we have a visit from Jonathan Barnbrook who’s doing a presentation followed by critique session. I’m not sure where I’m going to find time to think about my dissertation proposal, and still need to finalise my slides for the seminar next Tuesday. It’s going to be a busy term.
Our first term is over, though it feels as though we’ve all only just settled in. The ten weeks have passed so quickly, in a flurry of workshops, conferences, seminars, critique sessions and typographic delights. I’m feeling lucky to be able to spend this year doing something I enjoy so much at a department with such a great name.
Progress on my typeface is going well, I think. I had the chance to talk to Fiona about my Burmese letters, and we agreed that there was definitely room for improvement. The thing that puzzled her was the inconsistent stroke modulation (see image) which didn’t seem to follow any pattern.
Referring back to the images of old manuscripts and Burmese folding books, we noticed that the heaviest parts of the stroke were often at the tops of the letters, and followed a pattern consistent with the pen-tooling of other Indian scripts, namely having the pen angled the opposite way from the normal Latin model. Unfortunately in my enthusiasm to create something new and exciting, I’d put the stress all over the place, and had to agree that whilst the letters might look interesting, they wouldn’t do a very coherent job at forming words since the eye would be drawn up-down-up-down, rather than along the reading line. Worse, the overall texture of the paragraph would be rather spotty. I’d been seeing the glyphs primarily as cool shapes, instead of as word components. I guess that’s about the worst thing a type designer can say!
Fiona suggested looking at some more Burmese manuscripts, in fact as many as possible, to try and work out the best model to follow. It’s also helpful to look at other south and southeast Asian scripts. The letters of these are typically drawn hanging from the headline (see image above), rather than sitting on a baseline, which lends further support to the idea of stressing the tops of the letters. In fact I noticed with curiosity on one Burmese folding book that the letters had been drawn hanging from a faint ruled guideline. This came as no surprise to Fiona: “It’s a Brahmic script”. I need to be faithful to that ancestry to make it authentically Burmese. Strangely I didn’t feel discouraged by the prospect of starting again: it’s the first time I’ve tried drawing Burmese and if my first Latin is anything to go by (below), first designs are never really very clever! That it will also look more harmonious and read more smoothly only makes me more excited to revise and redraw.
(My first attempt at drawing letters from 2007. In this rather unassured design — just look at that skinny f! — I was seeing the shapes as discrete entities rather than drawing them to fit well together in words and actually paragraphs. You can see I was drawing them at large scale on the screen as the serifs are tiny.)
Anyway, back to my Latin. We hadn’t had group critique with Gerry for a very long time, so people had generally made a lot of new things to show him.
I was quite certain my serif cut was heading in a good direction; and now having had Gerard’sspacingletterfitting workshop twice, feel much more confident about the whole thing. Also I should mention one of last year’s students, Julián, who’s been working in the department, has been very generous with critique and advice about spacing. One piece of advice was that the space between two lowercase /o/s should be about the same as the lowercase stem width. This provided a foundation from which to overhaul the spacing, and I think it really works.
Gerry seems to know what sort of feedback is useful. For me, it’s mainly been things I’ve overlooked or haven’t noticed, rather than raising stylistic questions about what makes an /a/ an /a/ for example. My odd rectangular serif-terminal features on the /a/, /c/, /s/ and /z/ weren’t all the same shape, sometimes being square and other times trapezoid, so that needed attention. The same shape on the diagonals made letters like /w/ too dark — I’m still not quite sure how to resolve that. My /x/ had a disjointed appearance where I’d offset the thick strokes too much at the centre. Here’s progress on the serif face.
One recurring difficulty I face is determining the different amounts of overshoot on the x-line and baseline. My glyphs seem not to align properly, sometimes floating above the baseline, sometimes dipping below, and sometimes looking too tall or short. Although I have learnt how to see the problems, I haven’t yet discovered how to correct it, and end up overcompensating every time.
I was delighted to hear Gerry quite liked my sans serif design (above, with first showing of capitals). Gerry often explains the trouble with sans faces is there are fewer interesting design decisions that can be made. Along with the lack of serifs, there is much less scope for being creative with contrast and stress. This leaves only the overall width and shape of the strokes and terminals to play with. So it was really encouraging when Gerry said there was something very interesting about my design. Although it’s a monoline design, I’ve kept a bit of emphasis at the tops of the letterforms, in the hope that the Burmese will follow suit, and I’ve also kept the noticeable thinning at stroke junctions. Unfortunately, I’d gone a bit boring in the /h/, /m/ and /n/ and needed to ‘do something a bit more interesting’, so I redrew these with more movement and contrast. There was also a difficulty with the crossbars of /f/ and /t/ because they produced too much density along the x-line, where in the rest of the face, that’s quite a light spot. I tried a couple of different solutions to this but ended up following Gerry’s advice to taper the strokes on the left side. I may come back to this in the future. Initial feedback from the class and other type designers has been very positive. I can’t wait to try making the bold!
Paragraph sample showing problem areas. The /x/ with too much offset, also too wide, and the /m/ and /t/ with too much space on the right.
Week 8 was our second intensive practical week with Gerard, and with only two more weeks of term, it’s felt like time to really settle into a definite direction and concentrate fully on our typefaces.
I’d already noticed in my print proofs that the stems were a bit dark, and dark patches were interrupting the rhythm on the arches of /m/ and /n/. I decided that the best way to reduce these dark spots was to turn the stress a little more vertical and give the whole face a bit more rationality, toning down some of the extravagant shapes whilst keeping those features I’d originally felt interesting, such as the fluidity and springiness in my curves. This little animation shows how the letterforms have changed:
For a couple of days in the middle of the week, I wasn’t sure if I actually liked my typeface at all, and felt frustrated that I didn’t know how to respond to my doubt. After all, it’s no good trying to rationalise matters of taste. Gerard gave some constructive criti-fusion by pointing out a couple of misproportioned glyphs in passing and seemed to be drawing my attention to existing typefaces for inspiration (Enquire, Lexicon and Le Monde Journal — designs I dutifully appreciated before reverting to my own ideas!) Our classroom also became seriously overheated: even with windows and doors open, people were complaining of headaches. I found a soothing break with a stroll in the chilly autumn forest.
My Burmese is also coming along nicely. I visited Oxford University’s Bodleian Library to pore over old palm-leaf manuscripts, and I feel as knowledgeable as anybody about the historic derivation of the script. The Library was incredibly helpful in coordinating a mix of different stuff at my request, so I ended up with early Burmese-English dictionaries, cultural scenes in watercolour, pages of cloth inked with Shan script, traditional parabaik manuscripts scratched on bamboo and palm-leaf strips, and some unexpected large-format mazes. Others in the Library were peeking curiously over their little books as I spread out tropical-smelling concertinas across two desks to take photos. (Unfortunately I can’t publish the images here due to Library policy.) I’m making a further trip to London on Friday to see the Burmese curator of the British Library, who has promised some exciting things too.
Another surprise was the arrival of a hefty package of goodies from my mum’s friends who just returned from holiday in Burma. They sent me a collection of newspapers, photos, receipts, books and posters, absolutely super. Here’s a dot matrix till receipt:
These resources have shown me there’s huge potential with the Burmese script: it seems very likely that 20th century printing technology and metal type have been detrimental to the Burmese script. These days Burmese print is dominated by a very mechanical, monoline style that severely restricts proper typographic expression and I suspect also hampers readability. Here’s an example:
The old manuscripts show great variety and richness of form, and these can act as clues how to humanise the script again. I’m much too forward-looking to want to produce an 18th century style of typeface, so it’s more about seeing ways in which those models can instruct and serve to revitalise and renew typographic trends. Given current events in Burma, it seems the perfect time to be thinking of a more open future, where written communication can explore new territories.
Here’s my progress:
Meanwhile, back in the classroom, Gerard gave us a live letterfitting demonstration using Pooja’s typeface-in-development. Starting with the lowercase /o/, he showed us how to tackle the multi-dimensional balancing act that results in every letter fitting nicely with every other letter. Due to the different shapes and different surrounding whitespace, it’s not as easy as giving each letter the same amount of space. In fact it’s pretty much the hardest thing about type design! Some letters like /c/ or /g/ need to have a fraction extra space — somehow their whitespace is integral to their identity. The aim is to harmonise the counterspace inside letters with the whitespace between letters, and of course all these shapes are pretty much incommensurable. Serifs, curves and letter widths all have complex effects on the overall colour of the text on the page, so making it even is a real challenge. Here’s a spacing proof I made on Friday:
And a quick test of the serif and sans cuts together:
After that full week, it’s good to be nearing the Christmas break; however we next have our italics workshop with Victor Gaultney and then the dissertation preparation week. It’s all very exciting!
The last couple of weeks have felt a little more pressured, as we concentrate more on our practical projects, delve more deeply into the non-Latin scripts and start our core seminars.
As well as classroom commitments, I have become the student representative for the class, which involves extra meetings both in the department and with the Students’ Union. The food situation near the Typography and Arts departments is pretty dire, so some sort of petition or direct action may be in order. There have also been a few silly problems with IT in the department which have needed more patience than expected.
So anyway, back to type. We’ve seen very little of Gerry lately; instead Fiona Ross has been introducing the Brahmic scripts of south and southeast Asia. To most of the class these are completely unfamiliar, though we do have two lovely Indian classmates who are helping us to understand how these strange systems work. Actually, when thinking about it, it seems a bit insane that we’re trying to learn ten different writing systems at once! — but in fact the principles that apply to these scripts are the same and it’s not the details that matter at this point. As a speaker (and reader) of Thai (and with a rudimentary understanding of Lao, Khmer and Burmese), these abugida syllabaries all fit into my conceptual framework rather easier. I already understand the phoneme-based alphabetisation, the virama or ‘killer’ symbol, subjoining consonants and character reordering for complex scripts, but the production of Devanagari or Telugu typefaces involves a lot more glyph combinations. The southern Indian scripts for example can theoretically take up to five consonant signs in one cluster, all to be pronounced at once! Thankfully we have OpenType these days to take care of chained characters, but I still need to create my own ligature table to show what combinations of initial consonants, subjoined and medial consonants, vowels and tone marks are possible, and how they affect one other.
Figuring out how to convert Burmese orthography into OpenType routines has proved rather more involved than I initially expected. I had the chance to speak to Victor Gaultney, who visits us a few times through the year, and who suggested that OpenType wouldn’t be able to handle the complexities of Burmese. (Victor works for SIL International, whose Burmese font Padaukuses the Graphite rendering engine. Unfortunately this font won’t work on either of my machines, so I can’t tell if it allows the designer more choices between alternate glyphs.) I’ve been buried in Unicode documentation, getting to grips with the order of keying, storing and sorting glyphs (generally the sequence in which letters are input does not match the order in which you’d find them in dictionaries, and neither of these orders necessarily matches the order they appear in words; in fact for Burmese there seem to be three competing sort orders).
I’ve been studying inscriptions, manuscripts, vernacular signage, newspapers, handwriting, 20th century movie posters and book jackets and all sorts of random Burmese lettering to get as full a view as possible of the writing system. In the coming weeks I’ll be making trips to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, British Library in London, the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and the Cambridge University Library. There’s also a possibility of making a field trip to Burma in the Spring break, if I can organise some useful meetings at museums and publishing houses there. Also some family friends have just returned from a holiday in Burma, and a package is on its way to me containing some stuff I’ll ‘be impressed’ by, which sounds groovy.
All this has gone into my final proposal, submitted today, so now it’s a matter of collating all the ideas and designing the actual Burmese letters. I spent Sunday playing with some ideas for a small selection of them.
Here the idea was to move away (gently) from the generic monoline appearance of so many Burmese fonts. I found the medial ra conspicuous by its squareness in most existing typefaces and wanted to make it seem more like the other letters…in my work I’m conscious of the tendency to Westernise non-Latin letterforms but in this case, the precedent is Burmese as I found this style more customary on palm leaf parabaik manuscripts. I’m fairly certain this is a culturally sensitive approach but will continue rebalance against a number of other sources. Those parabaiks (at the British Library) also showed me that the traditional writing implement, a stylus, effected a kind of stroke modulation with heavier and lighter parts — another way to abandon the geometric forms common today. (I’m currently not sure whether this modulation needs to be more or less evident.) I’ve also condensed the forms slightly for the same reason. It’s far from polished as the extenders are the wrong lengths, the ligated forms are not quite joined well enough, and the stroke terminals need work, but the basic forms are much more interesting to draw than might be suggested by the predominance of circles.
Michael Twyman’s sessions continue to inspire us. His lecture series ‘Typographic Delights’ traces the history of print. Each week Michael brings in a huge selection of artefacts, mostly from the 19th century, and introduces the historical and technological circumstances surrounding the emergence of a particular kind of typographic printing. So far we’ve covered French and English letterpress posters, photogravure cinema magazines, the history of forms, signwriting and chromolithography. For me with no academic appreciation of arts and crafts nor design, it’s been hugely instructiveto match up my knowledge of the industrial revolution and the rise of globalisation with developments in printed communications.
Today’s centrepiece was a 17-colour progressive proof from 1866, with a litho-printed snapshot of each stage of production as the page was stamped by each litho stone. Somehow today’s eight-colour inkjet printers pale by comparison.
For the past two or three weeks I’ve been bashing out ideas for my practical project, the type family designed especially for Burmese dictionaries. As I blogged before (Thoughts on a Brief and Exploring Burmese), I’m aiming for a fresh, lively and cheerful design, in which the Burmese and Latin scripts harmonise well.
My first scribbles with paper and pencil (above) looked like a strange imitation of Charter, Miller or Times New Roman. I adopted round ball terminals on the /a/ and /c/, in a crude attempt to reflect the circular forms of Burmese letters. The problem was it’s boring. The vertical stress wasn’t providing enough dynamism, and the flat serifs seemed too modern and fussy. Overall it looked restrained and dull, not at all the sort of thing I wanted to spend the next eight months working on. However, I wasn’t quite ready to throw away my sketches as something about my /n/ seemed to show some interesting potential.
I’d subconsciously picked up on the idea of designing the whites, the counterspaces, before the blacks, the strokes, and this had meant I was focussing on the white notch above the join. Making it large seemed to have two benefits: reducing clogging at small (dictionary) sizes by lightening the junction, and pushing the upper curve forward creating some nice movement and liveliness, giving a nice ‘legato’ effect to letters. In addition, the shape of the trap seemed to represent the path of a bounce, accidentally perfect to suggest liveliness.
A second attractive feature of the /n/ was that the inner curve of the arch didn’t have so much speed in the curve — all the action was in the outer curve — allowing me to indulge my interest of dissociating the two sides of the stroke, in a Dwiggins or Bloemsma* sort of way, producing something unachievable by a real tool. This led me to further research Bloesma’s logic behind Balance or Legato: his solution was to link the letters by rotating the counters, but what if there’s another way?
I began to sketch again (below), trying to incorporate the active stroke movements and flow between letters. A solution here was to make the serifs flow out from the stems, rather than looking like bars across the bottom of strokes. And they needed to become slightly asymmetrical to emphasise the desired forward movement.
I completely redesigned the /a/, actually by reverting to an unmodulated, sans serif design, to see how the underlying architecture could work, and then adding the contrast. With the /e/ and /s/, I tried to make the inner sides of the strokes less round, directing the eye along the reading line to the next letter, rather than curving all the way back into the centre of the letters (below). And yes, that /s/ isn’t quite there yet.
I’d also been playing with Burmese letterforms (below), thinking about how some of the details of my Latin design could be transferred over. I wanted to add a small amount of stroke modulation, and thought the terminals especially would be an area in which some clever solutions could make my design more unique. After all, I want to make something that isn’t just a set of geometric circles. Adding some humanist or calligraphic touches seemed reasonable.
So far so good. And then I presented my design brief and font sketches to Gerard Unger, thinking I had a solid basis for a type family. Instead, Gerard suggested, where I had been considering my Burmese as a non-Latin script, I could consider my Latin as a non-Burmese script. Oops! But what does this mean exactly? Well, start by looking at the Burmese letterforms, thinking about how the strokes are made, with which kind of tool, and what effect that has on the appearance of letters. Sure, they’re circles, but they’re also monoline, and can be rotated or squoosed to look Latin. Not that he suggested I mimic the Burmese details in the Latin, but that it could be instructive to think about the angles and roundness of Burmese when constructing the Latin. He suggested I study Futura, VAG Round and DIN Rounded. An interesting idea, I thought.
Feeling confused by rounded, geometric sans serifs, which I couldn’t link in a meaningful way to a typeface for small text in dictionary columns, I dutifully went back to my Burmese sketches whilst looking at DIN Round. Hm, just what I expected. Monoline, geometric shapes, a real spanner in the plan to make my Burmese more humanist.
But then it struck me I didn’t want to make the Burmese dictate the style of the Latin, in the same way Gerard was eager for me to avoid simply adapting my Latin into different stroke patterns. What I want is to give both scripts equally strong identities in the family, neither dominating the other, and with influences going both ways. After experimenting with Thai letterforms, I also want to ensure the two scripts are clearly distinguishable on the page, rather than blending into each other and getting swallowed up.
A potential solution occurred to me unexpectedly. Whilst looking back at my Burmese, thinking about which letters should be my starting blocks, I realised the importance of writing them on paper: Burmese words are written left to right, but the strokes are drawn in circle sections that go both clockwise and counter-clockwise. Some letter circles are started at the bottom and go clockwise, and some are drawn anti-clockwise from the top. And some letters are constructed in sections: strokes in opposite directions. Gerard’s suggestions were making me think.
Whilst considering the relevance of this, I started sketching the sans-serif version of the Latin letters, which seemed to be the most promising way forward from Gerard’s suggestions. So what happens if the sans version took a little pinch of Burmese roundness, and a little of its geometric construction, and of course the more monoline approach would suit a sans face better, and what happens if into that mix, we start constructing strokes backwards as well as forwards? What if we start a /c/ or an /s/ at the bottom? Can instrokes and outstrokes be flipped on their heads?
Last week was taken over by Typo London, the first of the famed Typo Berlin design conferences to make it to the UK. Eric Spiekermann chaired the event, with his team of moderators, and the whole thing was nicely organised and had some fun bits.
Despite the title ‘Typo London’, this is not a conference primarily about type. It’s more to do with graphic design and the ‘creative industries’, so it covered areas like conceptual art, animation and UX design, which can be quite a long way from type.
Screens for ‘Hybrid Media’
As it turned out, the areas unconnected with type turned out to be among the most interesting and useful. Take for example Dale Herigstad’s talk, which kicked off the conference. Dale was in the team that devised the gestural interfaces launched originally in ‘Minority Report’, so his visionary work is very much part of our everyday lives through touch-screen technology. Dale contextualised the evolution of our media, from print to photograph to film, cinema, interactive media, virtual reality and now to stereo 3D, explaining that each step change has brought the user closer to the experience. Working at the cutting edge of technology, where hard work sounds like a whole lot of fun, Dale is now fusing the worlds of movie, video gaming and internet, using gestural interactions and stereoscopic 3D to produce enriched experiences in wholly new arenas.
BBC Web Typography
Kutlu Çanlıoğlu and Titus Nemeth have been collaborating on the BBC World Service websites, which exist in 27 languages across 9 scripts including Arabic, Hindi and Mandarin. Web typography is of course still in its infancy, but this has not deterred Kutlu and the BBC from aspiring to meticulous consistency between its sister sites. The key here was in setting up a baseline grid and making detailed observations of how fonts behave in terms of line spacing at different sizes. The BBC team also had to research the cultural expectations of their audiences in different countries, in order to present information in the right place on screen. Some countries preferred the ‘hard’, newsy headlines first, others like to have a mix of the ‘softer’ stories and advertisements. Titus worked hard on his Nassim typeface to make sure the new Urdu site has a strong identity that nevertheless fits into the international framework of the BBC. As a result of translations between various technologies, Arabic has become victim to a number of simplifications and constraints, which meant that Titus had to design his Arabic typeface very critically, so as not to replicate errors and mis-designs that have unfortunately become standard. The result now is the BBC Urdu website that is not only faithful to its heritage but also cutting edge technology in action.
Another funky speaker was Michael B Johnson from Pixar, who talked us through the process of creating an animated movie. He showed us the thinking processes behind some scenes in Toy Story 3 and in The Incredibles. Each story had to be pitched using moving pictures (stop-frame black and white sketches accompanied by one-person voices and sound effects) before the editors and producers, before being edited and critiqued many times to iron out any dead-ends in the story and difficult spots. I found it very insightful to see how smart and rigorous the processes need to be.
Design Made Public
Gary Hustwit, director of the 2007 docu-movie Helvetica, presented some clips from his next release, Urbanized, which focuses on projects that put design in the hands of the public. Gary asks how can city planning be made more participatory, and comes out with some fun but astonishingly elegant answers. One project by Candy Chang, looks at the suburban decay of New Orleans and how design thinking can give the community a voice to express their needs and ideas. Faced by a depressing number of vacant lots and buildings around her city, Candy made some vinyl stickers that read “I wish this was…” for passers-by to complete with their suggestions on how spaces can be reclaimed. The beauty here is in the direct generation of ideas straight from the stakeholders in the community.
Another urban project took over Tidy Street in Brighton, my home town. Here, residents were encouraged to pay attention to their use of electricity for three weeks. The street’s consumption was measured and painted day-by-day on the road surface in bright colours, where all the residents and passers-by could see progress. By the end of the project, residents were observing the direct relationship between their use of household appliances and the street’s whole consumption. I love the way creative thinking can trigger people to think in a more socially and environmentally responsible way, and bring communities together to promote collective action.
Wayfinding in London
Tim Fendley talked us through the process of designing London’s new wayfinding signage. The design team here had to identify the shortcomings of existing navigation systems, often put together over decades in differing styles and sometimes inconsistent and even contradictory. They also had to examine the psychology of a journey, which included identifying four different kinds of pedestrian, map-reading problems, and the barriers we face when transferring between different modes of transport. The team found that we tend to walk in ‘bubbles’ or areas that we are familar with, and rely on transport to take us to other bubbles. When people are given the confidence to take longer walks, there follow ‘eureka’ moments when two independent bubbles are suddenly linked in the pedestrian’s head. Their solution therefore involved strategic placement of street maps, easing the transition points between modes of transport, and the maps indicate 5-minute and 15-minute walking radiuses to encourage people to explore on foot more.
On reflection, I found the best bits of Typo London not in the portfolios of artists and type designers, which I could have easily found documented on their websites. The bits I’ve covered here are the bits where designers have told us about their processes and approach, which can be usefully extrapolated and applied to any other branch of design including type design. Following their reasoning why they made certain choices, how they diagnosed the requirements of their users was much more valuable than seeing what the choices were and seeing the finished designs.
Last week Nance Cunningham joined us in the Department to talk about the Burmese script. Nance works as a lexicographer, working on English-Burmese dictionaries, so is familiar with the difficulties of Burmese fonts. She stayed a couple of nights, which meant she could give me quite a comprehensive understanding of the Burmese letters and how they should work together.
Burmese, like other Brahmic scripts such as Thai, is an abugida or alphabetic syllabary, which means each syllable begins with one of 33 ‘initial’ consonants. Each consonant has an inherent vowel sound, which may be modified by adding diacritic vowel marks above, below or around the initial consonant. In addition to the vowel marks, an initial consonant can also be marked with one (or more) of four ‘medial’ consonant signs, which are written below, beside or wrapping around the initial consonant. As if that isn’t complicated enough, a Burmese font needs to compose, decompose, position and kern all these marks in a consistent order.
A virama can be added to any syllable to modify the vowel sound or create a dead syllable (similar to the mai thanthakhat or karan in Thai).
The ‘a’ vowel sign needs special handling, as it takes the same form as some of the other letters. So when these letters take the ‘a’ vowel, it is a taller variant form to avoid confusion. A further level of complexity arises when this tall version of the ‘a’ vowel needs to use the virama sign, as they both use the ascender space. In this case, the tall ‘a’ sign is replaced with a double-headed form. This will be handled in the font by straightforward OpenType glyph substititions.
Consonants may also appear stacked one below the other, in a kind of ligature, and are accessed by pressing a special kind of shift key (u+1039) which sends the next keyed character below the baseline under the previous glyph. Fortunately this only occurs at the join between two syllables, so vowels are not involved and do not require repositioning.
As well as instructing me how the writing system works, Nance brought along a bunch of Burmese books and magazines, some dating back to the 1950s. These have become a key point of reference in the research for my own typeface, as they show different styles of Burmese letterforms, but at the same time illustrate what needs to be consistent to maintain readability.
From travelling in Burma several times, I had noticed around me that Burmese letters often took horizontal stress patterns, with the heavy parts of the letters along the baseline and x-height. I had also noticed a few cases where this had been reversed, to give a more familiar look for those of us accustomed to the Latin script. However, when I remarked about this to Nance, she contextualised my observation: in fact I had been mostly looking at vernacular signage, intended to draw attention and therefore on the whole using display faces. A quick look at her books and magazines showed me that the only way prose is written in Burmese is with monolinear forms, using the ‘spaghetti-like’ strokes of Helvetica.
For my dictionary type project, I’m going to need a family of Latin and Burmese fonts, so I was keen to explore the conventional ways Burmese typography indicates hierarchy: do they use bold and italic in the same way as Latin? Funnily enough, one striking thing we found was that headings and emphasised passages have been chiefly set in smaller type sizes, with bolder forms and increased tracking between the letters. As for italics, we did find them, but very scarcely, and never used in passages of roman text for emphasis. Instead, italics seemed to be used only in their own right where a different typographic style was required. In places where italic might be chosen in Latin typography, it turns out condensed is a valid choice.
Nance’s books showed that Burmese has adopted speech marks and parentheses (though the speech marks are often not designed to fit harmoniously with Burmese — perhaps there’s room to explore French-style guillemets? — and parentheses are generally oversized to accommodate the large extender zones). A full-stop (period) is not used in Burmese, as there is a traditional ‘stick’ section sign. However, the ellipsis is occasionally used, but the dots take the form of little circles to fit in nicely with Burmese shapes.
Finally I wanted to explore how possible it might be to move away from monolinear strokes and introduce some chirographic styles into my type family. I looked at Burmese cartoons and advertisements, and found a few examples of pen-formed strokes with angled contrast. So far I haven’t reached any conclusions about whether this might be worth pursuing for my dictionary face, so more research will be needed.
Our first full week in the department has been lots of fun. I’m definitely seeing why Reading University is so highly regarded. Our teachers are really top class: enthusiastic, knowledgeable and fascinating. And it’s a sign of how fun the department is that there are so many ex-students still hanging around, doing research and working on projects, clearly showing no sign of getting bored even after such an intense year of study. There’s always going to be more to learn.
We’re starting to think about our practical projects — the bit where we have to design our typefaces based on a brief we write ourselves. In many ways studying type design is different to designing type professionally, and having to decide our own brief is one example of this. In the workplace, the designer has the client’s brief to stick to; here we are given the opportunity to try anything we fancy.
So how do we settle on a project that’s big enough to give us a broad and interesting learning experience, but small enough to submit by next June? Luckily, I’d heard from previous students it was a good idea to think about the project over the summer. For my project, I wanted to develop areas I’m already interested in, and learn new skills that will be valued in the workplace. That means I needed to pick something that has real-world applicability. The course encourages us to explore non-Latin scripts, so that was a starting point.
From living in Thailand and travelling extensively across Southeast Asia, I’ve become very interested in how the old Brahmi script sprang from northern India in the third century BC, and travelled with trade and religion to so many other parts of Asia, slowly evolving different letterforms as it settled into new cultures. It’s always a source of wonder to me to see commonalities between writing systems that superficially seem so different, and trace back their roots to a common ancestor.
For example, look how the ma is represented in these modern day Brahmic scripts:
The first five are clearly recognisable as the same letter, with the loop at the bottom left. Devanagari has a head-line, which is sort of vestigial in the Gujarati and Tibetan, and possibly in the looped head of the Thai form. The last two, Burmese and Khmer, flip the bottom left loop to the inside of the shape, but the two upward arms are still telltale signs of a common origin.
(An interesting side question is why these forms diverged at all. For the answer, we need to look at where the letters were written, as the environment of each script over time contributed to the conventional forms of letters. Burmese is often cited as being so circular because it was written on palm leaves, which are easily torn by straight lines. One can also imagine that a culture’s visual environment builds a repertoire of shapes that can then be reappropriated into its written language. The jagged peaks of the Tibetan landscape must have played a significant part in the styling of the alphabet.)
Although I can’t yet read it, I’m especially curious about the Burmese script, with its unique, circular forms. I’ve started learning how the writing system works and have found a serious lack of useable Burmese fonts available. So I’ve found an overlap of interest and specific need. My aim then is to create a Unicode font with Burmese and Latin scripts, something that can be used in dictionaries and/or textbooks.
From travelling in Burma, which is probably my favourite country, and meeting some of the different ethnic groups there, I was struck by how welcoming, cheerful and playful people living there are. I hope to be able to infuse some of their liveliness into my design. Keeping things light and fun is also probably a good idea to counteract my tendency to overanalyse and be too serious with things. Of course a dictionary typeface doesn’t want to be comical or silly, but it does want to be alive, so I’m keen to prevent the thing from being too restrained and dull. I’m keeping the words ‘bounce’ and ‘fluid’ (dictionaries tend to feel rather disjointed and staccato) on my sketchpad.
A dictionary also requires special variant styles: not just roman and italic, but usually a sans serif companion, light and black weights, and possibly IPA support. These possibilities should allow a great enough freedom to hold my interest for the next eight months.
I’m very much seeing this year as an opportunity to gain skills that are valuable in the workplace. One such skill is to develop a methodology for approaching unfamiliar scripts. On the other hand, much as I love the idea, Burmese fonts are not something that international type designers are going to find too many requests for. Career-wise, it would make much more sense to create in-demand fonts for Devanagari, Bengali or Arabic. Fiona Ross, our non-Latin expert, reminds me that the dearth of Bengali typefaces has resulted in a dozen Bengali newspapers using the same fonts, and they’re now queueing up to get their hands on new ones.
It’s at this point that I find another way that studying typeface design is different to designing typefaces professionally. Students would be well advised to try their hands at very different writing systems. Armenian, with its upright stems and squarish forms, would be a perfect counterbalance to Sinhala, with its extravagant florid swirls. Designing both scripts would be almost the broadest experience imaginable. However in the real world, what need is there for a font that can cover both languages? Is there likely to be an Armenian-Sinhala dictionary?
To resolve this question, I’m keeping my options open. Bengali or Tamil might be nice options as there is some logic to combining these with Burmese (there are significant populations of Bengalis and Tamils in Burma). Through the year, we’ll be looking at plenty of other scripts, and finding out new areas of interest. I’ll sample these and then decide which other script to work on.
What makes a good typeface? Does it just come down to a person’s taste, a subjective opinion? Can a design’s merits be quantified? In our first session, we uncovered some criteria* to judge and critique typefaces.
*Whilst thinking around the subject, I’ve rejigged the criteria Gerry elicited hastily from our class.
Without much experience, a lot of beginner type designers (me included) don’t have the technical adeptness and breadth of understanding to channel our creativity into wholly original designs. Instead, we start by seeking inspiration in typefaces we admire, and try to emulate or recreate the bits we like, perhaps with a bit of our own personal interpretation. This allows us to explore letterforms and how to craft them.
An original design requires us to know the range of creative choices and how these choices are limited by functionality. A typeface has to respect cultural and traditional conventions. For example, it’s no good westernising Armenian letterforms to look like Latin letters, no matter how original this may be. Understanding the limits of our creative freedom allows us to make interesting and distinctive design choices. My own most creative designs are the ones where I didn’t know when starting where the ideas came from.
Well ok Gerry wrote ‘fun’, but I immediately judged a couple of the specimens as ‘funky’. We’re talking about the ones you immediately react to: ‘Whoa, that’s cool!’
There’s probably a lot of subjectivity in this one, as different people find fun in different things, but I guess we’re looking for designs with style, feelings and excitement, rather than the bland, boring, plain or unremarkable ones.
Hm, this still sounds rather subjective, and it’s also troubling me that ‘fun’ might be unsuitable in certain typographic contexts (for an epitaph for instance). I’d prefer to downgrade the ‘fun’ criterion to ‘conveying mood and tone’. If we can easily describe the feel of a typeface with adjectives, it’s hit the right spot.
Does the design work? What’s its purpose? Does it fulfil the brief? How do the letters work in words and paragraphs? The key here is whether it improves on existing fonts.
For a text face, is it actually comfortable and easy to read? Or do the ‘original’ features interfere with its readability? Does it perform well at small sizes? Can it be used in a variety of different typographic environments?
If it’s a signage font, is it somehow clearer and more legible than the other options?
A newspaper typeface has less leeway than a poster face: this is considering the function, and the function needs to inform every part of the design process.
How usable and versatile is the typeface? Does it contain accented characters for non-English languages? Does it support Cyrillic, Greek, Arabic, Devanagari, Thai or Chinese? This of course affects a typeface’s applicability.
On a different level, does it have bold and italic? What about light, book, semibold, heavy or black? What about small caps? Does it have optical sizes or grades? Condensed and expanded? Perhaps it has different choices of italics (cursive or oblique forms)?
Or maybe it’s a superfamily, with serif, sans-serif (and even semi-serif) versions available?
Of course not all these are necessary; it’s a question of responding to the brief, and specifically the contexts in which the font is going to be used.
Is it well made? Creating an excellent typeface requires staggering attention to detail! Are our shapes well drawn or are the curves bumpy? Do we have consistency across different letterforms? Is our spacing and kerning immaculate? If we’re creating a screen font, is it hinted well?
Do our OpenType features work in an obvious way that typographers will be able to use? Do our Thai vowels and tone marks stack correctly?
Finally the typeface has to work on all combinations of operating systems and software.
Highly successful typefaces respond to these five criteria differently. Stempel Garamond scores better in function than in funkiness; Dax would do better in funkiness and originality (at least when it was released in the 90s) than in function; Minion would do exceptionally well in execution and scope but less well in funkiness and originality.
These examples lead me to wonder whether the lifespan of a typeface depends on how it responds to the criteria. The Garamonds, Bembos, Baskervilles and Plantins have had a really long run, and don’t look like they’re ever going to be supplanted. Even Helvetica doesn’t seem to be dating. On the other hand, faces can belong too much to their time: I’d suggest contemporary, trendy fonts used for branding like Dax, Neo Sans, or Bryant are in this position and will be left behind. But what does this mean for ‘excellence’: are Bembo and Helvetica ‘excellent’ or is longevity a different question?
Gerard said something along the lines of the above back in July when I was studying the TDI course here. Back then, I understood it to mean that aesthetic fashions and art movements through the ages have governed the stylistic proclivities of type designers — as a general overarching principle rather than a traceable set of technological, political and national variables evidenced in every work of typography and type design. Modern Typography: An essay in critical history (Robin Kinross) certainly added a new depth to my understanding.
It hasn’t been an easy read, due to its scope, depth and unfamiliarity (at least to a few of us incoming MATD students). The narrative stretches back to 1700, when printers began to articulate their design processes and print books about printing. It was also around that time when typography (composition) began to branch away from print production.
Kinross suggests that typecasting, typesetting and printing technologies co-evolved in a stone-paper-scissors triangle, each being defined (and confined) by the others, but also prompting new technical developments in each other. Every technology has shaped the design and typography of typefaces; the history of type gives a surprisingly sensitive account of the history not just of Art, but of the broader cultural world.
A good example of the interplay of history, technology and type design took place in the latter half of the 18th century. Stepping away from Kinross’s narrative to consider the historical context, we can see a great number of factors at play. At that time, the Age of Enlightenment was blossoming: new continents were being discovered, science was being revolutionised and new academic disciplines sought to disseminate their discoveries. Culture was producing more printed matter than ever before: music, literature and newspapers for example. Printed works suddenly had to include mathematical journals, encyclopedias, detailed scientific diagrams, and music. Maps needed to faithfully reproduce details in the precise craftsmanship of both illustrations and typography. In this context, Kinross explains that printers had to develop better ways to compose and produce work. At the same time, the Industrial Revolution led to the creation of better printing presses and papermaking machines. Engraving emerged as a means to achieve greater levels of refinement than had previously been possible with letterpress and woodcut illustrations. In turn, the new scope for high fidelity reproduction and finesse, along with new, smoother kinds of papers, offered type designers new opportunities to experiment with letterforms. So the ‘Modern’ typefaces of the era, such as Didot and Bodoni, took on flatter serifs, thinner hairlines and sharpened contrast, to give a new typography suitable for a new, forward-looking age.
In another illustration of the circumstantial nature of type design and typography, Kinross considers how the origins of Swiss typography (or International Typographic Style) are specifically a product of socio-cultural conditions around the middle of the 20th century. Whilst most of Europe was fully gripped by the social and economic hardships of the Second World War, designers in neutral Switzerland were able to continue developing a graphic style. Kinross sees Swiss culture as rather stable, regulated (in the sense of ordered or moderated) and objective. The typographic style reflected these values in its rational, structured approach to page layout using grids, photographic images rather than illustrations, and an preference for clean, modern typefaces to convey information in a functional rather than expressive way. Typefaces like Univers and Helvetica originated in this period.
From these two examples we can conclude all typographic design has to attend to the provenance and connotations of the typeface(s) and typography used.
Helvetica is still a reasonable choice (in small quantities) for advertising, by virtue of its overtones of cool, neutral (or perhaps slightly optimistic) rationality.
By way of contrast, the use of the oldstyle book face Jenson in use for wayfinding in Reading’s Oracle shopping centre is problematic at best, suggesting the designer was ill equipped to choose a signage font.
My last few weeks have moved really quickly, as I made my decision to come to the MA programme only at the start of August. Since then, I’ve had to finish off some freelance design jobs, sort out my enrolment and accommodation in Reading and get some vfb font files in good enough shape to send to the publishers (unfortunately no sign of a release date yet, as I’m going to need to concentrate on the MA for the next 12 months).
To get us started for the MA, Course Director Gerry Leonidas sent us our reading list and a couple of exercises to work on over the summer. Whilst sometimes quite dense and technical, I have found the books largely interesting. My favourite so far is Twyman’s British Library Guide to Printing as I didn’t know much about the different kinds of printing presses. I’m currently getting to grips with Kinross’s Modern Typography, which is not quite so friendly in style (rather dry and detailed).
Our first practical task was to get familiar with FontLab. Gerry sent us an image of some (hand) lettering, and asked us to convert it into font vector outlines, then set the word ‘Condensed’ in InDesign. Accidentally, I used the tiny thumbnail version (200px wide) of the image, rather than the full-size image, which explains the round corners at the stroke terminals. This was an exercise in curve-wrangling, and although Gerry suggested we auto-trace the image in FontLab, I chose to manually draw the nodes and position the handles intentionally, rather than end up with an untidy mess of extra nodes and bumpy curves.
I also chose to normalise the /o/ and /s/, which seemed unbalanced in the original lettering and difficult to space in a working font, where the letters have to work no matter what combination they appear in (unlike in single-word lettering).
My spacing (letterfitting) is still rather uneven, as I’m not very experienced with this style, or italic forms, and would probably want to normalise all the letterforms a lot further to obtain a harmonious font. I did put in the key dimensions and generous alignment zones (the hand-drawn nature letters are different sizes), in case I ever need to build this into something more.
I wondered if I slightly rushed this (it took about an hour), but then figured this was intended as an introductory exercise, not a full-on practical project.
Our second assignment was to sketch some selected letters from the fonts FF Tisa, Plantin, Electra and Adobe Jenson. I also sketched some letters from other fonts, thinking it might be useful to see how different forms are constructed. I was particularly drawn to find out what makes a text face ‘warm’ so here there’s a Fleischmann /a/ and some italics from Quixote. (I also looked at Tiempos Text and Espinosa Nova.) It was a fun assignment; my biggest difficulty was getting the overall proportions to match the originals. My /k/s for example invariably had the knee way too high to start with.
Michele (housemate), Giuliano (Elena’s partner), Jo (sister) and Elena (housemate) enjoying an English breakfast on Sunday morning.
With a couple of weeks until term starts, I’m full of anticipation for the next year on the MA programme in Typeface Design here in Reading.
I arrived in a van full of my things on Saturday with my sister, who helped me get everything here and stayed to meet the housemates. We have a lovely 5-bedroom house near campus, and have met most of the type people who are now here. There’s a couple of other typography student houses within 5 minutes’ walk, so already beginning to feel like a new family.
Unfortunately we’ve had a couple of last-minute drop-outs due to visa difficulties, so there will be 12½ students for the year (the half is a part-time student who is in her second year). This is a somewhat smaller group than last year’s 18 students, who wished us well today as they were departing and handing over house keys.
We’re all feeling trepidation at the amount of work coming up in the next 12 months, with plenty of reading, a dissertation and a practical project to contend with. But we also know we’re going to have lots of fun, support each other (there’s already talk of setting up a study group to reflect on the books we read and share opinions) and get to do some funky stuff (stonecutting, anyone?)
I’ve already had some thoughts about my practical project (more later) and read some of the books on the long reading list, so this week will be catching up with the reading, finishing off my homework tasks and sorting out household affairs. Plus getting acquainted with my new friends over a few bottles of lager :)