Ben Mitchell's typo blog charting the excitement, activities and challenges of my 12 months' studying the MA in Typeface Design at Reading University.

Now with occasional ramblings about type-related things I find interesting.

Opinions are all my own.

Some of my favourite architectural lettering found in Brighton. More of my typewalk photos over on Flickr.

Posted at 1:29am.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Web specimen by Mercedes Jauregui

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Nomad by Florian Runge

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Emelia by Sandra Adler


More photos of the conference over on Flickr.

Posted at 12:32pm.

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!

Photos to follow, watch this space :-)

Posted at 6:40pm.

Posted at 1:00am.

Book covers from 1960s. These are from the American Geographical Society’s Around the World Program of children’s educational books. More on Flickr.

Posted at 1:45pm.

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.

Posted at 12:12pm.

Filling out the character set of Lumen Sans Heavy.

Posted at 4:18pm.

Filling out the character set of Lumen Sans Heavy.

explore-blog:

Ten Things I Wish I Knew Sooner Rather Than Later — timeless life-wisdom from the brilliant Debbie Millman, who is wise.

Nice.

Posted at 11:59pm.

explore-blog:

Ten Things I Wish I Knew Sooner Rather Than Later — timeless life-wisdom from the brilliant Debbie Millman, who is wise.

Nice.

This experimental sans was something I drew in my sketchbook whilst travelling in 2010. The concept behind the design was to see what would happen if black and white shapes became somewhat disconnected. Counterforms are made of perpendicular straight lines while outer edges are wide superellipses.


Despite its heavy weight, Argon maintains its counterspace areas in two special ways. Firstly, junctions of straight lines are drawn apart (as on M or N), which allows the counters to retain their full height. Secondly, joins between curves are given a pronounced notch or ‘bite’ out of the junction (as on B, R or 8). The result is a spurless, retro-futuristic display face.


After drawing the Latin in FontLab from sketches, I decided to try the same design with Thai script.


The family will include a couple of avant-garde outlined inverse cuts (shown below), possibly working as a layered font for «double foreground» special effects.

Posted at 1:08pm and tagged with: Argon, In progress, Thai, Latin, font, type design, typography,.

This example, using my typeface Mint, shows that creating an oblique style is not straightforward. Automatic slanting of the upright creates diagonally pinched letterforms. Stroke widths get messed up, angle of stress changes and curves completely lose their balance and tension. Type designers need to correct the effects of mechanlcal sloping to attain optically balanced obliques. One trick is to define a new set of curves that can be tweaked for individual letterforms; also it’s vital to keep comparing the upright and the oblique to check the speed of the curves and stroke weights are optically the same despite the translation.

(Click images to enlarge)

Posted at 12:32am and tagged with: obliques, slanted, sloped, upright, correction, optical, type design, font, italic, Mint,.