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.

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.


Web specimen by Mercedes Jauregui


Nomad by Florian Runge


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.


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


Posted at 11:59pm.


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


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,.

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?

Posted at 1:57pm and tagged with: one column, notan, type design, font, stroke model, Bloemsma,.