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.

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.

Posted at 1:07pm and tagged with: typography, stroke, Noordzij, type design, handwriting, construction, type, reading, writing, design, Fenland, stroke model,.

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?

To be continued…

*(Lots) more on Bloemsma’s Legato over on Typophile.

Posted at 6:44pm and tagged with: Burmese, Drawings, Latin, Monoline, Unger, construction, one column,.