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,.

David Březina () 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.

Posted at 12:07am and tagged with: originality, typeface, design, type design, MATD, Reading, Paul Barnes, David Brezina,.

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.

Posted at 11:31pm and tagged with: sans serif, typeface, MATD, font, design,.

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.

Posted at 2:37pm and tagged with: Burmese, Latin, design, font, sans serif, script, serif, typeface, writing system,.

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.

Clear Methodology

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.

Photos from Typo London over on Flickr.

Posted at 6:05pm and tagged with: Typo London, one column, Design, conference, web typography, wayfinding, animation, hybrid media,.