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.

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!)

Posted at 3:40pm and tagged with: one column, Brahmic, Brahmi, writing systems, Thai, Burmese, Khmer, Lao, evolution, history, writing, alphabets, scripts, Southeast Asia,.

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,.

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!

Posted at 12:27am and tagged with: one column, Burmese, typography, type design, typeface, serif, sans serif, script, letterfitting,.

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,.

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,.

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.

With thanks to Nance Cunningham.

Photos of Burmese typography over on Flickr.

Posted at 12:58pm and tagged with: Burmese, type, font, book, typeface, letterforms, script, OpenType, Brahmic, one column,.

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?

Posted at 2:18pm and tagged with: excellence, execution, function, funkiness, originality, scope, type design, one column,.

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.

Posted at 10:56pm and tagged with: one column, typography, type design, history, culture,.