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.

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,.

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,.