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.

I decided to take advantage of Gerard’s third visit of the year to finalise the relationship between my Latin serif and sans serif designs. Several people had remarked that the sans was looking too skinny, too small or too light, but I wasn’t really sure whether fixing it meant stretching the thing or redrawing completely. In the end it was an illuminating and actually quite easy process, despite the many dimensions at play.

The first thing to fix was the width. The sans was feeling too condensed, and Gerard advised me that the proportions of the lowercase /n/ for example should match between the serif and sans design, so I compared the ratios of height to width of both together, and found they were almost identical (in fact I’d pulled in the stems in the sans 5 units to compensate for the lack of serifs):

I used InDesign’s character menu to mechanically stretch the letters horizontally in steps from 100% up to 108% and ran some test prints:

When comparing my printed proofs with the serif design, I found that a horizontal scale of 102¼ % fitted nicely. In fact anything over 103% began to look as though the letters were a larger point size.

The next thing to fix was the stroke weight, which I did by hand in FontLab. I increased the width of the heavy strokes in increments of 4 units and found that 8 units was the right amount to give the same text colour as the serif face.

Finally, the expansion had messed up the letterfitting, so I had to reduce all the set widths to compensate. Again, I used InDesign to quickly proof different settings. The result was a reduction of 12 units all round, and this matches the serif very nicely. Both cuts may still be spaced a little widely, but as long as I remember to tweak them both at the same time, it should be no problem to alter the overall fitting.

Compared to the original, the final result (above) had a width of 102.25%, an increase of 8 units in stem weight and a negative tracking of 12 units. The image also shows a difference between two of the printers in the department: the Xerox on the right gives consistently darker results than the HP on the left. It goes to show that we should continue to proof on as many printers as possible, rather than relying on the results of one which may be an anomaly. Luckily we have six laser printers at our disposal in the department and can also use the offset press from time to time.

With these two styles reconciled, I’ve been trying to fix my Greek! Gerry had been a bit underwhelmed by my first attempt, which wasn’t altogether surprising as I’ve never drawn Greek letters before and don’t read the language. Due to my unfamiliarity, it seemed that I’d been focused on the stylistic details like terminals and stroke junctions instead of looking at the fundamental architecture of the letterforms. Interestingly that resonated with what Fiona had been getting at with my Burmese: try to settle on the essential proportions and relationships between letters before thinking about the modulation and stylistic treatments.

I’m really struggling to assimilate this advice, as I have a strong inclination to experiment with unexpected styling and dissonant harmony whilst keeping such details under the radar for text sizes and immersive reading. I need to remember not to run before I can walk. It can’t be all exciting until the basics are grasped, even if the forms look boring to start with. Step one leads to step two. I guess I’m seeing the forms and the styling as one process, enmeshed and depending on each other. Another problem is my typeface is trying to steer away from the stroke-and-tool model, and I want to let form and counterform have some independent rationale not following the ‘internal skeleton’ of each letter.

My solution so far seems to be to figure out what combinations of form and styling work well together. To help with this, I’ve started the Greek twice, with opposite modulations that affect the forms somewhat.

I’m not yet decided which model to follow, so I’ll keep working on both sets and make a decision later.

Posted at 3:43pm and tagged with: Greek, MATD, Reading, balance, font, harmonising, sans serif, script, serif, type design, typeface,.

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,.

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,.

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,.