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,.

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,.