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.

Lovely printed sheets from my MATD typeface specimen!

Posted at 4:24pm and tagged with: Lumen, specimen, spread, type design, typeface, multi-script,.

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 Spring term has flown by, and progress on my typeface was honestly a bit disappointing. Perhaps I tried to tackle too many things and ended up spreading things a bit thin with unresolved attempts at Greek and Thai, or perhaps it was the packed timetable of workshops, visiting lecturers and assessment deadlines, but I was expecting to have achieved more by the end of term. I was especially unhappy that I didn’t have very much new stuff to show Gerard in his two visits of the term, as I’d been focussing on the non-Latin designs rather than bold, italic or sans fonts I’m also trying to develop. On the plus side, however, my Latin lowercase in the regular weight is now accomplished, including most of the spacing, so I’m freezing that now to work on the caps and Burmese.

One of the problems with designing Burmese type had been nagging me since the start: Burmese script seriously challenges a type designer because there are ostensibly very few things you can do with a circle: make them circular, or make them circular?  At the end of the day, a circle is still a circle. Referring back to my brief, those words ‘active, fluid, lively and cheerful’ seemed incommensurate with drawing a circle. Whoever heard of a lively circle? And with letterforms so completely removed from the Latin, what could be translated across to harmonise the scripts? The interesting lesson was learning to see beyond these limitations, think about how those adjectives could be implemented in different ways, and design at a higher level. I’ll try to explain how.


In this sample from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, using a font called Myanmar2, we can see that a good proportion of the circles in Burmese are connected (and some of the connections have not been well implemented). My first response was to look at how I’d made the junctions in my Latin letters and transpose this onto the Burmese shapes. This meant substantial thinning at the junctions to brighten the joins. At the same time, I’d responded to the requirement of ‘fluid’ by smoothing the joins into one continuous stroke.

Unfortunately, this had unwanted side-effects. The stress in the second circle has now moved around to the right side of the shape, and more importantly, the shape now bears no relation to the way it is drawn.

This image from John Okell’s indispensible Burmese: an introduction to the script shows clearly the consonant Ta is composed of two strokes, with the tool lifted off the page between strokes. Although my typeface is not strongly calligraphic, it seemed unwise to contradict the stroke construction only so that it would seem fluid. It also seemed the continuous construction didn’t give enough definition to the joins. In addition, the vowel sign Aa needs to connect to differently shaped consonants as a distinct mark, so having different joins just looked inconsistent.

It was at this stage I realised the strokes and components of Burmese needed to overlap each other rather than join in a Latin way. I also remembered Fiona saying that Indic scripts tend not to thin much at the joins.

The result above seems much more assured and less contrived.

Wraparounds and verticals

These highlighted parts in digital fonts always seemed so out of character for such a round script, and my original intention was to make them much less intrusive by ironing out the straight lines and sharp corners. My first attempts looked too clumsy, with inconsistent stress and shaky verticals. By the time I created my most recent version (third line below), I’d realised the problem with other fonts was not the verticality of the forms, but their squareness and sharp corners.

What about those adjectives then?

Yes. Active, fluid, lively and cheerful. As mentioned above, the simple way didn’t work out. Lightening the joins and making the strokes continuous ended up with a style that contradicted all the evidence. Instead I chose to lighten the interiors of the circles by taking weight off the inside strokes (resulting in a new way to avoid the problem of too much monolinearity and creating a pleasant balance of thick and thin strokes). I also brought in more energy and bounce to the leaf shapes by making their counters much more open. (Image above shows two letters with the leaf shapes.)

Posted at 5:19pm and tagged with: Burmese, letters, font, type design, typeface, glyphs, non-Latin, MATD, Reading,.

In Europe, the various strands of typography came together over centuries. Even before the arrival of printing, there were many styles (and sub-styles) of writing: the Greek and Roman inscriptional capitals and everyday ‘rustic’ letters, the Carolingian and insular uncials, and the textura and rotunda gothics to name only a few key elements. Printing types started in the fifteenth century by mimicking the forms of handwritten letters, and thenceforth, developments in type included bicameralism (including upper- and lowercase versions of letters in one typeface), the integration of uprights with italics, and the gradual movement away from humanist models to the elegant swelling lines of the “modern’ types. Later we see the introduction of sans-serif faces, and the invention of the fat, poster faces that gave us our bolds.

The result has been that Western typography now has a huge repertoire of type styles. In turn, each new development has allowed new ways of presenting text on the page. Thus, ‘typography’ was born from the union and interplay of type design and printing.

Compare this to the historical context for non-Latin scripts. Burmese, for example, was first made into type in Rome for the Vatican’s printing arm Propaganda Fide in the 1770s. The church of course needed to print bibles in ‘exotic’ types for their missionary activities, but the interesting point for designers is that such text is very ‘flat’ — that is the text is very simply structured. It just starts and goes on until it ends. Aside from section headings, there’s no typographic hierarchy, no different kinds of information that need signalling, no different voices on the page. The functions the typeface was required to perform were therefore not complex enough to spur the production of different styles, and even by 1833, when France’s Imprimerie Royale cut their Burmese, only two sizes of the same style were made.

Fast forward to the twentieth century (my dissertation will explore the story of the in-between), and we’ll see that Burmese type still doesn’t offer an exciting repertoire of styles. Yes, there’s a vibrant sign-painting scene and a bunch of funky display fonts made by graphic designers, but Burmese type for reading has not really moved since the days of Monotype, and one finds only this same monoline, rigid style (essentially one type design) used in every imaginable typographic context: advertisements, newspaper articles and editorial, hotel receipts, novels, grade one children’s schoolbooks, Buddhist books, technology magazines, arts magazines, maps, business cards…the list goes on.

I had the chance to talk to Dan Rhatigan, Monotype’s Senior Type Designer, about these issues recently. He recalls discussions with clients who commissioned him to design new Bengali typefaces. These clients had very specific views of how their script should look, and seemed to have conflated the idea of a design with the idea of an alphabet so when they were presented with functional, slightly different typefaces, they thought he was trying to change the alphabet.

So where does all this leave the type designer? There’s little point in perpetuating the same old design — imagine being a newspaper editor condemned to only ever have the choice of Helvetica or Arial (and only two weights of each). The point is that type designers are there to offer a multi-purpose toolbox to people who use type: book publishers, newspaper editors, web designers, graphic designers and end users. The text they set has complexities which cannot be represented by the limits of the current typographic palette. Monoline, geometric forms (even with bold companions) don’t work in every situation and don’t articulate to the reader the differences in the kinds of information presented. Information or communication design should be a response to the content of the work, so a one-type-fits-all approach leaves the work of deciphering the content to the reader, a fundamentally anti-design stance.

This does not mean turning the conventions on their heads, westernising the Burmese script or taking wild liberties with letterforms. Luckily, and although it sounds slightly paradoxical, there’s a way to design an authentically Burmese typeface in an original way.

In her article ‘Translating non-Latin scripts into type’ (Typography Papers 3, 1998), Fiona Ross berates the Imprimerie Royale’s Bengali typeface of 1819. Why? Because those bits of metal were cut by people far away from Bengal who had little appreciation of the language, heritage or current practices in how the script was written. She encourages the designer to look beyond the typographic precedents of a script and get familiar with the calligraphy, inscriptions, handwriting and roots of a culture’s writing system.

To this end, I’ve been studying palm-leaf manuscripts, folding paper parabaik books, children’s writing primers, the evolution of letterforms and people’s handwriting today. Thus it should be possible to gently draw the Burmese script away from its 20th century incarnation in mechanical type and into the 21st century where new doors can be opened.

Posted at 7:45pm and tagged with: Burmese, type design, font, typeface, history, printing, metal type, non-Latin,.

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,.

We’ve definitely moved up a gear or two this term as our timetable becomes filled to bursting point.

My seminar on how designers respond to technological constraints was well received, with students enthusiastically remarking how interesting it was and with Gerry’s approval that I’d covered the salient points. The gist of the presentation was that successful type designs accommodate the needs of technology, but don’t depend on them. A talented designer will always develop their typefaces to work with more than one technology, and let their eye for aesthetics be the final arbiter over design decisions.

Next up, we had John Hudson visiting the department from Canada for an enjoyable and highly useful two-day workshop. John co-founded Tiro Typeworks with Ross Mills and they produce award-winning typefaces for major clients including Adobe, Apple and Microsoft.

Our mission for the two days was to collaboratively produce a typeface. John had drawn five characters /HOion/ of a heavy poster face (below) and we each took a random selection of the remaining characters to draw.

After we’d each drawn our first six glyphs, we printed proofs and had a group critique. John had to go to an appointment, but in fact that worked very well as we then had to manage our decision-making processes ourselves, and decide which glyphs should lead the design and how to harmonise everyone’s designs. Apart from variations in overshoot and proportion, there were decisions to be made about ball terminals, counter shapes and openness, speed of modulation between thicks and thins, the flatness or pointiness of diagonal junctions, the weight of hairlines, shape of inner brackets and many other stylistic features.

The exercise revealed the multiplicity of design decisions that need to be made deliberately, consistently and coherently. Following the critique, we all made changes to our glyphs and then took another batch of characters to draw. It was an instructive exercise for many of the group: some had never seen a currency sign (¤) before, others had to get to grips with components and blue zones.

By the end of day two, we’d produced quite a consistent typeface, and the hope is to continue polishing it into a useable font. I found the collaborative approach really useful, as the benefits of everyone’s different styles and approaches led to better decisions based on more possibilities, which outweighed the loss of control I could have worried about. Our speed was also surprising: to be able to have a basic Latin character set after only two days felt really good!

Posted at 1:21pm and tagged with: John Hudson, font, type design, typeface, fatface, poster, heavy, serif, collaboration, group, MATD,.

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,.