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.

This experimental sans was something I drew in my sketchbook whilst travelling in 2010. The concept behind the design was to see what would happen if black and white shapes became somewhat disconnected. Counterforms are made of perpendicular straight lines while outer edges are wide superellipses.


Despite its heavy weight, Argon maintains its counterspace areas in two special ways. Firstly, junctions of straight lines are drawn apart (as on M or N), which allows the counters to retain their full height. Secondly, joins between curves are given a pronounced notch or ‘bite’ out of the junction (as on B, R or 8). The result is a spurless, retro-futuristic display face.


After drawing the Latin in FontLab from sketches, I decided to try the same design with Thai script.


The family will include a couple of avant-garde outlined inverse cuts (shown below), possibly working as a layered font for «double foreground» special effects.

Posted at 1:08pm and tagged with: Argon, In progress, Thai, Latin, font, type design, typography,.

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,.

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,.

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,.