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.

Designing type is an exercise in parallel thinking. On one level, it’s about coming up with interesting ways to inject each letter with some visual interest and simultaneously respond to the brief chosen. But on another level, it’s about ‘designing the design’, as we’ve seen before. What is it about the letters that hangs them all together? How can a set of ideas be applied consistently and logically so that it can be called a design rather than just a set of shapes? The answer to that is one reason why to me, designing a text face is so sublime: it’s necessarily about eliminating everything that doesn’t gel with everything else, refining and reducing the idea behind it to its clearest, most elegant expression.

Getting everything to gel together means everything has to be considered in light of everything else, or at least in light of the parts of everything-else that are related by the application of the design rules. (This of course also implies a certain circularity, which is why type design is a recursive process). For example, my design rules might prefer the /c/ and the /f/ to have similar terminals at their tops, but that terminal may or may not be related to the /r/ or the /j/, depending on my idea of the design. So this is what ‘designing the design’ actually means.

Some of these parallel considerations spill over between scripts too, when we attempt to harmonise different kinds of writing systems. The links may be explicit, with shared formal attributes, or more subtle, with an intangible link that makes the styles belong together without copy-pasting outlines between scripts.

With my brain now used to thinking in parallel (or at least getting a bit more comfortable with it), it’s naturally started to wonder about the parallel histories of the Brahmi scripts that I’m interested in.

The Thai, Khmer, Lao and Burmese scripts are related through their Brahmi origins, and I’m starting to see why piecing together that history is a useful exercise.


(Schematic of Brahmic scripts. There is no universal consensus and mistakes are mine alone. Larger image can be found here.)

I’ve always noted similarities and discrepancies between Thai, Lao, Khmer and Burmese. Some of the forms have clearly evolved from common roots: Lao ຈ and Thai จ are unmistakable cognates, as are ດ with ด and ຕ with ต. Pairs like ທ and ท may be less obvious, with different proportions but the same topology. Burmese and Khmer are less readily matched up, mainly because the different styling imposed repeatedly through history has now become part of the letterforms. Burmese is mainly circular, while Khmer prefers zigzags. But Burmese ခ and Khmer ខ match up, as do ဃ with ឃ and ဍ with ឌ. (Depending what font your browser chooses, these may or may not look similar) The story gets more interesting when you also notice parallels creeping in between Old Burmese and Old Thai, or even more distant cousins Rakhawanna, Chakma, Lao and Khmer.


(Ordering the writing systems in the traditional Brahmi articulatory fashion shows common threads between them.)


As well as these similarities, there are also large discrepancies between scripts. Undoubtedly the tools and substrates in different areas had a great influence. But also the differentiation of these scripts took place through a gradual alphabetic Chinese Whispers, with stonecarvers and manuscript writers preserving aspects of each character that they thought were essential, but inevitably leading to a gradual morphosis. Getting to grips with that long slow game leads to useful insights for the type designer:

1    Although the different scripts have their own look, the differences are often quite superficial, to do with styling rather than architecture. The underlying topological structures are often very similar. Even when they don’t initially look very similar, considering them together shows unexpected links, for example where disconnected strokes have become joined using a point of inflection or a knot. Understanding how the individual letters have evolved to be the way they are today gives us the design space available for taking our own designs in unconventional directions.

2    If the underlying architecture of the letters (or the writing tool’s ductus) is so similar, the look of each script is very largely determined by proportion and the way strokes are modulated. Old Burmese and Khmer may not look very similar, but focussing on the track of the tool rather than the modulation reveals their shared history. Writing Burmese with a broad-nibbed pen makes it look almost like a different alphabet. While it’s perfectly possibly to play with these conventions, the results are too far outside the normal expectations to be suitable for text typography, instead making an impact that can be useful in display settings:


(Top, Burmese styled with a broad-nib pen. Bottom, Thai styled to look Japanese.)

3    Over the course of time, the letters of a script begin to develop a coherence. Practical needs, such as the use of a particular tool, or the expediency of writing at a constant speed, the methods of punchcutting or casting type, or even the ease of reading, ensure that letters that are used together tend to end up looking uniform. For example, the ancestor script to all these writing systems is Brahmi, a script that uses elemental shapes like crosses, semicircles and diagonals. The letterforms have different degrees of complexity and angularity, and different amounts of whitespace. But as Brahmi evolved into different writing systems in different places, and with typography playing a significant role, all these aspects are evened out. (There are of course exceptions, such as Tamil with its very disparate letterforms.)

4    There are aspects of the letterforms that are not determined by the three previous factors, and which can be played with…

5    Scripts like to have their own identity. Repeated stylistic features are a way to bring cohesion to a script as well as introduce new ideas. The knots and loops of Thai, the zigzagged heads in Khmer, the notched instrokes of Pallava or Pyu, the circular forms of Burmese or the tick-shaped head in Telugu are now so embedded that they are the distinguishing features of those scripts. Often these features can be reinterpreted, simplified or exaggerated in different styles of writing (and type) but cannot usually be omitted altogether.


(Showing how stylistic details have become identifiers of different scripts. Excuse my lack of finesse with these unfamiliar scripts!)

Posted at 3:40pm and tagged with: one column, Brahmic, Brahmi, writing systems, Thai, Burmese, Khmer, Lao, evolution, history, writing, alphabets, scripts, Southeast Asia,.

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,.