Type Design

British Rail Identity


Here’s a glorious bit of design nostalgia for the New Year. It’s hardly a new find on the web; designer Nick Job first started this archive of the British Rail identity manuals in 2011, but I’ve just been reminded of it. Somehow I’ve never written about it either, which is a bit of an oversight given the entirely-unofficial and tongue in cheek name of this site: the British Rail alphabet and signage guidelines were also used by the British Airports Authority and National Health Service, making them as much a government standard as Britain ever usually manages.


The alphabet had two variants, one for dark-on-light type and one for light-on-dark. Light (and illuminated) type on dark backgrounds creates an optical effect known as ‘halation’ - i.e. it develops a halo, a slight sense of the letterforms being thicker than they are. To cope with this, the letterforms are reduced by the width of an outline for the lighter type, shown in the last panel above — while retaining the same spacing and other details of the type. It’s worth pointing out that a revival of the typeface is now available to license and as a web font from FontDeck.


For the non-British (or the very young) British Rail was the nationalised entity that ran the vast majority of railways (and a few ferry routes and other transport-related things) in the UK, beginning in 1948¹. It was rarely out of the news (more so on slow news days) for ‘record losses’, ‘strikes’, ‘failures’, ‘delays’ and so on. Starting in 1994 the network was dismantled and sold off, with the last few bits sold in 1997. Instead of a nationally-owned monopoly, we have regional monopolies owned by a variety of companies and (perhaps amusingly), the nationalised rail corporations of other countries. The headlines are now about ‘record price rises’, ‘record profits’ (also: greedy executives and shareholders), ‘overcrowding’, and yes, ‘delays’. According to the polls², privatisation is generally considered to have been a Very Bad Idea and Can It Go Back To How It Was, Please. Whatever your view or politics on the matter are, running an at-capacity rail network will never make you popular with the people who have to use it. I’m being charitable there.


Despite each of the rail operating companies having their own brands, for most British people the British Rail identity is still a familiar part of the landscape, with the logo being the road sign symbol for any rail station, and much of the signage (especially at smaller stations) unchanged from pre-privatisation days. But what an identity! The whole thing is such a brilliantly consistent and well-designed system, owing much of its strength to its crisp, stark simplicity, to its minimalism and almost-total reliance on typography alone. There’s so little to it that there’s very little (virtually nothing) that can ever really look out of date or old fashioned — sure in the 80s everyone³ had a thing for Rotis (for heaven’s sake) and there was that grunge stuff in the 90s and we’ve had the web and all that, but nothing that was really so outstandingly superior or more modern. What made the identity look bad was the usual thing that ruins most good things: neglect and apathy. A faded peeling sign in a shabby, half-ruined station with leaky roofs and deathtrap toilets is never going to look great, and by the time privatisation came along that was the caricature we were being presented with, and so out it went.

And that’s a real shame, for so many reasons.

Open Architecture Manifesto at Adhocracy

A couple of years ago I wrote about Kuka, the RobotLab project built to write the entire Martin Luther bible onto a long roll of paper. The robot emulates the calligraphic style replicated in the Schwabacher blackletter typeface, writing it using a pen as a (particularly neat and tireless) human might. It’s quite a lovely thing*.

I was reminded of it when I saw this project by Walter Nicolino and Carlo Ratti (of Carlo Ratti Associati). They’ve designed and built a suspended plotter to write the contents of the Open Architecture Manifesto page on Wikipedia onto a wall at the Adhocracy exhibition at the Istanbul Design Biennial. As the text on Wikipedia is updated the robot erases and rewrites the document on the wall at the exhibition.


The comparison between the two projects is perhaps obvious, that one is reproducing a historical, unchanging document, while the other reproduces a brand new, constantly-updating and ephemeral one. Indeed until the manifesto was published in Domus magazine (whose editor Joseph Grima is curator of the biennial) the article kept being deleted by Wikipedia editors.

I’m especially interested how the plotter is reproducing the text. The typeface could be Times, but the generous amount of ink the fat nib of the plotter pen puts down, and the way it outlines the characters, makes it hard to tell exactly. Also, looking at the video the output is a serif face but part of the processing (in Processing) looks like it uses something more like Verdana or Tahoma. Could be that different parts of the text are in different faces of course. Curious.


The Wacom Inkling


TL:DR (ahem)

It’s a fantastic thing which has the potential to be very useful. You are drawing with a biro though so adjust your expectations accordingly. The software is awful, but not so bad as to make the device useless. Just make sure you export as SVG.


If you sketch a lot and need a digital copy of your sketches, get one. I’m glad I did. Actually, I’m not. See below.

Update: I discovered that Wacom believe the Sketch Manager software is so vital to your everyday computing needs that they’ve set it to launch on startup. What’s more (and I suspect this is down to the dodgy Windows to Mac port) it doesn’t do this properly, in a way you can change using the Mac OS ‘Login Items’ setting. To stop it launching at startup, have a look at this Apple Discussion entry. I found entries for Sketch Manager in both the main and user ‘Library’ folders. What’s more the user library folder is hidden, so you might want to ‘unhide’ it first. This is a terrible thing to do, requiring technical knowledge that shouldn’t be expected of any buyer of a consumer product to fix.

Update 2: I bought mine from Wacom directly. I don’t know anywhere that has them in stock. You might want to reconsider anyway, given the above.

Wacom have (finally) started sending out orders of their new product, the Inkling. I got mine the other day and I’ve been having a good play with it. It’s very good. Not perfect, but very good. The announcement video set some very high expectations, some of which are matched by reality, while some… aren’t.

The whole idea of the device is to record what you draw so that you can import it into image editing programs later, either as a bitmap or (more excitingly) as a vector image. It keeps a track of every stroke, in the order you made them, and records how hard you were pressing on the pen, so the recorded lines vary in thickness with pressure. I think it was this that really got everyone interested.

As a gadget, it’s a lovely little thing. There’s a pen, a receiver, some spare nibs and a USB cable, all neatly packaged in a case that doubles as a charger. Closed, the case looks like a rather glam pencil case with an elaborate hinge.

Using it

Getting started with it is straightforward. You clip the receiver onto the edge of your paper (or notepad, envelope, napkin or whatever) turn it on, and draw. The pen turns on when you start drawing, though I found best to give the nib a preparatory tap on the page somewhere first, just so you know it’s ready, otherwise you’ll lose the first stroke.

The receiver has a couple of buttons, one to turn it on, and the other to create a new layer in your drawing (yes, you can create layered drawings). Turning the receiver off and on will create a new file, as will squeezing the clip – as you might do when changing the paper, which is a nice touch.

Does it actually work?

Well yes it does, rather well actually, but it does depend on your drawing style and your expectations. It does a very good job of recording your strokes, from the faintest to the heaviest of lines, and it’s as good as my tablet at recording the fairly fast and loopy lines of my handwriting. I tried a few drawing styles, from handwriting to fast and loose scribbles to a sketch of my hand, crosshatched shading and all, to see how it would record them, and for the most part it did a very good job. Looking at the vector output I can see why Wacom supplied the pen with only ballpoint tips; you can probably play with the settings to improve things but ballpoints aren’t particularly nuanced or subtle drawing devices, and the output reflects that. As I said, it records things well, but not beautifully. When exporting as SVG, the vectors are made from very short line segments (they aren’t smooth beziers) and very faint lines tend to come over a bit thick, so what you’d drawn as subtle crosshatching is recorded as a rather heavy bit of shading, while thicker lines come across as a bit thin.

Scans of various sketches, compared to how they come across as SVG. This is using all default settings the device comes with.

I don’t see any of this as a serious problem though. I think by making the pen a ballpoint Wacom are signalling the quality and style of drawing that the device records well. With a few tweaks to the settings, I can see myself using it to record some actual illustrations for use as final artwork, but its real strength seems to be in recording rough ideas. My sketches of lettering ideas, flow diagrams, outline illustrations, logo and site ideas all came across perfectly (though with provisos, see below) and were great to use in Illustrator as guides for finished artwork. Because the output is vector and faithfully records pen pressure it works far better than a scan might, and means I don’t feel I need to delete the guide layer to keep file sizes down (as I might with a scan).

What the device offers is convenience, and a bit of magic. It’s less hassle than scanning or photographing your notebooks, and you get scalable vectors nicely separated into whatever layers you want. You can draw an outline sketch and then feel free to scribble and annotate all over it, knowing each addition can be turned on and off and moved about at will, or even deleted entirely. That’s the real appeal of this thing.

The software

There are some extra special bits of magic the Inkling hints at, but isn’t yet backed up by the software that comes with it. When you look at a sketch using the ‘Sketch Manager’ software, you can replay the drawing process as an animation, or use a scrubber to focus on a particular sequence of strokes. There’s something quite fabulous at seeing a time lapse of something being drawn, and here it is with your very own sketches! But, and I found this a little disappointing, you can’t export the sequence as an animation. The whole purpose of the player and scrubber is to allow you to split your drawing into multiple layers, as you might want to if you’d not pressed the ‘new layer’ button at a particular point. Useful, I’ve no doubt, but a rather mundane use case compared to the “can you see what it is yet?” fun potential. It would be nice to be able to export animations, and I know it’s not the main purpose of the software, but it seemed like such a big potential win that I was surprised it wasn’t there.

The main interface of Sketch Manager. Pretty horrid. Showing the directory tree is a very strange choice, especially for a Mac app. It’s not useful at all. Note how the toolbar icons look borrowed from another app.

The other issues with the software are less structural and more down to (it appears) a rushed job and skipped testing. The screenshots in the manual show the software running on Windows, looking fairly good, with everything looking like it’s in the right places. Seeing what it looks like on the Mac, I would hazard a guess that it was designed originally for the Windows UI, written for Windows, tested on Windows and then ported over to the Mac. Button assets look clumsy against the Mac’s grey UI, some buttons end up in the kind of drop down that you get when there’s no room to show everything and the text is jargon-filled and doesn’t feel like it was written for humans. There are some very odd labelling choices too; for example, the scrubber for the drawing timeline shows two numbers, one labelled L, the other R. Left, and right. I had no idea what these meant other than to wonder whether it was a count of left versus right handed strokes, which would be an odd thing to show since I’m fairly sure ambidextrous illustrators are quite rare. But no, as you move the scrubber bars, it shows you how many strokes are to the left of the scrubber (i.e. earlier), and how many to the right (later). I can’t imagine why this would be at once so important to show, and yet not label properly.

The document interface. Also pretty horrible, and largely incomprehensible. That large button down the bottom right takes you back to the main screen. Placed next to the scrubber and player like that, I thought it was a rewind control.

More serious problems show up when you try exporting sketches to Illustrator and Photoshop. At this point you really need to have restarted your computer after installing Sketch Manager (yes, it’s rather old school), if you don’t, Illustrator will give you a dialog asking whether you want to import the text as ANSI or not. Whatever you pick, you’ll get a large text field with the contents of an XML file in it. If you have restarted, you’ll get a series of very strange paths with stroke widths set using Illustrator’s calligraphy tool. It’s not great. Sharp corners get filled in as splodges and the whole thing looks like a vector trace of a bitmap.

A scan of the original drawing, and three different outputs. First is direct to Photoshop, the second is direct to Illustrator, and the last one was exported as SVG and opened in Illustrator.

Exporting to Photoshop was a bit better in that I got an actual image first time, but it created a 600dpi document with what looked like a scaled-up 300dpi image in it, which I think is exactly what it is; when you choose to export to any of the bitmap formats they create a 300dpi image. Also, when you choose to export to Photoshop, it changes your Photoshop settings so that the units of measurement are inches. I can’t even begin to comprehend the utter boorishness of this. I’ve checked, and checked again. I set my units back to pixels, export a picture from Sketch Manager, and there it is, inches again.

Not good. Really, really not good.

The only way to export vector data reliably is to use the ‘Save as different format’ option, and choose SVG. This works well, but is a faff as it defaults every single time to PNG and defaults the file location to the device itself. As I said above, the vectors are short straight-line segments rather than smooth beziers, but it does at least create a faithful replica of your drawing.

Viewed in Illustrator, the paths of a sketch exported as SVG (left
and direct to Illustrator (right). Even without looking at the scan, the difference in fidelity is clear.) I should point out that the Sketch Manager is far better than any vendor-provided scanning software I’ve ever used. Not exactly praise, but it is something.

The upshot

The Inkling feels very much like a tool for designers more than illustrators. If you sketch rough ideas – layouts, lettering, schematics and the like, you’ll find it very useful. If you want to record your sketchbook of illustrations, you certainly could, but it might cramp your style having to use that pen - Wacom themselves say it’s good for preparatory drawings, and I agree. I don’t use ballpoints very often for a couple of reasons – I don’t particularly like the quality of line they offer, and the ink smells bad. For the sheer convenience of this tool though, I could live with both.

Digitising Rare Wood Type

I nearly missed this. One of the Matts at Bearded Design (I’m guessing Matt Griffin) emailed to tell me about their Kickstarter project, which is to create new digital type from wood types - rare wood types. Digitisation of old types is one of those things that thrills some people and gets others in a froth, but I think this is a project that deserves some support. If anything it’ll help preserve some wood type designs that might otherwise end up as vile, execrable knick-knacks on Etsy. As they say in films and on TV, you’ve got 24 hours (as of writing, to get involved early before the project is funded on Kickstarter). Featured below is a ‘beta’ face they’ve started digitising, currently called ‘Fatboy Husky’. It’s available to download through the Kickstarter page.

Fatboy, featured on the Kickstarter page. Kerned (roughly
by me. Ahem.)
Some images of type and prints from the project Flickr set.

Armenian Type

I’ve noticed a fair bit of interest on Twitter and the like recently on the subject of Armenian script, perhaps inspired by Carolyn Puzzovio’s talk on the subject at ATypI 2010. I’ve been meaning to have a look into the subject since then, so I’m glad Nina Stössinger and Hrant Papazian have created armenotype.com, a great new site devoted to the subject of the Armenian script and alphabet. It was only launched a few hours ago and the content is still being added to. In the words of Hrant:

We’d love to see anybody and everybody with even a remote curiosity about the Armenian script check it out, register for the mailing list, and post comments.Hrant on Typophile

It’s a beautiful alphabet. Look on the site for the full gallery, but here are a couple of my favourites so far:




This is a very belated post, but one I’ve been meaning to do for a while. Cameron Moll’s Colosseo Type poster is a joy to behold. The level of detail in it is astounding, using type to create textures, patterns and outlines to illustrate the Colosseum. The piece is letterpress, and took over 250 hours to create; it’s set in Goudy Trajan and Bembo Pro, and interestingly, some glyphs recreated using tracing and redrawing:

Additionally, glyphs have been recreated based on the work of master Italian calligrapher M. Giovambattista Palatino, as featured in Libro di M. Giovambattista Palatino Cittadino Romano, published in Rome around 1550 AD.Cameron Moll

Belated or not, it turns out now is a good time to post this as Moll is having a sale of not just this, but the Salt Lake Temple poster and the EPS of the traced glyphs from the Palatino book (one of which is up at the top right). So yes, 25% off, and you get a free glyphs poster with one of the larger posters. Excuse the sales-y tone, but I think these posters are worth every penny; they’re lovely on screen, but as physical objects they’re quite beautiful.




I was catching up on some reading recently and found this post on Pascal Zoghbi’s site, 29 letters, on the first printing press in the Middle East. There’s an interesting bit of history around its very existence in the Middle East at all. It was imported from England in 1585 to Saint Anthony’s Monastery in Qozhaya (a valley in modern day Lebanon) which was at the time part of the Ottoman Empire. Throughout the Empire, printing presses (and printed books) had been effectively banned following an edict by Bayezid Ⅱ in 1483. I’ve been reading up on the reasoning for the ban, and it seems that the public reason was that of piety; Arabic was the language of the Qu’ran and therefore was deemed a sacred language, so it was only allowed to be written by hand. The idea of the ‘Word of God’ being squeezed onto paper by a machine was supposedly anathema. There are of course other possible (and to my mind, rather more likely) reasons, in that the industry of copying out books and manuscripts was particularly lucrative and those who did it effectively used their considerable lobbying power to protect their interests. There’s no direct evidence for that, but, well, plus ça change and all that.

Some alternate glyphs from Serdo Mardin, and some photo details from 29 letters.

Anyway, regardless of the reason, the Monastery must have had a dispensation to be allowed to use a press at all, and I imagine as part of the deal they would have had to promise not to print Arabic, and here is where they stuck to the letter (literally) of the law, but not the spirit. Instead of the Arabic script, they used the Syriac. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, and was once dominant across the Middle East. By the time that printing press was delivered to the Monastery, it was in serious decline and replaced for most practical purposes by Arabic, except in the Christian liturgy (I freely admit that it was more complicated than that, but, moving on…). So the canny monks printed books in the Arabic language, but using the Syriac script. Sneaky. And here we get to the whole reason for this post, which is a wholehearted, will you look at that beautiful script! It’s really quite lovely. As before with a script I’m not familiar with, I’m not going to start trying to write stuff using a font that supports it, but I’ve taken some of the alternate glyphs from the font Serto Mardin that show the diagonal strokes the best. Beautiful stuff. I also traced a bit from one of the photos, which is up at the top of this post.

Aktiv Grotesk

A few months ago I went to BrightType 2010 at Brighton University — two talks, one by Richard Rutter and another by Bruno Maag — which I meant to write up at the time but sadly never got around to. One thing that stuck with me was Bruno Maag’s 5 minute rant against Helvetica where he compared it unfavourably to Univers and decried its overuse and the unthinking adoration given to it. Apparently Maag likes to include a bit of a rant like this in all his talks, but it was new to me and quite refreshing. Basically, Bruno Maag detests Helvetica, and has designed a new face, Aktiv Grotesk, to kill it off.


The new face is designed both to correct the apparent flaws in Helvetica and as a new, warmer, friendlier Univers. I guess I’d need to spend some time with it to know how it feels in use, but first impressions are pretty good. Univers is one of my all time favourites and Aktiv Grotesk has much of the same feel, though I’m not sure it really feels friendlier. I always thought Univers had a lot of character and was pretty friendly already, so I’m surprised Maag described it as ‘cold’. I guess it depends on your associations. Comparing Univers*, Helvetica, Helvetica Neue, Aktiv Grotesk and Akzidenz Grotesk is pretty interesting. You can immediately see that while there’s a connection, Aktiv Grotesk is is definitely an entirely new face — the counters are more open, possibly due to the squaring off Maag mentions; the strokes are sophisticated and refined, more like a display face; and the whole thing has a beautifully even colour:

* Admittedly my version of Univers is pretty crap, not that I’ve found much better available online.

There are a few oddities in it though. In particular, that ‘s’ is just plain odd. In context, above, it fits in mostly OK, but it appears to lean backwards. It feels unstable. Both the Helveticas and Univers have S’s that come to a satisfactory finish at both ends, and Akzidenz Grotesk has that chunky flare at the ends of the stroke to balance it out, but Aktiv Grotesk just tails off a bit. It feels, dare I say it, a bit like Arial.


This statement surprised me a bit:

“Being a Swiss typographer, it’s always been Univers. Even in my apprenticeship we didn’t have Helvetica in the printshop. Then I went to Basel school of design and of course in Weingart’s workshop it was Univers, never Helvetica. Then I come to England and there’s all these designers using Helvetica! The Macintosh had just come out and Helvetica was on every single machine. Everyone was so fascinated with it … I never understood that.”Bruno Maag in Creative Review

Really? When I was growing up I remember that when there were sans serif faces they were either Univers or Folio. My uncle was a typesetter and designer and I remember the books of Lorem Ipsum set in Univers he used to chop up and paste into layout comps. It was never Helvetica. But then, these were the cold, damp provinces, so perhaps things were different in that London, you know, where they had computers and all that clever stuff. Maybe.

So for what it’s worth, I think Aktiv Grotesk is a real winner of a face (that ‘s’ notwithstanding) and will be pretty nice to play with and use professionally, but I doubt it’ll unseat Helvetica as the sans designers turn to. As a high quality font and with its Swiss typographic credentials, it does stand a chance of eclipsing Univers though, which would be a shame.

Web FontFonts

Font licensing on the web just took another step forward. FontFont have released new web-optimised versions of 15 of their type families — over 300 individual fonts — which you can, if you like, use via Typekit’s service at (I gather) no extra cost, whether or not it’s listed in Typekit’s own library. At first glance it may not seem like so much of a massive deal, after all, you buy the font, you get to use the font, but it’s interesting in that it’s not just delivered in the ‘traditional’ manner by the foundry but you also get an additional service provided by a third party, and that the fonts aren’t available to license directly from that third party. It’s a subtle distinction, but it changes the nature of Typekit (and other such services) from being vendor outlets to being vendor outlets and service providers to foundries.

Illustrating the potential importance of this, I remember a talk by Bruno Maag last year where he was asking why he should offer his fonts through a service like Typekit — the potential revenue as a cut of subscriptions was so low, he said, that it just wasn’t worth it. Of course there are services offering different business models, such as Fontdeck*, but this adds yet another model to the mix, and a potentially very lucrative one at that. All very interesting.

Update: Jason Santa Maria emailed that Typekit have been offering this service since February, something that oddly passed me by at the time. Must have been the discount that got my attention this time around. Discounts on fonts, how could I not?


FF Kava Web and FF Tisa Web.