Type Design

Serene Infoboards


I was on a train from Guildford to Gatwick the other day, on some ancient First Great Western carriages, which had these beautifully simple infoboards at each end. Photos can’t quite capture the charm of these things, as the transition between messages was so languid, so gentle and fluid. It looks like there’s one light source behind the display and whatever power levels they’ve used for the LCD means that it changes slowly, line by line from top to bottom over the course of maybe just under a second, with the liquid crystal fading slowly between states. I got a few pictures, ignoring the funny looks from everyone else in the carriage (hey, I’m not a terrorist) and recreated the matrix used for the letters as an Illustrator file. I did think of how to create diacritics, so I added another row of boxes on the downloadable EPS - you can create all the characters here and, to a great or lesser degree of fidelity, quite a lot of diacritics - the common Western European ones at least.

I’ve mocked this up into an alphabet with a few punctuation marks, and while I had to guess at quite a few of the characters, I think it’s about right. The only reason I could see for the odd triangular bit at the bottom middle was to make a ‘V’ (and possibly a comma) — I guess using the downward-pointing triangle from the four part ‘x’ matrix would mean the letter wouldn’t sit on the baseline properly — a nice bit of attention to detail. The system is quite flexible and fairly high resolution; I like the way it extends the basic 3×5 grid, but only where necessary, and it supports a large range of characters. Lovely stuff.


FF Dagny

Yves Peters wrote recently on the history and origins of the FontShop-released FF Dagny, worth reading in full, especially for the interesting discussion at the end on how to categorise the face. I must admit though to being drawn in by the beautiful illustration by Fredrik Andersson, reproduced below. One of the key features in the development of Dagny was to create a true italic for it, rather than the obliques of its ‘parent’ face, DN Grotesk, so it’s especially pleasing to align italic characters across the illustration like this.


Illustration by Fredrik Andersson for the FF Dagny spec sheet.

Robot Talk

I’ve been following Penny Arcade for quite some time now - they run commentary and opinion on games with short articles and webcomics, expertly written and drawn by Gabe and Tycho. They’ve recently been running a series of webcomics exploring various short stories (not strictly on gaming, but perhaps in universes shared with many games), one of which is Automata. It’s all rather good and worth following (part 1 here, 2 onwards from here), but one thing that got my attention was the representation of speech between the automata characters, shown below.


I like the addition of the dots to the barcode pattern, hinting at multiple tones and levels of sound - something interesting to add to a script - and as the character in the comic refers to it as ‘clickwise’ I got to wondering how languages with clicks were transcribed in the real world. Unsurprisingly, there are various forms of dots, circles and exclamation points, forming a kind of visual onomatopœia for clicks, ‘tsks’ and ‘tuts’.

Comics of course have a rich vocabulary of such things, and I find myself sometimes wishing for a bit more symbolic depth to the Latin alphabet - new forms of punctuation perhaps, maybe even a whole new script, or scripts. To illustrate and explain further, I think everyone has come across the problem of misinterpreting or being misinterpreted when using email - you thought you were making an oh-so-clever dry witticism and it comes across as scouring contemptuous sarcasm (say), so usually the only recourse is to pick up the phone so that your tone of voice can be heard. However, since we’re increasingly using text to communicate, especially in the social, rather than business or technical, arena, and even more importantly in the plain text and short form media such as SMS, we may need to expand our symbolic vocabulary to indicate things such as tone of voice, humour, sarcasm and sincerity. We have emoticons of course, and in time some of them (beyond 263A, 263B and so on) may find their way into Unicode, but they’re pretty blunt things and as it’s subtlety we need, we’ll need something a bit more flexible and, well, more like language.

It’s a thought.

Genuine Imitations


This Thursday just gone, Matthew Carter presented the fourth annual Justin Howes Memorial Lecture for the St Bride Library, Genuine Imitations, a type designer’s view of revivals, and I was lucky enough to get a ticket for it. All the tickets went in two hours, and St Bride moved the event to Conway Hall to allow more people to go, yet even after that there was a waiting list!

I’ve written up the talk for I Love Typography, so head on over there to read all about it - it’s quite long, but Carter made some good points that I found rather inspirational, and I hope you will too.

Leo Beukeboom

Another gem found through Coudal, this. Re-Type posted an article about the beautiful lettering by Leo Beukeboom on the windows of bars and cafes in Amsterdam (with a nice appreciation of decent, old-style, non-trendy bars in there too). There’s a series of photos with the article, which I’ve traced the lettering from (below), and as a bonus Re-Type themselves are working on interpreting the lettering into an Opentype face, which so far looks great - can’t wait to see it finished.


Top image traced from the image here. Bottom two traced from images on Re-Type’s article.

I did a bit of hunting around for more information on Beukeboom, and found this article on David Quay’s site, containing a lot of background information and an interview, which is fascinating and well worth a read. I’m particularly taken by this:

The letter you use on a pub window depends on the type of pub. If you have a traditional brown café, with lace curtains on copper curtain rods, with stained glass windows, you choose a nice, ornamental curly letter, because it fits in with the environment. It is not the information that counts, because everyone can tell it’s a café, but it’s about decoration, about creating an atmosphere. For the lettering on the traditional brown cafés I developed my own script based on the calligraphy of Jan van den Velde.Leo Beukeboom, from David Quay Design

I love that. The words themselves become secondary to the style in conveying information - without knowing what it says, you know what it says. Certainly not an infallible system, but most types of place (and many things) have their signature look, and as I’ve posted before (warning, extremely wordy article) you should know what you’re doing before you mess with it. They’re the design patterns of urban existence, if you will, though in the case of Beukeboom’s lettering, this is one that is slowly fading - unless anyone wants to become his apprentice that is. If he still wants one.

Our Favourite Typefaces of 2008

Yes, it’s finally here! Typographica’s Favorite Typefaces of 2008, the fifth annual collection of reviews of the best in typeface design. I’ve not read all the reviews yet (that’ll take a while) but from the ones I have read you should set aside a couple of hours and go and take a look:

Stylistically, this year’s selections run the typographic gamut: slab serif, typewriter, blackletter, stencil, brush script, geometric sans … and some that are difficult to neatly classify. Some represent contemporary innovations in editorial style, while others look back to pre-typographic history for inspiration. Typographica

Also of note is the swanky new design for Typographica itself - the first significant redesign of the site since 2002, heralding its transition from a blog to a full-time review site. Congratulations to all involved!


Ralph Beyer and Coventry Cathedral


When I was writing about the St John’s Bible last week I was reminded of the typography of Coventry Cathedral and wanted to post a couple of pictures of it then, but I wasn’t immediately able to find decent pictures. I’ve had a proper look round, done some more research and found some pictures and I think given the history of the cathedral it’s an appropriate post for Easter Sunday, with themes of rebirth and all; Following the destruction of St Michael’s Cathedral (and much of the city) in a Luftwaffe attack on the 14th of November 1940:

…the then leaders of the Cathedral Community took the courageous step to build a new Cathedral and preserve the remains of the old Cathedral as a moving reminder of the folly and waste of war. From that point, Coventry Cathedral became the inspiration for a ministry of peace and reconciliation that has reached out across the entire world.Wikipedia: Coventry Cathedral

The new Cathedral was designed by Sir Basil Spence (who also designed my alma mater, Sussex University), with stained glass by John Piper and Keith New, the great tapestry by Graham Sutherland, sculptures by Jacob Epstein and John Bridgeman, the Great West Window by John Hutton and last, but absolutely not least, lettering and carvings by Ralph Beyer. It’s this lettering that fascinates me, and it’s strange that there are so very few pictures of it.


Some of the Tablets of the Word by Ralph Beyer. Picture from the QTVR movies in the Virtual Tour. There is also a picture from 1962 on the Time Life website here.

When I was looking for pictures I revisited the Cathedral’s website (which for some reason has no photo gallery) and realised that it’s possible to get some decent pictures out of the well-intentioned but bizzarely designed ‘Virtual Tour’. So with one exception (below), that’s where I got the pictures here. I don’t like being negative, but that virtual tour really could have a better user interface. It dominates and detracts from the movies, which are presented at a size that’s far, far too small - the content and the Cathedral deserves better than that.


Detail of one of the Tablets of the Word by Ralph Beyer. Picture by Herry Lawford on Flickr.

How Beyer came to be chosen for the Coventry Cathedral project is interesting, and includes a fair few other famous names and some remarkable coincidences. I have to quote fairly liberally from his obituary in the Times, or I’d just be rewriting it:

In 1937, aged 16, Beyer visited England where, on the recommendation of Mendelsohn, he spent six months as an apprentice to Eric Gill. Like Gill, and doubtless enthused by him, Beyer was fascinated by the qualities of carved stone, by simple sculptural forms and especially by letterform. Ralph then studied in London, at the Central School of Arts & Crafts and at Chelsea School of Art where he met Henry Moore, for whom he worked briefly before being interned as an enemy alien at the outbreak of the war.The Times

While in the internment camp, he met and befriended the young Nikolaus Pevsner, who had started work on An Outline of European Architecture and would later write the Pevsner Architectural Guides.

Encouraged by Henry Moore, Spence decided that, the Sutherland tapestry apart, the dominant decorative feature of the interior of the new Coventry Cathedral should be lettering rather than narrative sculpture. He knew he was looking not simply for a craftsman but for an artist capable of making a truly distinctive contribution. It was Pevsner who suggested that Spence should meet Beyer, to learn how he might approach a project which was to become the defining challenge of his life.The Times

The Independent has a more extensive obituary, and highlights a good point about the style of the modern Church of England being inspired by the early church, which I think is what reminded me of this work when looking at the St John’s Bible:

Although Spence’s cathedral was criticised for its conventional Latin cross plan, Beyer’s Tablets of the Word reflected post-war ecclesiastical interest in the early church and today they remain strikingly innovative examples of lapidary art.The Independent

Beyer also designed a typeface for use on hymnals and other publications. The cathedral website makes good use of the typeface using Flash, and using browser zooming and screenshots I’ve assembled the text at right and top right. Of course that’s no substitute for the real typeface; I’d like to see if there’s a lowercase, other weights or styles, what the rest of the numerals look like, and how it’s kerned.


Further use of the Beyer face behind the altar, and at right more influences from the interest in the early Christian church, with the Chi Rho symbol, denoting Christ.


The inlaid lettering by the Great West Window. Finding clear pictures of this is nigh-on impossible, and I’m tempted to turn up with my camera and tripod and make my own. As it is, here’s a closeup.

It’s worth reading both obituaries, he had an interesting life and career: The Times Obituary, The Independent Obituary.



I saw Airside’s great brand/logo system for Greenpeace’s Airplot! campaign (against the new runway at Heathrow Airport) the other day, and today Bauldoff linked to more information on the development of it. I love the development process for the typeface used in the identity, printed in acrylic paint with letters cut out of corrugated cardboard; the corrugations in the cardboard brilliantly emulate the ridged appearance of ploughed fields, and creases and imperfections bring to mind the parch marks brought about by underlying geology (or archaeology!) you can only see from the air. The whole system is very flexible, and as you can see from the examples, allows for a wide range of messages to be created and set while maintaining the strong visual identity of the campaign.


All in all, it’s a great idea, well executed. The campaign itself is interesting and rather amusing, it certainly caught my imagination when I first heard of it. Basically, Greenpeace bought a field in the middle of where the new Heathrow runway is going to be, and is parcelling it off and selling it to potentially hundreds of people worldwide, with the idea that the Government won’t easily be able to track down the owners to force a compulsory purchase. It may not prevent the building of the runway, and may not even slow it down very much (the original purchase could be identified as being legally ‘vexatious’ and nullified) but it brings the protest to light in a positive, clever and interesting way that is likely to appeal to the public. Other recent airport expansion protests have focussed on inconveniencing the travelling public, which, while you might say it’s justified in highlighting the importance of the issue, isn’t going to get much support from said travelling public.


I found the Latinotype site the other day via NOTCOT, and I’m rather taken with some of their faces. I’m particularly fond of Fidel Black, which I think I’m going to suggest for a rebranding project coming up soon;  Biotech, which with its chunky and square lowercase is like a print-suitable cousin of Verdana Bold; and Regia Sans, because, well, I just like it. Go and take a look at the rest of their faces, and perhaps click Comprar on a few of them.