Type Design

The New Fontfeed


Excellent news; Erik Spiekermann’s brainchild The Fontfeed has relaunched as a new, independent site. Combining the insights of Erik Spiekermann himself, Stephen Coles and Yves Peters, this is definitely a site to add to your RSS reading list, or should you be so inclined, your bookmarks. It sounds like it’ll be very much worth it:

Along with delivering advice and inspiration, our goal is to add a perceptive voice to the type community, bridging the gap between font users and font suppliers. We hope to stimulate interaction and kick start a valuable and lasting discourse between all parties, so don’t hesitate to let us know your thoughts.

So yes, congratulations on the new site!

Faber Finds

Looking back through CR Blog, I followed a link to this article about the Faber Finds service by the developers and designers, PostSpectacular. The whole thing is incredibly fascinating and quite exciting - taking its cue from the growth in low-volume self publishing services, the service goes further down the mass-customisation route so that each book is printed only when it’s ordered and with a unique, automatically-generated cover design. The cover designs are the most interesting bit, and while the Post Spectacular article doesn’t say whether Faber actually do generate a new one for each and every book (there are a couple of comments about that), the technology is definitely there to do it.

I actually did mean the latter too, every physical printed copy unique, leaving the era of mass production behind - the software was built for this exact context. Though having said this, I really can’t tell if Faber are following fully through with this plan.Karsten Schmidt

The patterns are based on sketches by Marian Bantjes, with four different types depending on the subject category of the book. The books are assembled on the fly as a web service using Processing, PHP and Java, and apparently while each cover takes only a second to generate, another automatic process weeds out ‘off brand’ ones. I’m often surprised by the almost casual way some really quite remarkable ideas and advances in artificial intelligence are used today - I’ve some knowledge of the subject from many years ago and such things as automatically detecting off brand designs would have been the stuff of futurists and science fiction back then. The description makes it sound simple and straightforward, which perhaps indicates how far things have developed.

Finding appropriate values to these design parameters required a phase of constant experimentation and conversations with Faber’s design team - these collaboratively agreed boundary values then became the encoded art direction within the software.

The typeface used for the covers, B HMMND, was designed specifically for the project by Michael C. Place, and while I can appreciate individual letterforms (some at left that I find rather beautiful) and see that they work well with the Bantjes’ patterns (and the Faber logo), they just don’t read very well all together. Some of the titles end up with extraordinarily uneven colour, with great dark patches of ink at one end of a word while the other end is a sketchy ghost of hair-thin lines. Maybe that ‘kookiness’ was the intention but I find it disappointing - the covers are far less appealing as a result; they just look messy and badly typeset. To my mind this typeface would be very successful as-is when manually typeset, or needs a whole bunch of alternates and Opentype rules to allow for a more readable result when set automatically.


I love the idea and how this service has been implemented (the cover titles aside); we definitely need to see more of this kind of thing so that we can get new copies of any out of print book in future. I know that there’ve been old books I’ve wanted to buy only to find that they’re out of print and that second, third and fourth hand copies are incredibly rare - sometimes impossible to find at all. I didn’t want a special first edition or something to squirrel away in an atmosphere-controlled book collection, I just wanted to read the book. For law-abiding, copyright-respecting people like me what options are there? Perhaps one day the whole idea of ‘out of print’ will fade away to be replaced by the very longest of Long Tail economics. I hope so.



I’ve been pondering this article for a while, since coming across Jonathan Hoefler’s posts (and here) about Glagolitic script in my RSS reader. It’s a script I’d never heard of before, and I’m always fascinated by writing systems, so I followed some links, sent a couple of emails and did some research on it.


First off, I have to say thank you to Typonine for sending me the font used for some of the illustrations in this post, and specifically Nikola Djurek who designed and developed it, based on the first Croatian printed book in the script: the “Misal po zakonu rimskoga dvora”, printed in 1483. A page, and details, from that book are shown below.


One of the things I noticed when looking at examples of Glagolitic is the way some characters appear and disappear; I was trying to set some text in it, and whichever bit of text I tried had some extra characters that weren’t in the font or in any other examples - each one seemed to have characters unique to it. Of course, this isn’t a deficiency of the font (or of the language), but more a sign of the evolution of the written language and of the strong influences on it from Latin, Cyrillic and Church Slavonic over the years. Croatian was written in all three systems in parallel, and as a local system not widely known outside of the Balkans (despite being the oldest of the Slavic alphabets), the form of written Glagolitic has perhaps been more influenced than influencing; In some written examples there are Cyrillic characters, while in others the characters are presumably the original Glagolitic ones, or newer hybrid forms.

Some ligatures in Glagolitic script.

This leads on nicely to arguably the most interesting feature of Glagolitic (for a typographer at least) - the sheer number of ligatures. This interesting PDF states that in one work alone, the Brozić breviary, there are 250 ligatures - a number you’d more expect to find in a hand-written work from a top scriptorium rather than a printed book of over a thousand pages. Also unique to Glagolitic among printed languages are the broken ligatures, where half of one letter is joined to another letter, adding thousands of apparently new glyphs to the language. Of course, for anyone (like me) trying to set some text in Glagolitic, it all appears rather confusing and frustrating - but the reason why I tried (and why I’m always tracing things) is to learn more about something, and in that it’s certainly succeeded. If you’re interested in finding out more, for further reading there are a few articles out there, including (of course) Wikipedia, and this introduction to the history of the script.

So after all that I didn’t get to set some text properly in Glagolitic. I think to do so I’d need to spend some time learning a lot more about the language - so it’s added to ‘the queue’ of Things That I Must Learn More About. In the meantime, for my own pleasure and so you can see how attractive the glyphs are in Nikola Djurek’s font, I’ve created a pattern using it.


Now, if reading across the circles spells anything rude or inappropriate, let me know, OK? The contact form should be working again after the server move.

Are You Serious?

I found this article (via Kottke) about Serious Sans, yet another attempt to produce yet another version of Comic Sans, one that maybe this time people will like; one justified by a bunch of vaguely defined supposedly academic advantages. There is a particular belief about Comic Sans that always seems to come up as a justification why it’s actually not that bad, and that people who hate it are horrid type snobs in ivory towers (or should that be lead towers?) who really don’t get how the common man or woman perceives type. It is summed up rather well in this quote:

Struggling to understand what could possibly be good about Comic Sans, Valerio — together with partners Hugo Timm, Filip Tydén and Erwan Lhussier — found that the doggedly goofy font’s irregular forms made it one of the easiest typefaces for dyslexics to read.

Now, this is to many intents and purposes, quite true. However, it is also true of almost every other sans-serif face out there; Avenir, Helvetica, MS Sans Serif, Verdana, Arial, and so on. There is nothing unique or special about Comic Sans that makes it particularly good for dyslexics, except in the case of “you read best what you know best” - a dyslexic used to Comic Sans may well find it easier to read, but others may not. The trick is to find a happy medium; something that works best for most people (i.e. your audience of, say, dyslexics) and reasonably well for the rest; something that does no harm*. I have done a lot of work designing UIs with accessibility as a primary requirement, and in one of the largest projects an ‘expert’ demanded that the interface and all instructional graphics be set in Comic Sans. Later, after consultation with real experts at the Royal National Institute for the Blind, we ended up with the following advice, summed up in this rather pithy quote from the RNIB website:

Avoid highly stylised typefaces, such as those with ornamental, decorative or handwriting styles.

The RNIB consultant basically recommended Arial: it is commonly available, people are well used to it, and is an unornamented and regular sans-serif with clear letterforms. It also has a clear advantage of not being incredibly insulting to adults who were using the learning programme, and believe me, they did find it insulting. I’d know - I was there.

Oh, and as for Serious Sans, well, there’s not much to say. It’s not very good, but I don’t think it’s really meant to be. If you’d like to see the results of a genuine and serious project to produce a legible and accessible face, have a look here.

I have ranted on this subject before.

Orquesta Sinfónica de Puerto Rico

I was browsing through Bibliodyssey last night and found this poster in an article about Lorenzo Homar. I love the beautiful and lively lettering, especially the dramatic swash on the 9. I’ve (as usual) traced it with trusty beziers (I love bezier curves) and sketched out a very rough alphabet, which I might take a bit further at some point - redrawing the numbers from scratch, I think, as I’m not very happy with them.

To create a font based on this would be quite a project as the original lettering was clearly done by hand, though I’m sure with a deft application of Opentype rules you could create something that has much of the rhythm and charm of the original. However, I think I’ll create a stock of basic letterforms and apply variants and tweaks as I need them - I doubt I’ll be setting much body type in this. The lettering doesn’t look like it would suit a standard set of uppercase glyphs, but having ornamental lowercase forms in their place would work rather well - the swashed 9 shows what direction to take.


Vereeniging voor Penningkunst

I rediscovered a set of saved images and links I had, labelled “150 Years of Dutch Advertising Art”. I’ve had the link sitting around for quite some time in the vast dusty archives of my home directory, and I can’t understand why I’ve not put it up here before. The site is an incredible collection of fascinating and inspiring images, from the baroque and painterly to the most sparse and graphic. Great stuff.

As usual, I’ve had to trace some of them with trusty beziers - I’ve just finished doing this one. I love the PK monogram and the composition of the two styles. Fun to trace too.


Seeking Inspiration


I went to the Seeking Inspiration conference at the St Bride Foundation last week, and it was excellent. I was glad to find that I left many of the talks feeling genuinely inspired and encouraged in my work - such a concentration of good ideas, interesting personal histories and genuinely fantastic examples of work is rare to find in everyday life, so I was exhausted after it all. But yes, the conference highlights, according to me.

George Hardie: Noticing things and getting things noticed.

This was a great start to the conference - Hardie promises to deliver a new ‘truth’ in each of the talks he does, letting us know something new (and secret) about his past works or methods. I won’t reveal them here, but his talk set the theme of the day, in that collections (hoarding, perhaps) are central to much of the inspiration of the designer. I certainly have a vast collection of found images, and it was the problems of keeping track of, and categorising them, that led to me creating this site. Collections are good, provided you know what you have and you can find it all easily.

Susanna Edwards: Curious.

I was fascinated by this one. Edwards is another avid collector, and had acquired a collection of antique microscope slides which she wanted to find out more about. Interestingly, this led to a project where the slides became only a secondary interest, and where the techniques and equipment of microscopy over the last three centuries were the main focus. Apparently this was largely due to funding constraints - Edwards spent many months on the project and got funding from The Arts Council (if I remember correctly). I was fascinated by the techniques of taking photographs through the variety of ancient microscopes, and by the people who are involved in microscopy and restoring and caring for microscopic samples. It’s a shame the talk couldn’t have been longer, as there was clearly a lot of material and not all of it could be given full justice. I was extremely disappointed that some of the attendees thought fit to laugh at some of the people who’ve devoted their lives to the niche, often neglected subjects and professions Edwards introduced. It is perhaps obvious to say (but I’ll say it anyway) that typography, letterpress and such arcane topics as type design are considered laughable by some members of the public, so to ape their reaction to yet more esoteric disciplines seems ignorant and at best hypocritical. Edwards dealt with the reaction graciously, but I got a hint that she was disappointed too.

Lizzie Ridout: An exercise in collecting beginnings.

Um. Well. This wasn’t a highlight. I’m not sure what this was about to be honest. I think Ridout would do well to drop the whole eccentric act and just speak normally. This was one of those talks that could have been fascinating, considering it was about the British Library’s vast collection of ephemera, but in the end came across as a bit twee and pointless.

Karel Martens (with Robin Kinross): An error occurred.

This is where the limitations of the St Bride sound system really made themselves felt, and hard. For the whole conference we were instructed to make sure that our mobile phones were switched off, in order not to interfere with the radio mikes. Unfortunately the radio mikes interfered with themselves quite well to the extent I nearly had my ears driven six feet into my skull by the noises they made. It made the talk incredibly hard to follow.

Jake Tilson: Cooking the book

It’s funny how some of the more interesting talks don’t lend themselves to discussion. Jake Tilson’s talk felt very short, but that was because he explained his ideas and inspiration so very well - you’re just left thinking, “Well, yes”. I have in my memory a collection of images of his books and his sketches. Probably best to buy some of his books really.

Antonije Baturan: Linear application of lateral thinking.

Normally, when the topic of linearity is introduced you’d expect something linear, such as a clear narrative. There’d be maybe a few branches here and there, but in the end it would provide useful support for a theme. Not so with this talk. There were so many tangents and diversions, and so few conclusions or even complete sentences that it was nigh on impossible to follow what Baturan was trying to say. I got the impression he was trying to say that different cultures have different words for ‘inspiration’ and that this gives some clue to whether those cultures place value on the initial idea, the process of implementing it, or the end result. Which cultures do what, and the relative value of each of the different approaches are, you’d be hard-pressed to discover them from this talk.

William Hall: Inspiration kills design.

The premise of this talk: that the drive to always come up with something new and suprising is contrary to producing good design, was in itself compelling and interesting. Hall started with this topic, and did a good job of criticising some of the ways a creatively-blocked designer might seek ideas, but then carried on to recommend many of the other, equivalent and quite usual ways designers seek inspiration. It was rather odd. Hall came across as the kind of design manager that might appeal to readers of The Economist but would be universally loathed by any designer who had to work with, or for, him. An illustrative point during an anecdote he gave of reviewing the work of one of his designers; first the stabbing pointed finger, then, “That’s the design we’re going to use! Now, come up with something better!” Inspirational for any design manager of how not to behave.

Erik Spiekermann: Typography: from brain to media.

Well, it’s Spiekermann, so, you know. Bloody marvellous, though I was waiting for the Fire Brigade logo at the end of the talk, because there are few stronger arguments for installing a fire alarm and having lots of fire extinguishers than Spiekermann’s tales of losing pretty much all his early work (and his letterpress!) in a fire after he first moved to London.

Tyler Moorehead: From A2B

I had a lot of hope for this talk, and battled a dodgy delay-ridden Underground to get there on time. The first part of the talk was rather pointless PR flackery (though amusing) but the second apparently unpolished part was utterly fascinating, and got the greatest number of questions and comments of any talk in the whole conference. Basically, A2B is switching the size of paper you generally use from A4 to B5. This would save 30% of the actual amount of paper - assuming you shrunk-to-fit everything you printed. Recycling paper apparently ends up costing more in terms of energy and resources than creating brand new paper, so while it may reduce the amount of virgin forest sacrificed to invoices and the like, it is always better to use less, far less. I can’t remember the exact number (I did ask Moorehead to mail me the presentation) but as a rule of thumb, for every tonne of any end product, five tonnes are wasted in the supply chain (retail) and twenty tonnes in the manufacturing. Applied to paper, this leads to many trillion tonnes of waste per year. I think we would do well to encourage people to use less paper, and to just damn well get used to reading stuff off screen - I mean for crying out loud, you’re not reading a damn novel - you don’t need to print it! One of the questions near the end was about printing web pages, and how a plugin should be developed to save wasted pages (you know the ones, the pages with nothing on them but a full stop or two pixels of a banner ad). I was offended by the complete abdication of personal responsibility this question represented. When I suggested that you don’t print the web page, there were objections that “not everyone has internet on their phone” and therefore needs to print the page sometimes. If I want to print something on a web page, I use print preview, or I copy the text to a word processor or a simple text editor and print that, or (I admit this isn’t available to everyone) I print to PDF and tell Acrobat to only print the page I’m interested in. If you actually care about not wasting resources, put some effort in.

Emily Luce: Clearcut to paper.

One of the best descriptions of this talk (from another attendee) was that it was “earnest”. And indeed it was. Luce lives on Vancouver Island, and highlighted a number of problems with the timber and paper industries there (and elsewhere). About 50% of Vancouver Island has been logged, and now the more inaccessible parts are being logged with the help of helicopters. Luce explained how much this all costs, giving an impression that logging and paper production is very much Big Business, and that there is often scant regard from mill owners for local economies, ecologies or communities. The example she gave of Cathedral Grove was instructive - in that this region of old-growth forest is protected, but just beyond the boundaries are large areas of clearcut and monoculture areas of genetically modified cultivars. Whatever your politics, it’s clear that this new growth is unfortunately not quite the restoration and ‘forest management’ we are told is helping preserve our environment. This, and Moorehead’s talk before it, really make you want to reduce your paper usage to the absolute minimum necessary.

Jeremy Tankard: Emotive inspiration

Again, another one that was so good there’s comparatively little to write about. I left this talk genuinely inspired to get cracking designing some new typefaces and that despite the thousands of faces out there, there’s massive scope to create something genuinely new, and yes, inspired. Fantastic. Buy his stuff. Go on. Buyyyy.

Rian Hughes: Vintage custom lettering

This was reminiscent of the first day of the conference, as Hughes showed his collecting instincts with a display of some excellent examples of vintage lettering. I was a bit miffed that he was going through the examples a bit quickly - I wanted to really absorb some of them - but he had nearly 300 samples to show. He’s producing books of his collections soon, so I’ll be ordering those as soon as they’re out.

Paul Antonio: From manuscript to Mosley

I can’t believe this was half an hour, it went so quickly. Antonio described his upbringing and discovery of calligraphy in Trinidad, explaining some of the limitations of learning a niche subject in a developing country. He finished by demonstrating the relationship between calligraphy and the musical rhythm of the period the style of writing is from, and this is where he showed what an astounding singing voice he has. Bloody marvellous.

So yes. I missed the last few talks, which is a shame, but the whole conference was exhausting, and I wanted to go and look at the books and the stone carving demonstration downstairs.

Would I recommend the conference? Most definitely. The only improvement I’d suggest is to the venue itself - the sound system needs some serious attention, if only to allow better Q&A sessions. Oh, and sort out the wifi! It’s one of those “login and minimise this webpage” systems that completely fails on mobile devices.

Haas Unica

Bauldoff linked to some scans he’d done of the 1980 promo for the typeface Haas Unica, by Team’77. I’d seen a copy of this back in the 90s but then forgot about it until seeing these scans - back then I was only a callow youth so the idea of improving Helvetica didn’t seem so remarkable or interesting as it does now.

Essentially, Haas Unica came about as a result of analysing the original version of Helvetica, its variants (as they were in 1980) and similar faces and seeking to improve them - to produce the ultimate archetypal sans serif face. A single face to unite them all, if you like. Looking at the comparitive settings of both faces at text size shows how subtle the differences are, with a detail closeup first:


You can get an idea of the kind of analysis they did from this little snippet:

The character width of Haas Helvetica appears to us to be generally somewhat narrow, so that the rhythm of the typeface is rather uneasy in its effect. The same applies to Akzidenz Book. Linotype Helvetica is wider than the Haas version in relation to its character area and appears to us to be generally more balanced. Its character width corresponds basically to that of Univers.

And the results, based on improvements and adjustments to the stroke thicknesses, relationships of the capital letter widths, numerals and the basic forms of the letters:

The differentiation of capital letter widths leads to a tighter rhythm in upper case composition. A slightly more open form in the Haas Unica specimen setting, compared with the original version, together with the individual corrections to characters, improves the readability of the typeface, especially for continuous text.

Unfortunately when the face was released there were some legal problems as Linotype and Scangraphic both claim ownership. As a result it is no longer available commercially, which is a huge shame. Perhaps a petition for the conflicting parties to get over themselves and perhaps release the face jointly? I mean, making some money from it is surely better than making none at all - especially when ‘ownership’ is being judged from contract and the shifting seas of corporate ownership. Meanwhile, some people are taking matters into their own hands by redrawing the letterforms for their own use.

On the left is the original Haas Helvetica, on the right the new Haas Unica, and in between some transitory and experimental forms.


A New Standard in Legibility

A few years ago I worked on the UI design of an online government-backed TEFL learning programme, which had a lot of input from various charities and education experts. One of the earliest inputs regarded the typeface to use for it. I remember an argument I had with a consultant for a large charity, who argued that Verdana was inherently an illegible face because the ascenders and capitals were different heights; an odd approach to take as I’m fairly sure that enough research had already been done into word shape and readability (by her own organisation as it turns out) to encourage faces with different ascender and cap-heights. Still, the argument quickly ended when the main stakeholder (other than the government) decreed that Comic Sans was the most readable text ‘face’ available and that it must be used for everything. They would allow no dissent. Fortunately a few months down the line and a couple of review stages later, we ended up dropping Comic Sans in favour of Arial - not normally a face to make designers rejoice, but so much of an improvement it felt like a liberation from purgatory. One of the main official objections to Comic Sans was that the letterforms were different from those end-users would be used to, and therefore unfamiliar and hard to recognise. Of course there were many unofficial objections, often centered around the end-users feeling somewhat insulted by such a childish face.

Anyway, I was reminded of all this when David pointed me towards the new face produced by Fontsmith for Mencap, which was actually designed in collaboration with end-users, and benefits greatly as a result. From the press release:

Having narrowed the choice down to a cleaner and more crisp letterform, which avoided the pitfalls of being too childlike and patronising, Fontsmith refined the design to aid legibility and maximise accessibility.FS Mencap is not quirky or odd looking, doesn՚t resemble the childlike design of fridge magnets or early learning tools and is set to challenge Arial as a new standard in legibility.

So rather than to treat people with learning or sight disabilities (or those who just don’t know English) as big children, Fontsmith and Mencap created a face that is clean, professional and adult, while still being friendly and (of course) legible. According to the Typophile article, the face will be available for the public to use too, which is excellent news. I wonder what range of characters are included in it though? The press release shows only basic Latin characters in the examples, but I hope it has broader coverage.