A while ago, an attempt to stifle a difficult conversation made me realize that there are no utopias, not even the community where I had come to feel at home: the type world.
On May 25th, 2018, the revered (at least by me) Dutch Type Library posted a progress report on DTL Prokyon Cyrillic — an extension of the successful, well-drawn DTL Prokyon, designed by Erhard Kaiser. This prompted Erik van Blokland to ask: “Still the same designer?”
On September 6th, 2018, DTL posted a flyer that linked to the Plantin Institute of Technology’s Expert class Type design exhibition. The flyer made prominent use of DTL Prokyon. This led to another, blunter question — this time from Indra Kupferschmid: “[D]o you really prefer to promote and use the typeface of an openly fascist, racist hate speech campaigner over any of the other DTL fonts, or your students’ work?”
Industry leaders who have publicly called out bad kerning on logos were asking for this conversation, which deserved public dialogue much more urgently, to be held in private.
It was a good question. I thought it merited a response, so I stuck around for one. And immediately, in the most despairingly typical fashion, came the “What about X?” questions — X being Eric Gill, in this case. Eric Gill, for the uninitiated, was both a highly accomplished type designer and a rapist who molested his two daughters in their teenage years.
Those reactions were predictable enough, but there followed a bit of talk (in German, translated by my browser) about making this a private conversation. Some asked if a person’s political views should be a factor in choosing a typeface: there was, or at least should be, no politics in design, the argument went. It wasn’t just one person saying this; influentialindustry leaders echoed this line of reasoning. Industry leaders who have publicly called out bad kerning on logos were asking for this conversation, which deserved public dialogue much more urgently, to be held in private.
That made me uneasy.
I am a young black man living in a postcolonial, racially stratified, Caribbean country; I spend most of my days on guard against, and actively victimized by, fascism. I am far removed (physically) from the cosmopolitan centers of type design, but I was made to feel a sense of place in that world as soon as I decided to take it. While at Type@Cooper, I’d call my partner after a sixteen-hour day and tell her: “You know, these are really nice folks, these type people.” And I still feel that way. I’ve found mentorship, advice, and constructive criticism from people I didn’t even think answered emails. Through avenues like Twitter and Typedrawers, I’ve found a way into a community — and I cherish that.
It seems that we, as a global society, have long acknowledged that diversity is a good thing in principle and in practice. What really pushes conversations about diversity to the fore, however, are its real-world, monetary implications. I’m not critical of the reasons for more discussions about these matters; I’m just happy to be drawing type in 2019. But the response by so many esteemed professionals in my chosen field to an issue that has concrete ramifications for someone like me was deeply unnerving.
I believe that the type industry, as a whole, is moving in a positive direction: Alphabettes, for example, prioritizes underrepresented groups for their crits, and many type conferences now get tickets sponsored by foundries or individuals specifically trying to bring fresh faces onto the scene. It’s beautiful. But I find it troubling when this progress is undermined by willful ignorance; it’s possible to have internalized biases, but it’s also possible to move past them. Using a typeface designed by a fascist undermines the hard work of those attempting to open the type industry to more than privileged white people.
Fascism kills. It especially kills people who look like me.
In case it needs to be said: yes, it is wrong to promote, reward, and give voice to fascists in any way. I wouldn’t spend money at a Trump hotel, even if I could afford it. Type design is not a celebrity field, but the reality is that the proliferation of a type designer’s work comes through its use. Giving voice to people who give their voices to hatred is at best normalization and, at worst, endorsement. You don’t agree with Kaiser’s beliefs but you’re using his fonts? Well, then, maybe you don’t disagree enough. Fascism kills. It especially kills people who look like me.
I’m not advocating only for my sake — I’m lucky to have people who I believe will continue to nurture my development in my new life with letters — but for other underrepresented people like me who may be considering entering what is already a technically and mentally demanding profession. The quiet act of knowingly using a typeface designed by a supporter of fascism, and then vigorously defending that position, speaks to determined, privileged ignorance, and poses additional challenges to entry. It could even be enough to keep someone from wanting to fulfill their potential with type. In an environment where there are so many high-quality fonts produced every day, selecting a particular typeface becomes more and more an active choice. Typeface selection isn’t just about aesthetics, or features. It’s also about context and source — especially now. In other words, you don’t have to use a typeface designed by a fascist. You choose to.
The reality is this: if type design, like any other industry, wants to open itself to inclusiveness and diversity, that means necessarily distancing itself from forces that undermine those values. The tolerance paradox states that if a society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant will eventually be seized or destroyed by the intolerant. I don’t think type design in 2019 is going to suffer from a fascist uprising, thanks largely to people who are working hard to break down barriers to the discipline. But it will ultimately suffer if it gives way to the naive assumption that everyone deserves to have their voice heard. The opening of some doors requires the closing of others.
LEGIDA is a local offshoot of the larger and more established PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against Islamization of the Occident), and is thought to be even more radical than its precursor.
Early in my type design education at the Reading MATD course Antonio Cavedoni very kindly presented me with the axiom that your type will inevitably reflect fun you had (or didn’t have) designing it. I took this idea to heart. I realized, too, that it was both a warning and an encouragement. The result of this (for me) pivotal moment is that I now pay special attention when a typeface raises a definite emotion in me. It is by this measure that I want to praise Vesterbro’s feeling. When I look at Vesterbro it feels very well behaved but with a welcome dose of optimism and occasional touches playfulness or even glee. I am simply charmed. It makes me smile.
Arguably, charm is a good thing in general, but is a particularly good sign for a workhorse text face since there is more than enough superlative competition. I think that a new design entering this space must offer a feeling that is both distinctive and compelling enough to get a user to bother trying it in place of what they already know and trust. The reticence of users of workhorse text faces may also be why Black[foundry] cleverly allows you to use a trial version of Vesterbro before licensing it.
In fairness for some people (and some purposes) the point of a workhorse really is that it be dialed back and “transparent” because a more definite feeling will limit what you can do with it. However my reading of the current trend in attitude is that we are seeing a movement away from and an impatience with “transparency”. Now we seem to want body text that has a stronger personality and which seems to emote more. This should give Vesterbro more appeal.
Given what I have said so far it is a little ironic to me that most persuasive element in the collection is not the part intended for body text. It is the very heavy poster weight. And in the end it is the really the key element in the system that caught me and kept me coming back to look at the design. The Poster weight has the full grin of a Cheshire cat.
The one aspect of the family that I would like to see improved is that while the design as a whole seems to read nicely across a fairly broad range of sizes the non-Poster weights of the italics look less good than the rest when they are very large.
Welcome to our twelfth annual celebration of new type design. These are not necessarily the “best” typefaces, nor the most popular or top-selling (the big retailers already have that covered). What can be said is that each of these 2017 releases inspired at least one admirer among our distinguished group of designers, educators, and enthusiasts to take time away from their day jobs and pen their personal praises. That’s more than can be said for nearly any typeface, no matter how often it’s seen or used.
For some contributors, the choice is prompted by innovation. Benedikt Bramböck marvels at the ingenuity of BC Brief’s deceptively minimal two-point structure, Dyana Weissman honors Minérale’s rejection of conventional notions about the placement of mass, Marta Bernstein digs SangBleu’s rethinking of the traditional type family, and Maurice Meilleur — a connoisseur of modular and parametric type — expounds on the complexity of Calcula.
Other writers, especially those who are type designers themselves, select for sheer quality of craftsmanship, recognizing an exemplary effort from firsthand experience. These collegial compliments are more than heartwarming — they can teach us all about what makes great type great, whether it’s James Edmondson on the spacing of Pilot, Sibylle Hagmann on the revival decisions made in Mazagan, or Ellmer Stefan on the epic achievement that is Halyard.
And sometimes, a Favorite Typeface is simply about delight, the joy of novel lettershapes. Jean-Baptiste Levée honors the intestinal circumvolutions of Digestive, Paul Shaw is refreshed by Brutal, and María Ramos appreciates the way Nickel combines a chunky body with pinprick serifs.
I am very grateful to the contributors for their patience and generous spirit. It’s not easy to write about type, but in a world where millions of font users are faced with hundreds of thousands of choices, a few words from the wise go a long way.
Aglet Slab is part of a powerful trio of typefaces that XYZ Type launched with last year. Along with Export and Cortado, Aglet Slab hints at what we can expect from the partnership of Ben Kiel and Jesse Ragan.
Aglet is one of those faces that grows on you over time. At first, it grabs your attention in a casual way — but once you really get to work with it, its personality shines through and you find yourself admiring all of its details. The alternating angles and levels of roundness work like a charm. Not only do they give the forms an active and friendly feel, but they also make the words simply move and take your eyes along with them.
It is a versatile typeface that includes sets of figures, numerals, and highly useful alternates, but one of the features that gets to my heart is that the lovely set of symbols is also designed to match each weight. That makes it easy to combine them with the letterforms in a cohesive way.
Unconsciously hypnotized by Aglet Slab, out of curiosity I tested it in a project for which I had initially wanted to choose a Humanist sans. To my surprise, it made sense right away. I got very excited about this match, and the client was also sold immediately.
Someone recently asked me if rounded typefaces were still in fashion. It’s hard not to think of them as being very current when looking at Aglet Slab in all its glory. Hey Jesse, I’m looking forward to some new family members!
I still remember being immediately attracted to ALS Lamon because of its incredibly novel concept and brilliant execution. The design has a very difficult brief: first, both upper- and lowercase letters appear together in the same glyph; second, the letters are (mostly) drawn with single strokes.
This creates an interesting dynamic between the uppercase letters (which are bold and brushy) and the lowercase (which are petite, cursive, and monolinear). While most letters are made from single strokes, there are exceptions. Characters like J, X, Ґ, and € are rendered with multiple lines and segments — yet the look and feel of the letters is perfectly maintained. For all its complexity, ALS Lamon is impressively legible and each character is perfectly balanced. That alone makes me call this exercise a huge success!
The main distraction lies with some of the “extra” glyphs (like .,:;*\/()–“”«»+×÷), which don’t follow the logic of the other letters. Their closed loops of single outlines create a visually simpler character that stands out in running text. In most cases, I think, it could have worked to add smaller versions of the symbols to the insides — similar to the treatment of the numbers.
But the big question is this: Should ALS Lamon be considered one of the best typefaces of the year? By most benchmarks — what it offers (weights, styles, glyphs, and OpenType features), quality of the outlines, range of usability, etc. — probably not. It has one weight with only basic Latin and Cyrillic glyphs, plus a handful of symbols and punctuation.
I keep thinking that I wish this typeface would have moar (weights, styles, diacritics, etc.), but maybe there is already enough. Because where and how will this typeface be used? It would be great for a logo and headlines, or maybe drop caps would be cool — it basically just needs to be used fairly large and sparingly to work well. So with this relatively limited usability, maybe it doesn’t actually make sense to add more (except for language support). And while I’m usually into expansive families for “serious” typesetting, I fully support more new purely display types. The world would be a pretty boring place if there were only text typefaces!
In the end, ALS Lamon is what it is, and for me that is a memorable typeface that deserves to get checked out, appreciated, and used. And please, someone, make this type out of neon already!
Joana Correia of Porto, Portugal, has been around, typographically speaking. A graduate of Reading University’s type design program, she has contributed to Google Fonts and Indian Type Foundry; and her crystal-clear Canberra is one of the best-selling typefaces in the FontYou collection, now at Black[Foundry].
Like many of her peers, though, Correia has decided not to commit herself to a big-name foundry (or even a medium-sized one), and has become her own vendor. Officially launched earlier this year with two contributing partners, Nova Type Foundry contains four families developed in earlier years. My choice is a single font finalized in 2017, but Artigo Display has older roots — it complements Artigo, a family started as a triple-script text face whose Greek set won a Granshan Award in 2011.
With its low contrast, sturdy serifs, and slanted e crossbar, Artigo pays tribute to the Jenson oldstyle category (Vox called them humanes), without really belonging to it. It’s the italic that makes it stand out most among its peers: contemporary in its details, the italic is lively without being busy; it has salient traces of handwriting, without being nostalgically calligraphic. It’s a pleasure to read and fun to look at.
Artigo Display carries those qualities to a new level. A display font meant to be used in larger sizes (from, say, 16pt up to thousands of points), it is more playful in its inventiveness than Artigo Text, and very articulate in its detailing. The efficient and confident lettershapes use a minimum of points to achieve maximum liveliness. The varying slant of its glyphs, anchored to a basic 2.5-degree angle, makes it a near-upright italic — but it also lends the face a certain restlessness and increased dynamism.
The motto of the recent age in type production seems to be “Everything counts in large amounts.” A recent survey on how people make decisions about buying fonts showed that a huge number of weights is a key selling point of a family and, frankly, making lots of ’em is a piece of cake with today’s software. More, however, is often less: less interesting, less varied, even less usable.
And so I welcome and support fonts that embody original ideas and show an individual sensitivity, perhaps even courage. Artigo Display is such a font, and I was pleased when this year’s open-minded jury gave it a TDC Award.
On the desktop, the font name says “Artigo Display Black”, which leaves the door open to more weights. In the case of Artigo Display, I’m actually looking forward to “more”.
Centuries of Latin-centric typesetting technologies have had a clear influence on most Odia text typefaces.
The natural, fluid forms found in manuscripts and handwriting are squished to fit inside uniformly narrow, Latin-proportioned glyph boxes. Unique features are shrunken, while the less-important “crest” shape at the top of letters is emphasized. The result is a script whose letters, when typeset, look very similar, and can be difficult to differentiate when used at very small sizes or under poor printing conditions.
This is why I was delighted when Pratyush Das’ Ashoka Odia was released. Das has pushed back against these conventions, allowing his letters to return to more natural widths and proportions. The information-rich internal shapes occupy a greater portion of the space, so letters are easily discerned. The curved crests have receded to a supporting role, and the design is loosely spaced, resulting in a beautiful interplay of positive and negative space.
Ashoka is the first Odia typeface to offer a range of weights. Historically a monolinear script, Odia’s forms are prone to getting clogged when too much weight is applied uniformly. Das has chosen a novel approach of diagonal stress, moving weight away from the top crests and toward the sides, allowing the interior shapes to retain their clarity. The resulting design is very well-suited to text setting, offering a great deal of flexibility, and looks incredibly handsome at larger sizes.
Perhaps the best surprise was finding out that it started as an undergraduate project. Das’ project documentation is filled with meaningful research and process work, providing clear evidence of the quality of type education offered at NID, and the incredible talent and dedication of Pratyush Das. I hope the type community will join me in supporting him in his future efforts in type design.
Typographic history favors metal and paper, specifically metal on paper. It is less kind to the ephemeral expressions of language made visible, like written or painted letters, or even letters carved in stone.
Shopfronts fade or get painted over, posters weather and disintegrate, carved inscriptions disappear with buildings that get renovated or torn down. Yet there is no denying that hand lettering and letter carving have historical and typographic value. They have produced some of the most inventive and extravagant letterforms, challenging time-honored typographic conventions to great effect.
One way to preserve those expressions of typographic ingenuity is to turn them into (digital) typefaces. It presents designers with a unique but fundamental problem. While letterers can adapt each individual character on the fly to create the best possible wordshapes and optimize the composition, the glyphs in a typeface need to work together harmoniously in any conceivable configuration. How much can the type designer regiment the letterforms without killing the spirit of the original lettering style?
Such was the challenge Sláva Jevčinová faced when she sought to interpret the lettering work of Jaroslav Benda, a lesser-known Czech graphic designer from the mid–twentieth century. Jevčinová’s approach was as straightforward as it was effective: don’t get blinded by the many variations in repeated letters, but uncover the conceptual core of Benda’s signature style to distill the underlying system informing their shape. All of the crucial elements that define the DNA of Benda’s typographic language are present in Jevčinová’s interpretation — the tall, low-waisted silhouettes, the horizontal connections where diagonals meet verticals (or one another), the apertures that fold onto themselves at the top and remain open at the bottom. Reveling in their quirkiness would have limited the usability of the type family. Instead, Jevčinová organically and elegantly wove them into the structure of an economic sans serif that looks surprisingly open and inviting for having such narrow proportions.
True to its lettering origins, Avory offers a plethora of variations to accommodate users’ preferences. Single-storey versions of a and g emphasize the vertical impetus of the design, while a non-descending J and alternative Dutch IJ permit tightly stacked headlines. Support for Greek and Cyrillic, along with the inclusion of many language-specific alternates, betray a keen sensitivity to multilingual typesetting.
Rosetta hits the nail on the head when describing Avory as “retro-chic or smart-casual”. For all its uncommon features, Avory looks effortlessly balanced and versatile. It exudes a friendly yet classy atmosphere, like that stylish friend who casually dresses down couture with snazzy sneakers. With its underlined capitals that bring the design back to its lettering roots, and its toned-down versions of key letters to assuage the reservations of more conservative type users, this is a gorgeous design that can go either way without losing its delightful personality.
At first glance, I found myself fascinated by individual letters: the y! The other y! The k, the a, the g, the B! The alternate italic Q! The swelling of the ascenders near the serifs on darker weights! The razor-thin point of contact between shoulder and stem!
The logic of a typeface is usually dictated by a writing tool, but here the tool is not immediately evident. Some terminals look like they’ve been written with a brush; others seem carved by a knife. What comes through is a collection of cohesively drawn shapes, where each letterform is playful and inventive while sharing a similar spirit. The reverse stress is such a strong feature that it grants this freedom. Alejandro Lo Celso also managed, somehow, to keep the warmth of pencil sketches in the finished digitized form.
As I glossed over the letters in large sizes, I was skeptical about whether this strategy would work in text. And then, surprise! It does. The proportions are comfortable, the thick horizontal lines guide the eye forward, the texture and rhythm are pleasant, and there is even something old-fashioned about it in text sizes — yet another surprise. Atahualpa conceals an aftertaste of nostalgia within its fresh and inventive letterforms.
Now this part gets really subjective: I listened to Atahualpa Yupanqui while studying the typeface. After a while, the shapes and sounds started to match perfectly in my head. The letterforms are daring and sweet and strange and beautiful. They carry a warmth, an echo of the human hand behind the shapes, like the scratching sound of fingertips grazing the strings of an acoustic guitar between chord changes.
But let’s try to return to objectivity, insofar as that’s possible. The type family offers features for a wide spectrum of typesetting needs: small caps, several sets of figures and currency, a well-considered range of weights that look distinct, alternates, swashes, ligatures, extensive language coverage, and so on. The names of the weights are in Spanish, which adds to the charm — morena! Oops, I said I would stick to being objective. Oh, well. Maybe I can no longer be objective. Maybe I’m in love. Atahualpa is an absolute delight.
In an era of ever-higher screen resolutions, Petr van Blokland has released a hymn to pixel-shaped letters on coarse grids — a programmatic system for a playful design approach.
A little over a year ago, I purchased a copy of Letters in studie, a booklet about type-design education featuring drafts of alphabets by students of Dutch art schools, edited by Gerrit Noordzij.1 It sparked my interest because it was published in 1983, a year that has occupied much of my attention during my PhD research on discourses of early digital type design (with an emphasis on developments before PostScript).2 The section on so-called “matrix-letters”, essentially sketches of bitmap fonts by Van Blokland and Jelle Bosma from KABK in The Hague, particularly intrigued me.
As early as the late 1970s, when low-resolution bitmaps were almost exclusively the domain of engineers, Van Blokland was concerned with simple letterforms constructed from round pixels on a 5 × 7-unit grid (five pixels for a form’s x-height, plus one pixel for capitals and ascenders, and another pixel for descenders). He wondered what the minimal requirements would be to create a full character set for ASCII (a standard of character encoding for electronic communication).3 His main thesis focused on legibility and exploring the effect contrast would have on these letterforms. In his introduction to Letters in studie, Noordzij explained that “in reality, the reduction of contrast is a complication of the simple starting point” and that “type without contrast limits the restricted possibilities of a coarse matrix even further”.4
By comparing letterforms constructed from single strokes (one pixel wide) with those comprised of both thick (two pixels) and thin (one pixel) strokes, Van Blokland demonstrated improved legibility — thereby proving Noordzij’s words. Considering the challenge of designing diagonals, which, on a coarse matrix, naturally reveal lighter areas than horizontals and verticals, these improvements are evident in letters n and h, as well as in other characters whose bows transition into stems. While studying these considerations and derivations, I also enjoyed seeing the first examples of this monospaced alphabet in use on photographs taken of screens (basically early screenshots).
Only a few weeks passed between my discovery of Letters in studie and the release of Bitcount on Van Blokland’s own Typetr label last year. The aforementioned single- and double-pixel-width weights are still there — but they represent a mere sliver of a fascinating system of parameters in the new and improved version of Bitcount. In total, the family consists of a package of three hundred fonts.
Programmatic type systems happen to be another research interest of mine, and Bitcount is an expansive one that can be very playfully explored. Aside from circular pixel shapes, Bitcount comes in four additional manifestations: circle outline, square, square outline, and plus symbols; each comes in five weights, ranging from light to bold. In addition to the uprights, there are slanted and italic counterparts and, on top of that, Bitcount is equipped with several OpenType features such as small caps, alternates, and a series of figure sets. Because there are strokes with and without contrast (as described above), different weights vary not by added pixels, but by pixels that increase in size. This clever feature allows all of the shapes and weights to overlap, designed as layers to form highlights, shadow effects, and all manner of patterns.
Letters from a low-res environment may seem questionable in an era of retina screens — but this is precisely what I find intriguing, aside from Bitcount’s historical references and systematic approach. In contemporary graphic design, there seems to be a tendency to rediscover decorative aspects of vintage characters, and there certainly is an appreciation of pixel type and lettering in the type community, as recently portrayed in Toshi Omagari’s talk at this year’s TYPO Berlin. Van Blokland’s typeface is an wide-ranging system of pixels. And I haven’t even mentioned the spacing parameters. Go to Bitcount’s microsite to discover those possibilities for yourself!
The publication shows design work from art schools in Arnhem, Breda, Enschede, and The Hague. Some of the young type designers featured in it are well known today: Frank Blokland, Petr van Blokland, Jelle Bosma, Martin Majoor, Albert-Jan Pool, Fred Smeijers, and Wim Westerveld.
My translation from the Dutch original: “In werkelijkheid is juist de verkleining van het contrast een complicatie van het eenvoudige uitgangspunt. [. . .] Een contrastloos schrift perkt de sterk besnoeide mogelijkheden van een grove matrix nog verder in.” See Gerrit Noordzij (ed.), Letters in studie. Letterontwerpen van studenten in het Nederlandse kunstonderwijs, Eindhoven 1983, p. 24.