Typefaces

When one teaches a postgraduate course, the projects repeated yearly can seem indistinguishable. This is the only process that makes one year better than the last though there is hardly enough time for students to really digest what they have learned. The MA Typeface Design programme’s 10th year anniversary and the ILT’s offer to publish the result were a good opportunity to introspect and explore ideas. My perspective is linked to the course at Reading, but I believe it’s relevant to a wider audience.

Often for the first time, research, discourse, and user needs affect our students’ design practice. This may go against past experiences where design is self-expressive, but I believe that discussion and discipline create better designers.

Two factors have begun influencing design attitudes in recent years. Firstly, it’s harder for generations to recognize the computer’s use in design decision-making instead of just the execution of specifications. Secondly, the new structure of courses as collections of discrete modules makes it difficult for skills learned in one class to have effect on another. (A third factor is that there’s less significance placed on manual skills, but that’s worthy of another discussion.)

I hope that my personal observations will at least be interesting to self-taught designers and developers of typeface design courses.

  1. Design doesn’t forget (though many designers do)

There are four building blocks of typography and typeface design: desire for identity and uniqueness, technological parameters, the rendering process’ characteristics (printing or illuminating), and other designers’ experiences in similar conditions. New generations have much to gain from this knowledge, yet the history of typography and letterforms evades them.

For example, remaining constant for centuries has been the black and white pattern, foreground and background, and “readable text” sizes. Studying this pattern’s survival against evolutions of environments, genre, and style can benefit type designers who just don’t invest the time.

The knowledge gained from online sources is wide, but shallow. This results to a lack of narrative coherence regarding how things happened as well as why. Under different circumstances, how were similar design problems addressed? Based on artifacts, how did people in similar situations make decisions? What solutions did change give rise to? The problem is not that the best ideas have already been thought of and/or executed, but that people are not learning them, and they have to be rediscovered.

  1. Dialogue improves design

The refinement of smaller details is the process of typeface design. Sketches go through multiple changes, reviews, and testing. The typeface designer’s editing becomes more detailed: the design’s density in paragraph-level values, spacing, consistency, and uniqueness and character. Dialogue with the brief is the heart of the process: does the new design satisfy conditions of use? How excellent is it in response to the brief?

Wider typeface families need to be tested more conclusively with a wide range of possible uses and not just the ones that highlight the typeface’s qualities. Good designers, however, need to keep in mind their testing environment’s constraints. They must not always base their decisions on computer software that give the impression of fidelity, and laser printers that have output limitations.

Typeface design as a team enterprise is also experiencing a gradual return. Digital formats and platforms allowed designers to work independently, but also expanded character sets and families to unexpected levels. Now, the sheer volume of work necessitates the collaboration of people with complementary skills. This results in the need for documentation and explanation. There are new models of work replacing the short-lived “creative hermit” one.

  1. Scale effects take practice

Scales smaller than postcards are rarely tackled in conventional design curricula. Composition takes precedence over word-level details. Typeforms designed at large sizes are experienced in much smaller scales, which can have adverse effects on their features. This is an issue for different text settings and reading distances.

The behavior of shapes at different scales is something typeface designers need to understand. It takes practice and not mere intuition to imagine the difference a small change can make on the entire paragraph. “Why does this paragraph look this way?” is a question the best designers naturally ask.

When a student uses a writing tool too closely as a typeform design guide, problems with scale effects arise. The details of stroke endings and joints cannot be preserved across scales as easily as the ductus (stroke movement) and modulation. Typographic scales’ sensitivity simply does not apply at writing scales. Smaller sizes (or coarser rendering solutions) allow designers to separate blobs and white space, and then deal with style and detail.

  1. Tools are concepts

One still needs to appreciate the link between writing, writing tools, and typeface design regardless of the aforementioned scale effects. I’m talking about writing in the widest platforms- from graffiti and signs to elaborate public lettering. Writing processes, more than specific letter forms, give insights into the balance of shapes and the in-betweens, and illuminate familiar patterns and combinations. The transformation of marks through the computer has not been as deeply discussed as the relationship of writing tools and these marks. (Except for Richard Southall’s, most texts focus on specific cases rather than general principles.)

When typeface design became programmatic later on, when the roles of designer and maker began to separate, each typeface became rooted in a theory of letter construction, whether or not it was sensitive to human practice. The rubylith shape cutouts for photographic scaling and phototype distortion, and the hot metal “pattern libraries” point to the same process- abstracting typographic shapes into elements that have little to do with tool movements. As for digital, repeatability and deconstruction are still key aspects.

A designer needs to develop a mental model of a tool that may include mark making and movement behaviours distinct from what a writing tool can render. As type families expand into weight and width extremes, and relationships with writing tools evaporate, such models become more important.

For example, an invented tool that makes pen-like bowls and incised vertical strokes can find many styles, ensuring consistency without a specific tool’s limitations; this weight-and-width agnostic model hinders large families with local richness instead of overall consistency.

  1. The odd one out is the Latin script

For many years, typefaces featuring extended character sets have been growing in demand. It is now expected that branding and OEM typefaces cover multiple scripts. From European scripts (e.g. Latin, Cyrillic, Greek), the interest has shifted to Arabic and Indian ones. Latin typographic script, though, is significantly different from the rest in two ways. First, the equipment developed for a simple alphabetic left-to-right model now has to accommodate the non-Latins’ complexities.

Rectangular sorts can handle the Western European languages’ simplicity, but things become more complicated with more diacritics, and the model collapses when shapes neither fit neatly nor are algorithmically describable. This is why to get non-Latin typesettings to work, compromises and technical hacks have to be employed.

Secondly, most non-Latin scripts were not put through a constant text production culture and competitiveness in the publications market. (It’s not surprising that parallel with the Industrial Revolution, display typography’s language was developed in nineteenth-century Britain.)

‘Is it possible to design a script for a completely foreign language?’ students and professionals alike will ask. However, a brief is what creates typefaces. For example, regardless of the market, many newspaper conventions apply; the script and language’s general qualities put constraints on the typographic specifications (e.g. hyphenation, word and sentence length, etc.).

From establishing the typographic environment, the language’s written forms and the tools determining the key shapes can be examined. Most non-Latin scripts keep writing and typographic forms closely related. Structural analysis of examples and writing exercises help develop a feel for the script. In addition, analysis of the relationship between typeforms and mark-making tools further the development of criteria and quality evaluation.

Many designers excel in designing scripts they cannot read. It is important for students to address difficult design problems in non-Latin scripts, thus benefiting the global typographic environment, and creating designers who, in any aspect of their design, can handle higher difficulty levels.

  1. In conclusion…

Students can learn design’s functional aspects in a formal environment, but it helps little in the development of their typefaces’ aesthetic qualities. Teachers have little input on inventiveness and potency. Students must independently develop consciousness of past and emerging idioms, so they can see their own work within context and find out how personal style can work with utility restrictions and genre conventions.

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