The next ten years


I measure the growth of typeface design by the questions of border control agents.

A decade ago, the phrase ‘I am a typographer’ would trigger a subtle move of the hand towards the ‘dodgy traveller’ button (just in case, you understand). The agent would relax once I confirmed that I was indeed in the mapping business. But in the last few years – three or four, no more – things are different. Sometimes I even drop the words ‘typeface design’ without expecting to meet the agent’s supervisor. And, in a growing number of cases, agents will tell me the name of their favourite font, and that they got a book called Just my type for Christmas.

Typefaces becoming part of the mainstream is neither accidental, nor a fashionable blip. It was foreseeable many years ago, and has been accelerating under the dual impetus of the accelerating move to a standards-compliant, text-orientated internet, and the growth of mobile devices with usable browsers.

Designers who remember the last decade of the twentieth century will recall the shift from intensely localised markets, with only superficial communication, towards connected regions. The European integration project, from 1992 onwards, followed by the surfacing of the internet onto the mainstream three years later, required fonts that could support a growing number of languages (albeit primarily those written left-to-right, with unconnected letterforms). Fast-forward a decade, and the typefaces on pretty much any up-to-date computing device could render most scripts in the world, even if the more complex writing systems still suffer in fidelity and design range. The two technologies responsible for uniting the world typographically, Unicode and OpenType, are now in a stage of maturity and refinement, covering most of the needs of most readers.

The core typefaces shipping with an operating system, or a smartphone, or Adobe’s applications, are a good litmus test. Most have well over 2,000 glyphs in each font, with many additional glyphs for stylistic sets like small caps and non-lining numerals, across the Cyrillic, Greek, and extended Latin scripts. Other typefaces cover Arabic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Hebrew, a whole range of scripts for India, and a growing number of scripts for East Asia: from CJK (Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) to Thai, Khmer, and Burmese. All these resources establish a base level for servicing most texts. It is now very likely that there is some typeface that will render almost any language, and possibly more than one, in different styles. But there are compromises: even if there’s more than one typeface, styles may not match across scripts, and the range of type families are generally uncoordinated. The profusion of styles, widths, and weights of the Latin script is only partly met in other European ones, and far less so in global scripts.

This state ensures basic communication, but is not very helpful for graphic designers and typographers working with global brands, multi-script documents, or with complex applications exclusively in non-Latin scripts. Communications professionals (in disciplines including, and beyond the obvious candidates of education and publishing)  need a wide range of typeface styles to express the complexity of a publication or a brand, and they need the right style in different weights, and widths, and so on. And this is why typeface design is growing, with no sign of abating: a triple combination of growing global brands, a migration to screens of documents with long print traditions (from ebooks and interactive school textbooks on tablets, to local news services replacing traditional newspapers), and a growth of personalised, transactional documents like online shopping catalogues, increasingly on mobile browsers. At the same time, niche print publications are growing: they take up the slack of offset press capacity, but they also thrive in print runs of a few hundred, a traditional no-man’s land that digital presses have opened up. These conditions, of transformed documents and new platforms, push the demand for ever more typefaces that are typographically rich, wide in script coverage, and tailored for use on a wider range of environments: not just different surfaces (screens, print-on-demand, and traditional presses) but also different canvases: spreads, pages, and columns of hugely variant sizes, each with its own demands on line density, contrast, and spacing.

Two factors add substantially to this need. Firstly, the explosion of mobile networks in regions where cable-based broadband is scarce, means that critical communications are restricted to smaller screens that render primarily text. Secondly, the speedy adoption of tablets, which are agnostic devices that do not convey any functional aspects of the documents they render. (In other words, the devices do not explain the interaction, like a print document does. The navigation arises from the document’s typographic design, not its material qualities.) The four main tools of typographic design become the main carriers of any identity everywhere: typefaces, spacing, visual hierarchies, and colour are the only reliable identifiers.

This process has precipitated a radical re-thinking of a typeface designer’s skillset, especially with respect to scripts the designer is unfamiliar with, and most probably cannot read fluently. In such cases, designers need to engage with the characteristics of the script, bringing to the table an understanding of how letterforms are influenced by changes in type-making and typesetting technologies. But just looking at a bunch of local documents is not enough. Designers need to bring an appreciation of the typographic conventions for the genre of documents in each culture. In response to these demands, the best typeface designers integrate research in historical and contemporary artefacts: books and ephemera, type-making and typesetting equipment, but also texts and material such as drawings produced during the type-making process. These combine with a study of texts written by type makers about type-making, designers about their practice, and a range of research texts on the development of typeface design. The key for all these to be included in a commercial schedule is a framework for integrating research into design practice that enriches the designer’s understanding, and unlocks informed creativity.

The weight of methodology and research place multi-script typeface design at odds with art school traditions of design education. There is, quite simply, too much to learn in areas touching on history, linguistics, and technology for self-taught professionals, or the informal osmosis of apprenticeship-based courses. And, rather than be seen as an oddity in the design world, typeface design is leading a gradual shift in the wider design education sector. Notions of clarifying a body of field-specific knowledge, and formulating a methodology for practice that is transferable across schools and regions are taking off, globally. (Increasingly, I am invited to speak on exactly that subject: how to develop a research-informed, culturally sensitive methodology for teaching that educates potentially excellent professionals. And promotion criteria for design educators worldwide are changing to include research-based outputs, moving design closer to the Humanities than the Arts.)

The growth in books and print magazines dedicated to typography, as well as special sections in general interest titles, are just one of the signs of typography maturing. The many conferences, workshops, and exhibitions are another – and they are aimed not only at typographers, but at web designers, brand designers, and graphic designers alike. But there is another, more subtle indicator that typography and typeface design are gradually emerging onto the wider consciousness.

As typeface families grow to cover multiple scripts, concepts of national and regional typographic identity become current, and often volatile. New typefaces can reflect both home-grown and imported visual trends; they give concrete form to the expression of community identities, and become inflection points in visual culture at a range of levels. Beyond functional requirements, they can embody political and generational shifts, and encapsulate a society’s dialogue with modernity. And it is exactly on this front that typeface design will be most visible, and relevant: in enabling this dialogue between different approaches to text-based communication, and making visible the tension between different traditions and ways of thinking.

Next time I cross a border, I’ll have a longer tale to tell.

Thoughts on a quiet master

Fifteen years after the centenary Monotype Recorder (published in time for the ATYpI 1997 conference in Reading) the title was revived, this time to celebrate the four-decade long career of Robin Nicholas. There were copies available at the shop of the Pencil to Pixel exhibition, but they have not yet circulated worldwide. This text was my contribution.


Forty years is a long time, by any measure. In typography and typeface design, the last forty years are aeons, encompassing tectonic shifts in the industry. From stable, verdant summers to tumultuous storms and heavy winters, to hesitant then blooming springs, the type industry has seen more change and upheaval in the last few decades than in its previous centuries combined. We know of large companies that ceased to exist, others that transformed into very different entities, and of new ones – small and sometimes getting larger – that are growing into a new environment. And yet, the core principles of typeface design somehow persist, mutate, adapt, and survive the changes.

The company that Robin Nicholas joined is probably the most interesting, and certainly the most persistent survivor. At the time of his joining Monotype as a young draftsman, the industrial behemoth smelting heavy but precise machinery for dispatch to a global market must have seemed like a mountain of granite, immovable through the scale of its commerce and the confidence of its technology. Indeed, expanding his letter-making skills from two to three dimensions in his first years pointed to techniques handed down to apprentices for centuries before his time. And yet, before long, accelerating changes started introducing new ideas in typemaking. The swishes and squirts of pumps gave way to the clicks of flashing lights, and soon after just the hums of cooling fans and the low buzz of electronic devices. The process of making letters lost a dimension: from drawings to ink, the miniscule ridges and valleys of carefully cast metal gave their place to letters cut out of light (more changes were yet to come). New collaborators brought very different skillsets into typemaking, to be replaced in their turn by a dispersed, localised, and by comparison chaotic community. This story is often told, and well-known by all typeface designers and typographers, and we do not need to dwell on the details. Yet, it is only marginally a story of typeface design: it is one of typesetting, of documents in front of readers’ eyes. These documents responded to the seismic industrial upheaval by filtering typography through the new technologies: a great part of their conventions survived, at the level of the letter, the word, and the paragraph. Many more changed, most visibly in layout, and document structure. Primarily, and from our point of view, the technological shifts have been a story of ideas about typefaces surviving across technologies, like a vessel floating from a river to an estuary to an open sea.

Robin’s career has almost entirely coincided with these fundamental transitions in the way typeface designers capture their intentions, and then encode them for production. Precise paper drawings for the letter shapes, specific for each range of sizes, survived across technologies more than people would expect. The delicate pencil outlines captured details in ways that it would take decades for screens to match, even if they gradually lost a lot of the formality of their earlier years (for a brief period of time making beautiful rubylith transparencies the apogee of flat encoding: in many ways, the most pristine form that letters have ever been stored). Downstream of the sheets of paper, however, the story is very different. Once drawings could be stored on a computer, it is not just the direct relationship to the rendered sizes that is missing (away from a punchcutter’s desk, this was never really present).
Letter shapes stored as digital constructs abstracts them from a rendered reality, and makes the drawn letters only a beginning in a process of shape manipulation on a scale that twisting lenses or rheostats could not begin to hint at.

These transitions placed unique challenges for a designer whose career spanned such changes. Superficially, the designer would participate in changing the ways of doing things: new units of measurement, new equipment down the line, new production processes. More visibly, a new class of professionals joined the companies, with a language for describing the making and rendering of letters that would seem alien only a couple of decades in the past. But fundamentally, the changes in typesetting technologies forced a reflection on the key skills of a typeface designer. At the beginning of Robin’s career it would be easy to assume that the typeface designer was inseparable from the making of pencil renderings on paper. The only distinction one could make would be between the degrees of seniority (a draftsman, a designer, the Head of the Drawing Office), to which different levels of privilege for making changes would be assigned. But from when the locus of the designer’s decisions became fluid and transferable across type-making technologies, the contribution of the designer needed to be more carefully articulated. A – not at all rhetorical – ‘what is it that I am really adding to this process?’ has been central to deliberations on typeface design from the mid-sixties onwards (neatly overlapping with Robin’s career). The loss of directness makes this a critical reflection: letters are not anymore perceptible in any approximation of their true form as they travel though each process, but only witnessed indirectly though human-friendly compromises – as every digital technology demands.

Faced with this question, the typeface designer will invariably return to the fundamentals that survive the technological shifts: the designer’s craft involves decisions about typographic patterns and shape details at a level abstracted from the encoding of the shapes, and the mechanisms of rendering. In other words, the designer imagines an idealised visual and intellectual experience by the reader that is derived from a particular typeface, and will strive to make this a reality through – and around – the technology at hand. Robin’s work offers some particularly good examples of this three-way dialogue between the designer, the ideal model of a typeface, and the technology used to capture it, none more so than the revivals of historical types. Is a true Bell, a Centaur, a Fournier, a Janson, a Van Dijk, a Walbaum one closest to the imprint of metal types in the sources – and, of those types, which? In these we see a masterly distillation of a whole range of possible appearances into a definitive set of shapes that have defined typographic reference points. Such digital classics defined not only mainstream textures for typographers and readers, but also an indirect basis for the digital explorations of the 1990s, which found a voice by negating the refreshed historical models. And the approach to the chameleon that is Dante, and the revisitation of Bembo in Bembo Book, show an exceptionally delicate adaptation of style to the digital medium. (Although we must admit that not even Robin’s skills can help the historical accident that is Pastonchi…)

Next to revivals, the other big challenge for typeface designers is a very tight brief for a text-intensive design, of which none more so than newspaper typefaces. These must meet extremely high functional parameters, in tight spaces and with requirements of economy and stylistic discretion that make the achievement of a distinguishing identity the typographic equivalent of hitting a bullseye blindfolded. Yet, the longevity of Nimrod, whose combination of gently swelling terminals and deep arches on the x-height, with an light, strong baseline set a much imitated pattern: directly in new designs even thirty years later, but also in hints that when applied to Scotch Romans updated a style that is one of the dominant styles for text typography to this day. The same pedigree of absolute control of a dense texture (and a familiar clarity in the horizontal alignments) can be seen in the more recent Ysobel, which updates the style with a more self-indulgent italic. Ysobel’s italic is not only a response to rendering improvements in news presses since Nimrod, but also an endorsement of the contemporary rediscovery of the potential of italics in text typefaces, and the gradual abandonment of historical models for the secondary styles.

Whereas revivals and text-intensive typefaces are most illuminating of the designer’s skill, Robin’s work with typefaces for branding and OEMs testify to a side of his work that is not possible to list in a type specimen. For those of us that have had the pleasure of working with him, Robin exemplified the quintessential collaborator: he combines mastery with humility, and confidence with a sincere willingness to discuss a design, and share his expertise. At the heart of his approach lie a deep respect for his fellow designers, and constant striving for learning and, in turn, contributing to the discipline. (I remember fondly sitting with Robin over a stack of printouts with an OEM Greek typeface, our discussion taking us from the shapes in front of us to a pile of books and specimens that would help us answer why a particular treatment of a bowl is true to the style and appropriate to the brief, rather than just formally pleasing.)

This combination of openness and respect for the discipline of typeface design points to two key aspects of Robin’s work, not directly related with any shapes he made. First, his nurturing of several designers that worked under his supervision at Monotype. And secondly, his dedicated efforts to support education in typeface design, not least through his involvement with the masters programme at Reading. As an External Examiner, Robin has directly influenced the direction of education in typeface design; as an advocate for the concrete support of promising applicants he has helped change the lives of a small number of people in very real terms.

I am leaving for last an area of Robin’s contribution that perhaps few people outside the company know much about, but has been paramount in supporting an extremely important trend, as well as foreground the unique nature of Monotype. Through his engaged stewardship of the Monotype Archive in Salfords, Robin has enabled numerous researchers in their work in Latin and non-Latin scripts. This has had a critically beneficial effect in the typefaces designed, and – even more importantly – in the documentation that is available to the next generation of researchers and designers. It is no understatement to say that Robin’s support for the integration of archival research into our postgraduate projects is benefiting in fundamental ways the skills of the younger generation of typeface designers from Reading, and, though them, the appreciation of a research-informed approach in the wider typeface design community. (We should note that Robin is far from alone within Monotype in his active support of education and research: the company is highly sensitive to the unique legacy it holds, the real value for contemporary design of the knowledge embedded in its archives, and the benefits of supporting students at a range of levels.) It would be remiss of me to omit Robin’s involvement with the first Knowledge Transfer project between Monotype and the University of Reading. The project, which demonstrated in concrete terms the value of the Archive in Salfords for the development of new typefaces for the Indian market, captured a key moment in the globalisation of typeface design and the shift towards screen-based texts, and, specifically, mobile devices. The project also enabled a marketing narrative of differentiation based on concrete and deep expertise spanning decades; arguably Monotype is the only active company able to make that claim with regard to the support of non-Latin scripts.

I hope that I have done justice, in the limited space here, to Robin’s long and diverse career. I have attempted to paint a picture of a consummate professional, adaptable to the conditions of his industry, reflective about his practice and the fundamentals of his discipline; an enlightened collaborator, keen to share expertise and support the growth of a younger generation of professionals; and – crucially – a Type Director with a clear vision about protecting and promoting the unique legacy of a very special company, actively engaging with research and education in ways that influence the future of the discipline. For all these, typeface design owes Robin Nicholas a debt of gratitude.

Monotype Recorder

You need an opinion, on top of an impulse.

A short while ago James Edgar of the Camberwell Press asked me to write a short text in response to one of four conversations recorded for Whatever next: a discourse on typography. Fraser Muggeridge liked it, so I thought I’d put my final draft here. Blame him if you don’t.


Whatever next: a discourse on typography

Typeface design has arrived. Emerging from the adolescence of an esoteric field absent from wider narratives of culture, it is maturing into an equally esoteric domain; there, gradually increasing numbers of experts witness an explosion of awareness by the wider population, where words like ‘typeface’ and ‘fonts’ will not cause a conversation to freeze.

I am not exaggerating. We are witnessing a celebrated revival in letterpress; the publication of popular books for those who are beginning to notice fonts on their menus; a growing number of serious magazines and larger publications on type; the transformation of texts on screen with webfonts; and the development of massive typeface families spanning several scripts, for branding and pretty much any device that displays text.

This ambiguous state of hesitantly enthusiastic acknowledgement in the periphery of the mainstream is forcing typeface designers, typographers, and educators to clarify our ideas about our disciplines, and the language we use to describe our contribution (as well as fill out the ‘description of work’ in the next invoice). This is less easy than it sounds: typeface design is a quintessentially interdisciplinary field. The immediate actions of form-making and digital encoding rest on a bedrock of historical and cultural understanding, which is gradually establishing its importance in designers’ minds. Type designers need to have an understanding of writing, be familiar with the developments in the technologies of type-making and typesetting, be aware of how texts are transmitted and shared in each society, and respond to the editorial practices and conventions of each market. Some may even engage with the sprinkling of usability and human perception discourse (although, I would argue, with minimal impact on the quality of their work).

All these caveats may make typeface design appear dry, bereft of the originality in form-making associated with the creative industries. This would be a false interpretation. It is better to put it this way: while the typeface designer needs to be just as creative as the next professional, she also needs to show that history, technology, culture, and society are peering over her head as she sketches or nudges outlines. Indeed, it is exactly this increased expectation of knowledge and understanding that separates typeface design from most disciplines in the creative sector.

This issue is reflected in the discussion in the following pages, as is the imperative to distinguish between ‘typeface design’ and ‘typography’. Indeed, it is not difficult to come up with simple definitions: whereas typeface design refers to the design, testing, and production of useable typeforms in whatever appropriate technology, typography relates to the determination of structure and the specification of appearance at the document level. The scale of perspective is quite different: the typeface designer works at the very limit of shape perception, managing patterns of visual recognition more that individual shapes; and the typographer looks at a the complete document, or even a whole class of documents (in the case of series design, and periodical publications). Furthermore, the relationship of the two disciplines to the content is very different. The typographer reliably knows what texts she is giving form to: the semantic content, style of language, length of text, and density of image support, all are known. On the other hand, the typeface designer can only speculate on the texts her typefaces will transmit, or even the most basic typographic parameters. Ironically, the typographer of periodicals, working with templates to provide for a wide set of possible configurations, may be closer to understanding the exercises in abstraction required in developing a typeface. Reflecting on the work of some of the contributors here, we could even argue that the designer of one-off publications like art catalogues may be closer to a lettering artist than a typeface designer.

And, yet, it would be wrong to take the distinctions too far. Both disciplines can be approached along four axes: at the outset is a brief. (Not just ‘clients’: they may approach the designer with a project, but this must translated into a coherent description of requirements and design parameters. The more experienced the designer, the more she may be expected to contribute to the brief.) Second, is the understanding of the functional aspects of the job, as they arise from a consideration of all those who have a stake in the design. This is user-centred design at its most fundamental: ‘does it work for its intended users, for what it was supposed to do?’ Thirdly, both typeface designers and typographers develop identities: there is a potentially infinite combination of design decisions that deliver a strictly functional product, but which capture the broader semantics? Does the typeface (or the document) acknowledge its genre, and does it reflect its time and place? Does it capture the values inherent in the client’s identity, and explore the potential of stylistic and cultural associations? It is this third dimension that gives a design project relevance and value: the ability of the designer to amplify meaning beyond the functional specifications of the brief, into something wider that engages with peers, and the wider community.

The last axis is the designer herself: the form-giver not just as a social observer, but a social commentator. Moving beyond functionality and usability, the designer employs association, style, identity, differentiation, and beauty to reflect a cultural moment back to its members, and express new ways of looking at ourselves. The most successful designers are the ones who gradually (or, sometimes, abruptly) push the envelope of what we consider acceptable, and reveal to us the patterns of our behaviour.

In these respects, both typeface designers and typographers are equal, and unique: different from the lighter domain of graphic design and many applied arts, exactly because their tasks involve strict functional requirements and a deeper knowledge of their domain. And, still, different from the specificity of the engineering disciplines they may employ: because the real value of typographic work lies in its reading of, and response to, social conditions in a transparent dialogue with peers. The idea of typeface designers and typographers as social scientists may be unfamiliar, but one that we may need to get used to.

My eight

Disliking lists – let alone “definitive” ones – is not good preparation for answering Elliot Jay Stocks’ request for “8 favourite typefaces to accompany the interview in the magazine”. What if I only really care for six, or twelve? And, eight for what? The typography I do, or the typography others do that I appreciate? Or the ones I admire but cannot imagine using?

Like most type problems, it became much easier to answer by thinking not about the typefaces themselves, but about documents (and, by extension, active and passive users). I settled on typefaces that have proven themselves typographically competent, rewarding to set, and revealing to discuss. This last point (probably irrelevant to most users of typefaces) is central to my selection: what does the typeface tell us about the designer’s intentions, their interpretation of the cultural moment, and ourselves as active users?

The examples in 8 Faces are small and selective, so I repeat them here in pangrams borrowed from Craig Eliason’s Daily Pangram (apart from the Greek ones).

(Incoming MATD students: these are good study material. Both their design, and the reasons for their inclusion.)

Grotesque MT: Frank Hinman Pierpont, 1926 (Monotype digital version 1993)

I wrote: A typography lesson in a typeface: eight uprights with only two italics, a bucketful of quirks and inconsistencies, and capitals so heavy you think they’re channeling Jenson. And yet, if used well it makes mincemeat of complex typography, and leaves you thinking ‘I need no other!’

MT Grotesque

Ideal Sans: Hoefler & Frere-Jones, 2011

I wrote: Next to Ideal Sans most humanistic sans serifs are either too self-absorbed, or too boring. This is a long-text sans: the design balances counters and strokes much better than either neo-grotesques or geometrics, while the slight variations where you expect visual alignments reinforce a subtle identity.

HFJ Ideal Sans

Candara Latin & Greek: Gary Munch, Microsoft, 2007 (but really a bit earlier)

I wrote: Candara is a brave, visionary Microsoft on a good day. Original in concept, impeccably effective in text settings across three scripts, and pleasantly surprising in larger sizes, Candara re-calibrated our ideas about what it was possible to ship with Office. The Greek is even better than the Latin.

CT Candara


CT Candara Greek

Miller Text: Matthew Carter, Font Bureau, 1997

I wrote: Probably the best Scotch Roman available, with a reference typographic texture in the middle weights. Adding grades like Miller Daily would make this near-indispensable. The italic is confident and exuberant, which makes it a little difficult to use, sometimes. Typographic dynamite in the same fonts folder as HTF Chronicle and Eames Century Modern.

Miller Text

Elena: Nicole Dotin, Process Type Foundry, 2011

I wrote: A typeface that looks a bit too light and too uniform at first sight, but resolves into a very readable texture. It captures in a remarkably concise way the post-Unger genre, while employing softer arches in the upright and a contrasting, pen-informed italic. Looks amazing in Instapaper.

PTF Elena

Abril: Veronika Burian and José Scaglione, Type Together, 2011

I wrote: A very contemporary concept for a typeface family, with text styles best described as ‘slabby transitional with a twist’, loosely Modern display styles, and an unashamedly in-your-face Fatface set thrown in for good measure. Forward-looking but historically sensitive in an intelligent way.

TT Abril

Fenland: Jeremy Tankard, 2012

I wrote: Fenland takes the western broad nib model and squashes it with big black boots. Its counter-intuitive treatment of arches and joints demonstrates that text typeface design is far from a saturated design space, even in the Latin script.


SBL Greek: John Hudson, SBL, 2009

I wrote: The most accomplished update of the Didot style for Greek typefaces, it combines the fluidity of the original with a superbly competent typographic texture, and attention to detail. One style only, so for modern texts either disastrous or an opportunity for typographic genius.

SBL Greek


1800 to 2010, then


Two Iliad editions

Preparing for the TDC Greek weekend and Salon talk in a few weeks, I had by my side these two beauties: an OUP Iliad from 1800 typeset in the Granjon Parangon from 1565 (them Greek types have long shelf lives) and a elegantly restrained 2010 Iliad by Carocci Editore designed by Giovanni Lussu, set in Garamond Premier Pro. Here’s some type p*rn:


1800 Oxford Iliad Sigma detail


2010 Carocci Iliad Sigma detail


Languages, scripts, and typefaces (2006)

[Response published in tipoGrafica no 70 (2006)

Do you consider that new technologies will enable those languages that have historically not been represented in font design, to incorporate the sounds appropriate to their tongues?

Hm… the question is somewhat misleading. The ‘languages that have historically not been represented in font design’ bit suggests that typeface designers who are native users of the other languages, the ones that have ‘historically not been represented in font design”, designed their typefaces with the sounds of their language in mind. This is not the same as saying ‘I can hear the words when I read’ or something like that; it means that the designer would have specific sounds in mind when designing a particular glyph. I’m pretty certain this is not the case; even more, I think the hypothesis runs counter to the basic mechanics of natural scripts.

Are fonts developed for specific languages? Even in the old days of 8-bit codepages, when each font file could take up to 256 characters, any single font allowed many languages to be typeset; the same font would do for English, Spanish, French, Finnish, and Italian, just as the same font with the declaration ‘CE’ following its name would cover Croatian, Czech, Estonian, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, Latin-based Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian and Turkish (I think that’s all).

Such groupings (and there were plenty) were a combination of technical limitations (fitting all the characters in the font file) and commercial expediency: development, distribution, and retail channels. Each of these fonts claimed it could be used to typeset all these languages – and it did, offering a more or less adequate typographic representation of a script’s subset. I am choosing my words carefully here, because the point I am making is that typefaces offer interpretations of scripts, not languages.

We can shed some light on this distinction if we consider another distinction. So far I’ve been using the term ‘character’, but in fact this is not strictly correct. At the heart of contemporary applications and typefaces is the Unicode standard: a system for assigning a unique identifier to each character in any script ever used by humans. In this sense, ‘Latin small letter a’ and ‘Greek small letter alpha’ are characters, but ‘a’ and ‘α’ are not: they are glyphs: typographic representations of characters. In other words, all ‘α’s in all the typefaces in the world are the same character: Greek alphas, and all the ‘a’s are Latin [script] ays (how do you spell ‘a’?) – not English or Spanish or Finnish ays. To put it bluntly: the character implies a specification for the formal configuration of the glyph (relationship of positive and negative spaces) but is ignorant of the specific shape.

The relationship between character and glyph is, in my view, strongly analogous to that of a glyph and its voicing within a language. The Latin ‘a’ implies an ‘envelope’ of sounds within each language that is written with the Latin script, and a set of relationships of this sound with neighbouring glyphs. The leeway in speaking the glyph is, however, considerable; even to my unfamiliar ears a word such as ‘tipografia’ sounds very different when spoken by my Argentinian, Mexican, or Spanish students. Should they be writing with different glyphs for the ‘a’ in each language?

If, for the sake of argument, we posited that: yes, each of these three languages requires a different ‘a’ (or a different combination of ‘gr’, for that matter) then we must automatically decide what is the minimum difference in enunciation between the two variants that will trigger a choice one way or the other. Do we document the range of possible sounds that pass for ‘a’ in speech in each of these languages? This can quite quickly turn into a massive exercise in mapping speech patterns and deviations – the age-old classification problem of the infinite pigeonholes, the ‘duck-billed platypus’.

I can almost hear you say: ‘hold on there, you’ve missed the point! We should only be looking at each language in turn, not compare across languages!’ OK; but what will we do with dialects, regional variations, inflections dependant on age, social class, education level, professional affiliations, and the like? Again, this is a dead-end. Should I write English with different glyphs from my children? I have an expat’s accent, forever getting the length of vowels and the strength of consonants wrong; but my children, who go to nursery with all the other children in the area, speak English with an impeccable accent (so much so, they already correct their parents…).

There is only one area where we can strive for a close, one-to-one relationship between spoken sounds and the glyphs of a typeface, and that is the domain of linguists who document spoken language. (The International Phonetic Alphabet is fairly comprehensive in its coverage of sounds the human larynx can produce, and only extended when someone researching vanishing or spoken-only languages come across a new sound.)

Going down that route will take us further away from the visible form of language, and into questions that deflect from and confuse the study of typeface design; this must, by definition, be limited to the representation of characters, not of sounds. The formal qualities of the glyphs may bear many influences, from the direct (mark-making tools such as nibs and brushes) to the lofty (theories of construction); and they will normally take a long time to define a envelope of expression for each time and place (the strength of which is tested each time we come across the ‘design-by-dictat’ approach seen in Korea, Russia, Turkey, and – most recently – in the ex-Soviet states of the Caspian).

So what about the bells and whistles? Current technology promises a range of options that were not available before outside specialised environments. These must be seen as limited to the level of enriching the typographic expression of a script, but not jumping out at the level of the sounds the glyphs will generate in specific users. So, if a Polish typographer prefers diacritics to lie flat over the vowels, whereas a French one may opt for the upright ones, all the better if the font files can provide both, change from one to the other on the fly, and keep both users happy. Similarly, if the Dutch have a mark that looks like an ‘i’ and a ‘j’ close together and are taught at school this is one letter, you would hope that the whole chain of text editors, word processors, spell checkers, dictionaries and thesauri would recognise it as such. Speaking is interpreting sounds within a culturally-sensitive envelope; so is typeface design: defining glyphs within the acceptable spectrum of each character. But the designer cannot interfere where there is not linguistic ground to step on: if it means different things, go ahead and make a new glyph – but if it just sounds different, well, that’s just a reflection of the imprecise, fluid, and constantly mutable nature of human expression.

Let’s stick to mark-making, I say.

Explaining typeface design

This morning Fiona, Peter Bil’ak and I visited the UBA to see some of the work of the postgraduates on the UBA course (see the Typography at Reading blog). One of Henrique Nardi’s images captured me sketching an aide memoire for the session, which is worth linking to here to have handy for the sessions next week.

The axes describe a simple framework for talking about typeface design projects. At the top of the diagram is the Designer, and at the bottom the brief (and the client, who represent the requirements of the users). The left of the horizontal axis represents the Functional requirements in the project, and to the right the expression of individuality and Identity through the design of the typeface.

Palettes are evil

In a recent piece for #Eye80 I lamented the loss of insight in document design that the vertical flat screen and zoom brought. I also dropped an aside that “palettes are evil”. I wasn’t clear enough, and confused @mmBubbleTea who thought I meant colour palettes. I meant the interface ones, and I apologise for the confusion. I might as well explain briefly why I don’t like palettes.

When the basic conventions for interfacing with apps got established, apps couldn’t perform the amount of operations we see in pro apps today. Even on smaller screens, there was enough space to fit a range of commands. But as features increase, there is an increasing competition for screen real estate: the document (your constant focus) versus the chrome of the app (and the OS, of course – not so much on Windows, but very much so until recently on the Mac). The problem is not only that the vital area of the screen decreases, as more selections and commands need to be accommodated; it is that only a few of those are you likely to need to select.

As apps often compete on features, and propagate those from one category of app to another (e.g. vector commands to a page layout application) the number of possible choices balloon. Palettes then become an exercise in squeezing options in. This happens on two levels: one, grouping related options and fitting them on a single object on screen; and second, the management of all the possible groupings. Adobe apps are particularly problematic in this respect: there simply are too many things to add, leading to problems at both levels: what to put in each group (palette) and how to manage the various palettes themselves.

Look at this screenshot, for example: I am designing at the level of a paragraph, but cannot see the options for both paragraph styles (the basis for my design choices) and the “local” paragraph palette. I cannot see both paragraph and character styles at the same time, without “unhooking” the palette from the column. This is problematic, as I then have the absurd situation in the second image, where the “heading” of the palette floats over the document, and the palette hangs to its left. (Bad luck if your focus was the text underneath!)

InDesign screen shot

The first image also shows a big problem with the secondary options, which are enabled by a really small button, next to the “retract palette” one. A big secondary surface (actually, tertiary, if you count the column of palettes)  opens up, covering yet more of your screen, in a visual style that departs completely from the language established by the column and the hanging palettes. And I can’t keep the damn thing open, even though things like “Keep options” might be pretty useful to have hanging around (pun unintended).

Indesign screenshot
And why  do I need three palettes to design a table? In my typographer’s mind the table is a single object, with a cascade of attributes. Can I please see all in one go? Of course, the explanation is obvious: the design interface follows the engineering, rather than the other way round. The app applies attributes in discreet levels (document, object, paragraph, word, and so on) and the palettes follow this structure.

In recent years we have seen app developers trying to second-guess what the designer is working on, and what they might want to do. They then try to provide only the pertinent options. (Cue Office’s ribbon, or indeed InDesign’s “workspace”.) Apps that are unencumbered by legacy features have tried smarter interfaces (Pixelmator and Acorn come to mind), although their developers are having to say clearly that feature parity with Photoshop, for example, is not their objective. This may be a good thing, and presage the current approach of tablet apps, where one-app-for-all models are eschewed for the “does a few things really well” approach.

The wider problem of interface design for command-heavy apps is whether the developer thinks about the design process in ways parallel to the designer (cough, Fontlab, cough!). Designers usually think about a cluster of attributes at the same time, and work in their mind with relative terms. They have to translate these to specific (and often meaningless) measurements, which detract from the real: the pattern of form and counterform, foreground and background.

Here’s a simplistic example. Let’s say I need to make some decisions about these two lines:

apples and oranges

Should I really be thinking separately about type size and linespacing? Column width and depth? In what units? Actually, I tend to think in fruit:

apples and oranges

It doesn’t matter what the units are, and indeed the tendency of apps to snap to “neat” round numbers is a big problem. I think only of relative relationships, how much is this in relation to that, and them to the other? And, if I’m more careful, I’m really thinking of the white space surrounding the column as an integral part of the paragraph, rather than as an attribute of the containing frame. So, what I want is a design environment that reflect my thinking – not an app that requires me to translate design decisions based on relative proportions into a set of discreet, unrelated measurements.

fruit in a box

Finally, the elephant in the room: the screen size on which we are working. Whereas large screens are becoming ever more affordable, we are seeing more complex tasks performed on tablets (okay, on iPads). We won’t see page layout apps rushing to migrate to the iPad, although the argument for some editing on-the-go cannot be avoided. But we are already seeing many good image editing apps on the iPad, and it is not a huge leap of the imagination to think of a web-based layout environment with a client on the app.

Well, that was a rant and a half.

What, how, why

I recently saw Simon Sinek’s How great leaders inspire action TED talk (linked to in the Open letter to BlackBerry bosses, via @daringfireball ). It is slightly evangelical in tone, but the core message survives scrutiny. The idea that sustainable actions flow from a vision, rather than objectives, is worthy, as are the implied messages of clarity, simplicity, and direct accountability. This approach applies particularly well when seen in a context where the outcomes are not gizmos (physical products of any kind) but new conditions for people.

I wondered how it applied to my direct environment, and scribbled the concentric Why / How / What above. Deciphered, it reads:

• Why: change the way people think about design

• How: build understanding of context | critical thinking | reflection

• What: run a course in TD [typeface design]

One of my ways to test the model was to put different things in the last line (our actions) and still the cascade makes sense. It works for the TDi summer course, and it works when the model for our new course, soon to be outlined in New Orleans.

It also explains, for me, why so many people connected to the MATD go out there and do stuff. Conferences, meetings, jam sessions, things that are driven by a deeper desire to change the way people think about design and typography.

I’m okay with that.