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Date: Saturday, 19 Apr 2014 12:11

Cloths of Heaven is Seb Lester’s interpretation of ‘Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, a poem by the renowned Irish poet W. B. Yeats. It is a continuation of his exploration of the theme of beauty in the context of letterform design. He has produced a limited edition screen print and also collaborated with The London Embroidery Studio to produce an embroidered piece, available as a small-run limited edition.

“Yeats’s poem references ‘embroidered cloths’ and ‘gold and silver threads’, so I wanted to try to make the screen print look like an exquisite and timelessly beautiful piece of highly ornamental needlework. I’ve drawn from Medieval, Renaissance and 18th-century sources but I have also tried to integrate personal, progressive and irreverent flourishing ideas. The result is a hybrid stylistic treatment that I think could only exist in the 21st century.”


He explained that his relatively new-found love of traditional calligraphy has given him new insights into the Latin alphabet. “In calligraphy I have found a joyful and visceral way to construct letterforms. The letters that appear before my eyes as I write have a warmth and humanity that is very hard to achieve with computers. Calligraphy, combined with my knowledge of digital letterform design, has given me the confidence and I hope the understanding to explore and challenge preconceived notions about what constitutes correct flourishing and decorative ornament technique.”

More information at seblester.co.uk

Technical Specs:
‘Cloths of Heaven’ by Seb Lester, 2014, available as a print and embroidered artwork. Based on the poem ‘Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ by W B Yeats.

A2 (594mm X 420mm) limited edition screenprint, edition of 100.
Metallic gold ink on midnight blue Plike art paper, 330gsm.
Signed and numbered by the artist.

A2 (594mm X 420mm) limited edition embroidery, edition of 5.
Gold and silver thread on Italian midnight blue silk twill.
Each piece comes with a hand written, signed note of authenticity.

Sponsored by Hoefler & Co.

Cloths of heaven

Author: "johno" Tags: "typography, calligraphy, lettering, post..."
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Date: Monday, 14 Apr 2014 13:22

Aware that there is no such thing as total neutrality, Neutral typeface explores how the absence of stylistic associations can help the reader to engage with the content of a text.

Is the typeface neutral?
Neutral began as my graduation project for my BA in graphic design from the Royal Academy of Art (The Hague) in 2005. It is the result of an attempt to create a typeface free of all connotations or associations that could distract a reader from the text, a font that delivers the character of the written material untouched by the character of the typeface design. The whole project started with a discussion about why certain typefaces seemed to ‘age better’, or indeed age less than others: there seemed to be something about some of the big milestones of the 20th century like Times or Univers that kept them fresh after more than 50 years.

This got me thinking about Plato’s doctrine of Ideas, ‘original, perfect and unalterable’ mental archetypes representing every class of object that exists in our material world. Plato posits that these idealised, abstracted forms enable us to identify real-world instances of their type by comparison, and I imagined that this had to be true for typefaces as well. Neutral uses design principles to examine timelessness, archetypes and neutrality in graphic design, and specifically in type design.

The project consisted of various parts: a book describing the design process, a website recording email discussions of the project with Daniel van der Velden, Experimental Jetset, Uwe Loesch, Bernd Kuchenbeiser and Helmut Schmid (among others), a series of posters by various international designers using the typeface, and of course the typeface itself.

As the discussion with other designers unfolded, I found neutrality to be an elusive, ambiguous quality, one that I would have to explore in order to define for myself what it would mean for a typeface to be truly neutral.

I touched upon various fields along the way, for example, the Conceptual Art movement of the 1960s, which emphasised the purity of the idea-as-artwork over its materialisation, and whose proponents produced artworks that in many cases only existed in written form.

Kosuth quote

Joseph Kosuth is one of the main proponents of the Conceptual Art movement, and has been part of it since its beginnings in the 1960s. His famous One and Three Chairs (1965) is also based in the Platonic idea theory and first prompted me to explore it. The above quote is taken from his 1996 article “Intent” (in: The Art Bulletin, Vol. 78 No. 3).

Another source of inspiration were the ideas of 16th-century tea ceremony master Sen no Rikyū, who greatly influenced the wabi-cha style of chanoyu tea ceremony. This style tries to attain perfection in the essential aspects of the ceremony by the removal of anything which could divert the focus from the essential elements: the tea and the interaction of host and guests.

Sen no Rikyū

According to historical tradition, these were the words Rikyū used to explain all the secrets of the tea ceremony (from A.L. Sadler, Cha No Yu, Japan, 1933).

Through these explorations of various design disciplines and the exchanges with other designers I arrived at a clearer definition of neutrality that could be applied to a typeface:

Neutrality can be regarded as an auxiliary construction that lets us describe things and events that appear free of connotations to a specific social and cultural group at a specific point in time. Because everybody’s backgrounds and expectations differ, however, the more closely we attempt to answer the question ‘What is a neutral typeface?’, the fewer people agree on various details, and the more the proposal of a neutral typeface becomes a paradox.

If I asked you to draw a water glass
The Platonic Idea or archetype was one of the starting points. We often find it at work in design: if I asked you to draw a water glass, I could be quite certain that you would draw a cylinder (or more precisely, a conical frustum) within a rather narrow range of parameters. These Ideas are not innate, but are acquired from our cultural background, which is why Neutral could be neutral in our culture, but not, for example, in Elizabethan England.

Chope Unie water glass by Duralex

Chope Unie water glass by Duralex, France, courtesy of Duralex.

Measuring old typefaces to construct a new one
In order to discover this Idea of a typeface I sought to distill all typefaces (excluding a few fringe groups) into an average. To keep my own background from interfering with the design process, I devised a system of comparisons of typeface genres and sub-genres to establish what kind of typeface Neutral would have to be to do any justice to its name. This system addressed questions such as: Which shapes are more restrained, closer to a possible archetype? Which of two forms is more commonly used? Which form is less dependent on physical methods or technologies? Which forms are more likely to result in distinguishable (but unobtrusive) letterforms? Which forms are more likely to provide a coherent word-image? Which of two otherwise equally suitable groups of shapes are the plainer, simpler ones?

Neutral comparisons

Ideally, I would have measured all Latin-based typefaces, but that was hardly practical. To save time, I first compared first different genres (such as Serif vs Sans Serif) and later sub-genres (Grotesk vs Humanist Sans) with one another; according to the outcome of this, the neutral typeface would be a grotesk with a slight humanist touch.

Neutral measurements
Neutral measurements

How can the roundness of a curve be measured? How can I define the angle of a stroke termination? New insights and lots of math at every step of the parameter-gathering process.

With these results in hand, I then began to measure key parameters of representatives of these most archetypal genres. The averages of these would then produce the scaffolding onto which Neutral was drawn.

Neutral structure
Neutral structure

You could easily think that designing Neutral was much like a process of just blending different typefaces with each other. But apart from a list of design principles, all the measurements resulted only in a very loose scaffolding within which I had to draw the typeface. The illustration also shows how important key horizontal and vertical proportions are to the appearance of a typeface. Neutral’s proportions are as average as was possible, to make a typeface as unnoticeable as possible.

See the actual measurement table of selected fonts.

Neutral again
One great advantage of being both a graphic designer and type designer is that your work in one discipline feeds back into your work in the other: you can make the typefaces that you want to use (or imagine that you would want to use), and then you can evaluate your typefaces based on how they perform in application. But over the years I noticed that I wanted to use Neutral less and less frequently, and whenever I did, I wanted to make some small corrections here and there. That’s how I knew I wanted to go back to Neutral, and make it as good a typeface as it was an idea for a typeface.

Neutral comparisons

Measurements of the aperture size in the lowercase e, again as a placeholder or indicator for the design of many other apertures in the typeface: This lineup shows a gradation from the most constructed grotesk to the most ‘humanist’ sans.

Keeping it the same, but changing everything about it
Basically I decided to draw it all over again — pretty much from scratch — but was immediately confronted with a fundamental decision: Should I re-evaluate the steps of comparing and measuring typefaces that had initially provided the parameters for Neutral’s construction?

In the end I decided against it, because the result would not be a new version of Neutral, but a new typeface altogether. I just wanted to design the same typeface, only better. My plan was to eventually upgrade all existing users of the original Neutral to this new version, so I would have to keep everything the same, yet change everything about it.

Very soon, I came to a point where I did want to use it again, indeed very much so. And there was still a steady demand for the typeface from others. These two things were nice accelerators that finally pushed me towards the finish line.

Thousands of invisible changes
What is new about this new Neutral? In a word, everything. Using the original typeface as a guideline to trace over, every glyph was carefully redrawn, every spacing and kerning decision revisited and subtly improved. At the same time, my goal was to keep the original qualities of the typeface the same: the quiet evenness, the unobtrusive character, and the great performance in long text, even in smaller sizes.

There are a few areas where the improvements are quite obvious: the new Neutral’s punctuation is much more refined, many accents that were less familiar to me in 2005 are now drawn in a way that their users actually want them to look, and spacing is much better. The biggest improvement, however, and the one that I am the happiest with, are the figures. Years of practical design experience gave me insight into working with figures that I incorporated into the new design. Also, I decided to make lining figures the default instead of text figures, since many people don’t use all-caps features.

Neutral has four figure styles, plus fractions

Neutral’s figures have been completely redrawn, and exist in four versions per style. The default figures are proportional lining figures at the height of caps, but they also exist (together with currency, math symbols and selected punctuation) in tabular versions. Instead of old style figures, Neutral additionally features text figures that are smaller than cap height and stand out less in running text. They too come in proportional and tabular versions.

Is the typeface neutral?
Many times during the process I caught myself asking the question that you are also perhaps asking now: Is it still Neutral? And is it still neutral?

A typeface is both a tool for designing, and a tool for reading. The fewer distracting details there are, the more invisible the typeface, and the clearer the text becomes. In the old version of Neutral, there were a couple of things that were not as invisible as I wanted them to be when I started redrawing it. In that way, I guess it’s more neutral now than it ever was.

As stated earlier, however, neutrality is determined by the expectations and norms of a group of people, and the closer we look at the details, the fewer people will agree with any one particular decision. That means that while the parameters were only a loose framework that could be filled in with anyone’s ideas of neutrality, the finished typeface was of course filled in by me and me alone, and so in the final analysis, it is only absolutely neutral for the smallest possible group – just me.

And while the goal of the methodology designed to create this typeface was to abstract the design process away from me, in the end I was still the one who designed this process, who both formulated the questions and answered them. This would have been true regardless of whether ten or a hundred or a thousand comparisons and measurements had been made. A larger data set might have diminished the room for interpretation, but it could never have eliminated it completely.

The plain, reserved nature of the typeface that resulted from filling in this framework of parameters will be quite neutral to a quite large number of people, even though we may argue about the details. In the end we can not create something completely neutral, something to which none of us can attribute any qualities. But we can approximate the formal idea of neutrality to some degree.
And even if some would not consider this typeface to be neutral at all — maybe it was only through this project that their own thinking about neutrality was triggered. And in that respect also the project would be a success. It is more important to ask the question than to answer it.

Sponsored by Hoefler & Co.

An idea of a typeface

Author: "johno" Tags: "typography, make a font"
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Date: Friday, 04 Apr 2014 13:03

A monumental family from Hoefler & Co, a casual sans by Type Supply, a seaworthy display from Kyle Wayne Benson, a ferry inspired face by Letters from Sweden, an extensive script family from Martina Flor, a strong grotesk by The Northern Block, a functional slab from ReType, and a bright iconset by Symbolset.

Hoefler & Co: Surveyor

A monumental family of typefaces designed for print and screen, and for sizes large and small.

Type Supply: Marigny

Designed by Tal Leming

A casual typeface that was drawn with serious typography in mind.

Kyle Wayne Benson: Maritime Champion

Designed by Kyle Wayne Benson

This peacoat grubbing, all hands on decking, accordion serenading font is not for the faint of heart. He’s all caps all the time.

Letters from Sweden: Ferry

Designed by Erik Moberg

The second contribution to Letters from Sweden’s “Fabrik Suite”.

Martina Flor: Wonderhand

Designed by Martina Flor

Wonderhand is new extensive family of scripts designed in six widths and 3 weights.

The Northern Block: Rein Grotesk

Designed by Jason Aitcheson

Rein Grotesk is a low contrast typeface with a strong, neutral personality.

ReType: Laski Slab

Designed by Paula Mastrangelo & Ramiro Espinoza

A comprehensive suite of 20 fonts conceived for editorial purposes.

Symbolset: SS Glyphish

Designed by Joseph Wain

Glyphish is an array of bright icons in two complementary styles.

Sponsored by Hoefler & Co.

This Week in Fonts

Author: "Sean Mitchell" Tags: "typography, new fonts"
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Date: Wednesday, 02 Apr 2014 18:28

A short film on sign painter, Mike Langley:

Sponsored by Hoefler & Co.

The Sign Painter

Author: "johno" Tags: "typography, signage, video"
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Date: Sunday, 16 Mar 2014 16:53

An elegant script from Sudtipos, an aggressive face by Blackletra, a hand made family from Latinotype, a dynamic sans by Rui Abreu, a geometric sans from Rene Bieder, a cursive fat face by Dzianis Serabrakou, a lively script from Lián Types, a well-balanced slab by Parachute, a lovely sign painting font from Liebe Fonts, and a contemporary serif by Schwartzco.

Sudtipos: Courtesy Script

Designed by Alejandro Paul

Courtesy Script captures the elegance and propriety of finely practiced Spencerian penmanship.

Blackletra: Haltrix

Designed by Daniel Sabino

Haltrix is an aggressive and angular script.

Latinotype: Showcase

Designed by Daniel Hernández & Paula Nazal Selaive

Showcase is a hand made font consisting of four styles with a set of ornaments & dingbats.

Rui Abreu: Signo

Designed by Rui Abreu

Signo is a dynamic sans-serif with reverse contrast, designed for editorial and branding.

Rene Bieder: Campton

Designed by Rene Bieder

Campton is a simple sans-serif with a geometric skeleton.

Dzianis Serabrakou: Bouquet

Designed by Dzianis Serabrakou

Bouquet is a cursive fat typeface influenced by brush writing.

Lián Types: Dream Script

Designed by Maximiliano Sproviero

Dream Script is a lively chancery with accompanying caps inspired by Trajan.

Parachute: Bague Slab Pro

Designed by Panos Vassiliou

Bague Slab Pro is a very clean and legible typeface with a warm and well-balanced texture.

Liebe Fonts: Liebe Doris

Designed by Ulrike Wilhelm

Liebe Doris — the beauty of all-American sign painting and the meticulous craft of German engineering.

Schwartzco: Gravitas

Designed by Christian Schwartz & Dino Sanchez

Gravitas is a contemporary take on the Roman inscriptional capitals, was designed by Christian Schwartz and Dino Sanchez originally as part of their high-concept Luxury Collection.

Sponsored by Hoefler & Co.

This Week in Fonts

Author: "Sean Mitchell" Tags: "typography, new fonts"
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Date: Friday, 28 Feb 2014 13:33

The adjustable Clampersand from Hand-Eye Supply.


HT @opentype

Sponsored by Hoefler & Co.


Author: "johno" Tags: "typography"
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Date: Thursday, 20 Feb 2014 16:41

The First Printed Page Numbers

The image below is a scan of a recto leaf printed by Arnold Ther Hoernen, Cologne, 1470 (Cologne’s second printer after Ulrich Zel). The book, Sermo in festo praesentationis beatissimae Mariae virginis (ISTC: ir00303000) is special in that it is the first (extant) book to include printed foliation (‘page numbers’*), here printed in the recto margins, half way down the page.


© Copyright 2010 Heinrich Heine Universität Düsseldorf

Printing page numbers (something that appears quite necessary and obvious today) only became common typographic practice from the second quarter of the sixteenth century. And prior to the printed book, ‘foliation remained rare till the end of the Middle Ages’**; and of limited indexical or citational use as manuscripts were very rarely identical.

Today it is hard to imagine books without pagination. Page numbers make it easy to quote, cite, and to cross reference — they make accessing, studying, and comparing texts much easier.


Perhaps you noticed that the Arabic numerals — 4, 5, and 7 — in my composite image differ from those we use today. These forms were common in medieval manuscripts. (The J is simply the Roman numeral 1.)


Figure charting the partial evolution of Arabic numerals. Source: The Development of Arabic Numerals in Europe Exhibited in Sixty-Four Tables.

It wasn’t until the tenth century that Arabic numerals came to Spain, though they were not commonly used until the fourteenth century. From the end of the fifteenth century, the numerals 4, 5, and 7 begin to take the forms we are familiar with today.

*Foliation is the sequential numbering of leaves; pagination is the sequential numbering of pages.

** The Palaeography of Gothic Manuscript Books, p. 33

Margaret M. Smith. “Printed foliation: forerunner to printed page-numbers?” — Gutenberg Jahrbuch 63 (1988), pp. 54–57

Introduction to Manuscript Studies — Clemens & Graham, pp. 92–94

Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages — Bernhard Bischoff, p. 132

The Development of Arabic Numerals in Europe Exhibited in Sixty-Four Tables (Oxford, 1915) [available at archive.org]

The Oxford Companion to the Book
, Vol. 2, p. 726 & 994

Sponsored by Hoefler & Co.

The First Printed Page Numbers

Author: "johno" Tags: "typography, typographic firsts"
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Date: Friday, 14 Feb 2014 08:08

Every typeface taken seriously enough by its designer will teach valuable lessons. From Signo I learned that in designing a reverse contrast typeface, the challenge isn’t so much in the contrast, or in the black part of the letter for that matter. The conventions for that part are being disregarded, played with, reversed, so the white part of the letter has to assume greater control. And it leads one to rethink what ‘reversed’ really means.

signo fonts

Signo started as an attempt at designing a sans serif with reverse contrast. However, I didn’t really want an eccentric type suitable only for headlines; rather I wanted to design a usable and versatile typeface and try to use the reverse contrast in service of readability and functionality. I had in mind some advantages of the reverse contrast: the concentrated weight at the top and bottom of the letter would favor the horizontal continuity in lines of text, and the thinner stems meant that the letters could be narrower — a good thing for a versatile and functional typeface. The x-height could also naturally be taller, since the black of the letters would be “expanded” vertically.


Reversing the contrast
In the first sketches I tried some letters with reverse contrast, in witch the contrast wasn’t merely reversed, but had a deeper relation to a calligraphic modulation of the strokes. These shapes were fun but I also wanted to design a usable typeface both for headlines and text, so after the first outlines in FontLab I soon went astray from these sketches towards more conventional shapes. That begun a long process of going back and forth, between an experimental and fun, but less usable approach, and a conventional but functional one.



At this point I was thinking too much in terms of ‘reverse contrast.’ I was going for a logical, mathematical approach, so my objectives were being reduced to the mere reversal of the conventional ratio between thicks and thins. And sure enough, the results were quite simply ugly letters (not shown here). Reversing the contrast, felt more and more like an arbitrary act, an imposed mathematical inversion of a basic optical principle of letter forms. In Signo, I was trying to find a way to make this feel natural. How could a reverse contrast typeface be designed in a way that felt natural?

I knew I didn’t want anything to feel artificially reversed or strange in Signo, even if the horizontal strokes were heavier than the vertical strokes. I slowly left the notions of contrast aside and approached the shapes more freely. That meant coming to terms with the first sketches and realizing that If the stress axis is rotated far enough, the weight would shift towards to top and bottom parts of the letters, without anything having to be artificially inverted. Most importantly, I didn’t have to insist so much on notions of contrast, which is just the rate between the thick and thin parts of the strokes, which in turn are only the black part of the letter. This return to the sketches also made the designing of Signo really fun again.


The counters
Since I stopped concentrating so much on the strokes, I began playing more with the angle of stress as the commanding principle for rotating the different concentrations of black around fixed counters. The shapes grew increasingly more organic and playful, a bit freer from the traditional conventions (or reversed conventions) in sans serif typefaces, and the counters began to rule the design. In a way the black felt like soft, pliable matter, easy to mold around hard and solid white shapes. The black in Signo, is ‘blobby’ with an asymmetric distribution of weight, but it is shaped around solid, open counters, which provide the order and rationality I was looking for.


Floating effect
Drawing from Roger Excofon’s idea of shifting the weight to the top half of the letters in the beautiful Olive Antique, In Signo too, the black is distributed asymmetrically around the counters. The letters are heavier at the top, with more concentration to the right. This way, especially when set big, the letters seem to be lifted up slightly. The stems are also shaped to accentuate this effect, with some stems curving outwards at the top, while others shrink slightly in width towards the baseline.

The constant element of the design process, even with all the experimenting across an entire year, were the vertical metrics. That probably had to do with the use I had in mind for Signo, from the outset. I imagined a charismatic yet versatile typeface used in magazines for both headlines and text. The ascenders and descenders are short and the x-height is relatively tall, facilitating open counters. Good proportions for smaller text sizes, but also for punchy headlines.


The family
Signo comes with 6 weights from thin to bold. The matching italics have a cursive flavor and will add warmth and variety to the page. The weights include two variations for text, regular, and book. The Regular provides stronger headlines and darker captions to match the main text, while the book is a lighter option for text.


By Rui Abreu.

Sponsored by Hoefler & Co.

Making Signo

Author: "johno" Tags: "typography, maka a font, new fonts, reve..."
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Date: Wednesday, 12 Feb 2014 15:14

An indulgent display face from Positype, a toolbox of type by Hold Fast Foundry, a versatile family from Bold Monday, a whimsical swash by Latinotype, a flag building typeface from Always With Honor & Scribble Tone, a humanist sans by Type Dynamic, a highly legible sans from Tipografies, and a modern sans by The Northern Block.

Positype: Lust Slim

Designed by Neil Summerour

Lust Slim is packed with alternates to play with — enough to turn you on and satisfy.

Hold Fast Foundry: Industry Inc

Designed by Mattox Shuler

Industry Inc comprises numerous standalone styles along with a layered type system.

Bold Monday: Nitti Grotesk

Designed by Pieter van Rosmalen

Nitti Grotesk is the proportional companion to Nitti and part of a larger collection of grotesque inspired typefaces by Pieter van Rosmalen.

Latinotype: Australis Pro Swash

Designed by Francisco Galvez

Australis Swash is a new variant that adds to the Australis Pro family and it brings a touch of whimsy and mannerism to the shape of the cursive letters.

Always With Honor & Scribble Tone: Flagsmith

Over 100 shapes and 1,000 alternates that can be mixed and matched to create a sea of unique flags.

Type Dynamic: Revisal

Revisal is a humanist sans family with 7 weights, from hairline to black, with corresponding italics.

Tipografies: Nomada

Designed by Jordi Embodas

Nomada explores the concept of typefaces on the move continuously: sometimes printed, in books, catalogues, posters or packaging; at other times projected on screens of mobile and fixed devices, as text or as image.

The Northern Block: Acrom

Designed by Mariya V. Pigoulevskaya

Acrom is a geometric sans with a minimal stroke contrast designed with a modern, contemporary context in mind.

Sponsored by Hoefler & Co.

This Week in Fonts

Author: "Sean Mitchell" Tags: "typography, new fonts"
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Date: Friday, 07 Feb 2014 15:01

Unusual Fifteenth-century Fonts

Günther Zainer from Reutlingen introduced printing to Augsburg, Germany in 1468. He likely trained in Strasbourg with Johann Mentelin (who later went into business with Jenson and Johannes de Colonia in Venice). Zainer, during his decade-long career (he died in 1478), published some 100 books.

Günther Zainer used two Gothic types and three Romans. His Roman types are among the most unusual produced during the fifteenth century.

Zainer’s first roman (Type 3:107R) of 1472 is already leaving behind the Gothic influences of the very earliest roman types, but note the H with the ‘pearl’ in the crossbar.


Günther Zainer (Type 3:107R)

This decoration is taken a step further with his next Roman (Type 4:95R)** used from 1472 through 1477. Note the ‘pearls’ in the letters H, I, L, M, N, and T.


Günther Zainer (Type 4:95R)

His third roman (Type 4*:95R), first used in 1473, is unusual in that it mixes Roman and Gothic majuscules (capitals). You can see too very clear Gothic (Gothic Rotunda / Semitextualis Formata) influences in the lowercase.


Günther Zainer (Type 4*:95R)

This typeface is better classified a semi-roman, an interesting devolution and departure from his two earlier Romans.

Images courtesy of Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin.

** Konrad Haebler attributes this font (Type 4:95R; GfT0464) to Johann Bämler who used it for Sententiarum variationes, seu Synonyma (ISTC: if00201700) ca. 1479. However, it is almost certainly the work of Günther Zainer.

Sponsored by Hoefler & Co.

Unusual Fifteenth-Century Fonts

Author: "johno" Tags: "typography, typographic firsts"
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Date: Monday, 27 Jan 2014 22:11

My new favorite Tumblr is from Erik Kwakkel, a medieval book historian at Leiden University.

Though not medieval, this late sixteenth-century book is in fact six books in one:


Image: Gif by Erik Kwakkel, from images in the National Library of Sweden.

Follow @erik_kwakkel on Twitter for more.

Sponsored by Hoefler & Co.

Marvelous Medieval Books

Author: "johno" Tags: "books"
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Date: Monday, 27 Jan 2014 21:49

An eroded display by HVD Fonts, a wide sans from Type Dynamic, an inline slab by Yellow Design Studio, a versatile monoline from Parachute, a geometric sans by Graviton, an elegant script from Fenotype, an experimental face by Onrepeat, and a titling face from Type Together.

HVD Fonts: Brandon Printed

Designed by Hannes von Döhren

An eroded, printed look with four variations of every letter.

Type Dynamic: Pieta

A wide sans type family inspired by old lettering from the Netherlands.

Yellow Design Studio: Gist

Designed by Ryan Martinson

An inline slab serif with a retro yet contemporary vibe.

Parachute: Bague Sans Pro

Designed by Panos Vassiliou

A versatile monoline typeface with a distinct and eye-catching personality.

Graviton: Gubia

Designed by Pablo Balcells

A geometric, sans serif typeface with a slightly condensed design.

Fenotype: The Carpenter

Designed by Emil Karl Bertell

An elegant and versatile connected script family of three weights.

Onrepeat: Port

Designed by João Oliveira

An experimental Didone typeface with a modern twist.

Type Together: Abril Titling

Designed by José Scaglione & Veronika Burian

A low contrast typeface for headlines.

Sponsored by Hoefler & Co.

This Week in Fonts

Author: "Sean Mitchell" Tags: "typography, new fonts"
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Date: Thursday, 23 Jan 2014 15:54

The First Book Printed in Italy

During my research for an upcoming book* on the life and work of German Renaissance typographer Erhard Ratdolt, I spent quite some time looking at the introduction of printing to Italy (Ratdolt worked in Venice from 1476 to 1486, thereafter returning to his native Augsburg). The first printers in Italy were, unsurprisingly, from Germany, and they likely were associated with Gutenberg, Fust and Schoeffer. I won’t go into the details about the introduction of printing to Italy. Suffice to say, by 1465 Sweynheym and Pannartz had arrived at the Benedictine monastery of Subiaco, about 60 km east of Rome. The same year they printed a Latin Grammar (a schoolbook that had been incredibly popular throughout the Middle Ages) by the fourth-century tutor of Jerome, the Roman Grammarian Aelius Donatus, of which, sadly, no copy has survived.

Some time before the end of September 1465**, they printed Cicero’s De oratore, the first extant book printed on Italian soil. Lastly, before moving their press to Rome, they printed their first dated book (29 October, 1465), Opera by the third-century author, Lactantius.

The page below is from their De oratore of 1465:


Photo credit: University of Barcelona. [For a larger version of the same type (but used in the Lactantius).]

This is the first Roman type. More accurately it is a semi-Roman or semi-Gothic, the letterforms modeled on contemporary Italian bookhands. The capitals are clearly roman; the N is unusual in that its diagonal stroke meets the right stem quite high — like I have seen in some Rustic capitals in later Medieval manuscript books (though Rustic capitals are, of course, more condensed). The G looks almost like a sans serif and has a tiny aperture. In the lowercase there are more than traces of the uncial letter, especially in the form of the h with its toes turned in. The lowercase still retains some of the angularity and lateral compression of the Gothic letter. Though the type is quite dark (and has low contrast), it is tightly spaced and rather condensed, but appears much lighter than a page of Gothic type owing to the relatively long descenders, creating more interlinear white space. Relatively few contractions and ligatures — a t + i ligature and a nice disconnected c + t ligature. Note the spur on the I, a remnant of the Gothic letter. The squat ampersand is quite beautiful too.


Sweynheym & Pannartz Subiaco type [GfT0549]. Image courtesy of Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin.

I think it’s quite incredible that this book and its type has survived, and that just about all of the type we read today owes a debt to prototypographers like Sweynheym and Pannartz.

*Erhard Ratdolt — Renaissance Typographer, to be published later this year — fingers crossed!

**The Leipzig copy, now in Moscow, contains annotations dated 30 September, 1465.

Sponsored by Hoefler & Co.

The first book printed in Italy

Author: "johno" Tags: "typography, Incunabula, type history, ty..."
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Date: Thursday, 09 Jan 2014 08:36

A reversed-stress face via Klim, a friendly display from Gunnar Link, a low contrast sans by Type Dynamic, a versatile collection from Commercial Type, a personable text face by Paul Barnes, a soft sans by Indian Type Foundry, a modernist script from Kyle Wayne Benson, and a geometric sans by Latinotype.

Klim: Maelstrom

Designed by Kris Sowersby

A “perverse” typeface, to be sure, but that is exactly its charm.

Gunnar Link: Donki

Designed by Gunnar Link

A friendly cursive display typeface.

Type Dynamic: Predige

A condensed and constructed sans type family, with a very low contrast.

Commercial Type: Duplicate

Designed by Miguel Reyes & Christian Schwartz

A versatile collection of typefaces comprised of three families, each in the same six weights with italics.

Commercial Type: Austin Text

Designed by Paul Barnes

A highly personable text face firmly in the English tradition.

Indian Type Foundry: Pilcrow Soft

Designed by Satya Rajpurohit

Simple and utilitarian, similar to forms found on street and highway signs around the world.

Kyle Wayne Benson: Benson Script

Designed by Kyle Wayne Benson

A script that is desperately trying to be anything but a script.

Latinotype: Arquitecta

Designed by Daniel Hernández & Miguel Hernández

A rational geometric with humanist proportions.

Sponsored by H&FJ;.

This Week in Fonts

Author: "Sean Mitchell" Tags: "typography, new fonts"
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Date: Monday, 09 Dec 2013 19:57

With the holidays fast approaching, I’m sure you have it all under control. You’re smart, you planned well in advance and have already purchased your gifts, so that you’ll avoid being trampled by hordes of panicked last-minute shoppers. But just in case you haven’t, here are a few ideas:


Designed for everyone. Fun, easy to apply, and no painful laser surgery required should you have regrets.


Daring Fireball

One of these lovely tees — a collaboration between Messrs Gruber and Contino.



A letterpress print from Jessica Hische.



Punctuation coasters from Ugmonk.


Analog = Heavy

My favorite Able Parris Collage now available as a print.


The Anatomy of Type: A Graphic Guide to 100 Typefaces

A wonderful book detailing the finer points of type.


(photo courtesy of typeanatomy.com)

House Industries

Twelve Neutraface Slab alphabet blocks.


Apple Bear Cart

Illustrated by the magnificent Cyrus Highsmith and available from Occupant Press.


Linotype — The Film

Buy the DVD.

Scrabble Typography

A limited edition Scrabble set with lovely letters.


Missed something? Tell me in the comments below.

Sponsored by H&FJ;.

Last-minute gift ideas

Author: "johno" Tags: "typography, typography gifts"
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Date: Monday, 09 Dec 2013 13:20

Happy to announce the launch of 1001 pt, a new range of A2 screen prints, with glyphs set at precisely 1001 pt. As a special offer, you can have all four prints for just $101 (including shipping to anywhere in the world).


2014 will see the introduction of many more 1001 pt products, so stay tuned — @1001pt

Sponsored by H&FJ;.

It’s big, it’s 1001 pt

Author: "johno" Tags: "typography, posters"
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Date: Friday, 06 Dec 2013 11:01

A whimsical serif by FontFont, a Dutch inspired family from Bold Monday, a scribble inspired face by Letters From Sweden, a rounded sans from 205, a contemporary display by Alex Trochut, a mellow sans by S-Core, playful icons from Symbolset, and an elegant sans by Rene Bieder.

FontFont: FF Quixo

Designed by Frank Grießhammer

FF Quixo feels at home whenever a touch of personality, whim, and some symbols are required.

Bold Monday: Oskar

Designed by Paul van der Laan

Oskar is inspired by Dutch architectural and advertising lettering from the early 20th century.

Letters From Sweden: Line

Designed by Stefania Malmsten & Göran Söderström

Inspired by beauty, handwriting, graffiti tags and scribble.

205: Maax Rounded

Designed by Damien Gautier & Quentin Margat

The rounded version of the well known font Maax designed in 2012 by Damien Gautier and Quentin Margat.

Alex Trochut: Trojan

Designed by Alex Trochut

A very sophisticated set of glyphs which in turn give this font a classic contemporary appearance.

S-Core: Core Mellow

Designed by Hyun-Seung Lee, Dae-Hoon Hahm & Min-Joo Ham

A condensed geometric sans-serif — mild, minimal, simple, and clean in appearance.

Symbolset: SS Air

Designed by Jory Raphael

A collection of elegant and playful icons — gentle and inviting, dynamic yet balanced.

Rene Bieder: Canaro

Designed by Rene Bieder

Sharp and elegant thinner cuts, sporty and athletic heavy weights.

Don’t forget to check out the new 1001 pt. Prints available soon.

Sponsored by H&FJ;.

This Week in Fonts

Author: "Sean Mitchell" Tags: "typography, new fonts"
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Date: Saturday, 23 Nov 2013 15:04

A geometric sans from Positype, a contemporary grotesk by Josh Finklea, a carefree sans from Kyle Wayne Benson, a bold brush script by Fenotype, a lively face from Fontsmith, a hand drawn family by PintassilgoPrints, a friendly sans from FaceType, and a happy script by Wiescher Design.

Positype: Clear Sans

Designed by Neil Summerour

Clear Sans is a rational geometric sans serif — clean, geometric and precise.

Incubator: Post Grotesk

Designed by Josh Finklea

A contemporary version of the traditional grotesk sans serif. Post Grotesk reduces the typical rigidness of a grotesk through subtle additions of personality and uniqueness.

Kyle Wayne Benson: Tide Sans

Designed by Kyle Benson

Tide Sans’ fresh, carefree, look makes you almost forget that you’re staring at a monitor and not on the beach.

Fenotype: No. Seven

Designed by Emil Karl Bertell

No. Seven is a bold brush style script family of three weights.

Fontsmith: FS Matthew

Designed by Jason Smith

A clear, stylish and structured sans serif with swooping curves of openness which create a lively, flavourful character.

PintassilgoPrints: Undersong

Designed by Ricardo Marcin & Erica Jung

Undersong brings 13 fancy hand drawn stackable fonts which can be combined in many, many tasty ways.

FaceType: Adria Grotesk

Designed by Marcus Sterz

Adria Grotesk is a friendly sans serif that comes in 7 weights & charming upright italics.

Wiescher Design: Felicità

Designed by Gert Wiescher

Felicità was designed with happiness in mind.

Sponsored by H&FJ;.

This Week in Fonts

Author: "Sean Mitchell" Tags: "typography, new fonts"
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Date: Monday, 18 Nov 2013 15:42

In the spring of 2012, Stefania Malmsten became the new Creative Director of Swedish fashion & culture magazine Rodeo. Stefania was living in New York at the time, working with Swedish and American clients from the collaborative workspace Studiomates in Dumbo, Brooklyn. She had decided to move back to Sweden where she had started her career with designing iconic magazines like Pop and Bibel.

Stefania is known for the attention to typography in her design work:

“I’m very passionate about photography and I’m very passionate about typography. I never wanted to choose between being a graphic designer and an art director and that’s why I love working with magazines and titles for film. Working with Göran on this project has been very luxurious, creating almost like a main character for the magazine.”

Line Passion

For the redesign of Rodeo Magazine Stefania chose Lyon and Benton Sans, two stylish yet traditional text faces. In contrast, she needed something more expressive for headlines, drop caps and graphic elements.

“I created a strict 12 column grid and nice legible styles for the main typography but I felt I needed something to interfere with this. Rodeo wanted to keep it’s big format (245 x 330 mm) and there was something about these big pages… I got this idea of a line that went through the whole magazine, like someone had been writing with a thin pen over the grid system.”

To explain her ideas, she made a mood board which became the creative brief for the typeface. The plan was to create a monoline script, but definitely not a traditional one.

Monoline letters, Arabic shapes, scribble, graffiti & tags, lettering, swashes, and different types of handwriting — all of this became inspiration for the new Rodeo Magazine typeface.

Line ornament

When the project started Göran Söderström was on parental leave and had limited time to work with the project, but this was a rare opportunity he couldn’t pass up. Göran explains:

“I’ve always admired designers and art directors who have the courage and vision to not settle for existing type and instead work towards something new. This is quite uncommon in Sweden, but suddenly it happened.”

Göran jumped at the chance to work with Stefania, whose work he holds in high regard. In the beginning he received photo updates with inspiration Stefania had found on the streets of New York.

Inspiration from the streets of New York.
Inspiration from the streets of New York.

After some time Göran responded with some sketches he thought could work. Stefania, who was still in New York, replied with more sketches and comments — the collaboration was in motion.

One of Göran’s first drawings.
Swashes had to look different from traditional script typefaces. Stefania made this and it became a point of departure for more.
Sketch for the type composition on the cover.
Rodeo Magazine
Testing how thin the lines should be.
Rodeo Magazine
The result on the printed magazine.
Rodeo Magazine
Inside the first issue.

This project needed a font editor where the letters could be drawn with open contours (rather than closed shapes) and with a possibility to test different line thickness live while editing. The new font editor Glyphs had a function that could work but it was not behaving quite like Göran wanted. Amazingly, Georg Seifert (the inventor of Glyphs) added the missing functionality in a matter of days and suddenly the whole project became more concrete. Now letters could be drawn with just a single stroke and exported with varying stroke weight.

Stroke weights in Glyphs
Left: open contours. Right: closed.
Stroke weights in Glyphs
Glyphs made it possible to draw with just a single stroke.

The letter P

Every idea was tested, but somewhere the line had to be drawn; was it supposed to be a typeface or a set of illustrations? Naming this typeface was also bit tricky, but in the end it was named after what it was – lines.

Stroke weights combined
The formula.

Line comes in 5 super thin styles. With the formula 100, 65, 40, 25, 20 it’s easy to create compositions with same stroke weight across different point sizes. This was also a feature from Rodeo. Stefania was working with three styles in three different sizes, looking as if they were coming from the same pen.

Stroke weights combined
The 5 styles in Line.

We deliberately avoided making an OpenType showcase out of this font. There’s an exquisite joy in unpacking a new font, similar to that of a Lego set. Rather than large, extravagant glyphs, the final typeface consists of a basic character set with some alternate letters, plus a large number of modular embellishments which attach to letters in different ways. The embellishments (or krussiduller in Swedish) are perfect for starting or finishing words, and some are flexible enough to do both. And just like the possibilities with Legos, this brings huge variation to the typeface.

Rather than hundreds of alternate letters, these are simply kerning pairs.
Four different s
How alternate versions of ‘s’ connect to ‘a’.
Four different s
Lowercase h, m and n also have “normal” versions (stylistic set 04).


Letters from Sweden has a new website in the works and Line will be available from our new webshop very soon. Until then you can send us an email if you’re interested in licensing Line for desktop, web or apps.

Follow us on Twitter, Facebook or signup for our Newsletter to stay updated.


Stefania Malmsten is an art director and a graphic designer with clients mainly in the fields of art, fashion and film. She was one of the founders of Pop and Bibel magazines in Sweden and is a former art director at Vogue Hommes International in Paris. Stefania Malmsten received The Berling Prize, Swedens most prestigious graphic design-prize, for 2006. On the fourth of July 2013 Stefania founded the new design studio Malmsten Hellberg together with designer Ulrika Hellberg. Stefania is currently the Creative Director at Rodeo Magazine in Sweden.

Göran Söderström is the founder of Letters from Sweden and has been designing type since 2006. He is self taught and has previously published his work through Psy/Ops, Fountain and Font­Font. At FamiljenPangea Göran has designed custom typefaces for ATG, ICA, LO, SEB, WyWallet and others. His commercial typefaces are used pretty much all over the world by companies like Red Bull, Pitchfork, The New Republic, SVT and Expressen. One of Göran’s typefaces has been carved in stone.

Text, photos and illustrations: Copyright © 2013 Stefania Malmsten & Göran Söderström. All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the authors written approval.

Sponsored by H&FJ;.

Drawing Line

Author: "johno" Tags: "fonts, make a font, new fonts"
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Date: Monday, 11 Nov 2013 08:12

–Book Review:
Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story
Publisher: (Limited edition) Blue Pencil Editions (2008), MIT Press, Hardback
Author: Paul Shaw
Design: Paul Shaw and Abby Goldstein

Reviewed by: Alex Cameron

It is hard not to simply gush about Paul Shaw’s Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story. For a life-student and consumer of design history and culture publications, it ticks so many boxes that to ‘merely’ enjoy it is really quite easy. While there has been much said about Helvetica+ since its publication in 2011, readers might wonder why a review, so late in the day is worthwhile. Like all good design books, each time one returns to it new things seem to come to the fore. But more important than this, I believe there have been some important omissions in the discussions and reviews since the publication of the MIT Press edition.­

Front sleeve of dust jacket. Based on the color coding discs diagram in the 1970 New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards manual.

Firstly, some notes on its design. The format size of Helvetica+ – 285mm (w) x 245mm (h) – immediately suggests that this is primarily a book to study, and not necessarily read in transit. Both the text content (including substantial notes and captions) and that of the photography, illustration and type specimens deserve so much more than a mere flick through. The format size is ample and allows a decent reproduction size for the documentary-style photographs as well as the illustrations. The majority of the photography is in black and white, as befits the time, but skilfully included color reproductions, of artwork from other projects and clients gives the story added context.

The use of color reproductions of other projects by Unimark International helps to break up the grey. But more importantly it is also a useful technique that gives further context to the central narrative.

This choice of format also allows for an effective typographic arrangement between the central narrative text, numerous (and learned) notes, captions and images. Furthermore the generous use of white space is a welcome contrast to the monochromatic content of the photographs. The design of Helvetica+ is overall of a good standard. But for this reader a small but significant typographic detail lets the design down. The choice of AG (Akzidenz Grotesk) Old Face for long-reading text is an odd one in any circumstance. In this instance it is no less so. AG Old Face tells its own peculiar and idiosyncratic story. Made up from a number of sans serifs of varying weights and widths each drawn by different designers, it was brought together decades later – in haste if not indifference. The result of which included a differing weight ratio between capital and lower case letters – more by (un)happy accident than design. It was not intended for, and doesn’t lend itself to setting for long-reading text. While of course setting Helvetica+ in AG Old Face makes some ‘historical’ and contextual sense – in that Standard (Akzidenz Grotesk) Medium features strongly throughout this story – nevertheless, I believe it is no less problematic.

Good example of the effectiveness of the layout.

I wouldn’t wish to hold Shaw (the designer) and Goldstein to the idea of ‘invisible typography’. I would nevertheless suggest that the annoying ‘polka-dot’ or ‘peppering’ effect caused by its optical and technical deficiencies, when set as long-reading text is simply not worth the historic reference being made to the reader.

The setting of the text ragged-right offers some compensation for the peculiarities of AG Old Face and its overly wide (default) word spacing. That said, one would hope that this doesn’t override the impact of the other purposeful design decisions made by Shaw and Goldstein.

While of course the contribution of design in adding to and aiding (transforming) a scholarly work is crucial, but it is to the writing we will now turn. Helvetica+ is a fine contribution to graphic design history and so deserves attention within the design community and more broadly.

Frontispiece. Showing a corrected, closely cropped page that includes Helvetica Medium type specimens and necessarily prescriptive typed and handwritten notes by Unimark.

Shaw’s latest piece of typo/graphic design history has rightly received exceptional citation from some significant design writers and practitioners in the US and Europe. The back sleeve of the dust jacket includes some high praise indeed from the likes of Michael Bierut who tells us that it is, ‘…one of the best pieces of design history I have ever read’. Erik Spiekermann is no less enthusiastic saying, ‘For transit and type nerds alike, Paul Shaw’s book is the Bible’, with Tom Geismar adding that it is, ‘…an amazing piece of research.’ They are all names readers of I Love Typography will surely be familiar and people who know what they are talking about. Interestingly there is a glowing short review alongside by Kenneth T Jackson who offers Helvetica+ as, ‘…a unique perspective…’. Jackson’s is a name that will likely be less familiar to the same readers. He is both Editor-in-chief of the Encyclopaedia of New York City and President Emeritus of the New York Historical Society. From the point of view of the necessary maturation of graphic design history, it is a well placed and important inclusion. Shaw has written a book that just might do what all design writers must aspire to – reach an audience beyond the ‘confines’ of the design community (practitioners, educators and writers). He has, by this important inclusion shown his commitment to doing just that.

Of course Shaw’s readership for Helvetica+ will largely come from ‘design-land’. In part this is because the subject is of the design community, but it also speaks to designers who are hungry for insight, knowledge and direction. But, if graphic design is to be recognized and engaged with as a significant cultural player, then a broader readership is crucial. It is on this question, above all others, that Helvetica+, and all that has come before and will after, must ultimately be judged.

Periodically, the question ‘what kind of design history’ comes into sharp focus in the form of thought-provoking contributions to design conferences, talks and published writing. It is a crucial question and one that needs and deserves continual assessment.

In general terms, an expansive graphic design history is desirable and necessary. But it will be developed alongside reference books, visual case studies, personal profiles, technical writing, criticism, design journalism and theory. Fundamentally, whichever form it takes should, ‘do justice to the complex processes of interrelations and interaction between them’, as historian and historical theorist E H Carr would have it. People need to be placed center stage and their relationships, choices and goals understood in historically-specific contexts.

Cover and inside pages of the New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual, designed by Unimark International. In its own right this is a best practice approach to mass signage design.

Shaw’s intervention is a conscientious and critically minded reading of design history, beneath which the true (maybe) significance of events are unearthed. Shaw treats the reader as one capable of understanding that the business of design – even at this level – is not a simplistic or utopian process, where each design decision follows an even better one. In this regard Helvetica+ is an important contribution. In terms of approach, Shaw gives an account of some decisive moments in design history and has refused to gloss over the cracks. For many designers, part of their day-to-day creative struggles revolve around resolving multiple and competing interests, untangling webs of confused business decisions, colossal egos and seemingly immovable organizational and financial forces – well before attending to matters of a visual kind. Giving a qualified, accurate and critically unambiguous account of the role of design and designers is the least we should expect from design history; unfortunately this is not always the case.

But Helvetica+ seems to do just that by placing questions of a typographic and aesthetic nature in a commercial context, where often chaotic forces emerge from multiple directions and sources. The decisive design decisions – which at first might appear mere personal preference – are shown to be based on a contemporaneous and concurrent industry best practice and an exacting attitude towards typographic standards.

Left: Rail Alphabet by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert for British Rail. Right: Schiphol alphabet by Benno Wissing for Schiphol Airport. The inclusion of other mass transportation sign projects offers an international perspective.

This contention is drawn out further through introducing key signage design schemes that preceded, and undoubtedly influenced, the NYC project. Shaw’s account further illuminates the role and impact of the wider design community in transforming practice. Internationally, mass transportation sign systems were being designed for some significant high profile clients: Heathrow Airport (UK) by Colin Forbes, British Railway by Jock Kinnear and Margaret Calvert, Milano Metro (Italy) by Bob Noorda and Schiphol Airport by Benno Wissing.

Throughout this period designers were communicating and critiquing each other through type. Even if unwittingly, they were nevertheless contributing to the consolidation of typographic orthodoxies through the medium of mass-signage design. As Helvetica+ points out, type designers certainly had their own unique take on Akzidenz Grotesk or Helvetica. They altered the length of ascenders/descenders, replaced angled terminals with horizontals, increased the x-height and modified the weights of whole families.

At the same time, practitioners and design writers shared important moments of coactivity. Shaw notes the significance of two seminal books on signage, Nicolete Gray’s Lettering on Buildings (1960) and Mildred Constantine and Egbert Jacobson’s Sign Language for Buildings and Landscape (1961). These along with a dynamic design press meant more attention and legitimacy was being paid to this new and increasingly influential field of graphic design. Articles and follow-up comment pieces appeared in the mainstream press, illustrating the cultural influence and impact of design on society more broadly. It was an exciting moment that stressed the mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between design criticism and practice.

Two Enamel girder signs. Left: emphasis placed on the station street number, all closely set in Standard Medium; Right: no emphasis. Set (default) in Neue Helvetica Medium. A perfect illustration of a typeface being only as good as the designer in whose hands it is placed.

Throughout the 60s, 70s, & 80s (indeed to date) in all major mass transportation sign systems the ‘grotesque’, sans exception, was the undisputed heavy-weight champion of the design world. It was less a question of which typeface and more one of in who’s hand it was fashioned – a typographic truism that is often overlooked.

All the above considered it makes the inclusion of a seven line paragraph on page 102 quite perplexing. Shaw writes, ‘Why did the MTA abandon Standard? At the time Helvetica’s popularity was on the wane as its widespread use since the early 1970s had induced boredom and backlash. Postmodernism had effectively exposed the subjective nature of the Modernist notion of neutral, rational and universal design and, in doing so, had undercut the principle reasons that many designers had given for choosing Helvetica over all other faces’ (p. 102).

Standard versus Helvetica? Specimen sheets of both families. Left: Standard. Right: Helvetica. These pages illustrate the differences between the letters Q, R, S, e, f, g, h and numerals 1, 2, 3.

In the first instance this is out of step with the rest of the book in terms of its literary and investigative tone. Like a sign in the NYC Subway System set in Roger Excoffon’s Mistral, these words simply don’t belong. Intellectually it is wholly inadequate. While contesting and challenging events from a particular interest or point of view is no bad thing – indeed we could do with more contestation around key issues and events – but in this instance the claims made by the author deserve and demand more than a mere seven lines of text and a few references. This crucial question, of understanding the dynamics of the shift from Modernism (and its near 100 year history) to Post-Modernism (and its comparatively short history) has hardly been dealt with by the social sciences never mind the design writers cited. To consign a significant cultural movement to the dustbin of history in such a way is at best wishful thinking but at worst overly simplistic and counterproductive.

But as disappointing as this is I would urge that instead we concentrate on all that is good about this book.

At his most engaging, Shaw’s writing takes the form of classic investigative journalism – it is as if we are being let into important secrets (which indeed we are). The dogged and committed research that Helvetica+ demanded must have had the author wondering if it was all worth it. Of course it was! Its publication has made design writing a little richer. It has also raised the bar and thus set an example. It is a complex story that has been obscured by self-interest, myth and the passing of time. Shaw has done an exceptional job in unraveling and revealing the real dynamics of the process and the professionalism of the designers at the center of this story.

Sponsored by H&FJ;.

One Hel(vetica) of a Story

Author: "johno" Tags: "books, book review"
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