Featured Web FontFonts, January 2014

Erased Tapes – FF Netto Web


FF Netto Web

Based in London, Erased Tapes Records is an independent record label with a specific interest in releasing avant-garde music. With a roster of contemporary classical music composers, including musician of the moment Nils Frahm, Erased Tapes is a melting pot of brilliant innovative and imaginative musicians.

The use of Daniel Utz’s recently revamped FF Netto Web with its revised curves and connections aesthetically brings together this hub of music creativity.

PONS – FF Sero Web


PONS.eu is the free online dictionary by Stuttgart based PONS Publishing. Dictionary users can consult 12 million words and phrases in 12 different languages including German, French and Spanish. Jörg Hemker’s FF Sero Web with its legibility of a humanist sans serif typeface, versatility and flexibility fits well within this international reaching site.

Umweltbundesamt – FF Marselis, FF Meta Web and FF Meta Serif Web


Umweltbundesamt (UBA) is Germany’s Federal Environmental Agency. Operating as the country’s main environmental protection agency, the UBA is responsible for providing German citizens with a healthy environment in which to live in. The use of FF Marselis and its humanistic forms for the UBA logo embodies the humanist interests of the agency perfectly. Whilst the use of one of the most popular typeface of the computer era, FF Meta Web and its newer counterpart, FF Meta Serif Web, create a reassuringly familiar yet fresh feel.

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Ten Years Ago in ALA: Faux Columns and Elastic Design

Ten years ago this week, A List Apart published issue 167. It featured an article on elastic design that now seems slightly prophetic, and an article on faux columns, a technique that, while it has since fallen out of favor, defined the way designs were implemented for years.

Elastic Design, by Patrick Griffiths

Not quite liquid, yet not fixed-width either, Elastic Design combines the strengths of both. Done well, it can enhance accessibility, exploit neglected monitor and browser capabilities, and freshen your creative juices as a designer. Patrick Griffiths shows how to start.

(Remind you of anything?)

Faux Columns, by Dan Cederholm

It was a beginning CSS designer’s nightmare and a frequently asked question at ALA: Multi-column CSS layouts can run into trouble when one of the columns stops short of its intended length. Here’s a simple solution.

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Paula Scher’s Typobsessive Ho-ho-ho Digital Christmas Card

Say what you want, but I like holiday cards at year’s end. I even had a competition running at FontShop BeNeLux for a couple of years (2007, 2008 & 2009). They are the perfect vehicles for self-promotion, and every year we see designers really outdo themselves when it comes to originality and creativity. My own last foray into this ephemeral art dates from 2011. Due to personal issues I have been merely an observer the past two years. Being a fan of printed cards, I am a little ambivalent about digital cards – they offer exciting new possibilities, but the act of physically sending a printed card shows that you really care. That being said, the digital holiday greeting designed by Paula Scher for Cooper-Hewitt is all kinds of awesome.

True to her continued efforts to treat typography as an expressive medium, communicative beyond the mere words the letters spell out, Paula Sher used obsessive typography to treat the holiday clichés of jingle bells and ho-ho-ho.

The only thing to do is be relentless.

The greeting is a beautiful example of Scher’s signature style, with eclectic type choices, images as letters, dense design, and dynamic motion. There are too many typefaces featured in the video, so I won’t even try to identify them all.

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Karbid Book Giveaway

Karbid Book Giveaway

To celebrate the recent release of the book Karbid: Berlin—From Lettering to Type Design, we have 15 copies to giveaway.

To win: send us a picture of a piece of lettering in your city that inspires you.

Email your photo to news@nullfontfont.com with your name, city, occupation, delivery address, and the subject title “Letters in my City”. The winners will be selected by Verena Gerlach.

Deadline extended!

Entries close 31st January 2014: 15 winners will receive a copy of the book and submissions will also be featured on our FontFont Flickr page. Winners will be announced on the fontfont.com news page.

Read more about the FF Karbid and the making of the book here.

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British Rail Identity

Here’s a glorious bit of design nostalgia for the New Year. It’s hardly a new find on the web; designer Nick Job first started this archive of the British Rail identity manuals in 2011, but I’ve just been reminded of it. Somehow I’ve never written about it either, which is a bit of an oversight given the entirely-unofficial and tongue in cheek name of this site: the British Rail alphabet and signage guidelines were also used by the British Airports Authority and National Health Service, making them as much a government standard as Britain ever usually manages.

The alphabet had two variants, one for dark-on-light type and one for light-on-dark. Light (and illuminated) type on dark backgrounds creates an optical effect known as ‘halation’ – i.e. it develops a halo, a slight sense of the letterforms being thicker than they are. To cope with this, the letterforms are reduced by the width of an outline for the lighter type, shown in the last panel above — while retaining the same spacing and other details of the type. It’s worth pointing out that a revival of the typeface is now available to license and as a web font from FontDeck.

For the non-British (or the very young) British Rail was the nationalised entity that ran the vast majority of railways (and a few ferry routes and other transport-related things) in the UK, beginning in 1948¹. It was rarely out of the news (more so on slow news days) for ‘record losses’, ‘strikes’, ‘failures’, ‘delays’ and so on. Starting in 1994 the network was dismantled and sold off, with the last few bits sold in 1997. Instead of a nationally-owned monopoly, we have regional monopolies owned by a variety of companies and (perhaps amusingly), the nationalised rail corporations of other countries. The headlines are now about ‘record price rises’, ‘record profits’ (also: greedy executives and shareholders), ‘overcrowding’, and yes, ‘delays’. According to the polls², privatisation is generally considered to have been a Very Bad Idea and Can It Go Back To How It Was, Please. Whatever your view or politics on the matter are, running an at-capacity rail network will never make you popular with the people who have to use it. I’m being charitable there.

Despite each of the rail operating companies having their own brands, for most British people the British Rail identity is still a familiar part of the landscape, with the logo being the road sign symbol for any rail station, and much of the signage (especially at smaller stations) unchanged from pre-privatisation days. But what an identity! The whole thing is such a brilliantly consistent and well-designed system, owing much of its strength to its crisp, stark simplicity, to its minimalism and almost-total reliance on typography alone. There’s so little to it that there’s very little (virtually nothing) that can ever really look out of date or old fashioned — sure in the 80s everyone³ had a thing for Rotis (for heaven’s sake) and there was that grunge stuff in the 90s and we’ve had the web and all that, but nothing that was really so outstandingly superior or more modern. What made the identity look bad was the usual thing that ruins most good things: neglect and apathy. A faded peeling sign in a shabby, half-ruined station with leaky roofs and deathtrap toilets is never going to look great, and by the time privatisation came along that was the caricature we were being presented with, and so out it went.

And that’s a real shame, for so many reasons.

1 It was originally called British Railways, changing its trading name to British Rail in 1965.
2 Quite a few links, but even The Express supports renationalisation, and it’s not known for its socialist views.
3 OK, not everyone, but it was very popular.
4 Pixellated type? So last decade.

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Last Week of Early Bird Rate for Second Kerning Conference in Faenza, Italy

Another conference is having its last week of Early Bird rates. While TYPO Berlin covers a broad range of topics related to design, culture and society, Kerning Conference squarely focuses on (web) typography. It is the perfect companion for that other web typography event Ampersand in Brighton, Great Britain – one for each “side” of Europe. I had the pleasure to attend – and speak at – the inaugural edition last year, and it was very enjoyable. This year’s line-up again looks great, with exciting speakers and the excellent Simone Wolf moderating.

Kerning is organised in Faenza, in the very heart of Italy. Although there is only one day of presentations (just like Ampersand) on June 6th, it is preceded by a day of workshops On June 5th. The international line-up of speakers includes big names like Vincent Connare, Jessica Hische, Elliot Jay Stocks, Francesco Franchi, Jan Middendorp, Ellen Lupton, and Erik van Blokland. Besides being an information-packed conference, its intimate nature offers the opportunity to meet typographers and type designers, designers and developers, gurus and innovators from all over the world. Kerning being a non-profit event, its organisers wish to help grow their community by keeping knowledge affordable The Early Bird rates make it even more so – until December 31st 30 tickets are made available at a mere €125 instead of the full price of €175 (VAT included).

The Kerning website uses the webfonts Adelle from TypeTogether and Hannes von Döhren’s Pluto Sans.

Header image: Kerning 2013 © Alessio Carone. Discover the complete Set on Flickr.

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A Moment to Breathe

The look on her face was frantic, her motions frenetic as she exited her office. Somehow I knew she would be approaching my desk. “What’s that?” I asked, removing my headphones and trying to remain calm. I already dreaded the answer. “The site’s down. No one can log on,” said our CEO again in a panic-stricken voice.

As I absorbed those words—words feared and loathed by developers everywhere—I opened the file where I suspected I’d find the culprit. I had a pretty good guess: the one I had just deployed to our production environment. Before long, our phone began to ring, the oncology clinics that depend on our software to care for their patients every bit as frantic as our CEO.

I quickly fixed the bug and committed the changes, watching anxiously as our deploy script spat out its log messages. I switched back to my web browser and refreshed. The page loaded successfully, and I went outside for some fresh air. I paced back and forth in front of our building, my hunched shoulders refusing to relax. The weight I felt on my chest constrained my breathing.

Like most of the colleagues I related this story to, this was neither the first nor the last time I sacrificed my own physical and emotional health for the fleeting promise of startup work: the chance to get in early in a company destined for an enormous IPO. But this time, my body’s warning signs were impossible to ignore.

This is your brain on four hours of sleep

I had always assumed that a brain scan taken while I worked would read like an aerial view of a forest fire: intense, bright orange and red activity engulfing the whole area. In reality, however, one region in particular is uniquely triggered. The prefrontal cortex, the roughly fist-sized, foremost region of the brain that sits behind the forehead on the left and right hemispheres, is at work when we sit at our computers and bang out code. Scientists note that this region is responsible for “executive function,” an umbrella term that includes everything from organizing and planning to goal setting, problem-solving, and abstract thinking.

The prefrontal cortex consumes a disproportionately large amount of energy for its size: more than six of every 100 calories you eat are reserved for this cerebral region, impressive if you consider the number of other bodily systems vying for that energy. Unfortunately for the typical startup worker, the performance of the prefrontal cortex is also directly linked to our sleep habits.

In a recent study from the Sleep Neuroimaging Research Program at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, researchers found that the prefrontal cortex is preferentially impaired following a night of particularly poor sleep. In other words, the sleep-deprived brain diverts its resources away from more energy-consuming and higher-order regions like the prefrontal cortex and toward areas like the basal ganglia, which is responsible for vital life functions such as swallowing and breathing.

In other words, while you may think you’re building your advantage by skipping out on sleep in order to get more work done, your brain will eventually be too starved to be of use.

Fortunately, the brain can begin to be renewed after even a single night of what the University of Pittsburgh researchers refer to as “recovery sleep”—the deep, dreamless kind that leaves you sleeping until the afternoon on Saturdays.

This research seemed to confirm my own findings. I found that the cognitive toll of sleep deprivation was most evident when I was working closely with a coworker. In these pair programming sessions, I struggled not only to write coherent code, but to communicate the deeper intentions of my work. This was the point at which I became the most distressed: no amount of coffee could diminish the difficulty of putting words together.

Suddenly, I realized that something had to give. I was forced to come to terms with how unsustainable my work-life balance had become. At one point, I had thought that my capacity for productivity was limitless. But now both science and my own body were directly contradicting the myth of the superhuman startup worker.

Human, all too human

Coming to the realization that people have limitations is much easier than concretely recognizing our own. We spend so much of our time communicating with computers that it’s easy to begin expecting the same superhuman things from ourselves as we do from our machines. Extraordinary feats like 99 percent-plus uptime, a flawless ability to perform complex calculations, and a logarithmically expanding memory become our goals.

But in order to continue to work, I ultimately had to put a greater focus on taking care of myself. This turned out to be both more difficult and more rewarding than I had anticipated.

Knowing how self-defeating my cycles of lack of sleep and increased need for sleep were, I decided to propose a conference talk on this very subject. I knew that I would have to speak from the experience of having shifted the focus from software to my own well-being, and this talk would keep me accountable. When I received the invitation to speak, I had about three months to prepare, which allowed for a deep exploration of the effectiveness of my habits at work and at home.

My two immediate goals were to get a full eight hours of sleep every night and to explore meditation. I found sleep to be the easier of the two to implement, and after I came to terms with the anxiety of not learning quickly enough, I was able to sleep well regularly. But while I had always been drawn to the idea of meditation, I found it difficult to incorporate into my life consistently. It helped me to redefine meditation not necessarily as a religious or spiritual practice, but rather, a single-minded focus on one thing. In this case, my breath.

I found that running the automated test suite on our application’s Ruby code gave me a perfect opportunity to pull my hands away from the keyboard, place them on my knees, straighten my posture, close my eyes, and begin breathing deeply. Prone as I am to racing thoughts, this practice helped me not only manage the stress I felt during the day, but also to focus on a single train of thought more consistently. Once I found this window of time to meditate, more began to crop up: starting up my machine, waiting for my lunch to heat up in the microwave, watching my local server start the Rails environment. Anywhere I had time to check my phone, I had time to breathe.

It wasn’t the easiest habit to cultivate, though. At first, my immediate impulse was to check Twitter, open my email, or switch back to the code I was testing and try to anticipate a failure before reading the command line output. I thought these impulses were saving me from focusing on my erratic and sometimes chaotic thoughts, but I came to realize that over time, they were just adding to the chaos. The more often I overcame the instinct to switch immediately to a new task, the more prolonged my sense of calm was when I went to take deep breaths.

All work and no play?

To my surprise, this sense of calm led to an increased awareness of my level of work-related stress and its effects on my emotional health. That is, the slowing of my thoughts allowed me to pay especially close attention to my moods, my energy, my ability to engage and to communicate well, and the overall sense of personal satisfaction I derived from my work.

I had always enjoyed my job, and was exhilarated by the initial investment it required in forward-thinking technologies. Recognizing a dramatic jump in my learning curve from week to week had given me a profound source of motivation. But when I began meditating, slowing my thoughts to a speed at which they could form a coherent stream, I realized I was overwhelmed by all those extra hours. My emotional burnout was rivaling my sleep-deprivation-induced physical one.

In the long term, I believe—and the research I uncovered supports—that focusing on my emotional stability was perhaps more effective at ensuring my success as a developer than staying up all night reading books on object-oriented design patterns would have been. But in the interim, I started to miss the previous pace of my learning progression. I wondered if I would ever rediscover my passion for programming.

But I was also emerging from my shell, re-exploring the activities I used to love. I went out for drinks with friends. I played board games with my wife instead of incessantly reading JavaScript framework documentation.

I felt better than I had in months.

Finding harmony

Only in the past month have I begun feeling inspired again. I’ve started waking up an hour or two early each morning to explore some of the new topics in JavaScript that cropped up over the summer while I was taking a break from extracurricular exploration. My complexion has regained some of its color, and I feel both more motivated and less stressed at work.

I would love to say that this pause, this perspective-broadening sabbatical I took from the overwhelming workload of the web, fundamentally changed my career and the way I work. But ultimately, it can be difficult to justify spending too much time recovering from burnout when our industry continues to fetishize productivity and the breakneck pace of web technologies.

Like most things in life, it’s about striking a balance: an equilibrium between the frantic tempo of our industry and our own internal rhythms. This year, I learned that my body knows this balance—and it will help me find it if I listen.

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