One Hel(vetica) of a Story

–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

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Proza’s story

It was March 2nd, 2011, and I was fifteen-years old. I was in the clouds. My font family, Expletus Sans, had just gone live on the Google Webfonts Directory (now simply called Google Fonts). Plenty of positive feedback and a generous reward from Google had made me expect a lot of it. But it didn’t take very long before I started laughing at the high regard I once had for Expletus Sans, and its silly name. The elegance I once saw in it was soon mixed with a decent dose of clumsiness and amateurism. However, Expletus Sans did provide me with the motivation and opportunity to invest in my skills, and keep designing typefaces.


Expletus Sans

I decided to make sure I was going to up my game and nail every single detail in my next typefamily, named Proza, which I had already started working on. The story of Proza starts with Garamond Sans, its short-lived predecessor. As the name suggests, Garamond Sans was intended as a sans-serif companion to Garamond. Looking back, it already had a lot of the characteristics that would later define Proza. It was far from flawless, though.


Proza’s predecessor, Garamond Sans

Learning type design all on your own seems impossible to me. Starting out, you need experienced eyes to point you at your mistakes in order to learn and move on. With limited time and money at hand, the online forum provided the experienced eyes I needed. So, just as I had done with Expletus Sans, I started a thread with some images of Garamond Sans, asking for opinions.

As I continued work on Garamond Sans, it took up a life of its own, and moved further and further away from Garamond. I started to become aware of the underlying calligraphic structure in any humanist font, which translated into a more coherent and polished design. When I had left the skeleton of Garamond behind, a new name had to be invented. ‘Sensa’, derived from ‘sensational’, worked fine for a while, but turned out to be too similar to Nick Shinn’s ‘Sense’. Moving on, ‘Proza’, which translates to ‘prose’ in Dutch, seemed like a good name.

My goal for Proza was to be interesting and elegant at large sizes, and highly legible at text sizes. I had done very little research into legibility, but it seemed to me that my experience as a reader was also worth a lot, so I approached legibility in a more intuitive manner, making plenty of test prints along the way.


Proza Black

The first thread about Proza Black (called Sensato Black, at the time) came shortly after that. You might wonder why I went straight to Black, rather than doing a Bold first. Well, since I learned about the magic of interpolation (generating intermediate styles based on two extremes), it seemed a lot quicker to design the Black style, and generate the bold and other weights through interpolation. In hindsight, it might seem even more efficient to design only the Light and the Black weight, and generate the Regular the same way as the other weights, but that would have made me lose control over the overall design. The Regular is called ‘regular’ for a reason, you see.

In January in 2011, I started work on Proza Serif. Since Proza has its origins in a humanist serif, I thought it would be relatively easy to create a contemporary serif companion. As happens all the time, it turned out not be as easy as I thought. Designing Proza Serif gave me a better insight into some of the weak spots in Proza, though, helping me to improve the design.


Proza Serif

I continued to expand and improve on Proza, but found it terribly difficult to settle on a degree of contrast. In a wave of youthful naivety, I decided not to settle at all. Instead, I made a high contrast, and a low contrast version, based on the same skeleton and the same number of nodes. I named the high contrast variant Proza E. The idea was to use interpolation to create Proza A, B, C, D, and E, together with all the weights and italics, forming a gigantic sans-serif super-family.


Proza E

Throughout the design process of Proza, I constantly shifted work from one style to another. This chaotic method of working might seem incredibly ineffective, but helped me to create a better design for all of the styles, because they are all related. Underlying problems in one style, can become much clearer in another style. In may 2011, the first version of Proza Italic was done. I wanted it to differentiate clearly from the upright, while still maintaining a similar feel and a high degree of legibility. It should be somewhere half-way between the slanted italics of grotesques like Univers, and the italics of other humanist sans typefamilies, like Fred SmeijersQuadraat Sans, which almost appear to come from a different type family. I also put quite some effort into Swash Caps, only to ditch them again some time later.


Proza Italic, plus Swash Caps

In July in 2011, I finished an early version of Proza E Black. This design was incredibly hard to get right, which also made it incredibly pleasing when I finally got it (sort of) right.


Proza E Black

Shortly after that, from the 25th until the 29th of July, I went to a type design workshop in Urbino, led by Bruno Maag and Jonathan Pierini. Despite being by far the youngest in the workshop, I had a great time, and I continued work on Proza. After a remark that Proza E “looks like it needs serifs” it was transformed into a brand-new Proza Serif. The feedback for the low-contrast variant of Proza was very positive, though. The last day of the workshop, when all participants were having dinner together, Bruno invited me for an internship at Dalton Maag. Completely overwhelmed by his invitation, I asked him if he would have made the same offer without the wine we’d been drinking. Cheeky, I know.


Proza Serif 2.0. Obviously, this had to have degrees of contrast as well, right?

Between the workshop and the internship, I kept on refining and improving Proza. The incredibly simple idea that glyphs should clearly look like they’re supposed to look, also when printed poorly, printed tiny, or seen through worn eyes, led to some design changes. For example, the triangular space between the arch of the n and the stem, at the top-left, was increased in size, to remain crisp and clear at small sizes.

After the workshop, I redesigned Proza Black from scratch. The Regular weight had changed so much that the old Black no longer worked.


Proza Black

In April 2012 I put together the Proza type family for the first time. Without the high-contrast version, that is. Proza E was put in a drawer to rest, together with Proza Serif.


Proza Family (Semi-Bold Italic, Light, and Black)

After having worked quite long on the Proza family, my eyes were craving for something else, so I started work on a new type family, called Richard. This would have been completely irrelevant to this story, if it wasn’t for the critique I got on a thread on After it was rightfully made clear that Richard looked too much like TEFF’s Lexicon, which I accepted immediately, Proza was suddenly also accused of looking too much like Adobe’s Cronos. I didn’t agree then, and I still don’t agree now.


Proza and Cronos comparison

In 2012, during the summer holiday, I went to London for my internship at Dalton Maag. My stay in London exceeded all my expectations. The employees at Dalton Maag were incredibly kind, and the office was incredibly large, filled with an incredible number of designers and type technicians. The fridge, stuffed with an incredible variety of Ben & Jerry’s, was also a nice bonus. One of the first things I did was to ask some of the designers what they thought of the similarities between Proza and Cronos, and all of them concluded there was enough room between the two, so I decided to leave the comments on behind me and move on. The brilliant eyes of Ron Carpenter helped me to raise Proza to the next level, resulting in some changes in the design, a far more extensive character set, and perfect spacing and kerning, packaged in smoothly working font files.


After my internship, I worked on finalizing Proza, as well as a new version of Proza Serif. Proza is now released through Bureau Roffa (available for licensing at A completely redesigned web-version is in the works.


Latest version of Proza Serif

To conclude this story, I need to thank some people. If it wasn’t for the help of these people, Proza would never have been what it is today.

Dave Crossland from Google, for his trust in me and Expletus Sans. Nick Job, for his extensive feedback on the early versions of Proza. Alexei Vanyashin, Irina Smirnova, and Isaías Loaiza, for showing an early interest in my designs. Tal Leming, for his generosity and help with Prepolator. Ramiro Espinoza, for his help with the technicalities of font design. The Dalton Maag crew, for good company, help, and advice. My family and friends, for supporting me.

By Jasper de Waard

Sponsored by H&FJ.

Proza’s story

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This Week in Fonts

A geometric script by Kyle Wayne Benson, a technical workhorse from Hold Fast Foundry, a lined display by TipoType, a classic grotesque from Parachute, an upright script by Stephen Rapp, a contemporary family from PSY/OPS, a geometric sans by Nootype, and an elegant script from Misprinted Type.

Kyle Wayne Benson: Millie

Designed by Kyle Benson

Millie is a stressed, geometric script who spends her days as industrial lettering and her nights paired with blackletter on the patches of motorcycle gangs.

Hold Fast Foundry: Industry

Designed by Mattox Shuler

Forged from geometric and technical styles, Industry stands sturdy and strong.

TipoType: Arya

Designed by Vicente Lamónaca

Arya is a display typeface, based on Roman proportions. It has three versions, differentiated by the amount of the drawn lines.

Parachute: Das Grotesk

Designed by Panos Vassiliou

Das Grotesk was inspired by earlier nineteenth-century grotesques, but it is much more related to American gothic designs such as those by M.F. Benton.

Stephen Rapp: Baghadeer

Designed by Stephen W. Rapp

Baghadeer is an upright connecting script brimming with personality.

PSY/OPS Type Foundry: Carouge

Designed by André Simard

Carouge is a contemporary typeface that has a classical twist.

Nootype: Radikal

Designed by Nico Inosanto

Radikal is a geometric font dedicated to the research of purity.

Misprinted Type: Mercy

Designed by Eduardo Recife

Very similar to ornamental penmanship, but uses slightly longer ascenders & descenders, and modest shading.

Sponsored by H&FJ.

This Week in Fonts

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Going Global: The Last Decade in Multi-Script Type Design

Science fiction is a mirror. It’s rarely good at predicting the future, but it’s great at telling us what we’d like the future to be, or what we fear it may become. Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick: familiar names that guided many imaginations to think about societies spanning the galaxy. Then Star Wars finished off what 2001 started: rich visual textures and soundscapes made it ever more difficult for our imaginations to keep up.

But there were two things that always bothered me about science fiction. First, everybody speaks the same language, or understands the other person’s locutions without so much as an “excuse me, can you repeat this?” And, most frustratingly, nobody ever reads. Nobody. Sometimes there are symbols, diagrams, and gibberish that brands a vehicle or a building, but that’s pretty much it. It is as if some mundane version of mind-meld has rendered obsolete those moments between you and some letters on a surface in front of your eyes.

Well, it didn’t turn out that way. We know that people read more than they ever did. Perhaps they read fewer of some traditional thing or other (and even that depends on the region) but, overall, more people spend more time looking at strings of letters. What was once a dedicated activity has expanded to fill out the previously empty spots of the day: news, a story we saved for later, the playground utterances of Twitter, the trivial ego massages of Facebook. It pains to imagine Dick’s Deckard checking his smartphone while slurping at the noodle bar, but you can bet that this is exactly what he’d be doing today. And we have only begun to see what ubiquitous tablets will do. Many years from now, these very few years at the beginning of the century’s second decade will be seen as a key inflection point: The combination of portable, personal, ever-present, ever-connected screens will transform our ideas of learning, of exchange, of creating new knowledge to degrees unimaginable by our idolized authors.

Our regional identity is deeply personal. It is the language in which we dream and laugh, the language of our exasperations and tears. For most of us, this language is not English, and quite likely it is not written with the Latin script.

There is one problem, however: the future is turning out to be more complicated than we had imagined. Instead of a single, Esperanto-like über-language, most of us are growing up with two parallel identities. One is based on a commonly-owned, flexible, and forgiving version of English, with a rubber-band syntax and a constant stream of new words that spread like an epidemic to other tongues. The other is our regional and historical identity: local in geography, and deeply personal in its associations. This identity is awash with the memories that make us who we are. It comes in the language we dream in, the language of our laughter, our exasperations, and our tears. Overwhelmingly, this language is not English, and quite likely it is not in the letters of the Latin script.

Indeed, just as globalization brought a wave of uniformity, it also underlined the rights of communities to express themselves in their local languages and dialects, in the script of their traditions. But the growing urban populations (over half of everybody, now) are contributing to a demand of complex script support. The equivalent of a single typeface rendering a plain-vanilla version of a language is not a new thing. For about two decades we’ve had the equivalent of a global typewriter, spitting out a single-weight, single-style typescript for nearly every language, with varying degrees of sensitivity to the historical forms of the script. Great if you only speak in one tone, only typeset texts with minimal hierarchies, and don’t care much about the impact of typography on reading. Indeed, the typewriter analogy is supremely fitting: the limitations of typewriter-like devices migrated onto subsequent technologies with astonishing persistence, despite the exponential increase in the capabilities of our typesetting environments.

Stage One: getting fundamentals right

So, here’s the context: globalized technologies and trends, with localized identities and needs. But typeface design is nothing if not a good reactor to changing conditions. Indeed we can detect a clear path for typeface design in the last decade, with two-and-a-half distinct stages of development.

The first stage was about rethinking how we develop basic script support for global scripts. Starting with pan-European regions (wider Latin, Cyrillic, and Greek) and gradually extending outwards to Hebrew, Arabic, and mainstream Indian scripts, typeface designers moved away from re-encoding the dated, limited typefaces of the previous technologies. This development led to two narratives that are increasingly central to typeface design. On one hand, an understanding of typemaking and typesetting technologies, and their critical impact on character sets, the design of typeforms, and the possibilities for complex behaviors along a line of text. On the other hand, an appreciation of the written forms: the relationship of the tools and the materials used for writing that determined the key formal features of each script.

Research began to liberate global scripts from the formal tyranny of the Latin script and the expediency of copy/paste.

For many designers the depth of research required to tackle a new script was a surprise, and not always a welcome one; but increasingly the dimensions of the challenge were respected, and understood. This research began, very slowly, to liberate global scripts from the formal tyranny of the Latin script and the expediency of copy/paste. Notions of a uniform stress at a steep angle, and of serifs to terminate strokes, are gradually seen to be primarily Latin-specific. And the faux-geometric, over-symmetrical, pot-bellied International Style typefaces are steadily unmasked as an intensely North-Western style, meaningful only as a response to the post-war trauma and urban explosion of the 1950s and 60s. Already dated by 1985, their continued adoption serves only to discredit their users and promoters. When taken as a model for non-Latin scripts, they are increasingly recognized as the typographic equivalent of a cultural straightjacket, limiting innovation and the expression of a more sensitive and current identity.

This does not mean that new typefaces with non-Latin character sets were all good, let alone perfect for their purpose. But people started questioning their assumptions, and put their money where their mouth was. Most notably, Microsoft (with a global perspective early on) and Adobe (starting with Europe, and gradually expanding its horizon) asked themselves, and others who could help, how to get things right. Their typefaces with large character sets raised the bar for many subsequent designers, and in many ways continue to determine the default level of script support on a global scale. (Regrettably, Apple never claimed a seat at this table: throughout its ecosystem its use of typefaces remains persistently unimaginative and pedestrian, abandoning any aspirations of typographic leadership.)

Stage Two: linear families

The second stage in global typeface design came when development migrated from the big developers to the publishers catering to the publishing and branding markets. The briefs for typefaces mutated from very broad specifications (for fonts that ship with operating systems and office suites, or bundled with page layout applications) to the needs of very specific documents, with rich hierarchies and multiple styles. While Office could muddle through with four Latin styles and one each for most non-Latin scripts, a newspaper or a magazine demands a range of weights and widths — especially if the templates are imported or designed to match an existing house style. Headings and subheadings, straplines and pull-quotes, footnotes and captions, for starters. And, hot on the tails of global publications and multi-script branding, come the limitations of doing the same on smaller screens, where the color palette and the typefaces may be the only elements that transfer fluidly with some consistency across materials and devices, bridging scales from the pocket to the poster.

In the previous stage designers had to ask themselves what are the fundamental differences, for example, between Arabic-script typefaces for Arabic and Persian and Urdu texts. Now the matter shifts to something like, “What are the typographic conventions in these language communities, what are their traditions, and what are the rules for differentiating between contrasting kinds of text within the same document?” In real terms, this moved design from the single typeface to the family: how will a bold Devanagari relate to a text weight, and how far can you go in adding weight? Can you squeeze, condense, or compress? And how light can you make the strokes?

Lushootseed by Shen

Juliet Shen's typeface for Lushootseed, the language of the Tulalip Native American tribe.

Juliet Shen’s typeface for Lushootseed, the language of the Tulalip Native American tribe.

Designers need not be native to a script to design well for it; in many cases, they might not even be able to read the text they are typesetting.

The answers to these questions stem from a deeper engagement with the script, and an understanding of which elements are integral to maintaining the meaning of the glyph, and which are there to impart a style and build the identity of the typeface. All typeface designers (native or not) need to understand the impact of type-making and typesetting developments on the script, engage intensively with the written forms, and consider the development of typographic norms within a community. But we know, through the evidence of many successful typefaces, that designers need not be native to a script to design well for it; in many cases, they might not even be able to read the text they are typesetting. This may seem counterintuitive. However, good typefaces rely hugely on the designers’ dialogue with convention, and their understanding of very clear — if not always obvious — rules.

Having said all that, this stage of typeface development for global scripts is inherently conservative. The recognition of the formal richness of non-Latin scripts, and the efforts to design new typefaces that respect this complexity and represent it adequately, is a corrective against past sins, technological and human. Typefaces that are well-designed and comfortably read by native communities, while allowing multi-script typesetting for a range of different applications, are a Good Thing, but nothing to be particularly proud of. This is the typographic infrastructure of a connected world. These typefaces are elementary, and essential. They have to be many, because the documents they are used in are hugely variant in their specifications and complexities; and when contemplating multi-script typesetting, the specifics of the document determine which typefaces will do the job better.

The Latin script, with its misleadingly simple-to-modulate strokes, is a crippled model for a global typography.

But for all the celebration, these new, expansive families are refinements of fundamental forms, without raising difficult questions. It is a relatively simple process to add weights to a typographic script, hindered only by the scale of the work, when the character set is substantial. The challenge becomes interesting only in the extremes of the family, the very dark styles, and the very light ones. At these extremes designers need to deal with loops and counters, stroke joints and cross-overs, and all sorts of terminals that may not accommodate a dense stroke within the available space, or dilute the distinctive features of the typeform. Indeed, these extremes demonstrate clearly how the neatly expandable grammar of the Latin script, with its misleadingly simple-to-modulate strokes, is a crippled model for a global typography.

Problems compound with scripts that have only ever been implemented in type with a modulated stroke, or a monoline stroke, but never both. As the weight approaches the blacks, monoline strokes have to gain some contrast to fold around counters, and to save terminals from turning into blobs or stubby appendages. In the opposite direction, towards the thins, critical modulation may have to be sacrificed, and strokes that have only been experienced as curves turn into long, nearly straight strokes. Unsurprisingly, designers had overwhelmingly steered clear of these extremes for their non-Latin typefaces.

Vaibhav Singh's Devanagari [PDF] explores changes in pen shapes as the weight moves towards a Black Display.

Vaibhav Singh’s Devanagari [PDF] explores changes in pen shapes as the weight moves towards a Black Display.

Stage two-and-a-half: rich typography and typeface innovation

So far, so good. The developments that make up these two stages are not consistently evident in terms of market position or geography, but the trends are coherent and clear. Yet the last two or three years are beginning to kick typeface design onto a different plane. The causes may be a mix of technical developments (webfonts, and the improving support for complex scripts in browsers), a maturity of design processes informed by research, and a growing number of typeface designers working locally but having graduated from structured courses that build research and reflection skills. There may also be factors that are only barely registering in our discussions, that will be obvious in hindsight. Regardless, four notions are clearly emerging.

Most visible is the development of typefaces not only for mainline scripts, but for scripts from relatively closed markets (like Khmer or Burmese), for minority scripts, and for local dialects, with the required support. Such projects may be as diverse as an extension of Bengali for Meeti Mayek, a typeface for a Native American tribe, or the consideration of diacritics for Brazilian indigenous tribes. Only a few years ago these would be esoteric projects for academics, at best — and candidates for typographic extinction at worst.

Rafael Dietzsch's typeface [PDF] rethinks diacritics for the specific requirements of Brazilian indigenous languages.

Rafael Dietzsch’s typeface [PDF] rethinks diacritics for the specific requirements of Brazilian indigenous languages.

Typeface design is now, very clearly, a global enterprise, for a mobile and connected community.

Secondly, we can see that typeface design is now, very clearly, a global enterprise, for a mobile and connected community. There are relevant courses in many countries, and no national monopoly. Designers from nearly any country are increasingly likely to be working for global projects, diluting the “old world” associations bequeathed to us by the large hot-metal and phototypesetting conglomerates. We may see young designers cutting their teeth in a European company, then returning to their native region to develop typefaces locally. This is unquestionably the mark of a healthy community of practice.

The third notion is that typographic families are being actively rethought, across all scripts. This process began some years ago with large typeface families moving away from a predictable, unimaginative, and frankly un-typographic interpolation between extremes, towards families of variants that are more loosely related, with individual styles designed for specific uses. Although this is only just beginning to be evident in the non-Latin realm, the signs are there. We can safely predict that many designers across the world will be contemplating the constitution of their typeface families on a more typographically sensitive basis.

The absence of established models opens up new possibilities.

The fourth notion stems from this expansion of typeface families. As designers try to address the issue of secondary or complementary styles within a family, the absence of established models opens up new possibilities. We have already seen Latin typefaces with radically different ideas of what may pass for a secondary style. Similarly, in non-Latin scripts designers are looking for inspiration in the written forms of native speakers, in a process that reminds us of the adoption of cursive styles for Latin typefaces. Even more, they are looking at the high- and low-lettering traditions: magnificent manuscripts, as well as ephemeral signs and commercial lettering. These sources always existed, but were considered separate domains from typeface design. Armenian, Korean, and many other scripts are beginning to break these typographic taboos.

Aaron Bell's Korean typeface [PDF] borrows from native cursive writing to differentiate the secondary style.

Aaron Bell’s Korean typeface [PDF] borrows from native cursive writing to differentiate the secondary style.

So, there you have it: the world may be turning upside down in other areas, but typographically it is entering a period of global growth, maturity, and cultural sensitivity. There will, of course, be many duds, due as much to deadlines as to over-confidence or sloppiness. But we can confidently look forward to many innovative projects, and exceptional designers from a global scene to making their mark.

(N.b. The first version of this text was published in Slanted Non-Latin Special Issue, July 2013.)

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This Week in Fonts

An ambitious text family by Schizotype, a feature-rich face from URTD, playful forms by Outras Fontes, a versatile sans from Fontsmith, modern styling by Thinkdust, a transitional face from MCKL, a minimalist slab by Mostardesign, and a sober text family from Fountain.

Schizotype: Urge Text

Designed by Dave Rowland

The slanted styles of Urge Text exhibit a certain bipolarity, the tops of glyphs having a standard italic form, the bottoms of glyphs being more Roman in their construction.

URTD: Odesta

Designed by Ondrej Jób

Odesta has seven feature-rich weights with built-in small caps, swash alternates, and contextual alternate initials & finials.

Outras Fontes: Progressiva

Designed by Ricardo Esteves Gomes

Unique playful forms and a condensed structure, Progressiva is ideal for texts that require some personality and titles with great visual presence.

Fontsmith: FS Hackney

Designed by Nick Job & Jason Smith

Inspired by the thought “it doesn’t have to be like this” FS Hackney is meticulously honed to perform in exacting conditions. Refined, assured and very versatile.

Thinkdust: Monolite

Designed by Greg Ponchak

Clear-cut edges and modern styling give Monolite the attitude it needs to leave a lasting impression.

MCKL: Superior Title

Designed by Jeremy Mickel

Superior Title is a high contrast transitional typeface, a kind of missing link between Bodoni and Times.

Mostardesign: Metronic Slab Pro

Designed by Olivier Gourvat

Metronic Slab Pro is a slab serif typeface with a technological and minimalist look for text and headlines.

Fountain: Aria Text

Designed by Rui Abreu

Aria Text is the new text version of the lyric Aria. More sober and rational, Aria Text was designed for books. The decoration mannerisms, extreme contrast, the italics angle, among other attributes of the original display typeface were now tamed and rethought towards readability and transparency.

Sponsored by H&FJ.

This Week in Fonts

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Translated Untranslatable Words

I use the title guardedly, as these words featured and illustrated by Ella Frances Sanders at Maptia are all perfectly translatable, but as phrases rather than as neat single words. There’s probably a neat word in a language somewhere that we could use to describe concepts-as-single-words that can’t be translated into single words in other languages. We could of course make one up, say, we could call them uniglottal, i.e. existing as a word in only one language. Words like this get borrowed pretty quickly if they’re useful enough, for example, Schadenfreude — and while words get borrowed all the time, here they’re a special kind of loan word, describing an idea rather than a thing.

One of the words in the list, the lovely Japanese word komorebi reminded me of a word that’s been sufficiently borrowed long enough not to be included in lists like this anymore: bokeh, which is well-known in photography, and like a lot of loan words doesn’t venture much outside a particular profession or technical niche. Then you get to thinking of it and notice more and more, and it reminds me of a French colleague half-jokingly saying, “You can tell if an English word is one of the ones we brought over*: it has more than one syllable”. Controversial.

If you’re interested in the idea of words like this, Better Than English posts a new one fairly frequently.

* 1066 and all that, or, if you prefer.

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Betteo 365

I’ve been enjoying Patricio Betteo’s 365 project for a few years now and somehow never linked to it here. The illustrations are (I think) added daily, though there’ve been a few months where it’s not been updated at all (sounds familiar, can’t think why). It’s a regular source of inspiration for me, with a mix of illustrative styles, with occasional photographs and typographic designs, and always in a square format — the variety and quality are quite brilliant. Patricio Betteo is extraordinarily talented, and if you look through his blog or DeviantART portfolio you’ll probably notice you’ve seen some of his work at some point even if you’ve not heard his name. Well worth a look.

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I’m quite fond of illustrations made with restricted palettes (part of the appeal of mid-century printed ephemera, I think) so this project by Sameer Kulavoor (as Bombay Duck Designs) caught my eye when It’s Nice That featured it.

The illustrations highlight the use of basic blue tarpaulins in Indian cities by abstracting all the other elements and leaving just the shadows and the blue colour to define the scene. If in India the blue tarp is ubiquitous, as in Kulavoor’s words, “it makes for excellent sun-proofing, dust-proofing, pigeon-shit proofing, packaging, and temporary refugee camps.” they’re certainly familiar globally; I recall my father’s motorbikes being protected from the rain with them, a neighbour’s shed-rebuilding project shrouded in one (for years) and various festivals and outdoor markets seemingly constructed from them (and thickets of scaffolding poles). The book is available from Tadpole Store.

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The ABC App

Created by Bart De Keyzer and Frederik Jacques, This is how I learn my ABC is a beautiful little educational app (or digital book, should you prefer) for the iPad. Clearly aimed at children, the app is delightfully presented with clean, crisp illustrations, bold typography and subtle animations, and therefore will probably get just as many designers as parents buying it (and I’d guess most of the overlap between those). The app is in three sections, the first a tour through the alphabet where you get to admire the big illustrations, hear the sounds of the animals and read a fact or two about each one, and the other two are quizzes that let you match the letter to the animal or vice versa, and keep score on how well you’re doing.

There are some posters available to buy on Society 6 as well (there’s no page listing all of them that I can see, so I’ve linked to D for Dog here). I think the name of the app is a little too dominant on them, if you got a ‘full set’ it’d look pretty strange — I’d rather they be more traditional with the illustration and animal name front and centre with the name of the app much less visible. After all, if you buy these for your home, who are you advertising to?

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