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.
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.
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 typophile.com 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.
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.
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.
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 Smeijers’ Quadraat 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Typedrawers.com. 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.
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 typedrawers.com 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 bureauroffa.com). A completely redesigned web-version is in the works.
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.