Choosing Fonts for Tight Tracking

Lately, we’ve been developing a taste for tight letterspacing. Our clients have been doing the same: designers know that tight tracking is an effective way to make any message seem more immediate and energetic. But not every typeface is designed for close quarters, and the wrong font can ruin the effect. Here are a few things to consider when setting type tightly.

We often reach for a condensed sans when looking for a typeface that can be mortared into a solid wall, but the right serif typeface can be just as successful — and sometimes a lot more lively. Serifs introduce a level of variation that helps relieve typographic monotony, and they can fill awkward spaces around curved letters. A typeface with unusually short serifs, such as Quarto Black, can be tracked especially tightly before its characters begin to touch. But don’t eliminate overlaps, since they contribute to giving typography an even rhythm: track your type so that lowercase Ns and Os nestle comfortably together, and let the others fall where they may.

Many typefaces make use of the superellipse, a shape based on the ellipse but with fuller curves. Gotham Condensed Ultra, shown here, is one such design: notice the way its upper- and lowercase O are drawn, with squarer “shoulders” than a regular ellipse, shown here as a dotted line. The extra weight in the corners helps letters take up as much space as possible, and further squares them against other letters’ vertical strokes. In the headline above, I’ve also added Gotham’s alternate lowercase A, which huddles more tightly against its neighboring letters. (This character is available as a stylistic set, both on the desktop and on the web.) Keep an eye out for typefaces that use superelliptical curves: you’ll find them at work in many of our boldest fonts.

Because flat and unbracketed serifs intersect more predictably on a line, slab serifs are some of the best choices for tight tracking. Pay attention to the tops of the lowercase F and R, and the concluding strokes of the lowercase A and T, which in most typefaces will feature rounded terminals and curved tails that add to a font’s variety. For even greater visual consistency, choose a slab serif like Vitesse Black, which streamlines these details into horizontal strokes. Vitesse’s boxy serifs lock neatly together, long before the letters themselves collide, helping preserve the legibility of the type.

While typefaces with flat sides seem like obvious choices for tight tracking, take care: these can be among the most perilous fonts to use. Serifs can help a letter keep its neighbors at arm’s length, and letters with plump curves can be legible even when partially obscured. But flat-sided letters, when set too tightly, meld into a single, indistinguishable mass. When using a flat-sided sans, look for one that’s specifically fitted for display sizes, such as Tungsten Bold. And if you’re considering a typeface with rounded corners, look for one that automatically resolves awkward collisions, such as Tungsten Rounded.

Our taste in type is always evolving. Keep an eye on discover.typography to see what we’re thinking about, or join our mailing list to keep up with what we’re working on. — JH

Typography on Instagram

Over instant messaging at our office, the typographic obsessions of our typeface designers, graphic designers, web developers and businesspeople have lately coalesced into a game of photographic oneupsmanship. We thought it time to share with the rest of the world, so pop over to Instagram and you’ll find the goods. Included are some typographic artifacts that have escaped scholarship, a few excerpts from our studio library, and some typographic moments that we’ve encountered in our travels from Havana to The Hague. Later this week we’ll be posting a peculiar bit of Americana that I’ve been holding on to for years, just in time for Independence Day. —JH

Nicely Done: Epicurious

A welcome bit of seasonal fare is the redesigned Epicurious, a hub for recipes, how-to articles, and inspiration for all things gastronomic. Building on the site’s massive recipe database, the Epicurious team took on the challenge of improving accessibility and adding new ways to discover content, two goals in which webfonts play a central part. The new Epicurious offers a fluid experience for visitors, with a more prominent and functional search mechanism, and new editorial features to accompany all the site’s content. We’re especially pleased to see our narrowest ScreenSmart font, Gotham Condensed ScreenSmart, play such a prominent role: it’s a smart choice to convey an authoritative editorial voice, without competing with the site’s hunger-pang-inducing photography. —NW

An Essential Calligraphic Facsimile

Here’s why I backed this Kickstarter project to reprint the sketchbooks of typeface designer Hermann Zapf. If you love letters, you should too.

If you know Zapf Chancery and Zapf Dingbats, you know the faintest shadow of the work of Hermann Zapf. If you know exquisite mid-century books printed in Palatino, you’re getting closer; I never did, having come of age with the brutish digitization of Palatino that shipped with my first laser printer (along with other notable Zapf faces such as Optima and Melior, both too subtle to survive the barbarity of toner at three hundred dots per inch.) People under the age of fifty likely know Zapf only as a typeface designer, and while a deeper study of his typefaces will lead to such treasures as Hunt Roman and Saphir, even this is only half the story. Zapf is a consummate calligrapher — he has been for eight decades — and he is about to share with the world one of his private treasures.

My introduction to Zapf the calligrapher was Feder und Stichel (Pen and Graver), a monograph of 1950 featuring twenty-five calligraphic studies cut in metal by August Rosenberger. They show not only Zapf’s mastery as a shaper of letters, words, and paragraphs, but a catholic taste for historical forms that live apart from his commercially-produced typefaces. There are rustic capitals that date to the third century, two interpretations of the 16th century Civilité, and a spectacular alphabet of inline Fraktur capitals. Zapf and I have a mutual close friend, who recently mentioned an even more exotic bit of Zapfiana, the sketchbooks that Zapf carried with him after his conscription into the German Army at the outbreak of World War II. Only reproduced in excerpt, and never seen outside of Zapf’s home, it is these that the Kelly-Winterton Press is undertaking to produce in facsimile.

Behind the Facsimile

The proper execution of such a project will require an editor with a deep knowledge of letters, a printer intimately familiar with the demands of reproducing complex artwork, someone with long-established relationships in the fine press community, and a designer up to the challenge of presenting this work in an appropriate typographic context. This project has all of these contributors in the form of Jerry Kelly, a designer, printer, and professional calligrapher, who studied under Zapf in 1979. Kelly is a lover of letters: he wrote the introduction to The Art of the Type Specimen in the Twentieth Century (and designed it beautifully using a typeface to which I’d never given a second thought); he designed The Practice of Letters, which presents The Hofer Collection of Writing Manuals from the Harvard College Library, still an indispensable reference on the evolution of letterforms. Books-on-books can sometimes, cruelly, be careless in their details; this will not be such a project. The facsimile edition will cost $65, though a range of deluxe options include such premiums as additional enclosures and fine bindings. I’ll be adding one of these to my bookshelf, and I’d encourage you to do the same, both to encourage the preservation of this important work, and to enjoy the fruits of this wonderful labor of love. —JH

Adventure Typography!

Some new features at discover.typography make it easier than ever to spot fonts in the wild.

Among the contributors to discover.typography are a couple of serious campers, a few people who enjoy a good hike, and at least one fledgling birdwatcher. At least one of us may have been involved in scouting as a kid, where the pursuit of such outdoorsy merit badges as Indian Lore, Basketry and Leatherwork pointed damningly to a future as the proprietor of a type foundry. But even for an indoorsy designer-to-be, there was much to love about camping: compact kits where things cleverly nested together, secret codes involving flashing lights or colored flags, the iconography of uniform badges, and multi-functional Swiss Army knives that prepared gutsy woodsmen for fixing eyeglasses or opening bottles of wine on the frontier. There was also the night sky, the joy of telling a chestnut tree by its leaves or a cottontail rabbit by its tracks, and the discovered pleasures of both camaraderie and solitude. It was with all this reverie in mind that we set to work on Trail Mix, a meditation on the outdoor life, in type.

 

The new controller.

Trail Mix includes a couple of unexpected type treatments for the web, from type wrapping a three-dimensional object, to letters rendered in embroidery. But the most significant change is to the controller, which identifies which fonts are used in each piece of art. Now you’ll see more detailed information about the fonts that go into our work — for example, not just that we used “Gotham,” but which specific styles we chose from the Gotham Narrow 1 package. We’ve also made the controller and the artwork mutually interactive, so you can select a font’s name to see where it appears in the art, and vice versa. And as always, there are a couple of easter eggs in store for the eagle-eyed, Eagle Scouts among you. Be prepared. —JH

What’s New in Gotham

Now Gotham’s more cosmopolitan than ever: starting today, the entire family speaks another 60 languages, including Russian and Greek.

H&Co is delighted to introduce a massive expansion of our Gotham family. With the addition of more than 29,000 character drawings, all 66 styles of Gotham — plus all 48 Gotham ScreenSmart fonts, specifically designed for the web — now feature the Cyrillic and Greek alphabets. These characters are now included standard in all Gotham packages.

The Languages

Today’s Gothams tackle sixty additional languages, including Greek, Russian, and a host of languages that use variants of the Cyrillic alphabet. Featuring H&Co’s Cyrillic-X™ spec, the fonts can render not only the major Balto-Slavic languages (Russian, Ukrainian, Serbian, Belarusian, Bulgarian and Macedonian), but also many of the more widely-spoken and under-served languages of Asia, from Abaza (48,000 speakers) to Uzbek (27 million.) In all, today’s enhancements help designers communicate with more than one quarter of a billion new readers worldwide.

Got Gotham?

For those designers who have already purchased Gotham, we’re delighted to make these upgrades available free.

We’re rolling out these upgrades today, so if you’ve purchased Gotham for your computer, sign in and visit your Font Library. You’ll find a list of all your H&Co fonts, along with links to download their latest versions. If you’re using any of the Gotham webfonts via Cloud.typography, you’ll see an option within your project dashboards’ Character Set panel to add Greek, Basic Russian, or the full Extended Cyrillic set.

Get Gotham!

And if you haven’t yet made Gotham a part of your collection, now’s the perfect time. Packages begin at $169, with savings of $69 when buying specially-priced Gotham Bundles — and an additional $100 when buying bundles together.

Nicely Done: Purcell Heli-Skiing

With the imminent return of snowstorms to New York, we can't help but mention a wintry website that uses typography to great effect: Purcell Heli-Skiing, who have spent forty years choppering more than 50,000 adventurous skiers and snowboarders to the Purcell Mountains of British Columbia. The website, designed by Ontario-based They, plays with the scale of its typography in a thoughtful and deliberate way. Text faces Gotham SSm and Sentinel SSm are used throughout, punctuated by the lighter weights of Tungsten Light in all caps, creating a monumental but hushed tone that evokes the striking terrain itself. —NW

Fonts in Fiction

Typefaces occasionally escape into the wild, sometimes to find themselves in unfamiliar literary climes. No designer has ever read Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco without being startled by the arrival of a certain Mr. Garamond early in the story; even the most pedantic typographer can’t help but love this delicious scene in American Psycho, in which jousting arbitrageurs boast about their business cards, all of it in nonsense designerese. (The cardstock? “It’s Bone. The lettering is something called Silian Rail.”)

While type designers are accustomed to seeing their work appear in fictional settings — movie props, mostly, many of them anachronistic — there’s a special strangeness that comes from reading about one of your fonts in a work of fiction. Having just tucked into A Little Life, a novel by Hanya Yanagihara, H&Co’s Carleen Borsella shot bolt upright when she saw our Archer typeface namechecked on page ten. I can only imagine that the fictional Jasper, who’s “using Archer for everything,” even body text, is himself a graphic designer: those of us on the inside know that Archer is indeed a text face, one that’s fitted with all kinds of features designed with text in mind. We’ll have to keep an eye on Jasper, remembering what happened last time an H&Co typeface enjoyed a brief literary interlude. —JH

The Inspiring Everyday

Whether they’re typeface designers, graphic designers, web developers, or part of our business group, nobody at H&Co is immune to the charms of found typography, and we’re all compulsive sharers. Recently, our chief operating officer paid a visit to the garage to have her car serviced, and returned with a souvenir that made us smile: a paper tag left dangling from the rear view mirror, designer unknown, indifferently printed with a giant number in four inch block type. It prompted a conversation about the pleasures of anonymous typography, and how even the humblest bits of ephemera can suggest visual strategies for solving far more complex design challenges. So for those who take pleasure in life’s little typographic moments, we’re pleased to share a few of ours, today on discover.typography. —JH

Introducing Obsidian

I’ve always wanted to create a decorative display face in the Regency style, one of those stout, industrial alphabets enlivened by bright, detailed illumination. Toward the end of our Surveyor project, a deep exploration of engraved map lettering, this idea started to feel especially relevant: engraved maps were often badged with elaborate title pieces, and the more time we spent with these hatched and shadowed letters, the more we could imagine how some of their visual qualities could be successfully interpreted in a contemporary typeface — and one that would be useful and relevant to designers today. But then there was the matter of draftsmanship: how do you do it? Type design is still largely a manual art, and the thought of devoting years of our lives to drawing tiny curlicues was a bleak prospect indeed. Like the best of dead ends, this was where things started to become interesting.

I’d been discussing this puzzle with Andy Clymer, a senior typeface designer at H&Co. As part of the Surveyor design team, Andy had spent a lot of time with the heaviest members of that family, the ones most closely connected with the Regency style. An accomplished programmer and a procedural thinker generally, Andy had taken a short sabbatical in 2013 to attend the first class of the School for Poetic Computation, an artist-run school in New York that explores the intersections of code, design, and theory. Returning with some fresh ideas about particle studies and 3D modeling, Andy and I met to reframe the project: what sorts of rapid prototyping tools could we build to help explore different options, and how might these help us execute our ideas across the massive scale demanded by a contemporary typeface? Not content to be a mere set of decorated capitals, our typeface would need 1,400 glyphs spanning both roman and italic styles, bringing its esprit to the most esoteric of punctuation marks and accents.

Ultimately, Andy’s scripts would become an entire suite of proprietary tools for interpreting two-dimensional letterforms as three-dimensional objects, through the application of virtual light sources that vary in position, angle, and intensity. Like the best projects at H&Co, the typeface was shaped not only by exchanges between designer and editor, but by the iterative cycle of what the tools can do, what we need the tools to do, and what the tools turn out to be able to do that we didn’t foresee going in. After 53 weeks in development, I’m proud to present a project that seemed unattainable just 54 weeks ago: the new Obsidian typeface, from the designers at H&Co.

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