New Fonts: A Graphic Designer’s Perspective

Typeface: Tungsten

Most graphic designers choose the fonts that best fit their projects. Brian Hennings does the opposite: he chooses the projects that best fit the fonts. A resident designer at Hoefler & Frere-Jones, Brian shares with me the responsibility of creating all of the sample art you’ll find on this site. His is a strange universe of the fictitious: signage programs for mythical cities, book jackets for unwritten novels, product literature for items you cannot buy, broadcast graphics for live sporting events that you can’t quite identify. (They might have a ball, horses, cars, rifles, or all of the above.) His fake cookbook recipes have immaculate typography, but I wouldn’t recommend trying to cook from any of them.

Two weeks ago, we released our new Tungsten font family, accompanied by an unusually large collection of sample art: Brian and I just couldn’t put the new fonts down. The feedback we received was extraordinary in both its kindness and its volume, and I was especially happy to see so many designers specifically mention the art that we’d worked so hard to create. Since Brian’s job gives him a unique perspective on typography — plus enviable access to fonts that the rest of the world won’t see for years — I asked him to share some of his observations about the process: what it’s like to use a new font that no one’s ever used, what it tells you about itself, and what it reveals about typography in general. Without further ado, here’s Brian. —JH

A blind date with Tungsten

“When I started to see the first proofs of the Tungsten family floating around the office, I knew that I’d someday want to use the fonts for something epic. I imagined the font looking its best in bold capitals, tightly tracked, and set as large as possible. When I did finally get my hands on beta versions of the fonts, this was just as satisfying as I imagined — using Tungsten this way is a lot of fun. So the first things I explored with the fonts were the kinds of settings that invited painterly typography: I used Tungsten’s heaviest weights for posters, magazine headlines, retail store logos, and signs, anywhere that I could show off the fonts’ broad shoulders. All of these settings looked great, and were just as energetic and arresting as I hoped they would be. But it was when I started to try out the family’s lighter weights that things really started to cook.”

“At first, I thought Tungsten’s Medium and Semibold would be most useful for supporting copy. On an editorial opener set in the Bold, we used the Medium for a byline; on a brochure cover, I started with Semibold for the caption, but then liked it for the larger headline as well. When Jonathan and I made a poster for a music festival, we both assumed that the open counters of the Medium would make it the best choice for the smaller type (dates and times, opening acts, etc.), but were surprised to see how legible the Bold caps were — even at 11 point. With these kinds of sizes available to us, I started thinking about other kinds of applications that might work, and all kinds of Tungsten projects came to mind: print packaging, broadcast graphics, branding guidelines, videogames, books, websites…”

Four-in-one

“I often think of Jan Tschichold’s advice, that designers should stick to using a single font wherever possible. I discovered when I was working as a book designer just how hard it was to follow this rule, and would often find myself having to mix lots of styles from related faces just to achieve a consistent tone across a single page. Tungsten’s one of the few type families I’ve worked with that seems to be able to bend Tschichold’s rule without breaking it: each of the fonts manages to produce a different color, but they all have a similar texture. It’s as if each weight has a different voice, but they all share the same accent.

“Working with Tungsten definitely made me think about how coherent I really need a type family to be. There are families I’ve used in which different weights don’t seem to be related at all, where using even the Light with the Bold manages to upset Tschichold’s rule. There are also condensed faces that never quite seem to be the right width, always feeling too condensed, too wide, or only working at a specific size. I find that fonts with too small a “sweet spot” can be really frustrating to use: if they can’t perform while a single design evolves, they’re going to be even harder to use on multiple projects — and as someone who buys fonts, that’s especially important to me. It was really nice to prepare a range of projects with Tungsten, and never once feel that the fonts limited my options. Whenever we needed to make the type bigger, we just did.”

Secret weapon

“A lot of condensed sans serifs look great when set in all caps, but some of them have lowercases that never quite click. Many of these faces seem to have very rigid capitals, but very fluid lowercases, which can distractingly make them feel like two separate fonts. In the past, I’ve developed stylebooks that call for capitals, and watched with horror as some later need for lowercase totally transformed the texture of the page, in a really unwanted way. Comparing the caps and lowercase has become another kind of “coherence” that I now look for when choosing a font, especially a condensed sans.

“Initially, I was so fixated on Tungsten’s caps that I didn’t even think about the lowercase. It was only after noticing how the font performed in smaller sizes that I began to use it to set lengthier copy, which of course meant using the lowercase as well. And once I’d used the lowercase in small sizes, it started to creep into my work in larger and larger sizes. At headline sizes, the interaction between lowercase letters is really engaging, even hypnotic. (In Adobe Illustrator, staring at the machined quality of those letterforms at 3200% size, I found myself thinking of that car commercial where the marble glides along the groove between two panels of bodywork...) By the end of the project, I was surprised to find that almost two-thirds of the artwork I’d created favored Tungsten’s lowercase, rather than its caps. And in many of these, the fonts were used very small, at sizes where I didn’t expect their flavor to even come through. It was definitely nice to see that even in straightforward settings, Tungsten always remained inviting to read, and it always felt like itself.”

The little things

“Jonathan often says that a type family should be “as small as possible, but as big as necessary,” though the H&FJ library does seem to favor thoroughness over brevity. Tungsten has just four weights, making it the smallest type family I’ve worked with this year: I’ve also been working with Sentinel (12 styles) and the new Gothams (66 styles.) Tungsten’s not the kind of family that really needs pyrotechnics — no swashes, old-style figures, or optical sizes here — but it’s definitely not lacking features.

“One finishing touch that I especially appreciated was a set of alternate punctuation, designed to align with the numbers and the caps. In most fonts, the dashes and the colon are positioned to align with the lowercase; in some fonts they’re raised, so they center with the caps. Tungsten includes both kinds, accessible not only through the “all caps” OpenType feature, but through the “stylistic alternate” feature as well. I found this especially easy to use when setting complicated situations like the one above, where the colon is centered on the height of the figures, but the en dash aligns with the lowercase. How nice to be able to do this without single-character baseline shifts, or any of the other unmentionable crimes that bad fonts demand of good designers!”

What I really want to do is direct

“When we finally had to put the artwork to bed, I still hadn’t finished doing everything I wanted to do with Tungsten. (In the Illustrator screen capture above, you’ll see scraps of half-finished pharmaceutical packaging, a science textbook, onscreen graphics for an awards show, an infographic from a snowboarding magazine...) What I wanted to try with Tungsten most of all were motion graphics: specifically, animated movie titles. We all agreed that the font just demands to be used for the opening credits of a Hollywood blockbuster, though we never did agree on the genre. A spy thriller seems like a natural, or anything with a criminal theme for that matter: is Tungsten the hard-boiled detective in a shearling coat, the English dandy with a walking stick and a vintage convertible, or the small-town judge who delivers a very personal style of justice? It could certainly be a straight-faced stoner comedy, a slasher film, or anything from the sci-fi realm. Next summer I expect to see Tungsten on the side of a battleship, a Formula One race car, or a star destroyer. Or in the opening credits of that new crypto thriller TUN65T3N. Starts Friday, theaters everywhere. This font is not yet rated.” —BH

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