Toward a Philosophy of Webfonts: A Lecture at Beyond Tellerrand, Berlin

If you’ll be in Berlin next week, I hope you’ll join me and my fellow speakers for Beyond Tellerrand, the design technology conference that’s quickly become a favorite locus for interesting design thinking. Equal measures of visual design and web technology always combine for an inspiring and provocative couple of days.

I’ll be talking about webfonts, and a critical framework that I’ve found useful in understanding their intentions and assessing their quality. And if all goes well this week, I’m hoping to have the opportunity to introduce some new features that we’re developing for Cloud.typography, our second such announcement this month. —JH

Typographic Gifts for Designers, Part 17

I wonder what sort of psychological profile one could draw from my favorite childhood possessions. I neither played nor followed football, but clung to my NFL lunchbox that showed all the team helmets with their different insignia. I had no special interest in English History, but was fascinated by the chart in our living room that traced the succession of British monarchs from William the Conqueror to Queen Elizabeth II. A kindergarten teacher gave me a chart of rocks and minerals found in the northeast; a kindly docent at the South Street Seaport Museum gave me a diagram showing how to communicate the alphabet using morse code, semaphore, and maritime signal flags. The list goes on and on, and only a graphic designer will understand the common thread: I had a thing for data visualization.

Whether these objects provoked my interest in design or simply resonated with it, they were marvelous things to have around as a kid. I’m therefore delighted to see that a company called HistoryShots is offering for sale a similar collection of visually engaging prints, not merely suitable for framing but actually framed. Clockwise from top left: The History of the Union Army and Confederate Army, The Conquest of Mount Everest, Visualizing The Bible, Death and Taxes, The History of Political Parties (Part II), and the Race to the Moon. —JH

What Was Next

Most of the talks that we’ve given are lost to the sands of time, but this afternoon I was happy to discover that one of our favorite presentations lives on. For the AIGA Design Conference in Denver, we were asked to meditate on the topic of “What’s Next,” for which we presented a study of typographic history — and why the ‘historical revival’ might be a twentieth century idea whose time has passed.

The AIGA has posted the audio of our talk, which tracks with the images above; it runs about 45 minutes, including some questions from the audience, in which Tobias reveals some of the unpublished developmental names of Gotham. Also keep an ear out for two provocative concepts: a French wine scholar offers a pithy gloss on experimentalism, and a certain type designer defines “the underpants-on-the-head school of revivalism.” —JH

House of Flying Reference Marks

Last spring, when answering a reader’s question about our favorite characters to draw, I got to spend some time with some of our beloveds: the and ß that rarely see the light of day, as well as H&FJ’s middle name, &. It took great self-control not to spill the beans about another pair of favorites, the dagger and double dagger, for already waiting in the wings were my favorite daggers to ever come out of H&FJ. They’re the ones in our just-released Sentinel family, seen here.

Daggers come from that archipelago of typographic symbols known as reference marks, which refer readers elsewhere for explanatory or exegetic notes. The traditional first-order reference mark is the asterisk¹¹ The New Oxford English Dictionary advises: “Avoid pronouncing this word ‘astericks’ or ‘asterik,’ as many regard such pronunciations as uneducated.” Frighteningly, Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford University Press, 2003) cites some printed examples of the spellings “astericks” and “asterick,” in The Washington Times (1998) and Florida Today (1999), respectively., a longtime favorite: in The Elements of Typographic Style, Robert Bringhurst observes that asterisks have been in continuous use for five thousand years. Asterisks can take countless forms, though custom favors ones shaped like stars, flowers, or bathtub faucets; any number of petals is permissible as well, with five-, six-, and eight-lobed asterisks being most common. [Clock starts now in anticipation of the world’s first seven-lobed asterisk. —Ed.] The approach that a designer follows in the asterisk is usually echoed in the typeface’s second-order reference mark, the dagger (also known as the obelus, obelisk, or long cross), and its third-order mark, the double dagger (a.k.a. diesis or double obelisk.) Both characters have functions in genealogy and other life sciences, where the asterisk indicates the year of birth (*1499), and the dagger the year of death (†1561). There are standard fourth-, fifth- and sixth-order reference marks, too: they are the section mark (§), parallels (||), and number sign (#), after which the cycle repeats with doubles, triples, and so on: *, †, ‡, §, ||, #, **, ††, ‡‡, §§, ||||, ###, ***, †††, ‡‡‡, etc. Beyond three, numbered footnotes are always preferable, even if you are David Foster Wallace.

Daggers afford the type designer a rare opportunity to quote from more widely recognized visual languages, such as architecture and other applied arts. The daggers in our H&FJ Didot family echo the kinds of details common in period decoration, and those in Whitney evoke the simplified asterisk of the typewriter, its center removed to prevent the buildup of ink. In Sentinel, we wanted the design’s industrial brawn to be mellowed by some lyrical flourishes, which in the daggers produced a ‘twisted quillon²² Dagger anatomy, for the quiz: the quillon is the guard that separates the hilt of a knife from its blade, and the choil is the notch where the blade meets the quillon.’ that you’ll find in another place slab serifs traditionally reside: find a pack of playing cards, and look closely at the dagger of the “suicide king.” —JH

Our Middle Name

Last month’s posts about the and the ß prompted a flurry of e-mail inquiring about other special favorites in the character set. Matt McInerney guessed correctly that the ampersand is one for which we have special affection, and asked if there was anything else we could say about it. How could we not? Ampersand, after all, is H&FJ’s middle name.

Though it feels like a modern appendix to our ancient alphabet, the ampersand is considerably older than many of the letters that we use today. By the time the letter W entered the Latin alphabet in the seventh century, ampersands had enjoyed six hundred years of continuous use; one appears in Pompeiian graffiti, establishing the symbol at least as far back as A.D. 79. One tidy historical account credits Marcus Tullius Tiro, Cicero’s secretary, with the invention of the ampersand, and while this is likely a simplified retelling, it’s certainly true that Tiro was a tireless user of scribal abbreviations. One surviving construction of the ampersand bears his name, and keen typophiles can occasionally find the “Tironian and” out in the world today.

As both its function and form suggest, the ampersand is a written contraction of “et,” the Latin word for “and.” Its shape has evolved continuously since its introduction, and while some ampersands are still manifestly e-t ligatures, others merely hint at this origin, sometimes in very oblique ways. The many forms that a font’s ampersand can follow are generally informed by its historical context, the whims of its designer, and the demands of the type family that contains it: below, a tour of some ampersands and the thinking behind them, along with an explanation of the storied history of the word “ampersand” itself.


How We Know Our ABCs

Illustration by Colin Ford. Typeface: Archer

“Collation” is the technical term for the order in which the letters of the alphabet are arranged. Anyone who’s ever glanced at a foreign alphabet has noticed the consistencies that have been preserved over the millennia: our Latin “A, B, C” resembles the Greek “alpha, beta, gamma,” as well as the Arabic “’alif, bā’, tā” and Hebrew “aleph, bet, gimel,” all of which are traceable to the Phoenician “’āleph, bēth, gīmel.” By the time we’ve passed through the Proto-Canaanite “’alp, bet, gaml” to the Ugaritic “alpa, beta, gamla,” we’ve travelled back 3,500 years; what's interesting is that the shapes of these letters are unrecognizable, but their order is utterly familiar.

I came across a passage last night that speaks to the significance of alphabet collation. I’d always imagined that the modern practice of labelling parts for assembly using the alphabet — insert tab A into slot B, etc. — must be a post-industrial innovation, one which relied upon modern standards of literacy. Not so:

Ancient Near Easterners used fitters’ marks, single letters of the alphabet apparently used to indicate the order in which various building materials are to be assembled. Various decorative ivory pieces from Nimrud, Iraq, were letter-coded to show the order in which they were to be inserted into furniture. In a temple at Petra, Jordan, archaeologists found “large, individually letter-coded, ashlar blocks spread along the floor of [a] room ... in the temple structure.” In a 1971 salvage expedition of a ship downed off Marsala, Italy, Honor Frost discovered “letters at key places where wood was to be joined ... the ship assembly [was thus] a colossal game of carpentry by letters, like a modern paint-by-numbers project.”

This is from The World’s Writing Systems, edited by Peter T. Daniels and William Bright. Oxford University Press, 1996. —JH

Pilcrow & Capitulum

My last post made passing mention of the pleasures of designing the paragraph mark, prompting one reader to rightly ask, “how much fun can it really be to draw a backwards P?” [No more fun than it is to draw the rest of that font you’re using, matey. —Ed.] It may not seem obvious, but the lowly paragraph mark really does offer ample opportunity for invention.

Like most punctuation, the paragraph mark (or pilcrow) has an exotic history. It’s tempting to recognize the symbol as a “P for paragraph,” though the resemblance is incidental: in its original form, the mark was an open C crossed by a vertical line or two, a scribal abbreviation for capitulum, the Latin word for “chapter.” Because written forms evolve through haste, the strokes through the C gradually came to descend further and further, its overall shape ultimately coming to resemble the modern “reverse P” by the beginning of the Renaissance. Early liturgical works, in imitation of written manuscripts, favored the traditional C-shaped capitulum; many modern bibles still do. A capitulum is by no means out of place in a modern font, either: top row center is HTF Didot, whose neoclassical origins suggested the inclusion of a shape from antiquity.

Above, a pageant of pilcrows from some of our fonts, suggesting that the possibilities are indeed endless. There seem to be eight fundamental questions that inform the shape of the pilcrow: (1) Should the form be P-like or C-like? (2) Should there be one stroke or two? (3) Should the bowl be solid or open? (4) Should the bottom of the strokes be plain, seriffed, or flourished? (5) Should the top right corner finish with a serif or not? (6) Should the bowl exhibit contrast to match the alphabet, or be monolinear like the mathematical operators? (7) Should the bowl connect with the first stroke, the second stroke, both, or neither? (8) Should the character align with the capitals, or descend to match the lowercase? Together these simple decisions offer 768 possible outcomes, none of which even begins to anticipate the stylized can-opener of Whitney or the bent paperclip of Cyclone.

In any case, Pilcrow & Capitulum would make a fine name for a pub, and a grand place to host a typographers’ wayzgoose. Or perhaps it’s a buddy movie about crime-fighting bibliographers: Capitulum wears cable knit sweaters and drinks single malt, and Pilcrow is a ladies’ man who drives an Austin Healey. Catch their madcap adventures. —JH

The Sulzbacher Eszett

Our designers are often asked if there are particular letters that we especially enjoy drawing. Office doodles testify to the popularity of the letter R, perhaps because it synopsizes the rest of the alphabet in one convenient package (it’s got a stem, a bowl, serifs both internal and external, and of course that marvelous signature gesture, the tail.) A quick straw poll names a, r, f and e as popular letters too, as well as the figures 2 and 5, and our resident Cyrillist admits a soft spot for the swash capital dje (Ђ.) The back end of the character set definitely invites invention as well: steely designers always appreciate a well-made paragraph mark or double dagger, and we certainly have our fun drawing them.

One character that’s especially gratifying to get right is the eszett, if only because it so stubbornly resists being figured out. Eszetts can follow any number of constructions, from the romanized long-s-short-s of Archer to the more Teutonic long-s-meets-z of Verlag. Most fonts strike some balance between these extremes, introducing internal shapes that echo other parts of the character set (as in Mercury) or using simplified geometries that reinforce the philosophy behind the overall design (as in Gotham.)

Historian James Mosley has posted an essay about the eszett to his indispensable Typefoundry blog, which sheds some light on the character’s checkered past. (The eszett lives in contemporary German as a ligatured form of the double s, but its very name means s-z; Mosley explains why.) An especially welcome gift from the essay is the correct technical name for the romanized ß: it is the “Sulzbacher form,” after Abraham Lichtenthaler, the seventeenth century printer denizened in the Bavarian town of Sulzbach, who is credited with introducing the character to roman printing type. —JH

Typographic Gifts for Designers, Part 4

Every design studio has at least one of Edward Tufte’s books. They’re traditionally distributed during the sacred initiation ceremony through which one becomes a Graphic Designer: a cloaked celebrant makes the sign of command-option-escape and anoints the novice with toner, the congregation recites the paternoster from Paul Rand’s Design, Form, and Chaos, and the now-ordained Designer is presented with the Holy Relics that will form the heart of his or her own workplace: a manga-inspired wind-up toy, a framed fruit crate label with a smutty pun, an overwrought and temperamental stapler with a European pedigree, and a copy of Envisioning Information.

Whether you share Tufte’s love of clarity, or haven’t read his books and simply want the shortcut to intellectual street cred (I’ll deal with you later), you’ll want a copy of this poster showing Napoleon’s March to Moscow, which Tufte correctly calls “probably the best statistical graphic ever drawn.” Designed by Charles Joseph Minard in 1869 and now reproduced by Graphics Press, the diagram simultaneously shows the position, direction, and strength of Napoleon’s army, as well as the time and temperature at each turn — a remarkable amount of information for such an intuitive and tidy diagram. —JH

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