We’re delighted that Fast Company has recognized our Obsidian typeface in this year’s Innovation by Design Awards,and thought we’d mark the occasion with a behind-the-scenes look at some of the technology, history, and design thinking that went into this one-of-a-kind typeface.
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
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.
As part of the presentation of the 2013 AIGA Medal, the American Institute of Graphic Arts commissioned this short video about type designers Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones. In addition to offering an intimate glimpse at some recent works-in-progress, the video features an inside look at the company offices in a moment of rare repose.
Thanks once again to the AIGA for recognizing our work, and to Dan and Andre at Dress Code for presenting typeface design with such thought, care, and wit. —JH
In the middle of Gotham, our family of 66 sans serifs, there is a hushed but surprising moment: a fraction whose numerator has a serif. So important was this detail that we decided to offer it as an option for all the other fractions, a decision that ultimately required more than 400 new drawings. Why?
Join us for The Finishing Touches, a behind-the-scenes tour of some of the invisible details that go into every font from H&Co.
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 & Co., 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
This afternoon, typography joins the ranks of the wonderfully obscure on Please Explain, my favorite segment of the Leonard Lopate Show: Steven Heller and I will be on hand to discuss, if not actually explain, typography. If you’re in the New York area, join us around 1:20pm EST at WNYC-FM 93.9 or AM 820, or follow the podcast at wnyc.org. —JH
One charming aspect of the Gerrit Noordzij Prize is the design of the award itself. By tradition, it’s something created by the current prize holder, and presented to the incoming awardee. Past winners have used the occasion to create something that not only encapsulates their own work in some personal way, but postulates some connection to the interests of the next designer in succession. Erik Spiekermann, winner of the 2003 award, presented the above to our own Tobias Frere-Jones in 2006: it’s a witty rendering of his twentieth-century Meta typeface, produced in the distinctly nineteenth-century technology of wood type. As a gift to a type designer whose work regularly engages with historical form, I thought it was especially poignant.
The set was made by Scott Polzen, who began exploring the resurrection of wood typemaking while still a student. His latter-day wood types are lovely artifacts, cut from cherry and finished with sandpaper and file, as Polzen explained in an essay in Letterspace, a journal of The Type Directors’ Club. As intriguing as the how of this project is the why: “I’ve come to understand,” Polzen writes, “that my real motivation for this project was to gain a greater sense of participation in the culture of reading and writing: making wood type forced me to think quite literally about how the written word works.” I thought this sentiment nicely echoed Noordzij’s own philosophy about the primacy of written, not printed, words; it makes Polzen’s connection to the award even more apt.
Wim Crouwel will receive the 2009 Gerrit Noordzij Prize on Friday, when we’ll have the first photographs of the award that Tobias designed for him. I will miss seeing it around our office. —JH
Taking a break from my top secret Independence Day project that combines typography and patriotism (more about this later), I came across something marvelous that I had to share.
The August 2008 issue of Print has this arresting image on the cover. I recognized that the typography grew out of our Gotham Rounded font, which is the magazine’s signature typeface, and had assumed that this treatment was a clever and curious bit of digital rendering on someone’s part. It is and it isn’t: designer Karsten Schmidt used software of his own devising to give Gotham Rounded’s polished letterforms these intriguingly organic roots (using a branch of mathematical modeling called reaction diffusion) but then fed these digital inputs into a 3-D “printer” in order to produce a physical object.
I’m fascinated by 3-D printers (read: want one.) They’re essentially inkjet printers, but instead of rendering an image using a grid of ink splatters on a page, they produce successive cross-sections of an object by strategically injecting liquid binder into a polymer powder. Taken together, these high-resolution cross-sections form a dimensional object, like the one Schmidt produced here. Print is running an article describing the making of the cover, and its designer has detailed the entire process, step-by-step, in this illuminating Flickr set. Check it out! —JH
I started a typeface called Feldspar some years ago, which I’ve yet to complete. After eight years, most such projects would have lost their inertia, but this one’s moving steadily along, driven by a single, fervid dream: I am determined to one day see it in the hands of Dan and Mike at Aesthetic Apparatus.
Aesthetic Apparatus is one of those studios we love to see using our fonts. It’s not merely because they’re fans of our more American-inflected designs (above, some AA posters featuring Cyclone, Acropolis, Gotham, Knockout, Ziggurat, and Giant), it’s because they put the screws to the fonts: they juice them for every last drop of flavor, and then come back to coax still more out of every design, creating new and unexpected textures that you wouldn’t think possible. The driving philosophy behind the studio’s work is — well, here: let’s let Dan and Mike explain the process in their own words:
The typeface we designed for The Nature Conservancy is an extension of our Requiem font, which explores the work of sixteenth century scribe Ludovico Vicentino degli Arrighi (1480–1527). Arrighi is best remembered as an exemplar of the written italic, but his upright roman capitals capture an interesting balance of calligraphic and typographic traditions. The three variations of the capital T on the left offer different ways of reconciling the influences of the seriffed inscriptional letter and the swashed written one, and it was this kind of tension that we hoped to explore further. On the left screen is an enlargement from Arrighi’s 1523 writing manual Il Modo de Temperare le Penne, and on the right are two variations of the capital E in the font we designed. The cursive form on the left was one of the first digital drawings made by designer Andy Clymer, and we all thought it was immediately successful. In the final font, it’s almost perfectly preserved from this initial stage.