The Finishing Touches

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&FJ.

Learning Typeface Design

Learning to draw letters is hard enough, but learning to create typefaces is something else entirely. For those with an interest in both, H&FJ’s Sara Soskolne will be teaching “Turning Letters into Type,” a week-long workshop at New York’s School of Visual Arts, July 12–16. Registration is now open, and seats are limited.

Soskolne, who has contributed to some of our most exhaustive projects (Verlag, Chronicle, Gotham) and some of its snappiest (Tungsten, Sentinel, Numbers) will introduce the tools and principles of digital typeface design by working with students individually on projects of their own invention. “Be it systematizing your own lettering, imagining a complete alphabet from a found fragment,” she says, “articulating that ideal set of forms in your mind, or reviving a non-digital typeface you love,” letters will come alive as type. The workshop will foster a critical eye for shapes and spacing, and a deeper understanding of how typefaces work, all skills critical to both type design and typography. Prerequisites include experience with Bézier drawing (know Illustrator?), and either lettering or typography. —JH

Ask H&FJ: Mixing Fonts

Every font shown on this site is accompanied by a set of suggested pairings. These are all personal selections (would that they could be automated!) and we’re often asked about our methodology for deciding what fonts go together. The truth is that these are intuitive choices: since we design all the fonts ourselves, we’re intimately familiar with their visual, functional, cultural and historical qualities, and just have a general sense of “what goes.” And yet there are always surprises: I’d never have guessed that the geometric sans serif Gotham had any affinity for the humanist sans Whitney, nor that Vitesse and Archer — two slabs serifs with dramatically different personalities — could get along so well.

Lately I’ve been wondering if it might be possible to abstract from these examples some generalities about font pairings, and have come up with a couple of thoughts. Curiously, everything seems to revolve around a single idea about how fonts relate: you’ll find the whole story below. —JH

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

Continues…

John Downer at The Propagandist

John Downer

Twenty years ago, John Downer and I were introduced by a mutual friend. He’d introduced us as “type designers,” a flattering description of my professional achievements to date (I was a recent refugee from graphic design), and a somewhat elliptic summary of John’s credentials. Whether or not he was intentionally vague, I’ll never know, but it set me up for a very entertaining afternoon.

John visited my studio, where I was working on a set of roman capitals that would ultimately become the Requiem typeface. He had some suggestions about the design, which like most critiques were especially hard to articulate; typography suffers from a poverty of terminology. Eyeing two bottles of Rich Art poster paint in my taboret, John reached for these along with a sheet of typing paper, and the cheap plastic paintbrush that I kept for dusting my keyboard. In a few effortless strokes of black, he perfectly reproduced Requiem’s capital S, waited a moment for the paint to dry, and then reloaded the brush with white to render his corrections. The whole shebang couldn’t have taken fifteen seconds, most of it spent waiting for paint to dry. I just stared: it was like watching someone fold a paper napkin into a remote control helicopter, and then pilot it around the room. The detail our mutual friend had neglected to mention, of course, is that John came to type design through his other profession: he is a master sign painter.

Type design has always been a wonderfully polygenetic field, and a random sampling of practitioners is likely to include calligraphers, graphic designers, stonemasons, letterpress printers, engravers, graffiti artists, and programmers. This mixture produces a marvelous synthesis of perspectives in terms of both technique and culture, and serves to make type design a vigorous and exciting discipline. But few type designers I know bring this particular experience to bear on their work:

I began graduate studies in painting at The University of Iowa in 1973 after working at sign shops in Des Moines for about a year. The chairman of the painting department at the UI was Byron Burford, proprietor of The Great Byron Burford Circus of Artistic Wonders — a traveling art show and circus, in one. It included moving cutouts of exotic animals, motorized trapeze artists, contortionists, and acrobats...

This is from Freshjive’s The Propagandist, which today is presenting a nice slideshow of John’s work in connection with a line of lettered t-shirts. —JH

Ask H&FJ: Fonts for Financials

Typefaces: Sentinel and Gotham

Annual reports offer designers a marvelous opportunity to strut their stuff. In the hands of a thoughtful typographer, a dense volume of technical text can become warm and welcoming, its changing rhythm of introductions, statements, analyses, and disclosures calling for a beautiful typographic system to help organize the text. Financial data can be uniquely satisfying to design, offering an irresistible opportunity to work with large type families in intricate ways. There are tables both long and short, as well as charts, graphs, and diagrams, all studded with headings, footnotes, and legends that defy even the most ingenious grid.

Each of these details places a special burden on the fonts, making it especially important to choose the right palette up front. We’ve gathered some thoughts about choosing fonts for annual reports for our Techniques library, here you’ll find four things to think about when considering a typeface — and a collection of font families specifically designed to meet these unique challenges.

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

Learn Typeface Design with Sara Soskolne, H&FJ

Hands-on instruction in typeface design is notoriously hard to come by. Those interested in learning the craft have either to content themselves with a one-hour workshop at a professional conference, or commit themselves to a year of graduate school abroad. But this month, the Book Arts Center at Wells College Summer Institute is hosting a one-week class in typeface design with Sara Soskolne, Senior Typeface Designer at H&FJ. The class is limited to ten students, promising a rare chance to work with a professional type designer one-on-one.

The facilities boast large classrooms dedicated to lettering arts and digital imaging (all blissfully air-conditioned), and those with broader interests in the book arts will find two binderies, two press rooms, and seven Vandercook proofing presses. Those with broader interests still will find Wells College handsomely placed on New York’s Lake Cayuga, suggesting post-typographic swimming and birdwatching, magnificent sunsets, and fireflies by the kilowatt. Bring your “Co-Ed Naked Intramural Kerning” t-shirt.

Registration is now open: contact Nancy Gil, Summer Institute Director. And soon! —JH

A Parisian Palimpsest

This one took me a minute.

Gustave Peignot spent the last four decades of the nineteenth century acquiring small French typefoundries, which by 1899 were formally organized into the firm of G. Peignot & Fils. Twenty-three years later they would merge with the venerable foundry of Laurent & Deberny, and Deberny & Peignot would be born. Soon after, this collaboration would produce the most significant typefaces of the Art Nouveau period, designs by Eugène Grasset and Georges Auriol, and later, Machine Age masterpieces by A. M. Cassandre. There would be historical revivals in the manner of Garamond and Didot, new work by Imre Reiner and Maximilien Vox, and in 1952, a series of faces by a new Swiss designer named Adrian Frutiger. Five years into their collaboration came Univers.

A design long associated with Peignot — but not attributed to any particular designer — is the typeface Nicolas Cochin. Named after an eighteenth century French engraver (but not especially representative of his work), the Nicolas Cochin typeface was advertised in a lovely little booklet produced by Peignot & Fils around 1920, a copy of which survives, barely, in our library. After an introduction and a number of settings in period dress, the specimen unfolds into an album of blue kraft paper pages, framing a charming collection of printed ephemera. There’s a menu, a calendar, a business card; one delightful page is an interior decorator’s invoice. And then there’s this.

Aside from the fabrication technique — the checkered background has the smoothness of offset lithography, and the image appears to be impossibly continuous-tone (!?) — there’s the design, which looks about sixty years ahead of its time. The atmospheric quality of the background reminds me of a Vaughan Oliver album cover for 4AD, and the deconstructed typography-in-motion feels very much like something Pierre Bernard might have made with Grapus. The explanation, of course, is a happy accident: the page was originally a pink and lavender parquet, parts of which have oxidized through eighty years of contact with the facing page, but the result is simply beautiful. I’m hoping that whoever designs the poster for the next Peter Greenaway film keeps this typographic ambience in mind. —JH

A Font Tip for Leopard Users

A nifty feature of Mac OS X 10.5 (“Leopard”) is Quick Look, a tool in the Finder that allows you to preview collections of files at a glance. Popular for images, Quick Look is useful for fonts as well, as it allows both styles and families to be examined without leaving the Finder.

In the Finder, select a bunch of fonts and hit the space bar. Shown here is the result for Archer; clicking any individual style reveals the core character set for that font, along with buttons for paging through the collection one font at a time. There’s even a slideshow mode, and the obligatory animation when switching modes that’s completely gratuitous but charming nonetheless. Check it out! —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

Elliott Puckette at Paul Kasmin Gallery

If you suspect that my typographic leanings affect my taste for other visual arts, it will come as no surprise to learn how much I love the work of Elliott Puckette. There’s a show of her recent work at Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York, which runs through February 23: do not miss it.

An interesting counterpoint to the works themselves is Judith Goldman’s interview with the artist, published in the exhibition catalog. Puckette counts Oleg Grabar’s study of Islamic calligraphy among her influences, along with the asemic writing of artists such as Henri Michaux. She mentions other influences that are further afield, and less directly evident in her work: the physiognomical portraits of Johann Caspar Laveter, the Celestial Alphabet, and the Walam Olum, among others. But most striking to me was this comment, in which Puckette describes how she began using a razor as a tool:

I warmed up to it slowly. I was looking at penmanship books and doing paintings of the letter O and A, and I thought about making the image negative by painting around it.... I thought, if I scratch it out, that would be easier, and I’d get there faster. Cutting and scratching was a way to slow the line down. In the end it wasn’t about adding; it was about subtracting.

What’s remarkable is that this is exactly how typefaces are designed: not by constructing letterforms in black, but by drawing counters in white. That Puckette chose an implement for stripping away, rather than building up, is also fascinating: files and gravers, the traditional tools of typemaking, are tools for creating whitespace. (Their profound affect on type design, which cannot be underestimated, is the central thesis of Fred Smeijers’ excellent Counterpunch.) I can’t help but wonder what a Puckette-designed typeface might look like; perhaps we’ll someday find out? —JH

High Scores for Service and Style

Typeface: Whitney Medium

With the arrival of a new year comes a new Zagat Survey, and with this year’s edition comes a special typographic surprise: a complete redesign using our Whitney family. The indomitable Zagat team has given the fonts one of their most rigorous workouts ever, using Whitney’s many special features to excellent advantage — here’s some of what’s inside.

Typeface: Whitney Book (including Numerics)

Pocket guides have an especially compelling need to keep page count low and legibility high, making Whitney’s compact forms a good match for the project. In its pro edition, Whitney contains a set of even-width tabular figures, which the Zagat team used for this very clear and sensible wine vintage chart, above.

Typeface: Whitney Index Black Round Medium

Since guidebooks feature both maps and numbered lists, a set of numbered indices is often useful. Here, Zagat’s heavily-automated pagination system is able to call upon the pre-built Whitney Index font, rather than demanding the intervention of a designer for every single table. (If you’ve ever tried to make numbers in circles yourself, you know how treacherous they can be — especially when lists spill over into double digits!)

Typeface: Whitney Light and Bold

Newsprint is an appropriate choice for a pocket guide, since it helps reduce both weight and cost, but it’s an especially hostile environment for typography. To survive newsprint, letterforms need to have clear gestures and open apertures, to prevent their forms from clogging up at small sizes. And because type on newsprint can gain weight unpredictably, sans serifs with a broad range of weights are especially useful. Whitney has six weights, each of which makes an appearance somewhere in the 2008 guide. —JH

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