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

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

New from H&Co: Tungsten Rounded

There’s a wonderful materiality about rounded letters. Their lighter weights have an engineered quality: for me, they always bring to mind the controlled movements of a router, steadily cutting channels in brass or steel and leaving behind a spray of metal shavings. Their heavier weights are the stuff of the roadside, both the vacuform plastic letters that advertise gas stations and motels, and the painted signs that herald this week’s prices for groceries or liquor. Applying these tactile qualities to our suave Tungsten family gives us Tungsten Rounded, a new family of six fonts that’s at once earnest, energetic, and wry.

A common dilemma when working with rounded typefaces is what to do when two adjacent letters overlap. For the signpainter, the tiny divet created by two intersecting curves is quickly dispatched with a brush, but the letters in a typeface usually go unsupervised:

In Tungsten Rounded’s heaviest weights, we addressed this problem with a set of 151 alternate characters, designed to interact in more predictable ways. An OpenType feature automatically engages these characters when needed, to ensure that all of the 548 potential collisions are managed correctly, from common pairs like AX, to truly exotic ones such as .

Introducing The New Tungstens

A good type family balances cohesion and diversity. Its styles need to feel related, but each is entitled to its own personality. Nothing’s worse than paying for a collection of two dozen fonts, only to discover that each speaks in exactly the same voice.

Tungsten began as a focussed set of styles that aspired to being disarming instead of pushy. “Smart, tough, and sexy” was how we described the design, a brief that gave us enough latitude to create four distinct designs: a sporty Medium, an articulate Semibold, a stylish Bold, and a persuasive Black. We stopped at four, discovering that so many of the strategies that served the design in these proportions became impractical at lighter weights. Tungsten is all about the interplay between positive and negative space, a relationship that disappears when the strokes become thin, and the spaces cavernous. So while we could make the design perform mechanically at lighter weights, it no longer felt like Tungsten.

But then we discovered something interesting. We found different strategies to use at these proportions, which could make the design look familiar but feel different. We created new designs whose forthrightness came through in different ways: some were elegant, others earnest. And when we started exploring different widths, we found we could gradually turn up the volume, and watch Tungsten go from cool to vibrant to ecstatic.

So today, we’re delighted to introduce The New Tungstens, a set of four different widths, each in eight weights, starting at $199. The full collection includes Regular, Narrow, Condensed and Compressed, and right now you can save $300 when you buy the complete collection of 32 styles.

Things We Love

Typefaces: Tungsten and Gotham

In a manner more typical of the corporate than the corporeal, designer Nicholas Felton marks the passage of each year with an annual report. Past editions of the Feltron Annual Report have ranged in sensibilities, from his editorial 2006 (smarter than the smartest magazine) to his diagrammatic 2009 (which out-Tuftes Tufte.) While the very concept is arch, making the Feltron Report a beloved fixture in the offices of so many graphic designers, I really have to hand it to Nicholas for never stooping to the obvious and allowing his yearly record to become a mere send-up of the annual report form. This year’s report, awash in our Tungsten typeface, is no exception: it uses the tools of data visualization and typography to tell a compelling story, and color a narrative that might so easily have been reduced to a mere family tree or a timeline.

Spend some time with The 2010 Feltron Annual Report: I think you’ll find it smart, touching, and inspiring, an uncommon trifecta. —JH

The Tablet Magazine

Wired gets it. Today they’re going public with the prototype they shared with us a few weeks ago, and if you’re like me, your reaction will be an instantaneous “neat!” followed immediately by “well, isn’t it obvious it was supposed to work this way?” When something creates and fulfills expectations at the same time, you know you’ve got it right. —JH

New Fonts: A Graphic Designer’s Perspective

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

Continues…

Introducing Tungsten

A few years ago, we started wondering if there was a way to make a flat-sided sans serif that was disarming instead of brutish, one that employed confidence and subtlety instead of just raw testosterone. It was an unusual design brief for ourselves, completely without visual cues and trading in cultural associations instead: “more Steve McQueen than Steven Seagal,” reads one note; “whiskey highball, not a martini” suggests another.

The result is Tungsten®, a tight family of high-impact fonts in four weights: muscular and persuasive, without sacrificing wit, versatility, or style. Now starting at $99.

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