Introducing Operator

A monospace typeface, a monospace-inspired typeface, and a short film about type design.

About two years ago, H&Co Senior Designer Andy Clymer proposed that we design a monospace typeface. Monospace (or “fixed-width”) typefaces have a unique place in the culture: their most famous ancestor is the typewriter, and they remain the style that designers reach for when they want to remind readers about the author behind the words. Typewriter faces have become part of the aesthetic of journalism, fundraising, law, academia, and politics; a dressier alternative to handwriting, but still less formal than something set in type, they’re an invaluable tool for designers.

I acutely felt the need for such a typeface, and immediately thought of places I’d want to use it on Discover.typography. And while I liked the idea of creating a new typeface that would have this kind of voice — minus the nostalgic clackety-clack look of an actual typewriter face — I wondered if we could achieve these results without the many compromises required of a fixed-width design. Fixed-width faces force every character into a box of the same size, creating charmingly long serifs on the capital I, but tragic, procrustean disfigurements of wider letters like M and W. So I suggested that we relax the system, to create a font that feels monospaced, but behaves more professionally.

Andy made an equally compelling counterproposal, reminding me that the command-line editor — these days, home to so many people who design things — could really be improved by a fully fixed-width typeface. What if, in addition to shedding the unwanted baggage of the typewriter, we also looked to the programming environment as a place where type could make a difference? Like many screen fonts before it, Operator could pay extra attention to the brackets and braces and punctuation marks more critical in code than in text. But if Operator took the unusual step of looking not only to serifs and sans serifs, but to script typefaces for inspiration, it could do a lot more. It could render the easily-confused I, l, and 1 far less ambiguous. It could help “color” syntax in a way that transcends the actual use of color, ensuring that different parts of a program are easier to identify. Andy hoped this might be useful when a technical pdf found its way to a black-and-white laser printer. It was an especially meaningful gesture to me, as someone who, like three hundred million others, is red-green colorblind.

So with designers, developers, and most of all readers in mind, we decided to design it both ways. Operator Mono is our new family of fixed-width typefaces, with a broader range of weights than a typical typewriter face, and an italic that positively shines in code. Its more editorial companion is the natural-width Operator family, which offers the voice of typewriting but none of the compromises. Operator extends to nine weights, from Thin to Ultra, and includes both roman and italic small caps throughout. Both families are supported by companion ScreenSmart fonts, specially designed and engineered for use in the browser at text sizes.

In developing Operator, we found ourselves talking about JavaScript and css, looking for vinyl label embossers on eBay, renting a cantankerous old machine from perhaps the last typewriter repair shop in New York, and unearthing a flea market find that amazingly dates to 1893. Above is the four-minute film I made, to record a little of what went into Operator, and introduce the team at H&Co behind it. —JH

Collection of the Day

I am not wistful for the days of carbon paper and Ko-Rec-Type, and the era of the typewriter ended before I ever figured out what to do with those wheely-eraser-brush-things that populated my parents’ offices. But a truly grand leftover from the vanished world of the typewriter is the ribbon tin; my friend Tal sent me this collection of product packaging shots on Flickr, which are resplendent with lovely lettering. Some are sweet and others serious, some are frank, and some are simply fantastic. —JH

H&Co Crime-Fighting Division

It was not a dark, stormy night at the H&Co offices, and she was not a dame in a red dress who spelled trouble with a capital T. It was last Friday afternoon, and the caller was Bill Bastone, founder and editor of The Smoking Gun, with a question about forensic typography.

The story begins with last week’s report by the Los Angeles Times that murdered rapper Tupac Shakur was assassinated by associates of Sean “Diddy” Combs. The Times appears to have relied heavily on a set of FBI reports — 302s, in the argot — which cannot be found in the FBI’s own files. This morning, The Smoking Gun suggests that these may be the work of an accomplished document forger named James Sabatino, who conducted his hoax from within the walls of the Allenwood Federal Correctional Complex in Pennsylvania.

We’re not experts in forensic typography or document authentication, but were able to point TSG’s specialists toward one subtle typographic clue. To untrained eyes including ours, the three 302s look like genuine bureaucratic dross: form elements are typeset in a proportionally-spaced font that appears to be Times Roman, and the body of each document is filled in with a typewriter. (The occasional overstruck letter, as well as some very erratic line endings, suggest a typewriter rather than a word processor; never mind that the Bureau stopped using typewriters “about 30 years ago,” according to an FBI supervisor.)

But a telltale gaffe appears at the top of one document, in which the date is rendered in the proportionally-spaced font. The “advance width” of the periods are demonstrably narrower than that of the numbers around them (typewriter periods are famously aloof from their neighbors), suggesting that at least this part of the document was prepared digitally — but only this part of the document, and only this one document from the set of three. The Smoking Gun has all three documents online: compare them here, here, and here. You owe me, Diddy. —JH

Selectric Days

My reputation compels me to deny that I ever spent adolescent weekends hanging out at Tannen’s Magic Shop or The Compleat Strategist, and I certainly never wasted sunny afternoons playing with the Ohio Scientific computer downstairs at Polk’s Hobby Shop (even if it did have Lunar Lander in 16 colors.) But having burnished my nerd credentials through a career as a type designer, it seems safe to admit that, as a teen, I sported an enviable collection of golf balls for the family typewriter, a beloved IBM Selectric II.

Yesterday, a conversation with my friend Tal induced a Proustian flash in which I recalled — and was actually able to find in the studio’s library — the above: entitled “GP Technologies Typing Element Handbook,” it’s a brochure from the early eighties that shows the complete range of styles available for the IBM Selectric typewriter. Sure, I had Courier, Orator, and both Prestige Pica and Prestige Elite, but it was more exotic numbers like these that I really went in for. A major coup was scoring Olde English, warts and all (let’s talk about that capital H some time), but my unattainable Philosopher’s Stone was Oriental, which no office supply shop in the five boroughs seemed to carry. What I would have done with the typeface is anyone’s guess (utility isn’t always relevant to the completist), but I can only imagine, given the font’s facile design and appalling intent, that it would have been something spectacularly ghastly.

Still, there are things to admire in old Oriental. Its ampersand is a model of efficiency, and the economy of its at-sign (@) is downright clever. That this goofball font was outfitted with such serious accessories as a paragraph mark and a set of fractions hints at the work of a wicked mind, not unlike that of the latter-day typefounder who soberly includes an fffl ligature in text face. Perhaps these are subtle absurdities that lie in wait for attentive eyes, or perhaps they really are useful things to have in a font. In either case, it seems evident that type designers of all ages are, in their hearts, completists. —JH

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