The Loveliest Living Fossil

The ocean of ideas, teeming with words and numbers, is underpinned by a vast tectonic plate that’s powerfully transforming the language. It’s the force that gives rise to new continents of meaning, while it inters the remains of countless extinct species. We know its name, but we rarely think about it, and we certainly never visit. It’s just there, helping to clarify our words and numbers in an invisibly supportive way. But it’s one of the culture’s most unstoppable forces. It’s called Punctuation.

At its leading edge, punctuation is volcanically active, giving shape to concepts that move far faster than words. Anyone communicating today has seen #topics and #themes and #categories identified this way, using a symbol that was intuitively understood and replicated even before it was first called a hashtag in 2007. The symbol and its meaning are now universally recognized, transcending even the locality of language, but their use is scarcely a decade old — an astounding accomplishment for a bit of lexical fluff, when you consider that the newfangled OMG was first recorded in 1917 (and in a letter to Winston Churchill, no less.) Similarly meteoric is the rise of @, not only in its initial evolution from grubby commercial symbol to digital thingum, but in its latest metamorphosis, which has left it poised to become a bonafide verb. Formulations like “write in or @ us on Twitter”¹¹ I owe this cheeky example to Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster. You should read her blog. may seem casual, or may be arch, but since they’re easily understood by the initiated, they’re grammatical fair game. Punctuation FTW!

As it advances, punctuation leaves behind a sepulchral physical record, an ocean floor littered with the remains of creatures that didn’t make it. English-speakers who live with Imperial measurements can probably guess the meaning of ℔ from lb., but most have never encountered that symbol, and fewer still have run into a wild ℥, long since replaced by oz. (There may be pharmacists among us who know this one, but they are the same mysterous guild that traffics in ℞s and c̄s and other things that aren’t on the keyboard.) The ellipsis (…) drove out the asterism (⁂) to signal breaks in text, and the decimalized percent (%) eliminated the need for a permille (‰) — not to mention something called the “basis point,” also known as the per-ten-thousand, which naturally, and horribly, looks like this: ‱. As a typeface designer, I am not sorry to see these go. Drawing a character is one thing, but adding a character to a family that requires twenty-four variations, including an Extra Bold Compressed Italic, is another story. Especially if there are nearby lining figures and old-style figures and tabular figures to consider. So R.I.P., basis point. Or as a typographer would say, “.”

Between the symbols we live with and the symbols of yore is a third category, characters that are no longer considered ‘standard’ (by someone’s arbitrary standard), but are nonetheless still meaningful, and immediately understood. If you’ve ever addressed correspondence to someone in the care of someone else, you might have used ℅, a pretty hanger-on that I think has a place in the right kinds of typefaces, but one that should by no means be considered a typographic requirement. But the best and most active of these living fossils is a personal favorite: it’s the Numero, known to us by the monogram Nº.

Nº was the number sign before # became a number sign, and it refreshingly serves this one and only purpose. Compare the #, which when preceding a number is read as “number” (“#1 in my class”), but when following a number means “pound” or “pounds”²² If you’re curious what the # symbol has to do with the abbreviation lbs., here’s one possible missing link. (“70# uncoated paper”), leading to printshop pile-ups like “#10 envelope, 24# bond.” To programmers, a # can mean either “ignore what follows” (as in a Python comment) or “use what follows” (when referencing a page fragment, or a Unicode value in html.) To a proofreader, a # means “insert space,” so in the middle of a numbered list, the notation “line #” does not mean “line number,” but rather “add a line space.” Because of #’s resemblance to the musical symbol for “sharp” (♯), it’s a frequent stand-in for the word “sharp,” and often the correct way of rendering a trademarked term such as The C# Programming Language. The # is rapidly assuming musical duties as well, especially in online databases, leading to catalog collisions like “Prelude & Fugue #13 in F#.” How fortunate a designer would be to have a numero symbol, with which to write “Prelude & Fugue Nº 13 in F#,” or “Nº 10 Envelope, 24# bond.”

The Chicago Manual of Style unequivocally favors ‘no’ over ‘#’ when listing the issue number of a periodical: “When the issue number is given, it follows the volume number, separated by a comma and preceded by no.”³³ The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition, §17.163. And this introduces an interesting complication for Russian language periodicals, or those published in any language that uses the Cyrillic alphabet, because Cyrillic does not contain the letter N. It’s for this reason that typefaces that include Cyrillic alphabets always include the numero symbol, which is why you’ll find them in both Whitney and Gotham.

But the place you’ll find the greatest concentration of numero symbols in our library is in the Numbers collection, where I insisted upon them simply because they’re delightful. The typefaces in this collection interpret many different traditions in lettermaking, including rubber stamps, cash register receipts, railway car numbering and street signs, and in each of these environments you’ll find the numero. Many of these styles trace their origins to the nineteenth century, when numbers were more commonly introduced by Nº than #; others in the collection never used this symbol, but their styles seemed ripe for decoration. We recently had this same impluse with the Inkwell collection, which includes pen-drawn numeros in all forty-eight of its styles.

It’s this desire to decorate that shapes expectations about what should be in a typeface. On your keyboard next to the return key are the brackets [ ], and atop these are the braces { } that are sometimes — tellingly — called curly brackets. In theory, braces exist to present things on an equal footing: in music they connect staves that are played simultaneously, in genealogy they relate siblings, and in drama they group characters that move or speak as a unit (such as a nobleman’s Attendants in Shakespeare.) But braces are graphic rather than typographic forms, seldom meant to be used at the same size as the type they enclose, making them a questionable member of the character set. Frankly, they endure because they’re fetching, a spicy alternative to the humdrum geometry of square brackets, and these days they’re almost always used decoratively. Designers love to use braces, and type designers love to draw them, and it’s this unspoken bond that keeps them in the character set. Like the braces, the Nº is a reminder that typography exists to serve readers, and that readers do not live by semantic punctuation alone. There’s a place for variety and richness in typography, for colorful and engaging creatures that live at abyssal depths. Bring them up for a closer look: they’re splendid to behold. —JH

Nicely Done: Tré Seals

It’s always thrilling to see designers combining type in interesting ways, an excitement that’s amplified when a designer uses an exceptionally large set of fonts in a single project. But it’s icing on the cake when that designer shows you ways of combining fonts you’d never have expected. Designer Tré Seals accomplishes all of these things in his new portfolio site, which uses a whopping six font families from our collection: Obsidian, Surveyor, Ideal Sans, Ringside, Operator and Tungsten are daringly diverse choices, which Seals uses to great effect, in clever and delightful ways. He takes a methodical, systems-based approach to select and deploy his type: most of the typefaces are only used in one context, others on just one page in the site. Finding them all is a bit of a typographic scavenger hunt, and a rewarding one for the design-minded.

For his project, Seals took inspiration from vintage postal labels, choosing the engraved Obsidian as his cornerstone when creating the type system for the site. Like Obsidian, the Surveyor, Tungsten and Ringside families have historic roots that connect with the traditions of stamps and labels, an assortment to which he added two novel ingredients: the quirky Operator, which serves as a bridge between the old and the new, and for a neutral voice, the clean, Humanist lines of Ideal Sans.

But Seals’s work isn’t only exciting because of the number of faces he uses or the themes they share. What makes it truly special is his creative eye in deploying the fonts in unexpected ways. When many people think of Tungsten, they immediately recall the robust bolder weights with their industrial presence, but Seals opts instead for a lighter weight that achieves an elegant and refined tone. Ringside is a similarly surprising choice: in less careful hands, its Grotesque construction might feel out of place next to Humanist designs like Operator and Ideal Sans, but Seals makes it work by using only uppercase letters, which naturally have simpler and clearer shapes. Overall, the site is a typographic delight that gives the audience a glimpse of Seals’s design inspirations, his systems-based problem solving abilities, and his creativity. He uses each of these six typefaces thoughtfully and with restraint to create an experience that shows off his work in the best possible light. — Bethany Heck

Uncharacteristic Characters

How the virtues (and pitfalls) of type, calligraphy, and handwriting came together in the design of a new typeface: a lecture at Typographics 2017.

I recently had the privilege of speaking at the third annual Typographics conference, an event organized by the Type@Cooper program at The Cooper Union, to share a new project with fellow designers. While visually this new typeface would be unlike anything we’ve ever done before, in many ways it’s the quintessential H&Co project, taking on many of the themes that have characterized our work over the past twenty-eight years. It pokes at the perimeter of the “type family” as it’s commonly understood (much like Hoefler Text, The Proteus Project, Knockout, Numbers, and Nitro), it meditates on the relationship between formality and informality in typography, like Ideal Sans, The Historical Allsorts, Archer, and Operator; it looks for clues in the observable world about how people interpret letterforms, like all of our typefaces, from Shades to Gotham.

The conference has just posted the video of the talk, which I’m pleased to share with those who were unable to attend. And attached below are my lecture notes, which may make up for my double-time performance: already someone who speaks too quickly, I’d mistakenly planned a forty minute lecture for a twenty-five minute slot! —JH

Continues…

Meet Inkwell

New from H&Co, Inkwell is a tiny universe of fonts in which handwriting meets formal typography.

Sixteen years ago this week, I was designing my wedding invitations. The invitations were set in my typefaces, and printed by a friend who runs a letterpress shop in Berkeley, and the enclosing envelopes were hand-addressed by a calligrapher. Each kind of letterform served a different purpose: the type was dignified, and the calligraphy was personal. But I never really figured out what to do with the map.

Out-of-town guests would need a sophisticated map of the venue, explaining how to get there by road, rail, and air, where they might park, and some sort of assurance that it really was safe to take the subway. Set in type, this looked too institutional: it didn’t feel like it came from the bride and groom, but rather from someone’s marketing communications department. But rendered in calligraphy, it looked ridiculous. I felt like I was directing my friends and relatives to a wedding in Middle Earth.

My dream was to letter this myself. Not in fussy, mannered calligraphy, but in simple block printing, something that was an extension of my own handwriting. I’d have done this, had I the time, skill, and patience. Instead, I filed away an idea for later, that somewhere there might be a useful intersection of type, calligraphy, and handwriting, that might one day become a typeface. Something with the versatility of type, not only because it could be summoned from the keyboard, but because it would have methodical drawings and spacing, a proper character set, and the kinds of relationships that designers depend on — italics, small caps, and so on. But it would also have the expressive dimension of handwriting, with writing’s ability to fluidly change styles to suit the message. (When something is important, I find myself dropping my longhand script in favor of letterspaced capitals, but still punctuating these with the occasional cursive “of” or “for.”) I imagined that a sufficiently large family of types could do the same thing, so I set to work on a prototype as a proof-of-concept for the idea. After simmering for more than a decade, we picked up the project last year, with H&Co typeface designer Jordan Bell leading the charge, and our Andy Clymer graciously lending an indispensable assist. Today we’re very pleased to introduce the result: Inkwell®, a collection of typefaces for expressive writing.

Not quite a typeface, or even a family of typefaces, Inkwell is more like a family of families, featuring a Serif, a Sans, a Script, a Blackletter, a Tuscan, and a set of Open capitals. While it’s designed for serious content — it can effortlessly dispatch detailed maps, complex reference books, or anything displayed in a digital app — Inkwell wears its attitude lightly. It’s “serious” in the sense of thorough, rather than earnest, speaking in a decidedly personal, authorial voice.

Inkwell explores six different genres of type with which readers already have strong associations. It begins with Inkwell Serif, a book face for text, designed to avoid any obvious typographic style and simply look like “plainly lettered text.” It’s provided in romans and italics, with small caps in both postures, with a few unexpectedly sophisticated touches like tabular figures, fractions, and symbols. These styles feature both swash caps and swash small caps, making it possible to dial up the typography’s whimsy in subtle increments.

Inkwell Sans is the companion sans serif, provided in the same twelve parallel styles, again with small caps and numerics throughout. Its capitals are reminiscent of inscriptional lettering, taking nicely to letterspacing, and its lowercase is again designed to be unmannered in style. Where the sans roman was based on my handwriting (or rather, an idealized version of what I might be able to print with great care), the sans italic is the product of Jordan’s hand, and brings a touch of signpainting to the Inkwell family, especially in its heaviest weights.

Designers have been asking us for a script since we first opened for business in 1989, and we’re very pleased to answer with Inkwell Script. Like the rest of the family, Inkwell Script strives to be informal, avoiding the fussiness of the studied calligrapher, and speaking instead with the confidence and joy of an enthusiastic writer. We’ve included small caps in all of its weights, so that acronyms and abbreviations can be set more easily, something you might appreciate if your name ends with “iii.”

I’ve always had a deep fondness for gothic forms, and couldn’t resist making Inkwell Blackletter a part of the family. It’s tempting to write off the blackletter as an archaic style, but it’s very much alive today, and remains the easiest way to signal gravity in anything you do. It’s ceremonial for weddings and graduations, and adds a dash of tradition to the rustic and highbrow alike. Law journals and heavy metal bands both rely on blackletter typefaces for their gravitas, in admittedly different directions. Inkwell Blackletter is happy to serve both masters.

Because written letters can often take a turn for the fancy, we’ve designed Inkwell Tuscan as the decorative member of the family. Tuscan faces are nineteenth century inventions that feature fishtailed serifs, an idea that we’ve implemented in an unusual way to ensure that even serif-free letters like O can be fully embellished. As it progresses from light to dark, Inkwell Tuscan takes on very different flavors, from sweet and bucolic to boisterously burlesque.

The final style is Inkwell Open, a set of capitals inspired by the sorts of letters used by engineers. My father was a theatrical set designer, and I remember his titling his shop drawings in a style like this. I’ve since seen letters like these on blueprints, patent applications, and technical drawings, and even reduced to geometry on a lettering stencil. Open capitals are a useful way to identify something as a heading, or to indicate that something is otherwise elevated above the text.

The entire Inkwell family is designed to be used interchangeably, which opens up some interesting opportunities for designers. At the scale of the paragraph, it means that designers who are accustomed to shifting roman type to italic or bold will have new options, and can move from serif to sans, or script, or swash small caps, or blackletter, to achieve different distances from the center. At the scale of the word, it means that letterforms from different styles can be juxtaposed in unexpected ways — sometimes invisibly, other times with great flourish — making Inkwell a powerful tool for creating logotypes. Included in the Inkwell gallery you’ll find artwork that mixes blackletter capitals with the roman lowercase (and vice versa), script capitals with sans serif roman small caps, blackletter caps with tuscan caps, roman swash caps with the blackletter lowercase, and more. Each of Inkwell’s styles is provided in the same six weights, from Thin to Ultra, yielding a total of 48 font styles, which today we’re introducing at a special price, for those designers looking add something new to their stables. On behalf of everyone at H&Co, I hope you’ll find a place for Inkwell in your collection, and I look forward to seeing how it serves you! —JH

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