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

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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

An Essential Calligraphic Facsimile

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

All The News That’s Fit To Write

Photo: Scott Carney

The distance between handwriting and typography is at its greatest in the West. It’s been more than five centuries since the Latin alphabet, as we experience it in type, looked anything like letters made with a pen; the very anatomy of our alphabet, with its stonemason’s “serifs” and printer’s “cases,” has come a very long way from writing indeed. It can hardly be surprising that as type has come to represent the official, the sanctioned, and the eternal, handwriting has become an almost trivial appendix to our notion of what letters look like.

It’s especially easy for Westerners to forget what a minority opinion this is. Most of the world attaches special significance to the hand-written, and lives with an intimate knowledge of its forms and an appreciation of its cultural and social dimensions. A Chinese businessperson of stature can be expected not only to admire the calligraphy in a colleague’s office, but to correctly identify it as the work of Song Huizong, and to discuss its virtues with erudition. Contrast this with his American counterpart, who can go an entire career without needing to learn the name of his corporate typeface.

Both senses of the word “writing” remain united in the Arab world, where calligraphy and literacy are at times inseparable. Nowhere is this more evident than in the offices of The Musalman, a Chennai newspaper published since 1927, which has the extraordinary virtue of being the world’s last surviving newspaper written entirely by hand. “We somehow manage to make ends meet,” says one of the newspaper’s four calligraphers (or katibs) who every day devotes three hours to a single page. “There’s no monetary benefit for us, we are just here to learn Urdu.”

The handwritten newspaper gained wider attention last summer when Wired dispatched photojournalist Scott Carney to document The Musalman’s inner workings. Later this year, we may learn more about the paper’s inevitable entanglement with digital typography, when Premjit Ramachandran releases his documentary film The Last Calligraphers. —JH

I, Calligrapher

Robots have long been useful in completing challenging or hazardous tasks: dismantling explosives, assembling automobiles, winning chess tournaments, etc. Robotlab in Karlsruhe, Germany, is training them for another purpose: calligraphy. Above, an articulated limb renders the Luther Bible in a primitive but serviceable version of the schwabacher script.

This innovation can’t come a moment to soon. For thousands of years, human calligraphers have subjected themselves to years of difficult study, exposing themselves to demanding physical conditions in the service of the written word. Even with the advent of non-toxic ink and cruelty-free vellum, calligraphy is not without its hazards: in addition to carpal tunnel syndrome and asthenopic eye strain, careless practicioners often suffer the socially sclerotic effects of Renaissance Faire attendance or absorptive Tolkienism. Most chillingly, mounting evidence suggests that even in industrialized nations, calligraphy is becoming a popular pastime among children.

Thankfully, technology is coming to our rescue. As these photos suggest, robot calligraphers may soon be employed to create that common household object, the hand-lettered bible in roll form. And overhead, without any fuss, the stars are going out. —JH

The Voynich Manuscript

Only if Umberto Eco, Jorge Luis Borges, J. R. R. Tolkien and Will Shortz clubbed together in a moment of wickedness could humanity produce a more vexing object: behold the Voynich Manuscript, a puzzling artifact from the late fifteenth century written by an unknown author, in an unidentified script, in an unknown language. Since 1912, cryptographers, palaeographers, and others with time on their hands have failed to decipher this mysterious document; naturally one theory is that it’s a monstrous hoax, though its text seems to bear the hallmarks of a genuine language (note the cross-references on Zipf’s Law, information entropy, and the Cardan grille). Any theories? —JH

Oakleaf: Behind the Scenes

Kathy Willens, Associated Press

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.

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