Introducing Inkwell Condensed

A new family of typefaces. And the discovery that everything I’ve ever learned about optical size might might be wrong.

Today, we’re publishing a new family of typefaces called Inkwell Condensed. These six new styles are part of the Inkwell universe of ‘handwritten typefaces,’ designed to have the informality and expressiveness of writing, but the credibility and ease of type. We’re rolling them into the Inkwell Complete package, so they’ll be a free download for existing licensees of those fonts, and available to purchase individually if you’re new to Inkwell.

But first, an observation about size and shape that has me wondering if everything I’ve ever learned about optical size is wrong.

A typeface’s optical size is the scale at which it’s intended to be used. When a display face is redesigned for smaller sizes, its thin strokes are thickened, its gestures are amplified, its proportions are adjusted to favor small shapes (the entire lowercase usually gets substantially bigger), and additional white space is added wherever it can help relieve congestion: counters are enlarged, apertures opened, and inter-character fit is loosened. The net effect of these changes is an overall widening of letterforms as they get smaller, as a quick comparison of related text and display faces will confirm. Our tidy conclusion is that at small sizes, wider letters are easier to read. 

And while this is demonstrably true, it conceals a cunning logical fallacy. We can’t prove its reverse statement (its ‘contrapositive’), that at large sizes, narrower letters are easier to read, and wider ones harder. This is observably not true, so something’s up.

When Jordan Bell and I first began drawing Inkwell Condensed, we had a hard time keeping the design from looking too slick. Inkwell is a collection of informal, unmannered designs, expressly designed to reveal the presence of an author behind the words. Yet our earliest drawings for the Condensed were almost instinctively polished, like the lettering of signs in supermarket windows (whose bouncy nonchalance belies the practiced hand of a master signpainter.) Somehow the other Inkwells had succeeded in feeling less like the work of a commercial artist, and more like the patient block lettering of a competent and determined doodler. But the Condensed was going its own way.

What neither of us noticed was that we’d been drawing at a larger size than usual, where it was easier to control the design’s steep angles and compact curves — and this is where size, proportion, and style begin to connect. The other Inkwells had been drawn at handwriting size, where the fingertips can comfortably guide a pen in circular motions. But these new drawings came from the wrist, which is given to large, fluid curves — and, because its functional range of motion is twice as vertical as horizontal, it draws shapes that are taller than they are wide. Our wrists are more flexible with up-and-down extension and flexion than with side-to-side ulnar and radial deviation. Try it: with a stiff arm and loose wrist, draw wide circles in the air with your index finger, and notice how much easier it is once you compress the circle into an upright ellipse. This fact of our physiology may be part of our comfort and familiarity with condensed letterforms at display sizes: it’s not that they’re easier to read, but that at large sizes, narrower letters are easier to write.

If Inkwell Condensed has the same optical size as the other members of the Inkwell family, it might be said to have a larger carpal size, feeling most natural when it’s taller than the handwriting-like typography it accompanies. We’ve worked to ensure that it has the same candor and lack of pretense as the rest of the Inkwell family, and feels like the product of the same capable but unstudied hand. Because we’re used to seeing tall writing in public, Inkwell Condensed ably handles the kinds of lettering that once went only to signpainters: price lists, placards, covers and posters seem to be its métier.

With the hope that Inkwell fans will want to use the fonts immediately, I’ve decided to make it a free download for anyone who’s already bought Inkwell Complete. If you’re new to Inkwell, you can pick up the six-style Inkwell Condensed for $129, or the fifty-four style Inkwell Complete for $399. I hope they’ll make a valuable addition to your collection! —JH

Turning Type Sideways

Some of the most interesting discussions about typography never get shared with designers. I’d like to change this, and hope you’ll join me in a conversation that explores typography.

Typeface design has a lot of discarded bycatch: small discoveries and observations that aren’t large enough to develop, but are nonetheless interesting and useful. Instead of allowing these ideas to perish, I’d like to preserve and share them, with the hope that they’ll be helpful, diverting, or inspiring to other designers.

This month, researchers made official something that typeface designers have long known: that horizontal lines appear thicker than vertical ones. At left, a square made from equally thick strokes; at right, the one that feels equally weighted, its vertical strokes nearly 7% thicker than the horizontals. This phenomenon, central to typeface design, has implications for the design of logos, interfaces, diagrams, and wayfinding systems, indeed anywhere a reader is likely to encounter a box, an arrow, or a line.

Published in the journal Vision, this peer-reviewed paper confirms that most people overestimate the thickness of horizontal lines. This is the very optical illusion for which type designers compensate by lightening the crossbar of a sans serif H, an adjustment that’s easily revealed by looking at a letter sideways. When rotated, the evenly-weighted Gotham is revealed to have thicker verticals than horizontals; try the same in Ideal Sans, a typeface designed to push against the boundaries of what we normally notice when we read, and it becomes clear how little we actually see of what is there.

This new study by de Waard, Van der Burg, and Olivers explores different theories as to why we see these things the way we do. Cultural forces presumably play some part: Western typeface designers have long been taught that our bias about weight and directionality stems from the role of the broad-edged pen in European calligraphy, which still underpins our expectations about what letters should look like. (Even the most monolinear letter A has a thin side and a thick, an enduring vestige of calligraphic patterns.) Intriguingly, the divergent traditions of Arabic and Latin calligraphy have a detectable influence on perception, for which the authors offer some interesting statistics.

But they go further, to offer some compelling physiological explanations for the phenomenon. One possibility, proposed in an article from the Journal of Experimental Psychology cited by the authors, suggests that our field of vision — more horizontal than vertical — has an effect on the relative perception of size. Also mentioned is a 2002 article by Catherine Q. Howe and Dale Purves, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, which hints at a larger explanation for all optical illusions, a theory to which I’ve long subscribed but never seen argued: that, because our brains evolved to reckon with the three-dimensional world, the expectations that bring to bear upon two-dimensional forms often don’t apply. When there’s a disconnect between what we see and what we expect to see, we experience this as an optical illusion.

Is it possible that all of typography’s many optical illusions can be correlated with misapplied learning from our experience of the real world? So much of perception involves reflexively adjusting for the effects of context, light, or perspective, in order to make quick judgments about size, distance, color, or mass. Do we perceive round letters as shorter than flat ones because we intuitively understand something about the weight of cubes and spheres? Is it a lifetime of looking at foreshortened things above us that leads us to expect a well-balanced letterform to be smaller on top than on the bottom? These are half-thoughts that I’d love to see explored by further research. In the meantime, it’s a good reminder to design not for what we expect to see, but for what we actually believe we’re seeing. —JH

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