Introducing Inkwell Condensed

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

Meet Isotope

Inspired by a style of lettering invented to convey precision and reliability, Isotope is a new family of typefaces designed to be both luxurious and fit.

If your idea of a luxurious product is one that’s stainless steel rather than gold, you may be a Functionalist. Functionalism is an approach to design that gained popularity in the decade after World War II, especially among German manufacturers of consumer goods, for whom a thing’s visual design was the natural expression of how it was meant to be used. In their desire to be intuitive and straightforward, the designers of a generation of unobtrusive radios, bathroom scales, and turntables would define a new aesthetic, one that still resonates with us as useful, well-built, honest, and timeless.

In the years that followed, the Swiss International Typographic Style would supply the letterforms for this philosophy, and industrial design would forever be associated with Helvetica and Univers. But briefly, before Swiss typography swept the continent, there was a strikingly beautiful species of letterform that arose in Germany — never produced as a typeface, but popular among lettering artists, through whom it became fossilized in company logos. For their precision-built products, companies like Sennheiser, Liebherr, Soehnle and Leifheit would adopt this new style of letterform, to convey the solidity, reliability, and practicality of products from kitchen appliances to bulldozers. It’s this style that we’ve explored in Isotope®.

Where Functionalist lettering was limited to boxy capitals, Isotope reimagines the style across a full range of weights, and a complete character set including a lowercase. The broadest strokes of the style have been preserved — contrasting vertical and horizontal weights, complex letters like S reduced to their most linear essence — to which Isotope brings new subtleties that help make the design not just purposeful, but luxurious and elegant. Corners are intermittently softened, to heighten the momentum through letters like A, M, N, V and W; in the numbers, strokes are sheared at unexpected angles to give them a welcome liveliness. From the initial Ultra at the heaviest end of the spectrum, Isotope descends through eight discrete weights down to a sinewy Thin, where subtle details rescue the design from sterility, to create a typeface that’s smartly clinical, and reassuringly exact.

My thanks to our typeface designers Troy Leinster and Sara Soskolne, who joined me in developing this idea into a fuller and more practical family of typefaces than any of us ever imagined. Their backgrounds in graphic design helped keep the project focused on its end uses, and prompted an ongoing conversation about what the fonts were for. In lesser hands, this lettering might have remained a nostalgic curio — or worse, veered into the sort of streamlined lettering that’s the exclusive province of science fiction. Instead, we found ourselves able to steer Isotope towards associations of luxury, fitness, health, fashion and beauty, as well as engineering, technology, and industry. We’re looking forward to seeing what designers will do with it. —JH

Typographic Gifts for Designers, Part 17

I wonder what sort of psychological profile one could draw from my favorite childhood possessions. I neither played nor followed football, but clung to my NFL lunchbox that showed all the team helmets with their different insignia. I had no special interest in English History, but was fascinated by the chart in our living room that traced the succession of British monarchs from William the Conqueror to Queen Elizabeth II. A kindergarten teacher gave me a chart of rocks and minerals found in the northeast; a kindly docent at the South Street Seaport Museum gave me a diagram showing how to communicate the alphabet using morse code, semaphore, and maritime signal flags. The list goes on and on, and only a graphic designer will understand the common thread: I had a thing for data visualization.

Whether these objects provoked my interest in design or simply resonated with it, they were marvelous things to have around as a kid. I’m therefore delighted to see that a company called HistoryShots is offering for sale a similar collection of visually engaging prints, not merely suitable for framing but actually framed. Clockwise from top left: The History of the Union Army and Confederate Army, The Conquest of Mount Everest, Visualizing The Bible, Death and Taxes, The History of Political Parties (Part II), and the Race to the Moon. —JH

The H&Co Institute for Unapplied Mathematics

Typefaces: Gotham Narrow Book, Archer Book, Indicia, Dividend, Gotham Extra Narrow Medium, Bayside

We’ve received our share of intriguing questions over the years, but this one takes the cake. On Monday, a correspondent called from National Public Radio to discuss the implications of typesetting a number with twelve million digits.

The number in question is 243112609-1, which holds the title for World’s Largest Known Prime Number. Mathematicians have known since at least the third century BC that for many values of n, the formula 2n-1 produces a prime number. When it does, the result Mn is called a Mersenne Prime, after the seventeenth century French mathematician who calculated the first 257 of them by hand — quite something when you realize that M257 has 78 digits. (And, so very cruelly, it’s not prime.) The search for prime numbers, an esoteric pursuit that rivals typeface design for its cultishness, has continued ever since; these days it’s assisted by the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, a project that organizes the downtime of almost 90,000 volunteers’ computers into a collective effort to find the next great prime.

Continues…

Atoms & Aldus

Last week I mentioned the atomic pen, which scientists used to construct some awfully tiny letters one atom at a time. These are small letters indeed: measuring two nanometers in height, they’re about ¹₄₀₀₀₀ the thickness of a human hair, which surely gives their inventor sufficient authority to issue the casual throwdown that “it’s not possible to write any smaller than this.” But it is, of course, and the technique for doing so has been known to typefounders for more than five hundred years.

Continues…

A Typographic Challenge at 0.000007086614175 points

With what is delightfully being called “The Atomic Pen,” a team of researchers has created what are likely the world’s smallest letters. At left is an array of silicon atoms measuring two nanometers in height, or a little less than one hundred thousandth of a point.

Their technique, documented in today’s issue of Science magazine, makes use of an earlier discovery: that within a certain proximity, individual atoms from the silicon tip of an atomic force microscope will exchange with tin atoms on the surface of a semiconductor. “It’s not possible to write any smaller than this,” said researcher Masayuki Abe, which sounds like a challenge to me: I can already think of one way to make letters that are 8% smaller, using the team’s own technique. Can you? Answers next week. —JH

Obnoxious Character Recognition

Typeface: Mercury Display Bold Italic

At the heart of the game of cat-and-mouse played by bloggers and spammers is Captcha, purveyor of those staticky demands to enter the code exactly as shown above. Captcha is premised on the idea that brains are still better than machines at reading text, and that by forcing visitors to decipher a distorted piece of typography, the system can successfully distinguish between humans and robots. Of course, ongoing advancements in OCR technology have sparked a proportionate response in the impenetrability of Captcha, provoking an arms race whose chief casualty is the quality of life online. Next time you’re submitting to some real-world indignity — say, stripping down to your underwear at an airport security screening — try to look forward to the geniality of the virtual world, in which your own computer, from the comfort of your own home, will upbraid you for mistyping B89gqlIIl. And this after it went to all the trouble of obscuring the type using a three-dimensional distortion matrix, edge softening, gaussian interference, random occlusion, and your least favorite font. Puny human.

But happily — brilliantly! — Captcha’s inventor, Luis von Ahn, has inverted his own technology in the service of something grand. Von Ahn’s latest project, reCaptcha, replaces Captcha’s random gobbledygook with actual snippets of digitized books that computers have so far been unable to decipher. ReCaptcha uses each individual human intervention to improve the quality of digital literacy, a welcome relief for readers of this 1861 text that mentions modems (“modem art” is a common flub.) National Public Radio has the full story in this four-minute interview with the inventor himself. —JH

Type Night at Delta House!

Describing the sand casting method for making type, Rob Roy Kelly quotes eighteenth century printer Christian Friedrich Gessner thus:

“The ingredients of casting sand are fine sand, to which is added calcinated baking-oven glue, the redder the glue the better. This mixture is finely pulverized and passed through a mesh sieve. Thereupon the mixture is placed upon a level board. The center is hollowed out and good beer is poured into the cavity — much or little according to the sand used. This is well stirred with a wooden spatula.”

Both H&Co’s recycling bin and our expense reports are testament to the importance of “good beer” in the type design process, but to have this connection documented in the literature? The potential tax write-offs are positively off the chart. —JH

Heavy Metal

Photos: Left: Johan de Zoete, Stichting Museum Enschedé; Right: James Mosley

Four hundred years after Gutenberg’s death, “metal type” was still being made the way he made it. Using files and gravers, a steel rod was cajoled into the shape of a backwards letter; this steel ‘punch’ was struck into a brass blank, called a ‘matrix,’ which would serve as a mold for the casting of individual pieces of lead type. (The term ‘lead type’ is a convenience: the material of printing type is more accurately called ‘type metal,’ as it contains a special typefounders’ blend of lead, tin, and antimony.)

This elaborate pas de cinque requires five different materials, each chosen for a different metallurgical property. Steel’s tensile strength helps it hold small details and resist the blow of the hammer; the malleability of brass makes it a good candidate for receiving the steel; lead, cheap and abundant, has a low melting point; tin is more fluid than lead when molten (yet more durable than lead when it hardens); and antimony is highly crystalline, giving printing types more crisply defined edges.

The few typefaces that have departed from this process have done so for very good reason. Common were large typefaces that would have been impractical to cut in steel (and impossible to strike into brass) which were instead made as wood forms, which were pressed into sand molds from which metal type was cast. But a lingering mystery are the Chalcographia in the collection of the Enschedé foundry in Haarlem, said to have been made with ‘brass punches.’ James Mosley corrects the record on his Typefoundry blog, explaining the types’ unusual gestation through a convoluted five-part process. The photographs, like the types themselves, are marvelous. —JH

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