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.


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.


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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