Echoes on designing across scripts

Last Sunday, at the ATypI conference in Amsterdam, Alexandra Korolkova was awarded the Prix Charles Peignot for Excellence in Type Design. Although the award is for work in typeface design, Alexandra stands out for another reason: she has written, illustrated, and composed a book on typography within a very short time after graduation. I can’t read Russian, but I bought the book straight after she showed it to me in 2008, as a superb example of early achievement and determination. It also looks good.

In her acceptance speech Alexandra touched on the issue of typeface designers working in scripts they are not native to. The comments sparked some discussion on Twitter, when Laurence Penney noted the contrast with my article on Typographica reviewing the developments in global type design. My article encapsulated my research and practical experience in this area, rather than address the specific issue of contemporary designers working on multi-script typefaces. (I promised I’ll do this before too long.)

So far, so good. If nothing else, the exchange highlighted that the type world is not yet in agreement about the issue of designers shaping letters in scripts they can’t read. But this morning I was hunting for an unrelated reference and Spotlight brought up an email from the very first OpenType list that gave me that special feeling of

The email is dated 1 July 1998, and the subject is Matching glyphs from different scripts. It is part of a long thread, which does not survive complete in my archive, so it’s somewhat in medias res. I’ve anonymised the correspondents, and excised a short paragraph that was referring to another thread. Otherwise it’s as was.


Dear [A] and [B], I think you missed my point. Please let me explain.

First I wrote:

Greek certainly proves the point that, while proficiency in a non-native language helps the designer, it by no means an essential condition for excellence in type design.

This is supported by typefaces such as Porson Greek, Scholderer’s New Hellenic, the Max Steltzer Series 90 (via Schelter & Giesecke), more recently some of Matthew Carter’s designs. Although the first two knew classical Greek, the conditions of approaching a language as an object of scholarly observation and analysis based on a finite and immutable set of texts, and the conditions of reproduction of such texts, argue against the
classicists having a dynamic relationship with the language. A native user not only engages in dialogue, but also encounters the written/printed language in unknown format & content, and in huge variety. On the other hand, there are too many typefaces designed by Greek graphic designers / computer engineers / whatever in which the native familiarity with the language did not do the least good in terms of the typographical quality of their work. I cannot refer to examples here, since such typefaces are limited to the domestic market, but I promise to bring a folder with examples at ATypI 98 (I showed some examples in my talk at ATypI 97, if things go as planned these will get a wider airing in the coming months).

My point is that the ability to design a successful typeface, resides primarily in the ability to digest as much as possible of the script’s/language’s typographical tradition, analyse it in formal terms pertinent to typograhical design (which are not necessarily as exact as an engineer would have in mind) and apply the personal interpretation stemming from experience, opinion, and talent of the individual. The reason why non-native designers find Greek much harder than their native flavour of the Latin script is not their inability to converse in Greek, but the lack of continuous contact with a plethora of Greek letterforms. (To this you could add the lesser factor of the unfamiliarity with scribal letterforms, but this is a huge debate in typographical circles, and I would take it with a pinch of salt.)

[A] wrote:

I’m afraid you cannot convince me that you believe this when two breaths later you aver

My feeling … is that people at the right places are becoming much more aware of the need to *test a design with qualified native speakers ….* The problem with marketing would seem to be the budgetary and scheduling pressure for few test/feedback cycles. But still, I think the situation nowadays is better than a a decade or two ago.

I’m terribly sorry, but if you grant the requirement to test a design with native speakers — and then go on to decry the evil of budgetary constraints which allow only a “few” test / feedback cycles, you are not doing anything but confirming my original claim in different language. The glyphs may have been rearranged, but they appear to add up to the same point.

[A], I did not write: “test a design with native speakers”, I wrote: “test a design with qualified native speakers”. The “qualified” bit is at least as important — if not more so — than the “native” bit. The non-typographically aware reader is a very poor judge of typeface design, simply because familiarity with the language and the experience of daily exposure to a huge variety of written/printed letterforms makes reading a far from conscious excercise relying hugely on contextual deduction. This is well established and you can easily test yourself. The limited number of revision cycles (and note that I did not place “few” within quotes) simply encroaches on the amount of information the non-native type designer can receive from the _qualified_ native reviewer.

It is also very hard to accept that the type industry has more funds available for testing now than it did two decades ago ! … !

It probably does not. But the speed and ease of altering digital designs makes revision much easier than the production of hot-metal or phototype typefaces ever allowed, wouldn’t you agree?

Moreover I have problems with the implication that all the subtleties of a printed language can be resolved in a few “beta cycles”. A typeface is not some tacky little piece of software, no matter what technological clothes it wears.

Nobody suggested that “all the subtleties of a printed language” can be resolved in a few revisions, whatever these subtleties may be (which I am not sure I could answer conclusively). But I would think that it is beyond doubt that a promising design can be made at least adequate, if not quite good for producing printed/rendered texts in the language in question; and, of course, a design with no promise can be pointed out as such, so that no more effort is spent on it. Yes, a typeface is not a piece of software; it is a bunch of shapes and patterns of black and white whose designer intends to be preceived in a particular way. In other words, typefaces are subjective interpretations of relatively stable common denominators in a far-from-watertight cultural (in the broader sense) environment. It is precicely because of this definition that it is possible for a person with more experience/knowledge/ability/whatever to help another person with parallel qualifications to achieve a new subjective interpretation of these denominators that is accepted as valid within that cultural context.

I scent — perhaps I am being oversensitive? — a deeper implication here, that a great art/craft can be democratized to the point where virtually any “hack” can do it–an important postwar illusion that is gradually being punctured. […]

I think you are jumping to conclusions. Nowhere do I imply that it is possible to write a “Bible for Greek Type Design”. But I am certain that it is possible to put on paper unambiguously certain factors that affect significantly the probabilities a particular design has to be successful. For example, it is not possible to understand the development of Greek letterforms without correlating the changes in letterforms to political and cultural conditions a) within the Greek lands; and b) where Greek was used by non-Greek nationals. There’s nothing under this subject that cannot be put in a book (given the required research and effort) but much that contemporary type designers could not be bothered to delve into.

As a “beta tester” for Greek, I try to bring to the design process all the experience / knowledge / ability / whatever a design requires to be accepted by familiar users of Greek texts. I am confident that I give very good value-for-money, but I cannot guarantee the success of a typeface; that resides with the talent of the original designer. This factor, “the talent of the original designer”, is the only part of the  process that you can call an art. There’s more than one way of designing Greek. I can help the designer to make it “correct” Greek, but only the designer him/herself can make it beautiful.


I think [C]’s comment sums it up pretty well:
[…] The obvious answer to this dilemma is education and cooperation. We all need to learn from one another, and there will be mistakes but this is the only sensible way to go within our field. […]


Nothing new under the sun. (And, five years later, [C] would spearhead a project that marked a peak for cooperation in typeface design.)



I don’t remember when the OpenType list first went live. My earliest emails date from Q4 1997. For several years the list was probably the best source of information and expert opinion for people developing the OpenType standard. Since wide character sets and typographic “smarts” were part of the standard from the very beginning, it is no surprise that many discussions addressed issues in global typography.

The OpenType list of the early years is unique. This was one of the first online fora that documented script- and language-specific information for digital typography in a manner that, to subscribers at least, was easily accessible. If I remember correctly, early archives were lost in one of the server moves. Although these threads exist on subscribers’ personal archives, as far as I know they have not been made public. I’d love to be proven wrong.


Type Compass: pointing ahead

This is the text I submitted for the foreword for the Type Compass: charting new routes in typography book by SHS Publishing. It is an interesting publication, combining reference and notebook; perhaps exactly what design students need: inspiration, with space for sketching.

Type Compass


Members of the type world have every reason to be happy. For years we have secretly yearned to be able to mention our discipline without the despondent knowledge that blank stares would follow, without having to play the well-rehearsed tape that explained what typeface design is, and that — yes, imagine that! — some people actually made their living from designing letters.

In recent years we’ve seen a gradual recognition by the general public of typeface design as a discipline in its own right. Thanks to smartphones, ebook readers, internationalised brands, high profile wayfinding projects in cities and transport hubs (and a few journalists with a nose for a good story) fonts and typefaces are now terms suitable for polite conversation. In fact, they downright exciting, since disbelief has been replaced by credulous surprise, and eagerness to discover the ways in which our daily lives are filtered through fonts.
This gradual move of typeface design into the wider stage of public awareness has gone hand-in-hand with a stronger realisation by designers of all disciplines that typeface design matters. With this, come publications, exhibitions, competitions, and events of all scales. At the same time, the development of webfonts is beginning to breach the browser window, arguably the most important area where typographic choices were limited to handling space relationships, and crude font choices were justified on cross-platform predictability and the need to publish text as text, rather than as some poor pixelated simulacrum.

As typographic environments become more refined (the ones that had a lot of catching up to do, that is — because print is doing just fine in this respect) so do our typeface libraries become richer, more varied, and more complex. Richer, because designers continue to invent new ways of making forms, both exploring and abandoning the influences of manual tools (lots of examples of both in this book; notably, Typotheque’s History project manages to do both at the same time). More varied, because a good number of experienced and upcoming designers are publishing new fonts, raising the number of well-designed typefaces higher than it has ever been. And more complex, because typefaces now come in many weights ands styles, offering a degree of refinement in document design that until some years ago only few typographers could hope to expect from retail fonts.

At the same time, typeface design is maturing as a discipline of study and research. There are targeted modules within Bachelor-level courses, and a growing number of dedicated postgraduate programmes in many countries — some in parts of the world where typeface design itself is a very recent area of activity. Many graduates from these courses manage to leapfrog self-educated contemporaries, to found solid careers that pay the rent: this is overdue in typeface design, but the normal state of affairs in pretty much any established professional discipline. And as we acknowledge the elephant in the room, that typeface design is, more than most design disciplines, informed by past practice and context, so does research flourish. This is emphasised by the expansion of design briefs to cover many world scripts as a matter of course: pan-European Latin with Cyrillic and Greek to begin with, and many combinations of Arabic, Hebrew, Indian and Asian scripts. To meet these demands, designers do more research of their own, and make use of other research, to keep expanding their skills.
But the proliferation of typefaces and the texts that accompany them place a new burden on designers: it is now impossible for one person to keep abreast of developments. Typeface design is global, and the scale of output is similarly overwhelming. Publications about typeface design have similarly had to shift their focus. Many publications in the hot-metal and photo-typesetting eras attempted to show all the typefaces in circulation (or, at least, all the ones that mattered). This approach spilled into the early digital period, but is long now abandoned. Instead, publications can let online retailers to function as catalogues of nearly everything, and focus instead on editorship. The selection of work becomes more interesting than the volume; the editor’s perspective more illuminating than any message the inclusion or exclusion of a single work can get across.

This process opens up the space for editors to give each publication a specific depth of field, to borrow a photographic metaphor. From typefaces shown on their own, worthy of study in their own right, to texts in books, on screens, on street signs, where typefaces become enabling tools for other designers, the editor is very much not a silent partner. In putting Eric Olson’s Seravek (a quintessentially contemporary design that manages to be an accomplished all-rounder at the same time) next to Pierre di Sciullo’s inspired T for the Nice tram service, this book makes a robust case for the healthy invention and originality suffusing typeface design, while reinforcing the ubiquity of manufactured and rendered letterforms surrounding us. In this sense, a book such as this becomes a starting point: for inspiration, argument, and another round of informed selection: as good a send-off as any editor could hope for.



My eight

Disliking lists – let alone “definitive” ones – is not good preparation for answering Elliot Jay Stocks’ request for “8 favourite typefaces to accompany the interview in the magazine”. What if I only really care for six, or twelve? And, eight for what? The typography I do, or the typography others do that I appreciate? Or the ones I admire but cannot imagine using?

Like most type problems, it became much easier to answer by thinking not about the typefaces themselves, but about documents (and, by extension, active and passive users). I settled on typefaces that have proven themselves typographically competent, rewarding to set, and revealing to discuss. This last point (probably irrelevant to most users of typefaces) is central to my selection: what does the typeface tell us about the designer’s intentions, their interpretation of the cultural moment, and ourselves as active users?

The examples in 8 Faces are small and selective, so I repeat them here in pangrams borrowed from Craig Eliason’s Daily Pangram (apart from the Greek ones).

(Incoming MATD students: these are good study material. Both their design, and the reasons for their inclusion.)

Grotesque MT: Frank Hinman Pierpont, 1926 (Monotype digital version 1993)

I wrote: A typography lesson in a typeface: eight uprights with only two italics, a bucketful of quirks and inconsistencies, and capitals so heavy you think they’re channeling Jenson. And yet, if used well it makes mincemeat of complex typography, and leaves you thinking ‘I need no other!’

MT Grotesque

Ideal Sans: Hoefler & Frere-Jones, 2011

I wrote: Next to Ideal Sans most humanistic sans serifs are either too self-absorbed, or too boring. This is a long-text sans: the design balances counters and strokes much better than either neo-grotesques or geometrics, while the slight variations where you expect visual alignments reinforce a subtle identity.

HFJ Ideal Sans

Candara Latin & Greek: Gary Munch, Microsoft, 2007 (but really a bit earlier)

I wrote: Candara is a brave, visionary Microsoft on a good day. Original in concept, impeccably effective in text settings across three scripts, and pleasantly surprising in larger sizes, Candara re-calibrated our ideas about what it was possible to ship with Office. The Greek is even better than the Latin.

CT Candara


CT Candara Greek

Miller Text: Matthew Carter, Font Bureau, 1997

I wrote: Probably the best Scotch Roman available, with a reference typographic texture in the middle weights. Adding grades like Miller Daily would make this near-indispensable. The italic is confident and exuberant, which makes it a little difficult to use, sometimes. Typographic dynamite in the same fonts folder as HTF Chronicle and Eames Century Modern.

Miller Text

Elena: Nicole Dotin, Process Type Foundry, 2011

I wrote: A typeface that looks a bit too light and too uniform at first sight, but resolves into a very readable texture. It captures in a remarkably concise way the post-Unger genre, while employing softer arches in the upright and a contrasting, pen-informed italic. Looks amazing in Instapaper.

PTF Elena

Abril: Veronika Burian and José Scaglione, Type Together, 2011

I wrote: A very contemporary concept for a typeface family, with text styles best described as ‘slabby transitional with a twist’, loosely Modern display styles, and an unashamedly in-your-face Fatface set thrown in for good measure. Forward-looking but historically sensitive in an intelligent way.

TT Abril

Fenland: Jeremy Tankard, 2012

I wrote: Fenland takes the western broad nib model and squashes it with big black boots. Its counter-intuitive treatment of arches and joints demonstrates that text typeface design is far from a saturated design space, even in the Latin script.


SBL Greek: John Hudson, SBL, 2009

I wrote: The most accomplished update of the Didot style for Greek typefaces, it combines the fluidity of the original with a superbly competent typographic texture, and attention to detail. One style only, so for modern texts either disastrous or an opportunity for typographic genius.

SBL Greek