A primer on Greek type design (1998–2002)

[n.b. This is a pre-publication version of the text that appeared eventually in Language, Culture, Type in 2002. The text was written in 1998 for the third issue of Type, the ATypI journal. Type no. 3 never materialised, and the text was later edited again for inclusion in the book published by ATypI with the occasion of the Bukva:raz competition (2001).

In 1998 – even in 2000, when the second edit took place – the state of Greek fonts internationally was very different that nearly fifteen years later. Only Adobe had made significant original contributions, and designers were just beginning to be interested in the challenges of Greek typeface design. It is worth keeping these points in mind when reading the text.

I have also uploaded a PDF of the article with all the images, until I get round to uploading them here.]


At the 1997 ATypI Conference at Reading I gave a talk with the title ‘Typography and the Greek language: designing typefaces in a cultural context.’ The inspiration for that talk was a discussion with Christopher Burke on designing typefaces for a script one is not linguistically familiar with. My position was that knowledge and use of a language is not a prerequisite for understanding the script to a very high, if though not conclusive, degree. In other words, although a ‘typographically attuned’ native user should test a design in real circumstances, any designer could, with the right preparation and monitoring, produce competent typefaces. This position was based on my understanding of the decisions a designer must make in designing a Greek typeface. I should add that this argument had two weak points: one, it was based on a small amount of personal experience in type design and a lot of intuition, rather than research; and, two, it was quite possible that, as a Greek, I was making the ‘right’ choices by default. Since 1997, my own work and that of other designers–both Greeks and non-Greeks–proved me right.

The last few years saw multilingual typography literally explode. An obvious arena was the broader European region: the Amsterdam Treaty of 1997 which, at the same time as bringing the European Union closer to integration on a number of fields, marked a heightening of awareness in cultural characteristics, down to an explicit statement of support for dialects and local script variations. Furthermore, the assignment of candidate-for-entry status to several countries in central and eastern Europe, and the tightening of relationships with other countries in the region, foregrounded not only the requirements of the extended Latin script, but the different flavours of the Cyrillic script in use within the broader European area. In this context, the Greek script is a relatively minor, if indispensable, player. However, in a reflection of its history in the last five centuries, there is a huge interest for Greek typography from outside the boundaries of the Greek Statestate. There are considerable Hellenic communities in Europe, North America, and Australia; a significant number of academics working on ancient, Byzantine, and modern Greek; and an important worldwide market for bilingual ecclesiastical texts.

[1] Typeface by the Spaniard Arnaldo Guillen de Brocar. This is one of the three main strands of early Greek type styles. Despite its simplicity and clarity, it fell victim to the commercial success of the Aldine model. [2] Typeface by Demetrios Damilas. This strand of early Greek type styles, in some ways a stylistic precursor to de Brocar’s, combined regularity with fluidity without indulging in over-complexity.

Despite sizable gaps in published research, the development of the Greek typographic script up to the twentieth century is well established, at least for the non-historian. The twentieth century, on the other hand, is not as well documented, and even less well researched–a regrettable fact, since it is a far more volatile and interesting period for Greek typography. Here, I will very briefly go over a few key contributions to Greek type design up to the end of the nineteenth century, before expanding on more recent developments.

Greek letterforms up to the fifteenth century, in three points

• Varied, but clearly related, inscriptional and scribal strands of development are established, spanning all the way from pre-classical times through the Hellenistic years and the ascendancy of Orthodox Byzantium. Inscriptional letters were not cut at the larger sizes common in Imperial Rome; the development of Byzantine hagiographical and secular lettering did not follow the logic of the brush-stroke construction as outlined by Catich in his Origin of the Serif.

• An uncial hand developed for writing on softer materials, which branched into official and vernacular varieties, the latter with a strong cursive character. Such hands were increasingly adopted by the mercantile classes, secular writers, and non-patristic ecclesiastical writers. Letters from older hands were used for versals and titles.

• After the Sack sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the fourth Crusade, the western, largely Venetian, occupation of many lands, particularly Crete and Cyprus, facilitated the migration of Greek scribes to the Italian peninsula. This movement turned into a flood after the Fall fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks. It was the cursive hand that these scribes brought to the West, and put to use as tutors, editors, and printers.

The first Greek typefaces

The first printers to cast Greek type used the hands of Italian Humanists humanists as models. Typefaces of this group tend to have upright letterforms, with nearly circular counters, and monoline strokes with occasionally bulging or tapering terminals. There are few ligatures, and letterforms are positioned within a clearly defined vertical band–in other words, there is minimal kerning. Although some letterforms were consistently troublesome for western punch-cutters, texts are easily readable and the texture of the page is generally even. This style reached its zenith in the typeface by the Spaniard Arnaldo Guillen de Brocar, [Fig. 1], famously used in the Complutensian Polyglot Bible.

Scribal models for Greek typefaces were not as established as for Latin ones, where the varieties of blackletter were dominant in patristic and ecclesiastical texts, and the early Humanists’ humanists’ version of littera antiqua were standard in classical texts and treatises. Despite the considerable involvement of non-Greek scholars in–mostly Venetian and Florentine–publishing enterprises, the refugee scribes and scholars had significant authorial and editorial presence, even when they did not assume the role of publisher or printer. It is not difficult to imagine that their manuscripts would be seen as fitting models for the cutting of new typefaces.

This first style of types modelled on the hands of the Greek refugees is exemplified by the type of Demetrios Damilas, which appeared in 1476.  [Fig. 2] Each letterform is clearly differentiated, although there are more ligatures and abbreviations. Some regularity and circularity has been traded for a closer correspondence to the variety and vigour of energetic handwriting. One could say that these types mirror the scribe’s familiarity with the letterforms. The strong distinction between minuscules for text and capitals for versals or titles must have made it easier for printers to use capitals from different typefaces, not to mention borrowing what could be used from a Latin fount.1

[3] The hand of the Greek scribe Immanuel Rhusotas, which Aldus used as a model for Griffo to cut his Greek types. The fluidity is characteristic of a proficient scribe’s hand. [4] First Greek typeface by Aldus Manutius. The decision to provide a sufficient number of ligatures, contractions and abbreviations to replicate the texture of the handwritten text would burden the Greek typographic script with undesirable complexity for centuries.

The turning point for Greek types is 1495, the year Aldus Manutius published his first Greek text. Technical considerations aside,2 Aldus’s importance lies in his choice to follow the hand of the Greek scribe Immanuel Rhusotas [Fig. 3] in all its complexity. This necessitated a huge number of contractions, ligatures, and alternate sorts. [Fig. 4] His Aldus’s three subsequent typefaces were essentially attempts to simplify the design and eliminate ligatures and contractions. Unfortunately, and to the regret of generations of compositors, it would take a couple of centuries for punchcutters of Greek to take serious steps in turning a scribal script into a typographical one suitable for typesetting by hand.3

The typefaces that mirrored the handwriting style of contemporary scholars must have contributed to the commercial success of the Aldine editions as much as their novel format, and Aldus’s drive to publish Aristotle’s works. The result was that the style became the accepted face of printed Greek erudition, and was imitated widely, in complexity comparable to the originals.

We should note that the prominence of the Aldine style eclipsed other alternatives, most notably the practically contemporary design of Zacharias Kalliergis. [Fig. 5] This typeface has wider spacing, more open counters, and curved strokes that develop without crowding or closing in on themselves. Altogether more space is allowed for the elaboration of strokes–and, despite being based on a scribal hand, there are concessions to typographical necessity. Kalliergis’ typeface influenced some later designs, but its legacy was not lasting; a regrettable development by any measure.

[5] Typeface of Zacharias Kalliergis. Another victim of Aldus’ business acumen, this was probably the most promising of all the strands of early Greek type: It is fluid but uncomplicated, elegant yet susceptible to regularisation.

In the 1540s Claude Garamond cut a Greek typeface [Fig. 6a & 6b] in three sizes drawing on the Aldine spirit, but this time based on the hand of another Greek scribe, Angelos Vergikios. The types are more open and upright, and strokes flow easily into one another. One could say that the smoothness of the curves and the transitions from one letter to the next bring to mind the shift in the French interpretations of Griffo’s italics. To the compositors’ continuing despair, the founts were equipped with hundreds of ligatures and contractions. Garamond’s typefaces was were an immediate and long-lasting success: printers hastened to secure copies or close approximations, and the style dominated Greek typefaces well into the 18th century.

[6a] The writing of the scribe Angelos Vergikios. Despite its elegance, this hand has all the marks of a script that is unsuitable for conversion to a typographic alphabet.

For the two centuries after Garamond, the main development was the inevitable abolishment of most of the ligatures and contractions. The issue was not simply one of just not using the extra sorts; if a punch-cutter had intended a typeface with, for example, a double gamma ligature, the possibility of two single gamma sorts side-by-side would not have been anticipated. If we take into account the extent to which typefaces relied on ligatures and alternate sorts, simply omitting these features would amputate truncate the design. It was not until 1756 that Alexander Wilson cut a successful typeface that followed the established models while doing away with all but the most basic ligatures and contractions. [Fig. 7a & 7b] The new trend did not catch on as easily as compositors might have hoped, but eventually Greek typefaces were liberated from the more complex scribal remnants.

[7a] Alexander Wilson’s Greek typeface for the Foulis Press. [7b] Wilson’s typeface digitised by Matthew Carter (from a 1995 specimen).

The eighteenth century saw printers like Baskerville and Bodoni transplanting elements from the writing masters’ style and the Modern types to their Greeks, with, on the whole, unfortunate results.4 An inclined variety with some distinct traces of Bodoni’s style was developed by German printers for textbooks of Greek authors; the style survives to this day.

However, one of the most important figures from the early 19th century was the Frenchman Ambroise Firmin Didot, a fervent philhellene and supporter of the early attempts to establish printing on Greek soil in Greece (Didot trained a Greek printer and donated one of the first presses to operate on liberated Greek soil). His types, which dominated Italy as well as, eventually, the lands of the emerging Greek Statestate, are a distant descendants of the grecs-du-roi, but have evolved a consistent style of their own. [Fig. 8] The upright stance and relative thickness of the strokes impart solidity, while the ductal character conveys liveliness and speed. Eventually, the Didot style would prove more resilient than the Bodoni-clones, providing the basis for what became the most widely used typeface this in the twentieth century within Greece.

[8] A Greek by Didot, dating from 1790. Note the two forms of tau: the ascending one survives only in scribal forms today. Later interpretations of the style would tighten the curves and eliminate some of the mannerisms (like the flick at the bottom of the rho, and the overly pointed delta). [9] Richard Porson’s typeface, based on the hand of the Hellenist Richard Porson. Note the tear-drop terminals of vertical strokes, the lunate epsilon, the ‘headless’ lambda, and the concave perispomeni.

A completely different strand was initiated by the Cambridge Hellenist Richard Porson, who designed a typeface based on his own handwriting, cut by Richard Austin in 1806 [Fig. 9] The design was a radical departure from contemporary styles: the curves are simplified and the structure and alignment of characters more regularised. The modulation of the strokes is more consistent, and there are some new interpretations, like the lunate epsilon (present in several manuscripts, most commonly as part of ligatures), the kappa, and the simpler perispomeni. The terminals are varied: some taper, some end in drop-like bulbs, and some are sheared. The design is somewhat inconsistent in the balancing of white regions, both in closed counters and around open characters like the lambda. Appropriately for this style, there were no ligatures or contractions. Porson’s design showed the way forward for the next generation of Greek typefaces, re-stating the case for abandoning the grecs-du-roi influence and regularising the strokes of letterforms. It was widely copied (and modified) and still enjoys considerable success, albeit within Greece only for shorter runs of text.

The twentieth century

Although typefoundries existed since from the very first years of the modern Greek state, the turn of the twentieth century saw Greece importing most of its printing equipment, as well as essentially all the models for text typefaces, from Europe. We can identify two main strands, : an upright style drawing on Didot’s Greeks, and an inclined style with direct references to German typefounders. Notwithstanding the vicissitudes of typographic fashion, upright and inclined typefaces were considered equal for text material.

From around 1910 onwards, Lanston Monotype and Mergenthaler Linotype began to make Greek typefaces available for machine composition. The involvement of these companies was instrumental in clarifying character sets, especially in relation to alternate forms (primarily the alpha, beta, epsilon, theta, kappa, pi, rho, and phi). Another, more elementary, influence of Monotype and Linotype was the complete redefinition of the relationship between primary and secondary typefaces: until that point, Greek typesetters used spacing between letters to signify emphasis in a text. Less frequently, an alternate typeface might be used. Monotype and Linotype shifted inclined Greeks towards a role equivalent to italics in Latin typography, a decision that must have been driven by marketing as much as technical reasons. Both adopted the Didot style for their uprights; and Monotype’s Series 90 became the definitive text typeface of the twentieth century. Numerous–and hugely varied in quality–digital versions are still very popular for literature, while some lower-run or luxurious editions are typeset with the hot-metal versions. An inclined typeface with clear German roots and few exact design correlations with the Didot style, which until that time was a text typeface in its own right, became the Series 91, the designated secondary italic.

Although types were cut in Greece throughout the period of mechanical typesetting, any original designs were limited to display typefaces; very few typefaces used for text did not failed to conform to either of the Didot or the [German] inclined paradigm. One common characteristic common to both of hand-setting type specimens from the early part of the century and the surviving specimens from pre-digital phototypesetters is the very narrow selection of text typefaces, and the relative profusion of display designs. Perhaps not surprisingly, few of the latter have survived the test of time.

[10] Monotype’s Series 90 and 91 Greeks. The surviving names for the two styles are indicative: the Didot style is still called aplá, which means ‘simple’ (but also, in Greek vernacular, ‘default’) and the cursive variation of the inclined types was until the early 1990s called Lipsías, which means ‘from Leipzig.’ [11] Victor Scholderer’s New Hellenic in Monotype’s digital version, with the scribal form of Omega. Below it, a local version of questionable pedigree. Note the xi, final sigma, Theta, and Psi.

In 1927, Victor Scholderer designed the New Hellenic for Monotype. [Fig. 11] With some modifications, this has enjoyed moderate success outside Greece, and rather more within, where it has also had the honourable role of a variation having been used in primary school first readers for nearly three decades.

In the years up to the Second World War, most attempts at new Greek typefaces by non-Greeks–admittedly not numerous, but some by highly credited designers like Eric Gill and Jan van Krimpen–were (mis)conceived, and failed to even dent the hegemony of the Didot style. However, this did not open up the road to Greek designers: although Greek printers relied heavily on foundry type which that was generally produced locally, any originality in domestic production continued to be limited to display types.

The fifties changed all that. Greece was becoming an industrialized country with a rapidly expanding urban population, so it’s no surprise to see new designs for the emerging middle middle-class markets. The Gill Sans family [Fig. 12] designed by the Monotype drawing office was widely imitated, and, together with a small number of other sans serifs, provided the workhorses of the periodical press and advertising of the time.

[12] Monotype’s digital Gill Sans (upper pair) is seriously compromised by the alpha, gamma, zeta, lamda, mu, tau, chi, psi, and sigma. The pirated version (one of many) improves somewhat on the alpha, zeta, and final sigma, but is wide off the mark in its beta, gamma, theta, lambda, tau, phi, and chi. most of which are plainly wrong. Note also the Xi, with the vertical joining stroke. Different forms are juxtaposed below. [13a] Different versions of Times Greek with associated italics. Some italic fonts are little more than slanted, compressed versions of the uprights. The alternate forms of letters (e.g. the alpha, gamma, kappa, upsilon, phi, psi) suggest one possible route for differentiating effectively between the primary and secondary fonts. [13b] Different alphas from successive versions of Times Greek typefaces. The alpha is the most common letter in Greek texts, and the size and shape of its counter will have a profound effect on the texture of typeset text. Ironing out the corner in the counter of the alpha precipitated a straightening of the right half of the typeform into a single vertical stroke; together these constitute one of the most unfortunate developments in Greek type design.

The other major family of the fifties was Times Greek. [Fig. 13a & 13b] Capitals excepted, the Greek versions share little with the Latin ones. Regardless, the ubiquity of Times Greek (in all its guises) in the last thirty-odd years, both within and outside Greece, is undeniable, if far from deservingdeserved. We must keep in mind that Latin typefaces of the time were very much influenced by the regularising approach of the period. However, this then in favor; this approach, however, was primarily implemented in new designs or interpretations of fin-dude-siécle sans serifs. It is questionable whether the Times family was a good choice for such treatment. Applying a 1950s approach to the style of a 1930s typeface (with sixteenth sixteenth-century roots) was inauspicious for Times Greek. The homogenised counters and normalised typeform widths with add-on scribal flourishes and terminals leave a lot to be desired, and the unresolved stress angles and compressed or extended counters testify to a program that failed to adapt conclusively the Latin original’s characteristics to the Greek.

[15] Some badly designed Greek ‘Bodonis’.

The early seventies saw the arrival of the Greek Optima, which was to carve its own niche in Greek magazine publishing, and, more importantly, one of the most influential designs of the post-junta period: the Greek Helvetica. [Fig. 14] This was one of the first new Greek typeface designed directly for phototypesetting; on the whole, the few available phototypes had been re-issues of hot-metal designs. Helvetica went hand-in-hand with the new style in magazine and advertising, if with a few years’ delay from the rest of Europe. Through mainly the periodical press, Helvetica became part and parcel of the new, ‘cleaner,’ European aesthetic promoted to urban readers from that time onwards well into the next decade. It is clear that Matthew Carter, who designed these fonts, was asked to produce typefaces that ‘looked like the [western] Latin [western] ones,’ an understandable request in the political and cultural context of early 1970s Greece. However, the serifed typefaces of the group developed at the time (Baskerville, Century Schoolbook, and Souvenir) revealed problems with this approach that trouble Greek typefaces to this day.

[14] Common Helvetica and Optima versions. The bottom example of Optima is particularly poor.

All in all, however, the seventies were not years of typographical revolution in Greece. To this contributed not only the political turmoil of the junta of 1967–74 and the subsequent drive to rebuild democracy, but, perhaps more importantly, the fact that many publishing projects were adequately covered by existing technology. Although many magazines adopted offset technology, by far the most greatest number of book publishers continued to use hot-metal printing. As the book market was characterized by a large number of small publishers producing modest print runs, printers had little to gain by investing in the new technology. In that light, the lack of available typefaces was not seen as severely limiting. All this was to change in the early eighties.

[16] Greek glyphs from Adobe’s MyriadPro, MinionPro, and WarnockPro OpenType fonts.

In 1981 Greece became a full member of the–then–what was then the EEC. The international boom of the decade coincided with the coming-of-age of the urban middle classes, who now were affluent enough to afford, but not mature enough to refuse, the extrovert consumerism of American culture. The combination of phototypesetting maturing to digital formats, and the adoption of the monotonic system for Modern Greek in early 1982, which allowed professional typesetters to be replaced by keyboard operators, drove an increasing transfer of hot-metal and early phototypes to digital phototypesetting. As with Latin typefaces, as often as not such transfers produced inferior results on the printed page. This tendency to transfer existing designs into digital formats took on a new angle from the mid-eighties, with dramatic consequences. The gradual adoption of 8-bit Greek fonts with character sets based on ISO 8859–7, Win 1253, or Mac/OS Greek (by far the worse of the three) was the single most important factor in encouraging font piracy by local designers. A general disregard for international legal standards and accepted practice did not help, as nor did not a desire, typical of the period, desire to make a quick profit. The explosion of the periodical and promotional fields fuelled this phenomenon even further. Greece filled with service bureaus where attention to detail in typesetting and quality in print production were sacrificed to turnover rates and low costs. These companies supported and recycled the graduates of numerous new graphic design schools where depth in design education was rarely, if ever, achieved.

The last decade saw an improvement in some areas. Many designers moved on to multimedia and web design, where it is seems easier to justify a pay check to reluctant clients. Thankfully some–a few–clients have begun to recognize the effort invested in a typeface design, and are willing to seek work of a higher quality. There also seem to be some schools that attach more emphasis to quality in design education, although how many of those subscribe to Hyphen remains to be seen. At the same time, many typefaces in circulation are in breach of copyright or design patents. The result of all the above is that many new Greek typefaces by Greek designers betray a lack of understanding of fundamental aspects of Greek typography, the basic shape of Greek typeforms, and good typesetting. The last few years have witnessed an overwhelming proliferation of designs, ranging from the ever-present hacking of Latin typefaces to a few serious efforts. [Fig. 15] The Greek market is in the process of discovering the made-to-order typeface, advertisers are beginning to realize the potential of an eye-catching design, and, as is usual in similar circumstances, several people have become instant experts. Designers who trained–as opposed to ‘were educated in design’–from the last years of the eighties onwards enjoy a more open communication with activities in Europe and the United States, and are now a significant part of the professionally active design community. However, for every original typeface design there is still a hacker trying to make some easy money.

In the meantime, a number of expanded character sets have been developed to address the demand for multilingual and multi-script support. Microsoft was the first significant source of such a set (with WGL4), but from a design perspective are not exceptional; Adobe’s later OpenType fonts are much more notable, [Fig. 16], and include one extensive polytonic typeface which I hope may will hopefully dent the ubiquity of the several versions of Times Greek used by classicists worldwide. As expected, the type designers employed by such companies in most cases cannot read Greek, and may have a very patchy–if any– knowledge –if any–of the relevant Greek history. The problem therefore facing any designer, Greek and or non-Greek, is whether a new design respects the script’s history and design characteristics, while developing the typographic morphology consistently and with originality.


It is an irony of history that while so many people were studying classical Greek, the Greek people were either under foreign occupation, or struggling to mature as a state and a nation. Partly because of this, many Greeks developed an all-too-easy rejection of foreign intervention or example; and many foreign affairs that affected Greece negatively were condemned as if political expediencies were tinged with anti-Hellenic bias. Greeks have often accused non-Greeks of corrupting our cultural inheritance, just as foreigners have accused Greeks of negligence in caring for that inheritance. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between. Typeface design has not escaped this attitude, which was aided by the overwhelming dominance of the typesetting equipment market by international companies. Despite protestations that it is very difficult, if not impossible, for a non-Greek to capture the ‘essence’ of Greek typeforms, the fact remains that, until a few years ago, it was mostly non-Greeks who designed and produced Greek typefaces. With hindsight, and in light of recent work, we would have to concede that they did a decent job.

Writing in a different context, Richard Clogg wrote that: ‘… “Greekness” is something that a person is born with and can no more easily be lost than it can be acquired by those of not Greek ancestry’.5 Clogg makes a case for language not being the defining criterion; my experience of non-Greek type designers seems to support that, at least to a considerable degree in the design process. Good typefaces are created through a combination of a knowledge of the traditional forms of the script, and an immersion in dialogue with existing designs, whatever format this interface may take. I would like to think that a well-informed designer with a talent for identifying formal consistencies and distinctions in unfamiliar typeforms can go a long way in Greek type design, without worrying too much about her or his lack or misunderstanding of ‘Greekness’.

A few things I’ve learned about typeface design

Teaching on a postgraduate course feels very much like a spiral: the annual repetition of projects, each a vehicle for a journey of education and discovery for the student, blurs into cyclical clouds of shapes, paragraphs, and personalities. There seems to be little opportunity for reflection across student cohorts, and yet it is only this process that improves the process from one year to the next. Having passed the tenth anniversary of the MA Typeface Design programme was as good an opportunity as any to reflect, and ILT’s offer to publish the result an ideal environment to get some ideas out in the open. Although my perspective is unavoidably linked to the course at Reading, I think that the points I make have wider relevance.

Our students, both young and mature, often find themselves for the first time in an environment where research and rigorous discussion inform design practice. The strong focus on identifying user needs and designing within a rigorous methodology is often at odds with past experiences of design as a self-expressive enterprise: in other words, design with both feet on the ground, in response to real-world briefs. In addition, students are expected to immerse themselves in the literature of the field, and, as much as possible, contribute to the emerging discourse. (There are many more books and articles on typeface design than people generally think; some are not worth the paper they’re printed on, but some are real gems.) I shouldn’t need to argue that research, experimentation, and reflection on the design process lead not only to better designs, but better designers.

In recent years, two significant factors have started influencing attitudes to design. Firstly, as generations grow up using computers from primary school onwards, it is more difficult to identify the influence of the computer as a tool for making design decisions, rather than implementing specifications. Secondly, the trend in higher education to restructure courses as collections of discrete modules results in a compartmentalization of students’ skills and knowledge: it is becoming more difficult for the experience in one class to have an impact on the work done in another. (A third, less ubiquitous, factor   would be the diminishing importance of manual skills in rendering and form-making in design Foundation and BA/BFA courses, a subject worthy of discussion in itself.)

So, repeating the caveat that these observations are strictly personal, I offer them in the hope they will prove interesting at least to the people setting up and running new courses in typeface design, and the many designers teaching themselves.

1 Design has memory (even if many designers don’t)

Typography and typeface design are essentially founded on a four-way dialogue between the desire for identity and originality within each brief (“I want mine to be different, better, more beautiful”), the constraints of the type-making and type-setting technology, the characteristics of the rendering process (printing or illuminating), and the responses to similar conditions given by countless designers already, from centuries ago to this day. Typographic design never happens in a vacuum. A recent example is Emigre magazine: can its early period be seen without reference to the sea-change in type-making and typesetting tools of the mid-eighties? and is not its middle period a mark of emerging maturity and focusing, critically and selectively, on those conventions worth preserving in a digital domain? Emigre is important as a mirror to our responses to new conditions and opportunities, and cannot be fully appreciated just by looking at the issues. (Especially if you look at scaled-down images, rather than the poster-like original sizes!). At a more subtle level, the basic pattern of black and white, foreground and background, for “readable text” sizes has been pretty stable for centuries, and pretty impervious to stylistic treatments. Does not a type designer gain by studying how this pattern survives the rendering environments and the differentiation imposed by genre and style?

And yet, many designers have a very patchy knowledge of the history of typography and letterforms. More worryingly, students and designers alike have little opportunity to experience genre-defining objects in reality (imagine discussing a building looking only at the blueprints for building it, not walking up to it, and through its rooms). It is perhaps not surprising that the wide but shallow knowledge gained from online sources is dominant; there seems also to be little discrimination between sources that employ review and editorial mechanisms, and those that are open to wide, unchecked contributions. This shallow approach to reading and investigating results in a lack of coherent narratives, not only about how things happened, but also why. And how were similar design problems addressed under different design and production environments? What can artefacts tell us about how people made decisions in similar situations before? How did changing conditions give rise to new solutions? To paraphrase Goudy, the problem is not any more that the old-timers stole all the best ideas, but that the old ideas are in danger of being re-discovered from scratch. (Just look at the web designers rediscovering the basic principles of text typography and information design, as if these were newly-found disciplines.)

[IMAGE: Michael Hochleitner’s Ingeborg, an award-winning typeface that revisits Modern conventions with originality and humour.]

2 Design is iterative, and improved by dialogue

The process of typeface design is, in essence, a reductive refinement of ever smaller details. First ideas are just that: sketches that may offer starting points, but have to be followed by a clear methodology of structured changes, reviews, testing – and repetition of the whole process. The attention of the typeface designer must progress in ever decreasing scales of focus: from paragraph-level values on the overall density of a design, to the fundamental interplay of space and main strokes, to elements within a typeform that ensure consistency and homogeneity, and those that impart individuality and character. At the heart of this process is dialogue with the brief: what conditions of use are imposed on the new design, and what are the criteria to determine excellence in responding to the brief? (For example, how will the end users make value associations with the typeface?)

The wider the typeface family, the deeper the need to test conclusively, not only with documents that highlight the qualities of the typeface, but also with documents that approximate a wide range of possible uses. Even in cases of very tight briefs (as in the case of bespoke typefaces for corporate clients), the range of uses can be extremely broad. But good designers are also aware of the constraints of their testing environment. The misleading impression of transparency and fidelity that computer applications give, and the limitations of laser-printer output, obstruct trustworthy decisions. Designers must be aware of how looking at medium resolution printouts in dark toner on highly bleached paper can bias their decisions.

We are also seeing a gradual return to typeface design being a team enterprise, drawing on the expertise of a group rather than an individual. This, of course, is not new: typeface design in the hot-metal and phototype eras was very much a team product. But just as the digital, platform-independent formats enabled designers to function outside a heavy engineering world, so it enabled the explosion of character sets and families to unprecedented levels. The necessary skills and the sheer volume of work required for text typefaces have driven a growth of mid-size foundries, where people with complementary skills collaborate in a single product. The corollary is a rise in the need for documentation and explanation to a community of fellows. The short-lived “creative hermit” model is giving way to new models of work.

[IMAGE: Eben Sorkin’s Arrotino, a contemporary typeface with deep roots in fifteenth-century typography.]

3 Scale effects are not intuitive

The conventional curriculum for design education rarely tackles scales smaller than a postcard. More importantly, the compositional aspects of design tend to take precedence over details at the level of the paragraph, let alone the word. Typeforms for continuous reading are designed at fairly large sizes (on paper or, more usually, occupying most of a computer screen) but are experienced in much smaller sizes where their features have cumulative effects, weighted by the frequency with which specific combinations occur. These conditions arise in every text setting, be it for prose read forty centimetres away, or a sign viewed from a distance of tens of metres.

Of all the skills typeface designers need to develop, understanding how to make shapes at one scale behave a particular way in another scale is the most troublesome one. Imagining the difference that a small change in a single letter will have in a line or paragraph of typeset text is not an innate skill: it is entirely the result of practice. The best designers are the ones who will naturally ask “why does this paragraph look this way?” and try to connect the answer to specific design choices.

A common example of problems connected to scale effects arises whenever a student follows a writing tool too closely as a guide for designing typeforms: whereas the ductus (the movement of the stroke) and and the modulation can be preserved across scales without much difficulty,  the details of stroke endings and joints cannot; typographic scales demand a sensitivity to optical effects that simply do not apply at writing scales. The best examples come from typefaces designed for the extremes of text scales: for telephone directories (famously by Ladislas Mandel and Matthew Carter), Agate sizes for listings, and early typefaces for screen rendering. The smaller the size (or the coarser the rendering resolution), the more the designer primarily separates blobs and bars of white space, and only secondarily deals with style and detail.

[IMAGE: Alice Savoie’s Capucine: an award-winning typeface in a fluid modulated style that successfully integrates Latin and Greek in magazines.]

4 Tools are concepts

Regardless of the scale effects mentioned above, there is a requirement to appreciate the  link between typeface design and writing, and the tools used for writing. To be clear: I am not talking about calligraphy, but writing in the widest possible sense, from graffiti, a hasty ‘back in five minutes’ sign, to the most elaborate piece of public lettering. More than the specific forms of letters, the process of writing illuminates the patterns and combinations we are used to seeing, and gives insights into the balance of shapes and the space between them. The relationship of writing tools to the marks they make has been discussed in some depth (for the Latin script by Noordzij and Smeijers, most importantly), but the transformation of these marks through the computer much less so. (There are some texts, but mostly they focus on specific cases, rather than general principles; the notable exception is Richard Southall.)

And yet, since the early days of punchcutting, type-making involves a process of fracturing the typeforms, modularizing and looking for patterns. Later on, when the roles of designer and maker began to be distinguished (most emblematically with the Romain du Roi, like the Encyclopédie a true product of the Age of Reason) typeface design became programmatic, each typeface an instance of a class of objects, rooted in a theory of letter construction – however sensitive to human practice or aloof that may be. Later, the hot metal “pattern libraries” and the rubylith cutouts of shapes to be photographically scaled and distorted for phototype point to the same process, of abstracting the typographic shapes into elements that have little to do with the movements of a tool. As for the digital domain, deconstruction and repeatability remain key aspects of the design process.

To ensure a typeface built with fragmentary processes has internal consistency, the designer needs to develop a mental model of a tool that may follow the tracks of a writing tool, but may include mark-making and movement behaviours quite distinct from anything that is possible to render with a real writing tool. (Easy example: the parallelogram-like serifs of a slab, on a typeface with a pen-like modulation.) Such mental models for typemaking are increasingly important as type families expand into extremes of weight and width, where any relationship with a writing tool quickly evaporates. So, an invented tool that, for example, makes incised vertical strokes and pen-like bowls, can become the basis for a wide range of styles, ensuring consistency without the limitations of a specific tool; at the same time, because the model is agnostic of weight and width, it does not hinder the generation of large families with overall consistency but local richness. (Compare this approach with a wide family developed through extremes of multiple master outlines, where consistency relies on the details of typeforms having close correspondences.)

[IMAGE: A small part of Jérémie Hornus’ analysis of the Amharic script in preparation for developing his own successful typeface family.]

5 The Latin script is the odd one out

The demand for typefaces with extended character sets has been growing steadily for many years. OEM and branding typefaces are expected to cover more than one script, and often three or more. Beyond the obvious scripts of the wider European region (Cyrillic, Greek, and Latin), the interest has shifted strongly towards Arabic and the Indian scripts. But there are two key differences between the Latin typographic script, and pretty much everything else: firstly, that the type-making and typesetting equipment were developed for a simple alphabetic left-to-right model that would have to be adapted and extended to work with the complexities of the non-Latins. Although rectangular sorts will work sufficiently for the simple structure of western european languages, the model strains at the seams when the diacritics start multiplying, and pretty much collapses when the shapes people use do not fit in neat boxes, or change shape in ways that are not easy to describe algorithmically. No surprise that most non-Latin typesetting implementations make use of compromises and technical hacks to get the script to work. The second factor is that most non-Latin scripts did not experience the full profusion in styles that arises from a competitive publications market, as well as a culture of constant text production. (It’s no surprise that the language of display typography first developed in nineteenth-century Britain, in parallel with the Industrial Revolution: urbanization, rising literacy, and trade in goods and services go hand in hand with the need for typographic richness and differentiation.)

Many students (indeed, many professionals) will ask ‘Can a non-speaker design a script well for a language they do not read?’ But a typeface arises in response to a brief, which by definition taps into wider design problems. For example, many of the conventions surrounding newspapers apply regardless of the market; the constraints on the typographic specification can be deduced from the general qualities of the script and the language (e.g. can you hyphenate? how long are the words and sentences? with what range of word lengths? what is the editorial practice in the region in terms on article structure, levels of hierarchy, and headline composition?). Having established the typographic environment, we can examine the written forms of the language, and the tools that have determined the key shapes. In this matter most scripts other than the Latin (and to some degree Cyrillic) maintain a very close relationship between writing and typographic forms. Writing exercises and a structural analysis of examples can help the designer develop a feel for the script, before reading the words. More importantly, in their non-Latin work, analysis of the script’s structure and the relationship between mark-making tools and typeforms can help the designers to develop criteria for evaluating quality.

Typographic history is well populated with designers excelling in the design of scripts they could not read – indeed, the examples are some numerous that it would be difficult to choose. Encouraging students to address the complicated design problems inherent in non-Latin scripts is not only a way of enriching the global typographic environment, it is also a superb means of producing designers who can tackle a higher level of difficulty in any aspect of their design.

[IMAGE: Fernando Mello’s Frida: an award-winning typeface that redefined what is possible in Latin and Tamil typeface design.]

6 And finally…

The final lesson for students of typeface design is that a formal environment can teach the functional aspects of design, but can only help them at a distance to develop the aesthetic qualities of their typefaces. Especially when they are working in categories already heavily populated with typefaces, the distinctions between the simply good and the superb will be very refined. And when the consideration turns to originality, inventiveness, and how much a particular design causes us to rethink our responses to typeset text, then teachers have little input. The student, balancing between the deep knowledge of the specialist and the broad curiosity of the generalist, must develop, largely on their own, their capacity to be conscious of past and emerging idioms, to see their own work in the context of developing styles, and – most difficult of all – to identify how their own personal style can co-exist with the restrictions of utility and the conventions of genre.




Type ahead

I measure the growth of my field by the questions of border control agents. A decade ago, the phrase ‘I am a typographer’ would trigger a subtle move of the hand towards the ‘dodgy traveller’ button (just in case, you understand), only to relax once my being in the mapping business was confirmed. But in the last few years – three or four, no more – things are different. I may even drop the words ‘typeface design’, without fear of meeting the agent’s supervisor. And, in some cases, I will be offered the name of the agent’s favourite font, and told about a book called Just my type.

This phenomenon, of typefaces becoming part of the mainstream, is not accidental, nor a fashionable blip. It was foreseeable many years ago, and has been accelerating under the dual impetus of the move to a standards-compliant, text-orientated internet, and the growth of mobile devices with usable browsers.

Designers who remember the last decade of the previous century will recall the shift from intensely localised markets with only superficial communication, towards connected regions. The European integration project, from 1992 onwards, followed by the surfacing of the internet onto the mainstream three years later, required fonts that could support a growing number of languages (albeit primarily those written left-to-right, with unconnected letterforms). Fast-forward a decade, and the typefaces on pretty much any up-to-date computing device could render most scripts in the world, even if the more complex writing systems still suffer in fidelity and design range. The two technologies responsible for uniting the world typographically, Unicode and OpenType, are now in a stage of maturity and refinement, covering most of the needs of most readers. (In case you haven’t heard the two names before: Unicode attempts to describe every distinct character used in all written communication; and OpenType allows each character to take the appropriate visual form, depending on context and style.)

Take the core typefaces shipping with an operating system, or a smartphone, or Adobe’s applications: most have well over 2,000 glyphs in each font, with many additional glyphs for stylistic sets like small caps and non-lining numerals, across the Cyrillic, Greek, and extended Latin scripts. Other typefaces cover Arabic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Hebrew, a whole range of scripts for India, and a growing number of scripts for East Asia: from CJK (Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) to Thai, Khmer, and Burmese. All these resources establish a base level for servicing most texts: ‘we’ve probably got some typeface that will render your language, and if you’re lucky there may be more than one, in different styles’. But there are compromises: even if there’s more than one typeface, styles may not match across scripts, and the range of type families is generally uncoordinated. The profusion of styles, widths, and weights of the Latin script is only partly met in other European ones, and far less so in global scripts.

This state ensures basic communication, but is not very helpful for graphic designers and typographers working with global brands, multi-script documents, or with complex applications exclusively in non-Latin scripts. Professionals need a wide range of typeface styles to express the identity of a publication or a brand, and they need the right style in different weights, and widths, and so on. And this is why typeface design is growing, with no sign of abating: a triple combination of growing global brands, a migration to screens of documents with long print traditions (from ebooks and interactive school textbooks on tablets, to local news services replacing traditional newspapers), and a growth of personalised, transactional documents like online shopping catalogues, increasingly on mobile browsers. At the same time, niche print publications are growing: they take up the slack of offset press capacity, but they also thrive in the print runs of a few hundred, a traditional no-man’s land that digital presses have opened up. These conditions, of transformed documents and new platforms, push the demand for ever more typefaces that are typographically rich, wide in script coverage, and tailored for use on a wide range of surfaces: screens, print-on-demand, and traditional presses.

Two factors add substantially to this need. Firstly, the explosion of mobile networks in regions where cable-based broadband is scarce, means that critical communications are restricted to small screens, that render almost exclusively text. Secondly, the speedy adoption of tablets, which are agnostic devices that do not anticipate functional aspects of the documents they render (in other words: the devices do not explain the interaction, like a print document does: the navigation arises from the document’s typographic design, not its ‘hardware’). The four main tools in typographic design become the main carriers of any identity: from a simple publication to a large brand, typefaces, spacing, visual hierarchies, and colour are the only reliable identifiers.

This process has precipitated a radical re-thinking of a typeface designer’s skillset, especially with respect to scripts the designer is unfamiliar with, and most probably cannot read fluently. In such cases, designers need to engage with the characteristics of the script, bringing to the table an understanding of how letterforms are influenced by changes in type-making and typesetting technologies. But just looking at a bunch of local documents is not enough. Designers need to bring an appreciation of the typographic conventions for the genre of documents in each culture. In response to these demands, the best typeface designers integrate research in historical and contemporary artefacts: books and ephemera, type-making and typesetting equipment, but also texts and material such as drawings produced during the type-making process. These combine with a study of texts written by type makers about type-making, designers about their practice, and a range of research texts on the development of typeface design. The key for all these to be included in a commercial schedule is a framework for integrating research into design practice that enriches the designer’s understanding, and unlocks informed creativity.

The weight of methodology and research place multi-script typeface design at odds with art school traditions of design education. There is, quite simply, too much to learn in areas touching on history, linguistics, and technology for self-taught professionals, or the informal osmosis of apprenticeship-based courses. And, rather than be seen as an oddity in the design world, typeface design is in some ways leading a gradual shift in the wider design education sector. Notions of clarifying a body of field-specific knowledge, and formulating a methodology for practice that is transferable across schools and regions are taking off, globally. (Increasingly, I am invited to speak on exactly that subject: how to develop a research-informed, culturally sensitive methodology for teaching that educates potentially excellent professionals. And promotion criteria for design educators worldwide are changing to include research-based outputs, moving design closer to the Humanities than the Arts.)

The growth in books and print magazines dedicated to typography, as well as special sections in broader titles (like the one you are reading now) are just one of the signs of typography maturing. The many conferences, workshops, and exhibitions are another – and they are aimed not only at typographers, but at web designers, brand designers, and graphic designers alike. But there is another, more subtle indicator that typography and typeface design are gradually emerging onto the wider consciousness. As typeface families grow to cover multiple scripts, concepts of national and regional typographic identity become current, and often volatile. New typefaces can reflect both home-grown and imported visual trends; they give concrete form to the expression of community identities, and become inflection points in visual culture at a range of levels. Beyond functional requirements, they can embody political and generational shifts, and encapsulate a society’s dialogue with modernity.

Next time I cross a border, I’ll have a longer tale to tell.


An emerging discipline

Marc Weymann’s typeface in this issue is, like all good text typefaces, strangely familiar. Familiar, because the rhythm of black strokes and white counter spaces reminds us of so many texts we’ve read: the strokes neither loudly dark or vainly thin, and the details of the terminals respectful of the excesses of contrast and the resolution of tired eyes. Strangely so, because this veil of familiarity hides a whole range of subtle contrasts: a combination of smooth patterns reminiscent of formal writing with nibs, and the sharp clarity of letters carved in stone.

Marc’s typeface is misleadingly gentle with its references, but rewarding closer inspection. Other typefaces for text are much less discreet, forcefully calling attention to their novelty, even as they still respect that set of conventions that allow us to read comfortably. Jeremy Tankard’s Fenland, probably the most notable of typefaces published in 2011, takes the ancient paradigms derived from writing tools, and throws them aside for the sake of shapes reminding of discarded piping; its stroke joints challenge the instincts embedded in most modulated text typefaces of the last few centuries. Yes, expectations confounded, it proceeds to space the letters on exactly the same underlying pattern as Formal, as respectful of the reader’s eyes as any.

Formal and Fenland

Formal keeps its cross-strokes and bowls closely aligned to the modulation of a broad nib, adding an incised overtone in the underside of the top serifs, the top side of the lower ones, and open curves such as the outside terminals of the ’s’. By contrast, Fenland makes it difficult to talk about a consistent angle of stress: cross-strokes and bows have a discernible reverse stress (reminiscent of shapes in eastern scripts) but allows the modulation to change as if the writing tool was rotated halfway through the stroke. The ’s’ is typical of this approach, reversing completely the traditional notion of the diagonal cross-stroke as a dominant feature.

Typeface design involves, at the most basic level, decisions on shapes at the level of the letter, the line, and the paragraph. I use this definition intentionally, to make the point that design decisions are not circumscribed by the immediately manipulable (in the case of digital fonts: the glyph outlines, or the spacing interface, or the code for positioning and substitutions). Indeed, typeface design decisions happen at the tip of a siphon, where a whole range of considerations about readers, texts, typesetting environments, and wider cultural concerns get distilled into virtual nudges of points or mouse drags.

In other words, a typeface designer is conscious of the context surrounding his field of practice – in the narrow sense of the typeface design industry, in the intermediate sense of typographic design for documents (where typefaces are but one of the constituent elements), and in the wider sense of design as interaction with a visually rich and refined culture.

This is what makes typeface design such an interesting area to work in: it is a context-driven discipline, where past practice, conditions of use, user perspective, and invested meaning all weigh heavily in design decisions. Indeed, professional experience in typeface design is primarily reflected in the depth of understanding of these wider considerations, the clarity with which these can be translated into typeforms, and the insight with which this context can be married to a personal creative voice.  If we want proof of this, we need only look at the older generations of typeface designers, who – working ,more often than not, on decades-old applications – still produce new designs that contribute fundamentally to our typographic libraries.

Formal and Fenland

Despite their very different texture, both typefaces follow a very consistent pattern in their fitting. Notably, Fenland avoids the typical problem of sans typefaces having overly narrow sidebearings in letters with vertical strokes. This more open underlying pattern ensures the typeface remains perfectly readable in smaller sizes.

This approach can be seen most clearly with work in scripts that the designer is unfamiliar with, and in any case cannot read fluently. In this scenario, design decisions cannot be trusted without an engagement with the characteristics of the script, an understanding of the way the typeforms of the script have responded to changes in type-making and typesetting technologies, and an appreciation of the typographic conventions for the genre of documents the typeface is intended for. In fact, the closer the connection of the script to its written form, and the more complex its typesetting, the more important it is that the designer engage intimately with these considerations. This approach places four-plus-one conditions on multi-script typeface design. First, that the designer has access to historical and contemporary artefacts: books and other printed material, ephemera, type-making and typesetting equipment. Second, access to primary sources: texts and material such as drawings produced during the type-making process. Third, access to secondary sources: texts written by type makers about type-making, and designers about their practice. Fourth, interpretative sources: texts by researchers such as historians and theorists on the development of type design. The ‘plus-one’ is a framework for integrating research into design practice that enriches the designer’s understanding, and unlocks informed creativity.

It is not difficult to see the connection  between these conditions and the growth in formal education in typeface design, largely in parallel across the world. In fact, typeface design is in some ways leading a gradual shift in the wider design education sector, away from a paradigm of silently reflective responses towards user-centred, research–informed design practice. This approach is typical for a research-based discipline in the humanities. It is, though, alien to design taught in art colleges and institutions based on practice teaching outside of context, on the model of apprenticeships.

Brill and Brill Greek

Typeface design across scripts: the Brill typeface, developed for the Dutch academic publisher by John Hudson, covers a wide range of languages and is developed specifically for text-intensive typesetting. The forms of the letters in the two scripts here are quite different, to respect the typographic traditions of each script. The overall typographic colour is similar in tone, allowing the texts to differentiate solely though the differences in typographic texture.

These considerations are not purely an academic matter. In the last decade we have witnessed a rapid growth in the demand for typefaces with very large character sets spanning many scripts. Pan-european typefaces with several hundred characters are often just a starting point, with Arabic or several Indian scripts added during the typeface’s lifetime. More recently we have seen notable growth in Armenian, as well as East Asian and South-East Asian scripts like Korean, Thai, Khmer, and Burmese. This demand, driven by an expansion of communication services and globalised branding, has pushed typeface design towards a level of effort that rewards teamwork, and the gradual building of expertise, through the combination of formal and self-directed study, and professional activity.

This is the environment in which we should seek to educate typeface designers: to expect them to ask questions about their practice, and seek answers through research. Indeed, we should see type design skills as inseparable from research skills, and an enquiring attitude. We should expect designers to engage with their field actively, and to write: to produce knowledge about their discipline. Seeing design activity as wider and deeper than any individual project is a key characteristic of the transition of typeface design towards a fully-established discipline.