Liveblog Notes: On minimum quality in typeface design

These are live blog notes from the lecture by Gerry Leonidas at the 5th Encontro de Tipografia, Barcelos, Portugal, November 29, 2014.

Usual disclaimer for live blogging: These are informal notes taken by me, Dave Crossland, at the event, and may or may not be similar to what was said by the people who spoke on these topics. This is probably FULL of errors. What do you want for free? 🙂 If something here is incorrect it is probably because I mistyped it or misunderstood, and if anyone wants corrections, just should tweet me – @davelab6 – or post a comment. Thanks!

[ Slides at ]

We were talking about industry yesterday [the usual libre font fight – dc] and we had a good discussion. I thought of the car industry in the 60s and 70s. This Renault was a hatchback. This renault was a joke, badly powered, badly made, and none survive. They did the Citroen na, a rust bucket too. But they also did this, the most interesting car in Europe.

An industry that makes really good and really bad quality things is unfortunate. We all want a minimum level of quality in things. What is the minimum level we can achieve in type? That is something we can all work towards. We can not always makes works of genius, but things that are good enough.

For European cars this has happened… Reviews, magazines that look at things, standardisation, collaboration… You can buy a car now and it will not be terrible. It will be good enough.

Lets consider 3 key ideas and some extensions to them.

  1. Industry and ownership.

  2. Value and visibility of it

  3. Information and quality, to judge it by

Then trends, genres, and creativity, and an intent to act.

We touched on this in the panel discussion. This is the manchester drawing office of Linotype in the 40s. The people there are little cogs in a big gear. This is Joana’s desk; could be anyone, anywhere. There are no longer limits on the supply of type.

The early DTP equipment was expensive by today’s standards. The printer was thousands of euros. The drawings people made were a lot of work, a lot of decisions, and they kept some memory of the process. They were the output of a highly organized process. This contains a lot of value; the company sees this as a product to print books and magazine with, and that is one part of the nature of typeface; what a typeface is.

This is Victorian technology: High Victorian technology that lasted a very long time. It relied on centralised machines. They are glorified lego pieces, they are merely machines and you could understand how they worked and fix them.

In the 20th century, the technology became opaque, first as electronics and then as computers. The machine may not have any connection to the way you use it. Who really understands how my intentions translate into the machine? We have a different world, we operate in abstractions… but the old ways determine the language we use. That drawing from the 40s is an outline contour, and its no coincidence that this drawing in a computer it also an outline contour.

The pace of change in the type industry in the late 80s was astonishing. In old company the board rooms minutes and ATypI records you can see plans for growth, for development in the late 80s of the pre-digital technology, and how it was a total surprise how quickly the industry was disrupted by computers; new kinds of machines that changed how cheaply and quickly things could be done.

What tools like fontographer and pagemaker did was allow people to take forms that were captured in a physical medium and capture them instead in a digital, transferrable medium. PostScript, platform independent technology, severed type from printing.

The browser is a typesetter. Webkit is a typesetting engine, it is the engine behind Chrome, Safari and Opera. A web font service’s server machines somewhere that serve the font files are like the floppy disks with font files for the first platform independent technology.

When industries open up, existing ideas about ownership and contribution change. There is no longer a physical object that you can patent and own and secure.

Next, visibility. You could store drawings, there was a Monotype Collections Room, and when the pre-digital Monotype collapsed as a hot metal company, those drawings were the key thing that was preserved. Machines were saved too, but they were secondary to the type designs captured in the drawings.

Linotype survived the transition to becoming a digital type technology vendor, but in the process everything for the typesetting business was destroyed. Linotype survived as a rightsholder.

Also in Germany at that time, URW’s Ikarus was a digital tool for the previous technology; the original fontographer, and then fontlab, for many years, and today there is glyphs and robofont and fontforge. There are also people working on metafont and similar technologies, and web based versions which are still interfaces to data somewhere.

What is a typeface in the world of data?

What I see when I hit print? Is it what is seen on a web page? What is the typeface? Can you point at it and say, “this is it.” Which is truer to the forms? Is my intention in the font editor’s drawing environment the ‘real’ thing? When I scale it down and color-in the outline contour black, it looks different.

Having a good answer to this is important if you are trying to make a living making typefaces.

The growth of tools has another effect. Font making environments themselves become commodities, and that means their price trends to zero. We are not there yet, but in terms of investment in software, it is negligible for someone to start making fonts. Soon anyone can go to any internet cafe, open a browser, and start designing type. I think in a few years we will have reasonable web-based font editors.

Improving font editors impact the speed of type development. For many Fontlab was annoying and cumbersome, but the move to alternatives like Glyphs and Robofont has not improved the quality of type. What has changed? The speed of production, the speed designers can learn to become type designers. It is a distraction to talk about the tools themselves – what are the typefaces?

The marginal cost of a new font trends to zero, too. (That means, the cost of the next typeface is zero.) If you need to spend x days to make a new type, is that too much hassle for the revenue the type can generate for you? There will be someone somewhere who will design a typeface for a smaller fee, and they will do it. So will typefaces become valueless? But I am talking of typefaces in the most generic sense. A font file. Everyone has the means of production. to manufacture type, to generate font files.

That leaves me to think that if we look at the files we miss the point. The type isn’t to be judged by the files. We must look outside the type to make sense of them. Which are good and which are bad?
Information and quality… How do you evaluate quality? If one thing costs zero, and then another costs thousands of pounds? In the presence of something that is free, how do you justify a market of people charging a lot of money?

I love this font, I love these shapes. I would like them 3d printed so i could touch them!

So what we need to do is look at this separately, to look at it in the content of other things. To look at that font in relation to 8 others.

What was it intended for? There was a brief. It is not a piece of art, it serves a purpose, for a client – imagined or real – and made within a budget of time and money. There are documents intended for it to be used it in, and those inform its decisions. This is a typeface for continuous prose. This is interesting, this is normal, this is not good, and so on. Now I can judge a thing with references outside it, even if in my memory and not in front of me – and if so, even that that is a subjective and hazy process, as we all have different experiences and awareness of what is out there.

A typeface does not have enough information to explain itself. You can say the curves are well formed. It is easy to hit that mark. A typeface can only be evaluated in relation to a context that is external to the typeface.

There is a famous book, “Godel Escher Bach,” a book about A.I. that talks about the meaning of the self. The author Douglas Hofstadter worked with typefaces, and asked, “What are the patterns that people use to recognise letters?”

  1. Ownership and contribution change with the means of making, but our language and ideas span technologies

  2. Value of design is disembodied

  3. Evaluation relies on context

This car, who remembers it? This is Citroen in bed with Mazarati! They made a beautiful car, but it is totally useless. You must take a great deal of care of it, it is temperamental, all the things a car should not be. It is build for one thing: Gazing at it.

So if you want to make a text type, Minion is hard to beat. Then there are types like Cardea which are a bit individual, and then things like Capucine which are outliers. You can graph this in a cloud.

Trends. The dense core of this “context cloud” changes slowly over time. Normality in text type 40 years ago was serifed, but today my kids see sans as the normal. The smart designer tries to second guess this, and capture something that will be desirable in a year or two when their project reaches publication.

Genres. These change, as screen resolution changes and our ideas of what is comfortable to read changes.

Motivators. Things that are in a genre that make you aware there is something different, that motivates you to use it instead of something you already had. That something may not be as unusual as Capucine, but it will be something interesting. Types in this area often win competitions.

We can set objective criteria for well formed shapes, spaces and behaviours. You need to have a fair set of evaluation criteria in a university. I already have a deck on speakerdeck about this; pointers for type reviews.

When I sat at the ATypI Amsterdam Type Crit, reviewing Rui Abreu’s work ( I found this to be a stressful experience. At the University where I teach, people have weeks to get to know me, but an on-the-spot review with someone for the first time who does not know what I am like, or will think about or say, is a challenge.

This is the list of things in my mind:

  • fit of typeset text within the brief

  • key dimensions within a paragraph body. A poem needs lots of space. A dictionary is compact. So, ‘it depends’, on the context of use. What is regular? What is bold? How to decide? If you superimpose all regular fonts, there are the 2 strokes in an ‘n’ and the thickness of the stroke to its height, or the proportion of stem to counter – these are in a narrow range. The bold has similar constraints.

  • stroke thickness range. So the generation that grew up with super hinted screen fonts, have really heavy bolds, because regular was 1px in stem, and bold had 2px stem. Double! Because you didn’t have the resolution. Verdana bold is really extrabold or black. We had a silent agreement, that its not really bold, its what we need at at that time. And now screens are different and we wish for a semi bold Verdana.

  • stroke modulation

  • in/out stroke recipes

  • alignments in h and v axes. This is something you come back to again and again during the development of a typeface.

  • transitions between letter elements.

  • relating of inner and outer strokes

  • letter shapes within key patterns

  • integration of exceptions. There is one letter that sticks out. The galliard lowercase ‘g’. The f of bembo. You look at it and you think about this. Is this intentional? Done so i would notice it? Does the type say ‘look at me!’? The raygun fonts were doing this a lot. You make the reading process appear to the read, you had to try hard to read raygun. But when is the f arm to get long enough to give identity without catching the eye and distracting a reader. That is something a type designer can spend a lot of time on.

And now everything is global. How do we support this on a global scale?

As the collapse of the industry did away with us and eu centric industry, that have control of means of production, then you get people like kris sowersby who have an international impact from new zealand.

Verdana and Georgia embody Microsoft’s first moves away from print in 1996. They put a lot of money into moving reading from print to screen. They saw dial up modems and early web as being important medium of reading. A lot of effort was spent to make the rendering crisp.

The Cleartype collection in 2003 represented a bet in portable, flat screens. 8 years later, Microsoft put a lot of effort here too. Flat screens were becoming cheaper, we had these massive screens. You had a computer your dad bought, desks, towers, cables around the back. That stuff went away. It became cheaper, flat screens and then laptops led to mobile. The tablet had 3 attempts, and this was one of those failed attempts. Laptops with a screen that flipped and turned back on itself. The idea was portable computers. Microsoft found limits to how much people would read on screen before hitting the print button: If someone sent an article over 1,500 words they would print it. They knew you had to have type you could read on screen for long texts, and the subpixel rendering and the Cleartype collection was an important attempt to do do just that. The fonts were made for Windows Vista in 2003, but only shipped in 2007 – when Windows had a different Cleartype engine.

The idea of type given for free that would be …

Adobe Source Sans and Serif are notable examples in a very long line of fonts that set baselines. You need to enable people that work with texts. Before that there was Vera, Lato, and a lot of fonts made freely available by Google and other large companies or institutions with specific agendas. Brill made a font available freely for all academics, that has all the academic typography glyphs they need for their complex documents.

Businesses that are not type businesses are a critical enabler. People will always put money into new type.

Google is one participant in going global. I hear Google say, I want to make something that sets a base point, not to threaten anyone, and in the same way Verdana and Georgia transformed reading on-screen for the scripts they support, I want people to be able to read on-screen globally.

I’ve talked to people associated with Google about responding and supporting this initiative. I have 2 phases planned for it. I want people to understand the basics, publishing a list of things that people need to keep in mind when designing a typeface. So if they are in the middle of nowhere, in a village in India, and they discover they can make a type for their own script, then they can meet their need to know how to think about type in context.

Some things are general. How to set parameters for a typography brief, is another way of saying, what will this be used in? Here you have a text with levels of hierarchy, so you need type family variants for annotations, main text, captions. You may need different numbers for different contexts.

The web uses CSS to define visual design, and we need to map family styles to their CSS structures. There are 9 weights per family. This is interesting: How many things can you fit in to the 9? Do you really need all 9 weights for text? Is 9 different styles what typographers really need? Or is it 7, or 8, or 5? I don’t know. But CSS is out there and it says you can only reliably address up to 9 styles at a time.

A type designer can draw interpolatable ‘master’ styles, and spit out anything in between them as an ‘instance.’ Should the instances be equally spaced? Should they be based on the same recipe, with point parity?

For a typographer, the very light styles are used sparingly and in very large point sizes. The black may need to have another receipt because it is used for headings, and the regular has again other forms for long-form reading. So I think that the way CSS has 9 weights in a line is not an intelligent way of looking at this stuff.

How do you plan the weights? …

Are newspapers dying in Portugal? A broadsheet spread typically has 8 entry points to reading; 8 things a reader can choose to start reading. So there is a typographic hierarchy to match that. In tabloids or berliners which are smaller, there are 5. When you go to tablet size, you lose the space to have the objects themselves declare the hierarchy. All the articles look more similar. There is an external hierarchy; lists of things to pick from outside the page.

A newspaper on a tablet is using a sidebar for navigation which drives reading order. And on your phone, you can not see the list and the content at the same time. Its either/or. The designers are counting on the short term memory of their audience, and mine is about 3 seconds 😉

So, here are a set of problems. Changing the typographic environment, a changing environment for type making, and some ideas for things to link them. I think this is important because we have communities that do not share our livelihood and our interests, who make decisions that affect us.

There is now very good OpenType support in web browsers, and that will effect Google, Microsoft, Apple and their businesses and other businesses. You can open a web browser anywhere in the world and it will work with your writing system.

Wherever you are, the type you see should not offend you.

We have a simple scripts in the West. You can reliably spell-check all European languages. Typographers have well-established and widely understood rules for typesetting these scripts. But globally this is atypical. Many Eurasian communities have their script, that is connected, with regional variations, and its another world for their typographers.

Early typography machines were made by Europeans, for Europeans, and then later they were adapted to the scripts used by other communities. People wanted to sell things in Thailand, so they wanted Thai typewriters, and how do you fit a script into a typewriter when it has letters you can not fit into the physical restrictions of such a machine? Hot metal also had similar limits – the hot metal would cool before the entire matrix could be created, putting a physical limit on the size of the glyph set.

So what do you do when you have 350 letters and the engineer says that you could only have 250? How many Germans give up the umlaut (diaeresis), or Spanish give up the Ñ (eɲe/énye)? To simplify the script to accommodating the technology, well, maybe you can do it, but it is not ideal, and it would be better to respect the script. Yet the people who make those decisions are not aware of the importance of such issues. We always talk to communities that are not type designers or typographers.

What next?

That’s the easy part for me 😉 I have some suggestions.

Be perpetually curious. We are lucky to be in a world that is changing, with constant innovation. Type designers are actively engaged in making our world better. With better phones, they are making things that enabled someone who buys a smartphone in Africa to do microbanking with a better experience than traditional banking. Someone in this room may make the font that makes that possible. We go from the metal machines to a smartphone in africa doing banking, this is amazing progress. It is amazing to live in such a world. How can we move things along?

‘The next billion’ is a big phrase in business right now. There are about a billion people online today, and that’s a small part of humanity, and the next billion will join us soon. That matters. The young generation will grow up as professionals in this world. This is a privilege and a responsibility. You must be informed, to fight the curse of “design is making things pretty.” That aspect of design is just the top, the cherry on the cake; design is making things work well in context, then making them exciting and fun to use, and then making them look good doing it.

That’s your job to do.

Thank you.




Pedro Amado: thanks for that, was nice. I have 2 questions. Designing with a specific environment in mind. Frutiger made univers for the lumitype system. The drawing was motivated by that tech. Once emigres fonts were outliers …

Gerry: 2 things. Well, telephone directories are cost driven, if a typeface saves a line per a page, on 800 pages book, and then printing 100k books, that’s a valuable typeface. They are designed for a specific image setter. They design the dots the image setter places the ink. Its like verdana, designed by bitmaps, and then drawn to vectors, and then hinted to recreate the pixels. … I think depending on the project, you have type made for a platform, or not. Emigre’s types can be seen as design research and practice integrated. The confluence of the mac, of pagemaker, fontographer, and postscript, that allowed people to make things they could throw away for the first time. Type specimens look a certain way at that time, as they said, lets play. But quickly they released if you wanted people to read, you needed to respect conventions somewhat. They saw you could make type to look at and type to read with. They saw some type was only useful for some display usage. They could have no impact, or impact you could not anticipate. Emigre were questioning conventions. Its like your naughty cousin who does a terrible thing, then what you do wrong is not so bad. So after emigre we saw a wave of new humanist sans serif, and so syntax was odd at the time it came out but it became became very typical.

Pedro: what is next?

Gerry: Anyone can take my list, and I welcome all feedback. The idea that there is a black box in a teachers or a senior designers’ head? This is nonsense. There is a lack of language to express things we have in our head. We need to have words to say why we do certain things. We should not say, Oooo I like it, or Hmmm it is interesting, we should be able to say exactly why and how that is the case. I take part in competition juries, but without giving feedback about why x got a prize and y did not is a missed opportunity. It is a time commitment that is hard to make. Anyway, I want to put what I have so far online, for free, for anyone. I would like to see tools for comparison. Something i do when i go to web design conferences, is to take an on-screen rendering of text and superimpose an old manuscript. Too often web designers are like ‘wow, we changed everything,’ but no, this comparison shows they didn’t, the rhythm and darkness of text is the same as ever. Then, if you are a beginner, and you can upload your font and compare it, that will help. I think I speak from a position of privilege, as I am paid to work for a year with 15 people who are really motivated to learn type. Anyone is lucky if they can spend a year doing what they like. But ought it to be that or nothing? It would be like aristocrats and peasants. No, I want this stuff online so people can do as much as possible. I can not give you all the things, but I can make good pictures of them, and that can be online. That is the plan. The point is to work myself out of a business by the time I retire.

Q: thank you Gerry for a full hour, it was not exhausting, it was very nice. Again, isn’t there a trap for us all designers and people working on this area to take or confuse popularity with quality? Sometimes things are popular and all a sudden the quality standard first determined or granted by experts and expertise, with self publishing means, became more irrelevant with popularity. Ranking on downloads or true designs.

Gerry: Take good fonts, they are notable for attracting attention by people because they are good quality. Say that someone puts online, for free, a good text typeface. Good enough. Not fabulous, just good enough. So, in the communities that use such fonts, those people who do not see typography as core, they see a need that is high enough that say Merriwether is good enough for them. A commercial type designer might say, “ah, there is a need for a typeface like this!” and make something even better. Perhaps the sales or usage data of distributors can show that the world needs type of a certain kind. What is good enough? I will not spend 800 euros on a typeface. I will spend 150, as I will get enough value for it. A type library subscription for 10 euros? This is beer money for me. Where there are collections of type without the friction of cost, I think they can show where the bigs trends and demands will go. The user community of such collections is not restricted by quality concerns, and they may not know how to determine quality. There are more and more ways to learn about it, though. Also, popularity in the type world is not the same as popularity in the graphic design world. So graduates of a course may pat each other’s backs, but the market can be fickle. I can think of popular type which is popular not because of its design features. I bet that any low contrast slab serif that looked okay small and big, could be as popular with the same marketing and positioning. So, there is a shift in what people expect to see, and as people realise they can choose the type they use, they will learn and change their choices. What is quality? Typographica’s list of popular fonts is not the same of what is popular in the real world. What is used in the streets?

Q: Gotham!

Q: Neo Sans was very popular in Portugal.

Dave Crossland: Lobster!

Gerry: Dino is still here? Ah, well. When a political party needs to rebrand, what do they do? Or what about banks. All the banks rebranded in the last few years with softer typefaces. They had serious fonts before, and now its all italics and nice ‘we are friendly, so, give us your money.’ You know, there’s someone at the brand agency who went to school with the type designer, and they say, a new typeface is 80,000 euros, and its 30,000 for a custom version of a retail type, so the bank says, we stole a lot of money but not that much, we’ll take the 30k one thanks, and then it is seen everywhere, and retail sales pick up. Here is a semi fictional example. Who remembers Heathrow airport signage? They did once have a typeface for the signage system. It was Bembo Bold in black on yellow. No one would pass a project at undergraduate level with such a choice! But you surely knew you were in Heathrow when you landed because of that. Then the companies changed, one company came to own all airports, and maybe they looked at a custom typeface to get away from Frutiger that all airports use… but that cost for a custom type had not earlier been made a separate line item in the budget: when the project was imagined, no one thought ahead about the need for a custom typeface. The 100,000 euros that it would cost is peanuts in the cost of an airport. They said, oops we just cant do it, so we’ll just license frutiger, just like everyone else. Now Heathrow uses Frutiger. And was a business decision, not a design decision. Monotype have put on a branding event for london agencies to discuss this recently. The largest problems with any brand roll out are font related. The brand managers know the least about it. They budget the least time for it. They think, ‘fonts just work,’ but then they don’t work. And then they have to go back and fix the fonts expensively. Its common.

Yves Peters: Brussels airport is using a fontfont design for their branding. I will ask them about why they chose that font.

Gerry: yes, what is Brussels? Just another city? Or something meaningful? The Belgians have a dual language requirement in the same script. A country in the middle east got a FIFA championship, they build airports for it. 6 regional airports, 1 international, and all the rail and bus systems. This went to london agencies. Architects, agencies, sign firms. That means signs in English and Arabic, left to right and right to left. How to balance the scripts? How to present the hierarchy, airside and landside? The symbols? All need to localised. If you have a growing sense of pride and joining the international community of nations that host world class events, do you want your signs looking the same of everyone else? Or something that shows the growing maturity and identidy of the region? The brief says,”Not Frutiger!” People arriving need to find their way, the arrows, the symbols must look different too.

Q: Do the people making a new airport really understand that type can make a difference?

Gerry: Any parent who buys books for their kids, you see type with a single story a and g, and you feel better about buying the kid version of the book. It may be in Georgia or Plantin but with a single story a. The people making the decisions are not the kids. They are the parents. We know from research that kids can read both forms just as well; kids know that there are letters for learning to write with and to read with. The kids do not care about the single story form. But the buyers, the parents, do care, because it signifies that they thought about their kids’ needs. Also, typefaces that are made for dyslexics. Its proven not to be the case that these have a lot of impact. But if I stand here and say, I am very smart – which is impossible to verify – and I say it makes a difference, then the onus is on you to disprove me. The book with the a and g makes no difference to the child, and paying attention to the illustrations is much more important – are they nouns, adjectives, or verbs? Verbs are hard to illustrate. Tom has a house. Fine. Tom likes his house. Hard. But that is too much information for an average parent to know.

Q: It is needed for education, to show people that good typefaces are important

Gerry: I think we will find typefaces are not as important as we think. If the language of a blog is not good, you tune out. Even if the typography is great. Or if you apply the Guardian’s typography to The Sun’s content, it will not be more readable. So if we keep close to the …

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