I started my quest by asking my ophthalmologist, who enthusiastically provided a dizzying amount of technical information about the variety of eye charts and tests designed for different audiences and eye conditions. Suddenly, a simple question became a series of discoveries. Not only is there not one letterform design or font used for eye charts; the letterform designs are more appropriately called optotypes, of which there are several versions. There is a science to the design of optotypes and their legibility at specific distances. Since I am a graphic designer and not an eye or vision expert, I will forgo the technical explanations and focus on optotypes used on several significant charts to provide a better understanding of this complex and fascinating subject.
Nowadays, with tens of thousands of fonts available, we are accustomed to a great variety of letterforms. But, of the approximately 1,000 cataloged fifteenth-century roman fonts, very few stand out as unusual. Most share the same fundamental attributes. Almost all roman typefaces of the period are, what we now call humanist: of low contrast, lowercase e with an inclined crossbar and, in most instances (from Jenson), capital letters shorter than the ascenders of the lowercase alphabet. Not until the subsequent century do we begin to witness any significant changes to these features.
Way back in 2007, while living in rural Japan, I created ILT. I remember its birth with supreme clarity. It began simply as a way to share what I found typographically interesting, and I never foresaw its popularity. Almost eight years on, more than 500 posts, eight moves, and four cats later, and ILT’s design had barely changed. I had experimented with numerous custom post designs for individual “art-directed” articles, but the idea of completely redesigning and recoding my WordPress theme was, at least for me, the stuff of nightmares. Add to that thousands of lines of inline CSS in posts (don’t ever do that!), and I just kept putting it off.
Perhaps this article should have ended at the question mark in its title. And by the end of it, you may well concur. However, in the meantime, and before I get started — and I promise this won’t take long — let me be clear, I am not, I repeat, not (in bold for emphasis) a Helvetica hater.
Basically, two things came together. First: I am fascinated by the mesmerizing richness of detail in medieval initials. And I admire the patience and drawing skills those medieval monks possessed – perhaps because I actually lack both. In the Middle Ages the more detailed and elaborate the decoration was, the higher the value and appreciation of the item. But it was not only about showing off or communicating relevance. Decoration also had another function: manuscripts were often structured by clever hierarchies of initials, similar to what we achieve today with headlines, varying font weights, use of white space, and so on. It simplified navigating through your frequently read book of hours, for example. And that got me to wondering about how contemporary initials could look. How to transform this richness of detail into forms that might appeal to modern-day eyes? But since I am not particularly good at repetitive tasks, I never really got any further than wondering.
Like a tiny seed growing into a giant tree or a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis — type design isn’t! Forward steps, missteps, steps retraced — that is type design. Sometimes the development is natural and organic; at others it is perhaps more akin to working for a typographic Dr. Moreau. During the long process, ideas germinate and perish, shapes contort and bend, new concepts are explored and ignored, and printers run out of toner.
Welcome to this month’s roundup of type-related info and entertainment. Today, we dust off our LPs for typographic inspiration, listen to wise words from Milton Glaser, congratulate several award winners, hear from a bunch of type designers, discuss the gender gap in type design, examine the epistemology of typefaces, write a dissertation without punctuation, celebrate new typographic identities from Renault and Volkswagen, talk about font rentals, play drums by typing, and much more!
“Finally I found what I have been looking for – this typeface suits the specific requirements of my project: balanced proportions, space saving and very legible in small sizes. Just the color is a bit too light – if I could only switch to a slightly darker grade …”
Welcome to this month’s roundup of typography related info and entertainment. Today, we examine the art and science of crafting fonts, wonder about the future of libraries in the digital age, discuss the future of graphic design, delve into the history of curly letters of Amsterdam, talk with experts about the recent hand-lettering boom, research the health effects of typefaces, run down the history of the tilde, clarify commonly abused typography terminology, and more.
Over the past couple of years I have been researching and writing a book about the fifteenth-century German printer, Erhard Ratdolt. He printed over 200 titles during his career, and part of my work is to study the content and typography of as many of those editions as possible. Recently, while writing a chapter titled, Printing the Heavens — about Ratdolt’s books on astrology and astronomy — I noticed a capital letter Z that had been printed in reverse. I checked the other 120 pages of this book to discover it was the only capital Z in the entire volume.