I Love Typography

Through Thick and Thin

Ever since I started to draw type, one of the challenges that has intrigued me the most is figuring out how letters carry their weight. Arranging thicks and thins and determining the contrast between them is crucial in assembling the systems of shapes that form a type design.

Historically, a letter’s thicks and thins emerged from the writing or drawing implement used to make it. The angle, direction, and pressure of a pen or brush can produce seemingly endless models of thick and thin in calligraphy and lettering. We sometimes carry these ideas over to typography, thinking of typographic letters in terms of imaginary mark-making tools. In type, the conventional definitions of stress and contrast are focused on the idea of stroke, telling us where a line swells to its thickest point, and how thick it actually gets.

For me, the relationship of thicks and thins is more abstract. While stroke and gesture are interesting subjects, what fascinates me is how any thick/thin relationship can define the vocabulary of shapes in a typeface, and how those shapes can in turn produce unexpected textures and rhythms of black and white. This fascination has served as the jumping off point for three of my typefaces, each one approaching stress and contrast in a different way.

My first exploration of thick and thin sprung out of the bombastic French Clarendon types of the nineteenth century. These faces are notable for having serifs that are heavier than the vertical stems (it’s usually the other way around). Following this model of “reversed” stress, I drew an alphabet that pushed the style to its extreme, and called it Manicotti since it reminded me of Spaghetti Westerns, only bigger and tastier.

Manicotti’s letters are so distorted that they lose any connection to an imaginary stroke. Instead, it’s a set of ideas that governs the thicks and thins, controlling the unusual placement of weight at the tops and bottoms of letters, and the thicks that grow to be up to three times the weight of the thins. The rules of stress and contrast compact the countershapes into a tiny vertical space, allowing the massive black areas above and below to create an interesting texture of railroad tracks across a line.

Like Manicotti, Trilby is driven by the backwards arrangement of thicks and thins. But everything that Manicotti is — cheesy, over-the-top, and stereotypically Western — Trilby isn’t. In Trilby I took a different approach to the French Clarendon style, chilling out that railroad track effect and introducing an open, contemporary letter structure.

More than anything else, Trilby’s character is defined by subtle shifts in weight. The other aspects of Trilby’s design are deliberately basic, leaving me room to play with the unconventional arrangement of thicks and thins. Even though the contrast is subtle, I was amazed to see that breaking just one so-called “rule” could have such a forceful impact on virtually every shape in the typeface.

In my next face, Condor, it is the contrast and not the stress that deviates from the norm. While most sans-serifs have relatively little difference between thicks and thins, Condor’s character comes precisely from that contrast. Amplifying the subtle vertical stress of traditional American gothics, Condor’s squarish, slender counters stand tall against the outer shapes.

High-contrast faces have an inherent unevenness, and letter drawers often use strategies like tapering stems and modeling edges to temper this effect. I went out of my way to avoid these techniques while drawing Condor, instead choosing to let the contrast do its thing. The other aspects of the design — the rational structure, the open forms, the tense curves — only serve to underscore the dazzling effect of the thicks and thins.

Approaching Manicotti, Trilby, and Condor through the lens of thick and thin has taught me how a typeface can be held together by a simple idea. The arrangement of thicks and thins in these three designs comes from an idea about how shapes should relate — the black forms to the white forms, and the interiors of letters to the exteriors. With these relationships in mind, I can separate the parts that make a typeface interesting from the parts that make it useful, in the hope that I can produce work that is both.

David Jonathan Ross is a designer at The Font Bureau. His typefaces include Manicotti, Trilby, and Condor.


  1. Thank you for the insight into contrast. Trilby is very topsy-turvy, I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it. Cool stuff!

  2. Very interesting. Thicks and thins, hardness and smoothness and whether there are serifs or not are I think the most important features of all type.

    [To Johno, do you think you can tighten the measure on the comments? The lines become uncomfortably long.]

  3. Bear with me if this is a silly question, but I’m a writer, not a type designer, so…

    Speaking of thicks and thins, is there a name for that annoying habit so many typefaces have of making words like giggle, ragged, rugged, etc, look like black marks scattered over the page?

    I self-publish, and (by economic necessity) I do my own page design. I chose a body text by printing out pages in each candidate and looking for double lower-case “gg” at ten paces. If I could spot them, I rejected the typeface.

  4. Levi, that is a very legitimate question. The g is a bit of an odd letter in the latin alphabet in the sense that it’s the only one with three counters (yeah, the space between the two bowls counts too). In well-drawn typefaces you’ll notice that the g is significantly thinner than the other letters exactly because of the problem you mentioned: if you want it to have the same grey density than the rest of the text, and you still want to have the space between the strokes be perceived as different strokes and not one blob, that’s the solution that is being used. That it isn’t so in certain typefaces is a bug, not a feature.

  5. It is nice looking for different ways, and exploring or redefining new concepts in type design. Is a discipline we can slowly breaking some rules.

  6. de-lurking here: that’s so neat! Really glad to have found this blog, and really glad to have some more insights into font design, and what to consider when choosing a font.

  7. I second Jules’ comment, I’ve been a lurker here for quite some time now, and I finally got around to give you some feedback. I love both typography and ILT, and have found lots of insightful reading and info on your “Week in Type” series…

    Which leads me to my question: having completed a few modular typefaces already, I’ve also made some attempts at serious type design; however, the typographical subject I find lacking the most bibliography-wise is, precisely, contrast. So, I found your post extremely refreshing and compelling.

    Anyway, in general I sense a pretty unfortunate knowledge gap between the basics of contrast (i.e. Johnston’s “Formal Penmanship”) and the knowledge seemingly not shared with the world by the big boys doing great type design (unlike how you just did here, of course ;) … While I know that I could definitely work and learn my way through type design by observation and practice alone, I feel that this “knowledge vacuum” has somewhat hindered my attempts.

    I might be (and hope I am) wrong, though… Maybe I’ve just not been looking hard enough? So, on this subject, are there any works you can recommend?

    Thanks in advance, and keep up the good work!

  8. johno

    Fixed the measure. Always forget to do that for custom-style posts.

  9. Interesting post!
    Thank you for sharing your experiments

  10. Eben Sorkin

    Well done! Having huge images of the shapes you are talking about with very clear indications of the points to be made in a style that contrasts well with those shapes is wonderfully effective. I really enjoyed this article. More please!

  11. Many thanks to all of you for reading this article, and to Johno for publishing it!

    Levi, the grey density that Antonio mentions is sometimes called typographic color. On top of any contrast that comes from a typeface’s style or central idea, designers make a ton of tiny weight adjustments to free up room at busy intersections (like ‘g’) and achieve some overall balance. When that fails to happen, I’d call it uneven color.

    João: A book that examines contrast in depth is Gerrit Noordzij’s The Stroke. As you might guess from the title, it revolves largely around pen-made forms. Even though my own approach to letter drawing focuses less on strokes and more on relationships between shapes, I still find it to be an interesting model that demonstrates how stress and contrast are interconnected.

    At the moment no other book on my shelf jumps out at me, though I’d be interested to hear if others have recommendations. I think you’re right that many books don’t get far beyond the basic questions: “old style or modern stress?” and “high or low contrast?” For me, drawing type (and examining it closely) is what helped me understand that there’s a lot more to ask than that, and in turn it’s those questions that became starting points for my work.

  12. david, really appreciated the detailed notes - esp. the thumbnails of reversed stress of the H with the Manicotti & the contrast in Condor - which I think is a brilliant family.
    My fave is the note about the space between arms of the E in Manicotti.
    Great work! Looking forward to your next endeavour!

  13. Antonio & David,

    Thanks for the information. At least now I know I’m not just seeing things! :)

  14. Greta article and well supported by sketches/samples. The explanation of tension on a curve is priceless.

  15. Hi John

    I’ve just discovered your blog and am avidly reading through your posts.

    Great stuff!

    Kind regards from the UK

  16. Trilby reminds me of Looney Toons, for some reason. It kind of has a cartoony feeling to me. very interesting examples, and great fonts you’ve made!

  17. Very useful and interesting post.

  18. Thanks David.
    The 3 fonts are interesting.
    I found that there is a virtual equilibrium in all the 3 creations. Personally it’s the most important factor that I look at.

  19. I love how you illustrate the dynamics of the thick and thin aspects of the fonts. Fascinating!

  20. A very instructive article, got the creativity flowing!!

  21. are these fonts available for download?

  22. i was just about to ask the same question, Levi! good thing i scrolled to read the comments before doing so, and thanks for the insights Antonio.

    I’m a website administrator and an editor of a local print magazine. dealing with fonts isn’t exactly my thing, but every once in a while i do have some “un-affection” for particular fonts like the one Levi just mentioned for the “gg” that it’s nice to bump into people who can really do some explaining for us who don’t understand much.

    and oh, i like the “Cilantro” text out of your “Condor” font, is that downloadable from here?


  23. Personally I’ve never been a fan of type, unless I’ve been designing an extravagant font.

    However reading through this blog its has pointed of a few rather simple but very helpful and interesting points. Thanks David.

    I am sure I will be reading through this again when I need a reminder.

  24. I’ve always found type interesting but never thought of it in so much detail… Now reading your post I’ve relised that when drawing I do struggle with areas of thick and thin. My drawing have a tendancy to look skewed and twisted. I’ve also had problems with the height of the letters… my main problem that the letters look mis-sized even when I use guide lines. Loving the posts… Kt

  25. Awesome notations and descriptions. It’s great to see someone with true passion for their work.

  26. Obrigado por compartilhar estas informações conosco, do Brasil!!

  27. It is nice looking for different ways, and exploring or redefining new concepts in type design. Is a discipline we can slowly breaking some rules.

  28. Trilby reminds me of Looney Toons, for some reason. It kind of has a cartoony feeling to me. very interesting examples, and great fonts you’ve made!

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