In Spring 2012 I started working on Works That Work, a new magazine which launched in February 2013, and as strange as it may seem, one of the first things that I started working on was its typeface.
This was because in the early stages of a previous magazine, Dot Dot Dot, co-founder Stuart Bailey and I had tried to find a suitable form for our content by creating a series of customised typefaces, modified versions of Gill Sans, Plantin and Trade Gothic, for example. But as the magazine matured we changed our approach. We commissioned Radim Peško to produce a text typeface, Mitim, whose successive iterations were used in issues 11–20. Mitim, with all its features, flaws and limitations (a single typeface with no extra styles) became an integral part of Dot Dot Dot’s identity, and the magazine finally found its true voice.
It was clear from the start that Works That Work would be a much more ambitious project: not only would it stretch across multiple platforms (online, eBook, PDF and print), but its content would also be available in various configurations. The typeface would be the sole constant characteristic, identifying the magazine regardless of whether a reader purchased a single article online or a complete issue in print. I wanted the typeface to be the voice of WTW — confident enough not to need to show off, with the comfortable, relaxed manner of an engaged storyteller, ready to handle long stories, but also small captions or titles. I named it Lava.
At that time I was planning to design the magazine myself — it seemed logical, since I was choosing the content, designing the typeface, fact-checking the texts, fine-tuning each story. As the work progressed, however, it became clear that the design of the magazine was important enough to be a significant project, in and of itself. So shortly before the magazine was announced, I approached Susana Carvalho and Kai Bernau and asked them to design it. The design brief I gave them was unusual in that its sole stipulation was Lava; everything else was left up to them. In Susana and Kai I found partners willing to engage with both form and content, and they became Lava’s first users. They learned to work with this new tool, made it an integral part of the magazine, and also provided valuable feedback, identifying bugs and quirks that were fixed one by one.
Since the magazine would be read both in print and on screen, Lava was designed to perform optimally in both high- and low- resolution environments. Lava looks closely at system fonts such as Times and Georgia and aspires to work on screen as well as they do. In print, Lava delivers something that default UI fonts usually lack: refined details, finely tuned proportions and meticulous spacing that let the reader forget about the typeface and pay attention to the text.
Lava has now been used in the first two editions of Works That Work magazine, giving us plenty of opportunities to test and improve the whole family. Making a single-purpose font is a relatively quick process, but creating a versatile tool like Lava that works across different platforms, languages, sizes and styles is a lot more complicated. After over a year of testing, we now feel confident enough to release it publicly as a no-nonsense workhorse typeface that can handle large quantities of text with ease.
Lava was designed for magazine use, but far transcends its original application.
by Peter Biľak