Every typeface taken seriously enough by its designer will teach valuable lessons. From Signo I learned that in designing a reverse contrast typeface, the challenge isn’t so much in the contrast, or in the black part of the letter for that matter. The conventions for that part are being disregarded, played with, reversed, so the white part of the letter has to assume greater control. And it leads one to rethink what ‘reversed’ really means.
Signo started as an attempt at designing a sans serif with reverse contrast. However, I didn’t really want an eccentric type suitable only for headlines; rather I wanted to design a usable and versatile typeface and try to use the reverse contrast in service of readability and functionality. I had in mind some advantages of the reverse contrast: the concentrated weight at the top and bottom of the letter would favor the horizontal continuity in lines of text, and the thinner stems meant that the letters could be narrower — a good thing for a versatile and functional typeface. The x-height could also naturally be taller, since the black of the letters would be “expanded” vertically.
Reversing the contrast
In the first sketches I tried some letters with reverse contrast, in witch the contrast wasn’t merely reversed, but had a deeper relation to a calligraphic modulation of the strokes. These shapes were fun but I also wanted to design a usable typeface both for headlines and text, so after the first outlines in FontLab I soon went astray from these sketches towards more conventional shapes. That begun a long process of going back and forth, between an experimental and fun, but less usable approach, and a conventional but functional one.
At this point I was thinking too much in terms of ‘reverse contrast.’ I was going for a logical, mathematical approach, so my objectives were being reduced to the mere reversal of the conventional ratio between thicks and thins. And sure enough, the results were quite simply ugly letters (not shown here). Reversing the contrast, felt more and more like an arbitrary act, an imposed mathematical inversion of a basic optical principle of letter forms. In Signo, I was trying to find a way to make this feel natural. How could a reverse contrast typeface be designed in a way that felt natural?
I knew I didn’t want anything to feel artificially reversed or strange in Signo, even if the horizontal strokes were heavier than the vertical strokes. I slowly left the notions of contrast aside and approached the shapes more freely. That meant coming to terms with the first sketches and realizing that If the stress axis is rotated far enough, the weight would shift towards to top and bottom parts of the letters, without anything having to be artificially inverted. Most importantly, I didn’t have to insist so much on notions of contrast, which is just the rate between the thick and thin parts of the strokes, which in turn are only the black part of the letter. This return to the sketches also made the designing of Signo really fun again.
Since I stopped concentrating so much on the strokes, I began playing more with the angle of stress as the commanding principle for rotating the different concentrations of black around fixed counters. The shapes grew increasingly more organic and playful, a bit freer from the traditional conventions (or reversed conventions) in sans serif typefaces, and the counters began to rule the design. In a way the black felt like soft, pliable matter, easy to mold around hard and solid white shapes. The black in Signo, is ‘blobby’ with an asymmetric distribution of weight, but it is shaped around solid, open counters, which provide the order and rationality I was looking for.
Drawing from Roger Excofon’s idea of shifting the weight to the top half of the letters in the beautiful Olive Antique, In Signo too, the black is distributed asymmetrically around the counters. The letters are heavier at the top, with more concentration to the right. This way, especially when set big, the letters seem to be lifted up slightly. The stems are also shaped to accentuate this effect, with some stems curving outwards at the top, while others shrink slightly in width towards the baseline.
The constant element of the design process, even with all the experimenting across an entire year, were the vertical metrics. That probably had to do with the use I had in mind for Signo, from the outset. I imagined a charismatic yet versatile typeface used in magazines for both headlines and text. The ascenders and descenders are short and the x-height is relatively tall, facilitating open counters. Good proportions for smaller text sizes, but also for punchy headlines.
Signo comes with 6 weights from thin to bold. The matching italics have a cursive flavor and will add warmth and variety to the page. The weights include two variations for text, regular, and book. The Regular provides stronger headlines and darker captions to match the main text, while the book is a lighter option for text.
By Rui Abreu.