The Evolution of Chromatic Type

Color fonts or chromatic type are not new. The first production types appeared in the 1840s,1 reaching a peak of precision and complexity a few decades later as efficiencies in printing enabled greater creative freedom. In 1874 William H. Page of Greeneville, Connecticut, published his 100-page Specimens of Chromatic Type & Borders2 that still has the power to mesmerize designers today.

William H. Page & Co. The Specimens of Chromatic Wood Type, Borders, Etc. Photos: Becca Hirsbrunner

Chromatic effects are achieved by stacking two or more corresponding type styles on top of one another in different colors. Each style has cut away areas to reveal or overlap the color of the style beneath.

The use of chromatic type declined in the 20th century, due to technical reform and changing fashions but advances in digital technology over the last few years have enabled easier production and wider support for chromatic typefaces. This has led to a resurgence of chromatic designs that have steadily appeared in bestseller charts, award lists and have been picked for a variety of decorative titles and logos.

The recent ability to place multicolored vector elements into a single glyph, via recent SVG in Opentype3 technology, was mainly been driven by the need to support multicolored emoji in typefaces. However, the opportunities it presents for type designers has lead many to consider both how chromatic type will evolve and the role of color in its communication.

Mark van Wageningen, founder of the Novo Typo foundry, is a leading voice in this charge. His recent chromatic typeface, Bixa, was awarded the President’s Choice at the TDC 2015 awards and his achievements have continued from there.

Mark’s vision is for chromatic type to be in common use, not just for display use but in an editorial context too; not simply as decoration but as an intrinsic part of the letterforms and their meaning. “You’re invited to disagree” is a refrain he uses often, welcoming debate on the subject. I spoke to Mark about his chromatic crusade.

What is happening with chromatic type right now?

I think that we are living in the Golden Age of type design. Adobe PS now supports SVG in OpenType format that allows multiple color layers within a single font and Firefox and Microsoft Edge browsers also support this format on the web. It’s a giant leap forward in the acceptance of chromatic type. I think that the use of color within typography will not solely be decorative. Color within type can also have a functional purpose.

Many type designers underestimate the decorative approach in type design – especially for editorial use. I think that modernism is the new antique. The less is more concept is nowadays a hollow, meaningless statement from the past.

How does your work fit into this?

Novo Typo works mainly with type. I like to collaborate with lots of people; interns, assistants, printers, engineers, programmers, hackers etc. Although we take our jobs very seriously, we like happy accidents and have a professional approach to amateurism. We like the design of coincidence and the design of the ‘undesigned’. We are in search of the perfect imperfection.

We take commissions for graphic design projects and bespoke typefaces from clients all over the world. The money we make with these jobs is used to fund our new experimental research projects.

Within our design approach, we think that legibility in contemporary type design is overrated. Every character is legible, if not, it’s not a character anymore. We are not interested in designing a new Helvetica or ‘infill-ism’.4

A while ago we asked ourselves the question: ‘Why do type designers traditionally think in black and white?’ The world is colorful, the web is colorful, Hollywood doesn’t produce any black-and-white movies anymore. Only type designers still think in this restricted way. New browser techniques, apps, and now Photoshop, make it possible to add color in typography, all responding to the use of emoji’s.

The use of color within type design can go in two directions. Color can be used as decoration, and we’ve seen lots of different variations of these designs in the history of type. The second direction, which is the most interesting one, is that color can also be used as part of the construction of the basic shape of the characters.

Color variations from Mark’s Ziza typeface for the construction of g

Was it this concept that led to your Typewood project and the Bixa typeface?

It came from the perfect imperfection of type design. In January 2015 we printed a poster at Grafisch Werkcentrum Amsterdam, where they have a beautiful collection of vintage presses. If you take a proper look at the poster, you may conclude that almost everything is wrong. The spacing is really bad, the serifs of the H are almost connected, the S seems to be flipped, not to mention the rough edges of the characters. But, why do I like it so much? If everything is wrong, can wrong can be right?

The ‘wrong’ poster, that is so right

Holding a wooden character in your hand makes you understand how type really works. I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be interesting to design a chromatic typeface on a computer and translate the vector files into woodtype for letterpress?’ From new to old: a typeface, which is obviously designed on a computer, and transformed into wood with all the irregularities, the textures and happy little accidents of letterpress? This was the moment when the Typewood project took off. It’s nice to see how texture and tactility influence the design. The ‘wrong can be right’ concept is an important part of our design-approach.

Typewood in production (animated)
Specimens of Bixa showing the deconstructed letters formed with multiple colors

Then you made it work for web type?

We did a step back in history and now a step forward into the future. From woodtype to webtype. We collaborated with Roel Nieskens from Pixelambacht, a very clever programmer and font specialist. Together we set up the website using the new font format SVG in OpenType. You can choose your preferred color combinations and download a combined color font, free.

And now you’ve just completed a chromatic text typeface?

If we take the concept of constructing the shapes of the characters from color one step further – within an editorial context you’ll come to the following conclusions: Color will be the new italic; color will be the new bold.

Specimens of Ziza from the Novo Typo Color Book

Color becomes part of the “DNA” of a typeface. I propose that the whole concept of a font family is changing and extending. A font family becomes: roman, italic, bold, and chromatic. For example, Eames Century Modern by Erik van Blokland & House Industries has a beautifully designed stencil variant. This will continue with the new OpenType Font Variations format.

Where Bixa is obviously designed for large sizes, we now wanted to design a typeface for smaller sizes for editorial use. We were then invited by type foundry Lettergieterij Westzaan to design a chromatic typeface at size 36 point in lead.

After testing, sketching and measuring from one system to another, the foundry produced new matrices based on our two-colored typeface, Ziza, then cast a complete set of lead characters on a Monotype Typecaster. This project is covered in our new book – The Novo Typo Color Book

Deconstructed chromatic type from the Novo Typo Color Book

What are the biggest challenges in making a chromatic font easier to use online?

Browser support is key, filesize is key, being able to choose your own color combinations directly in CSS and Adobe Creative Cloud is key. These are just technical problems that will be solved in the near future. But do you consider it an option to wait for full browser support of acceptance within Adobe products? No! Type designers should stop thinking in black and white and take the initiative. They must be the first. They must design chromatic typefaces that can be used at smaller sizes and for editorial use. The technical engineers will follow and make what the market is asking for possible. Et voila: Chromatic type is the new Italic and the new Bold.

An example color spread from the Novo Typo Color book

Until this is all solved, I will have to be an evangelist, the ‘Ambassador of Chromatic Typography’. This is the beginning of a new era.

Further reading:
The Typewood project
Typewood – Declaration Of Deconstructed Typography
Bixa Color (Optimized for Firefox or Microsoft Edge)
Working with OpenType SVG fonts
An introduction to Variable Fonts
Brim Narrow – making a chromatic typeface
Specimens of Chromatic Wood Type, Borders, etc Wm. H. Page & Co.

1. Will Hill, New perspectives on a historic idiom: Chromatic types in the digital era. 2016, Encontro conference.
2. Specimens of Chromatic Wood Type, Borders, etc., Wm. H. Page & Co. Columbia University Libraries.
3. OpenType-SVG is a font format that enables SVG (scalable vector graphics) artwork with an OpenType font and allows the display of multiple colors and gradients within a single glyph.
4. The subject of an article by Stephen Coles, Rejecting Infill-ism and Waterfalls of Mediocrity.

About the author:
Jamie Clarke is a British designer specialising in illustrative lettering and decorative typefaces. [Twitter & Instagram]