Biome — the making of a typeface

A biome in nature is essentially an ecosystem. It’s also the name for my new typeface family. And now that the 14-weight Biome™ Wide family is complete, I’m able to look back on the process.

The drawings that led to Biome (previously known as Nebulon) were completed in 2006, but I discovered, when I uncovered the drawings recently, that I had been thinking for a long time about various unconnected concepts that eventually worked their way into the same typeface. I was surprised to realize how many different ingredients went into this design. Obviously, other type designs were considerations throughout the process, but things besides typefaces tended to make their way into the stew of ideas that eventually got synthesized into the new typeface.

In 2002, I had been sketching a very rectangular, vaguely calligraphic sans design. Notes on the pages referred to something square, futuristic and mechanical. But like most of my type designs, some organic elements couldn’t help but creep in. I continued to consider this idea. Digital trials showed something square, blocky and with sharp, angular cuts at joins.

Starting around 1990, I was interested in midcentury modern design, particularly furniture and architecture. I found I liked certain traits that were prevalent: minimalism and biomorphism. In contrast, I was just as strongly repelled by the barren and overly rational elements of the period. I still think that modern architecture and design could stand to be more human and biomorphic, even if it remains minimal. “Organic modernism” was a subset of the design movement that, at least in concept, I could appreciate. It crept into my drawings for houses, furniture, and eventually letterforms.

For a number of years, I’ve tried to imagine letterforms with outside contours that follow the shape of a grotesque but with inside contours that follow the shape of something more open and humanistic. What would result? Eventually, I found a formal entry point for an experiment: subtract the inside counter form from the outside shape. But rather than overlap existing typefaces, I wanted to start from scratch with solid shapes. Initial tests were intriguing, though the limited characters weren’t enough to be conclusive.

In March of 2006, I sketched and digitized a keyword in Light and Bold, Wide and Narrow. In outline form, the figure/ground issues weren’t as evident, while curves and shapes were emphasized. I remember feeling like I was on to something.

Proofs, in clean black and white, showed other aspects. One result that I liked were letter shapes that seemed “spooky.” Pointy terminals at the bottom of h, m, and n gave the letters a kind of haunted, ethereal quality, like eyes of a skull. An intriguing, unexpected effect.

Certain letters clearly could not endure the “subtraction” process without becoming mangled, oversimplified or just awkward. Angled or straight letters like V, K, R and H resisted this subtraction. I experimented with making the shapes more round and soft, rather than square with round corners. The soft extreme was so loose and waggly that the counter shapes became active and chaotic. The pointed vertical terminals on h, m, n, u kept the design too unsettled. And as the wide master was the primary one I was working on, I realized that feature fought with the horizontal flow of the design. Losing that intriguing element improved cohesion, so I cut them. I started to see a midcentury modern flavor in some of the shapes, I think due to the width. Since the ellipse wouldn’t apply to angular letters, what kind of theme could harmonize with them? K and k were attempts to graft a Danish Modern shape aesthetic onto the original theme. All those organic furniture shapes bubbled to the surface.

A more faceted, hard version seemed like a solution until proofs appeared, clearly showing a very dated, tiki, retro feel. Much too limited in use, and now evoking a woodcut rather than an abstract, super ellipse. Animated yet homely, not futuristic. Biome already referred to the Eurostile® design in its squarish shapes and wide stance, and with Eurostile’s dated feel, Biome couldn’t keep this additional jauntiness. But something of the tension and vitality of the faceted version was interesting, something the earlier sans also had. Between the soft and hard extremes I found an ideal shape. It was something organic and soft, yet compressed and taut – a lively super ellipse.

These shapes were not easy to represent smoothly in the PostScript format. The proportions and shapes in each master were delicate and fussy to digitize, and they didn’t interpolate particularly well. Intermediate weights had curves that tended to look dead and overly squared. Since the lively yet taut quality was what differentiated Biome, I added intermediate masters in the center of the design space to control the shapes throughout the range. At this development stage, the width range of the masters was much more extreme than the final fonts.

I made a survey of the existing square or futuristic sans designs to see if the traits or feel of Biome overlapped with other designs. There were quite a few futuristic sans designs, some very prominent, like the Eurostile, Handel, and Neuropol™ designs, and others less exposed, like the Quagmire™, Cocon™, Korataki™, Galaxie™ and Rogue Sans™ typefaces. Many of these exhibit traits I wanted to avoid in Biome. Most are based on hard geometry or modular, grid-based schemes, or in the case of Eurostile, a conventional grotesque structure. Many modular and futuristic typefaces are spaced too tightly for use at small sizes, and I wanted Biome to feel calm, humane, open and sleek.

I typically sketch letter shapes over and over, throughout the process of development, so that while the outlines are evolving in digital format, I’m testing shapes on paper at the same time. Because of the number of iterations the basic shapes underwent, it was fortunate that I had constrained myself to keywords throughout the process. Pencil and paper were always handy, and for me, there’s still no better way to test out ideas than to draw them. Not every sketch ends up digitized, and not every digitized shape ends up in the final design. It pays to resolve all the important design decisions of a typeface before finishing the character set, especially with a large weight range.

Once the keyword was settled with Biome, it was time for some editing. It was visible to me in the keyword that so many disparate concepts had been crammed together. I had to abandon shapes that adhered to those concepts when they didn’t harmonize with the rest of the alphabet. The counters of a, s, g became less simplistic. The corners of a, h, m, n and u became more balanced and quiet, and the correct radii for inner and outer corners of A, K, V, W, etc. were settled. Diagonals were made very slightly curved. Many of the alternates I had tested were discarded. At this point, I finally considered that Biome could be finished and released, rather than remain a frustrating experiment.

Clearly a display design, the round corners and soft shapes lent themselves not only to “futuristic” applications but also to more sporty, slick and masculine ones. The less of the retro feel it had, the more versatile it became. Some of the default shapes of Biome resulted in a moderately unconventional and “futuristic” appearance. I thought that by substituting in a few glyphs, the effect could be made either more conventional, or more futuristic and abstract. I tested many alternate shapes but kept relatively few of them, since they had to blend with the rest. I settled on a conventional set and an abstract set, which would be accessible as OpenType® features.

Because I had kept a very large x-height throughout development, I discovered when I thought about small caps, that they could be the same height as the lowercase. On developing the small caps, I realized that some of the lowercase shapes could double as small caps, as in c, o, s, v, z. Having this versatility of shapes, and the various alternates, gave me the idea for a unicase set that would use a mix of cap and lowercase shapes. I eventually decided that this set would have absolutely no extenders, giving rise to the unconventional small cap q. This feature included its own set of figures, also matching the x-height.

Biome went from an unwieldy, conceptual experiment to a cohesive type design. The creation process was similar to developing a complex recipe that had to simmer over time, while ingredients married, in order to arrive at its own flavor. I have called Biome a retro-futuristic, soft display sans. It is a hybrid of humanistic and mechanistic. The design’s biomorphic traits are amplified at larger sizes, and its mechanistic traits are more evident at small sizes. Biome is also spaced for a wide range of sizes, though I think it performs better in display. The design retains a retro flavor, a paradox with “futuristic” designs. “Futurism” of any age always shows its origins eventually. Biome comes pre-aged.

Carl Crossgrove is a type designer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He started lettering and calligraphy studies at around the same time he learned to read. He is now employed by Monotype Imaging, designing typefaces for custom clients and the company’s retail libraries. His retail type designs include the Beorcana™, Mundo Sans™, Reliq™ and Origami™ typefaces.

previous post: Folder Type

next post: Two minutes with Akira Kobayashi