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I Love Typography

The making of FF Tundra

A line of text is like a silhouette on the horizon. Closer inspection reveals the detail, the trees, bushes, rocks; details that, though only vaguely perceivable from afar, create both rhythm and variation. The beauty of this landscape is born of both regularity and variety.

I chose Tundra as the name for my new serif typeface not during the design process, but from the outset. I had in mind this idea of a wide and flat landscape. This was the initial idea: Tundra should lead the eye effortlessly along the line, thus emphasizing the horizontal. This would have been rather easy, since a typeface with comparatively wide proportions would achieve this quite naturally. But I also wanted to create a useable, legible typeface: somewhat compact or condensed so that it might also serve well for narrow columns and space-starved headlines.

In the first sketches Tundra had asymmetrical serifs to accent the reading direction. Somehow it looked cropped (mutilated), especially for the capitals.

A typeface has two principle directions: The horizontal, the line, which the eye moves along; and the vertical of the individual characters, defined predominantly by the stems. The stems are responsible for the rhythm of a typeface, while the curves (bowls, in-strokes, out-strokes, etc) determine its character. In general, the narrower a typeface becomes, the less distinctive it is. A narrow typeface creates a picket fence or staccato effect, a line dominated by closely spaced stems. This is tiring and dull, and does not make for easy reading. The same occurs when the distances between the stems is too generous. So my main question was: How could I create a rather narrow typeface that best emphasizes the round parts and the horizontal line? How could I optimally adjust these two directions?

Warm and open

The most important parts of a typeface are the zone at the base line and even more at the x-height. Here reside the more complex forms (in contrast to the middle parts, which are usually only the vertical stems).

As a counter movement to the stems, which are more dominant the more narrow the typeface becomes, I tried to emphasize these two lines: the base line and the x-height. I made the general contrast rather moderate. The serifs are strong and flat. I also drew the shoulders (n, b) flat and strong.

Some characteristics of Tundra: moderate contrast between thick and thin parts, flat and strong serifs, diagonal stress, open and heavy terminals, flat and strong shoulders.

The diagonal stress moves the thick parts more to the horizontal. The terminals (a, c, e) are heavy and the apertures open. The letters c and e — owing to their contrast — could almost be part of a sans serif typeface. Open forms also permit more interaction between the letters. All these elements help to create even lines that make reading easy and comfortable.

Above: Comparison of narrow type: closed and open letterforms.

The italics have no curved head and terminals, but serifs, to emphasize the baseline and x-height.

Of course reading is much more complex than these very simple considerations. Why a typeface is legible, why it appears fresh or lively is much more complicated and difficult to specify. Rhythm can’t be reduced to a fence pattern. And to create harmonious letterforms it’s much better to follow your own feeling for forms rather than follow rules. Very often I’m unable to point out why I like a typeface and why it creates an enjoyable image of text; or, conversely, why it fails. Therefore, I try to track my own eye, and how it describes a path through the text, across the line, and through the words. Is it a pleasing and fluid movement, or does it stutter and stall? But still I can’t precisely describe why a typeface works. Usually I try make forms clear and distinct. I was never much interested in playful details (which you can’t see at small sizes anyway). I think a good typeface must be more than a selection of interesting (and more or less pushy) details. It needs a design vocabulary of its own. A good text typeface should be concerned with producing interesting and lively texts, rather than interesting and lively characters.

When I designed my typeface Marat, I also drew a super black version, and – unusual for a classic serif typeface – it works very well. For Tundra the opposite is true. It appears that this particular construction prefers lighter weights.

The lighter a typeface the more linear its stroke. The Extra Light weight has much less contrast between thick and thin than the Bold. The thin parts of the Extra Light and Regular are almost equal.

The reason might lie in the moderate contrast of the letterforms. So I drew Light and Extra Light weights and reduced the contrast yet further. In my opinion, many thin contemporary Old Face types contain too much contrast. Maybe its caused by extrapolation, I don’t know.

I’m not a friend of fonts with thousands of (interpolated) weights flooding the font menu. I try to graduate the weights very carefully and appropriately for the particular design.

Tundra comes in six weights from Extra Light to Bold, accompanied by italics and small caps. The Pro character set contains letters for all major languages using the latin alphabet.

Different numerals and various other OpenType features provide advanced typographic performance. There is one thing I want to point out, a composition problem often occurs for certain character combinations, mainly f and y.

For problematic combinations Tundra contains alternate characters or ligatures (blue).

For this reason Tundra contains ligatures and alternate letters. A common problem is f followed by an accented character. In this specific case a narrower f applies automatically via OpenType’s contextual alternates feature. For g y there also exists a ligature. For more details check out FF Tundra on the FontFont web site.

Tundra has been selected by the Type Directors Club of New York to receive the 2011 Certificate of Excellence in Type Design.

FF Tundra full character set.

You can find more of Ludwig’s work at ludwigtype.de and follow him on twitter. Back in 2008, I interviewed Ludwig for ILT.

If you’d like to read this article set in FF Tundra web fonts, thanks to FontFonter you can. Hat tip @TimAhrens