March’s Font of the Month: Megascope weights

Font of the Month, 2023/03 Try PDF
Megascope thin

A typeface is a system of shapes, and every system has a breaking point. Part of the type design process is finding out where a typeface’s sweet spots are, and testing where the system breaks down and the cracks start to show.

I have a lot of affection for typefaces that get pushed right up to their breaking point. Last month, I felt funny sending you a moderately chunky weight of Megascope without even doing a cursory exploration of what the design would look like in a weight that’s more extreme. So I couldn’t help but take the opportunity to dive back into Megascope, and push it as thin as it can go.

Megascope thin uc

I don’t have many new things to say about the design of this new weight. It’s still rooted in the Deco-inspired geometric sans serifs of the 1970s, like Syncopation and ITC Ronda, and it still operates under a strict set of rules about perfect circles, dynamic proportions, and 66° diagonals.

Following those rules, the proportions of the Thin become even more lanky and exaggerated than they were in the original weight, which I’m now calling Bold. The majority of letters get narrower as they get thinner (as expected), but large circles like O and diagonals like A remain just as wide.

The already-too-small circles in letters like R, a, e, and g get even smaller, pushing the waistline even higher than before. The diagonal strokes of these letters, now even longer, extend past the bounds of the circle and throw them even more off balance. 

Some measure of legibility and versatility is sacrificed, as what was weird about Megascope becomes even weirder. But it’s fun to hear the gears grind a bit as my little system of circles and diagonals begins to struggle…this is the tension that makes type interesting!

Megascope weights ulc

I feel less confident about the Thin weight than I do about the Bold, but I’m excited that its presence unlocks a range of in-between weights that are really starting to work for me. So I’m sending you a variable font and five named weights: Thin, Light, Regular, Medium, and Bold.

Megascope’s kerning is a monster—a single style of Megascope has more kerning exceptions than all of the other Megafonts combined—and I feel like I’ve only started to scratch the surface. I tried to let letters collide when they look good in a particular instance, but struggled to find compromises that would also interpolate nicely in the larger system.

Eventually, I may have to add even more kerning tweaks for the middle weights (not to mention the kerning of the accented characters 😬), but in the meantime, please feel free to manually pull things together or push things apart, and let me know if you encounter any letter combinations that seem especially fishy!

Megascope weights caps

Some decisions that I made in the Bold no longer apply in the Thin, and I employ several feature variations to swap out one shape for another. For example, the B needed to lose its circular counterform as the circle gets larger and the stroke weight gets thinner. And the crossbar of f, lowered to create space in the Bold, gets replaced in lighter weights with one that aligns with the x-height.

Sticking with Megascope this month gave me the opportunity to incorporate some helpful feedback from club members. I added discretionary ligatures for some interlocking combinations (like ST, suggested by H James Lucas) and created upright alternates for a and e (suggested by Stephen Nixon).

I never intended for Megascope to become a family, but I hope you’ll agree that this (Mega)scope creep was worthwhile!

Megascope diagram

February’s Font of the Month: Megascope

Font of the Month, 2023/02 Try PDF
Megascope animated specimen

Geometry means rules, and I like rules. I like establishing them for my typefaces, I like following them, and, when I need to, I like figuring out how to bend or break them.

Rules might seem like a drag, but honestly I find that the more rules a typeface has, the more the design process feels like a game. Geometric rules in particular introduce some interesting constraints on what can happen in a typeface. For example, say we have a circle and want to make it taller—it must get wider at the same rate or it’s no longer a circle. This leads to shapes getting wider or narrower than we might otherwise draw them, which is precisely the thing that lends Geometric fonts their particular rigid, inorganic flavor.

Over the last three years, I’ve sent you Megabase, Megavolt, and Megazoid, three sans serifs with science fiction connotations. Each forces the alphabet to contort to its own interpretation of the rules of geometry, resulting in shapes that are otherworldly if not downright weird. And this month, I’m happy to send you the latest in this series: Megascope.

Megascope records

Some of my haul from the used bookstore (yes I know they’re not books)

Megascope is my take on the expressive Deco-inspired geometric sans serifs of the 1970s. This style graced many a sci-fi book and album cover in its day, some of which I recently had the opportunity to sift through during a moving sale at a local used bookstore. My design is characterized by little circles in B/P/R that synthesize the roundness of fonts like ITC Ronda and Bauhaus with the high waist and exaggerated proportions of fonts like Syncopation and Washington

Typically I would draw the diagonals of A/K/R/V/W/X/Y/Z at different angles that suit their particular shapes, but for Megascope, I made it a rule that diagonals should stick to a 66° angle whenever possible. This forces the diagonal character widths to be based on where its strokes begin and end, exacerbating the difference between wide and narrow letters—I usually try to balance the widths of M and W, but not here!

These coordinated diagonals make for some nice alignments thanks to Megascope’s tight-but-not-touching style of spacing. Actually, despite that name, you’ll find that I allowed letter pairs to touch quite a bit, and I heartily encourage you to manually kern other pairs together too if it suits your design.

Megascope caps 2000

I wanted to steer Megascope away from Deco glitz and glam (for that, see Extraordinaire). So I purposefully started with a Medium weight that felt more pedestrian than an elegant Hairline or a flashy Ultra. Even so, the uppercase letters kept leaning more towards disco than sci-fi, and I struggled to strike a balance. I mentioned this to Mathieu Triay, who revived the geometric classic Marvin as Marvin Visions. He replied, “Maybe the difference between ’70s photo-lettering and sci-fi is just colour, spacing and context?”

Megascope’s lowercase is where the typeface truly becomes extraterrestrial. I originally intended for this to be an all-caps font, but I realized that the lowercase has even more opportunities to play with a mashup of circles, straight lines, and diagonals. Most notably, the small circles from the caps found their way into a/e/g and p/d/b/q, making them weirdly shrunken and unbalanced, but also kinda cute.

Megascope axis 2000

Now what if these circles weren’t so small? At first I made large-circle alternates for Megascope’s small-circle letters, but then settled on a variable “Scope” axis where you can scale these circles yourself, seeing the effects of changing the geometric rules in real time.

It’s a concept that’s so simple that it’s almost silly, but implementing it presented some interesting technical challenges. The interpolation between the small-circle and big-circle shapes is entirely linear, but their spacing and kerning between had to be nonlinear to accommodate the changing “pressure points” of the letters as they drastically change proportion.

Take the R/a pair below as an example: in the small-circle version, the diagonal stroke of the R is the “pressure point” that determines the spacing, but eventually the circle gets big enough that it becomes the determining factor instead. At that moment, the a has to push out at a much faster rate to avoid colliding with the R. This meant that I couldn’t trust that the kerning at either extreme would provide a decent result in the middle, and I had to check each kerning pair for round letters at several points along the axis. I’m sure I missed something, so let me know if you find any spacing that seems particularly egregious.

Megascope animated kerning pair

I’ve thought a lot about why a versatile, multipurpose Geometric Sans is conspicuously absent from my font library. Part of it, I think, is because it’s hard for a multipurpose font to get too preoccupied with the rules of geometry—it has too many other things to worry about (like being generally useful).

And to me, the rules are kinda the whole point! It’s so much fun to watch the most humdrum, pared-down set of basic shapes form something individualistic, something that carries a specific tone. Someday maybe I’ll find a way to do this in a more general purpose design—others have before! Or maybe I’ll just go make a hundred more Megafonts instead…

The best part of releasing the new version of Glyptic DJR this week is that I can get rid of the custom stylesheet I use to test it 😅

Wiki glyptic web

January’s Font of the Month: Glyptic DJR Lowercase

Font of the Month, 2022/08 Try PDF
Glyptic U diagram 01 2000

This month’s update started with a sneaky little change I made in August. I love Herman Ihlenburg’s Glyptic, but its U felt off to me. There’s something stilted and overly-mechanical about the squared-off left edges of the vertical stem, and I didn’t like how all the serifs seemed to push out from the letter’s center. 

So in my revival, I tweaked it. I removed the bottom serif and replaced it with a vertical spike—simpler and still sharp. I did the same thing to G, which already has a lot going on and could afford to be less busy. Then I added a bilateral serif to the top of U, echoing the bilateral serifs you see in the rest of the typeface. 

At the time, these seemed like such insignificant tweaks that I didn’t bother to mention them in my write-up. But as I set out to expand Glyptic, I quickly found myself in the middle of a butterfly effect. The new vertical spike, a change I wasn’t even sure was right, became the cornerstone of the update I am sending you today: Glyptic DJR Lowercase.

Glyptic DJR Lowercase 01 2000

Ihlenburg didn’t design a lowercase for Glyptic (at least that I know of). Fortunately, he was a prolific designer, so there’s no shortage of lowercases for me to reference as source material for the piece of historical fiction I was about to create. 

I noticed that Ihlenburg would often use Uncialesque forms in his lowercase, even if they weren’t prevalent in the uppercase. I saw them in softer, more flowing designs like Campanile (see the h, m, and n below) and in more daring designs like Ringlet (see the alternate n in this cover). And I couldn’t help but remember this exact same inwardly-bent curve in Glyptic’s U.

Campanile 2000

Campanile, as shown in Franklin Type Foundry’s Convenient Book of Type Specimens, 1889.

 So, I made Glyptic’s U the starting point for the lowercase, and everything else cascaded from there. Lowercase u follows uppercase U, n is a 180° rotation of u, m is a horizontal mirroring of n, and w is a vertical mirroring of m. And every step of the way, the little vertical spike I added (and the serif I omitted) became a bigger and bigger part of the design.

The result is a kind of semi-serif, where serifs are in some places you’d expect but not in others. The vertical asymmetry made this a tricky design to space—I had to treat letters like p, d, b, and q as if they were sans-serifs for spacing purposes since none of their serifs occur within the x-height. Of the letters with vertical stems, only i and l use a conventional serif arrangement.

Glyptic DJR Lowercase 02 2000

 Glyptic gets its chaotic energy by mixing spikes and curls—it’s a strange heightening of the same juxtaposition of sharps and rounds found in Roslindale. So I wanted to ensure that I passed up no opportunity to incorporate my favorite details from the caps: the elongated, scroll-like vertical serifs and the spiral-y curlicues. In a and e, I blended the wedge vertical serifs with a open crossbar / interior ball terminal combo that I borrowed from Campanile…the resulting letterforms are open where they should be enclosed, and enclosed where they should be open!

The pair of letters that vexed me most were f and t, where I felt that it was necessary to include the vertical serif even though it made the letters unusually wide and difficult to read. I tried dozens of variations before landing on a pair that has a ball terminal on the left-hand side too, and an alternate that doesn’t.

Glyptic djr f t

 Do I think that this is the lowercase Ihlenburg would have made for Glyptic? Definitely not. But I do think it honors the original design in its own way, preserving Glyptic’s rigidity as well as its eclecticism and whimsy.

I also took this opportunity to add lining figures and decorative borders. If I keep on adding, can I still call it a revival? I’m feeling out where that line is. I get excited when a project stops being a digitization and feels like a conversation… an asynchronous exchange of visual ideas between a thing 145 years old and a thing that is just taking shape.