May’s Font of the Month: Nickel Stencils

Font of the Month, 2024/05 PDF Try Buy $24
Stencil In Use 1 2000

For several years, my wife Emily worked in a makerspace—a creative lab complete with 3D printers, a laser cutter, woodworking tools, etc. (She even fabricated our trail signs there, typeset in Zenith DJR.) During that time, she visited and toured a lot of makerspaces in the area, and sometimes I would tag along.

I still think about a workshop I visited where the instructor was laser cutting a text-based design into wood. He was disappointed to see the counterforms in his text getting obliterated in the process. Rather than choose a different font, he went back into Illustrator and manually created several dozen “bridges” that connected the counterforms to the rest of the negative space…what a pain! 

That gave me new appreciation for the humble stencil font, which it turns out is just as practical and relevant in our digital world as it was a hundred years ago. So this month I’m sending you stencil cuts of Nickel and its sans serif counterpart Nickel Gothic, two fonts with rigidity and heft that lend themselves quite well to this treatment.

Since 95% of my work on this was subtractive, it was the perfect project for a hectic month. And I gotta say, it was also strangely therapeutic to take a thing I made in the past and spend a few weeks slicing and dicing it with a (digital) knife.

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Stencil fonts offer an opportunity to play with the fuzzy line that separates shapes that register in our brains as letterforms and shapes that simply register as shapes. Making a stencil font nearly always involves breaking up letterforms into smaller pieces, but what is truly interesting about them is how that breaking apart gets done.

Some stencil fonts, such as ATF’s classic Stencil typeface, keep the larger letterform more or less intact, with small bridges that only briefly interrupt the connection from one side to the other. Others like Futura Black (or more recently Tick/Tock, Joschmi, and Joost Stencil) take a more Bauhausian approach and bring the letter’s constituent parts to the forefront, reducing and abstracting them to the point where it becomes a visual game to see the forest through the trees.

Stencil compare 2000

I tried to land Nickel’s stencil cuts somewhere in the middle, between the figurative and the abstract. It was an easy choice to make Nickel’s bridges predominantly vertical, since they follow the vertical axis of thicks and thins in the typeface. But it took some time to figure out what to do with their horizontal placement, and I’m pretty happy with the result.

Take the letter O for example. Most stencil fonts will slice their O right in the center to preserve its symmetry—in the case of ATF’s Stencil, this creates a connecting branch on both sides, and in the case of Futura Black, it eliminates the connecting branches entirely.

By shifting the bridge of Nickel Stencil’s O to the left, I end up with a lefthand shape that feels more abstracted, like Futura Black, and a righthand shape that feels more like a slice of a conventional letterform, like ATF’s Stencil. I made similar choices throughout both sans and serif versions of Nickel, shifting the bridges opportunistically to the left or right in order to achieve a mixture of figurative and abstract shapes.

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I added bridges to pretty much every letter aside from single-column letters like I, l, i, and sometimes j, including letters that don’t have enclosed counterforms and technically don’t need bridges at all. In the physical world, a lot of these decisions come down to what material the stencil is made out of…in a metal or wood stencil, the open counterforms of E would probably be fine without bridges, but in a cardboard or paper stencil they would be far too flimsy and prone to breaking off. And in the digital world, these extra bridges help to unite all the letters with a common motif. 

I spent a lot of time worrying about the spaces within letters, but not as much time worrying about the spaces between them. Especially in the serif, many letter combinations involving diagonals like KY or AA will touch. I originally devised a system of alternates that would simulate bridges between touching letters, but they impeded legibility and I found them to be too distracting for something that would only be useful in certain cases. So if you are making a physical stencil with a flimsy material, just add a little tracking! 😆

Whether you use them in a digital design, on a fancy laser cutter, or just with some cardboard and an x-acto knife, I hope that this sans/serif pair gives you an excuse to incorporate more stencils into your design practice. I’d be very curious to hear if you think it’s worth expanding this to Nickel Gothic’s wide and compressed widths, or if there are other fonts/styles out there that you’d like to see stencilified. Wishing you a wonderful month!

Stencil UC 2000

April’s Font of the Month: Job Clarendon Text

Font of the Month, 2024/04 Try Buy $24
Job Clarendon Text intro 2000

While assisting the production of Font Bureau’s Reading Edge Series, I was taught to think of Optical Size as a kind of funnel. In a typeface’s display sizes, there’s almost infinite room for variety and detail. But as the size gets smaller, the constraints of what is legible or readable begin to outweigh the expressive character of the design, and the design options narrow.

As a thought experiment, we can take this funnel to its logical conclusion—below 4pt, every serif kinda has to become a slab serif, because anything thinner just wouldn’t show up. And at 1pt, readability concerns would completely take over, any serif would be too distracting, and every typeface would simply converge into the same hyper-legible sans. 

Of course, type designers would never agree what that idealized “vanishing point” of type should look like, but we can probably make some assumptions based on what it would need to survive at a tiny size: it’d be wide, spacious, and uncomplicated, with a generous x-height and low contrast.

This month I’m sending you my first draft of Job Clarendon Text, a font that is certainly not intended for use at 1pt. But it is wide, spacious, and uncomplicated, with a generous x-height and low contrast. You could say it sits somewhere between the clunky rigidity of the original Job Clarendon and the most legible typeface in the world.

Job Clarendon Text styles 2000

Job Clarendon is all about display—at least that’s how Bethany Heck and I conceived of the design five years ago. It was inspired by the big, bracketed slab serifs that job printers would use for their everyday posters and flyers in 19th century Britain and America. Over the past year, we completed a multiweight, multiwidth designspace with the help of type designer Sophia Tai, who did a lot of work on the boldest, narrowest styles. 

Last year, Bethany, Sophia, and I also worked on wider styles of Job Clarendon for a commission, which also included contributions from type designer Jacques Le Bailly (The client hasn’t announced it yet, so I’ll hold off on sharing specifics for now.) The client and I discussed creating a version of Job Clarendon for body text, but in the end it was dropped from the project. I couldn’t shake the idea that a text face derived from this commission would be an interesting next step for the display-oriented series.

Job Clarendon Text wiki

Obligatory screenshot using Type-X showing how I test my text fonts as I work on them. A crucial part of the process!

While the original Job Clarendon emphasizes narrowness and density, this text version is light and wide. In many ways it moves closer to the prototypical Haas Clarendon in terms of its overall style and proportion, with a fully round O (only the Bold weight retains any straight-sided counterforms) and long tails on R and a. At the same time, I tried to preserve Job Clarendon’s rigidity in a way that is subtle but hopefully still shines through in text—I’m talking about details like the overly-wide a and the elongated lower bowl of g

At text sizes, global decisions like weight, rhythm, and proportion matter far more than details like serifs and ball terminals. To make the typeface robust in small sizes, I enlarged the x-height beyond what is typical for the style, and allowed the ascenders to exceed the cap height. While testing the font, I ended up preferring a slightly lighter weight than I expected to at my target size of 14px / 10.5pt. If the light weight bothers you, I’ve made the last-minute decision to throw in a beefier variant, called “Job Clarendon Text B”...I’m curious to hear if you prefer it! (The variable font’s not quite ready yet, sorry.)

Job Clarendon Text weights 2000

19th-century Clarendons did not have italic counterparts, so part of what I worked on with my client was figuring out what style of Italic would feel the least anachronistic: all tails, all slabs, or a little bit of both. We ended up choosing the hybrid model (slabby instrokes and tailed outstrokes) and used Egizio as our primary reference. I think it’s a good compromise—the plethora of tails at the baseline completely transforms the Italic’s texture, but the slabs prevent the design from feeling too flowy or cursive.

I’m happy to be working on this update at a particularly fruitful time for bracketed slab serifs — other recent releases include Stringer by Emily Klaebe, Ploquine by Emma Marichal, and an update of Commercial Type’s Caslon Ionic / Ionic Modern. I hope this is only the beginning of a full-on Slabissance in contemporary graphic design!

Even if Job Clarendon Text gets used nowhere else, I am happy that I finally have a text font that is perfect for Job Clarendon’s new(ish) web specimen! It was art directed by Bethany Heck and developed by Phil Moody, and includes 26 gorgeous type posters designed by Noah Baker.

March’s font of the Month: Indoor Kid

Font of the Month, 2024/03 PDF Try Buy $24
Indoor kid extended

Comic books were not a big part of my childhood, but they certainly were for Ellis Bojar. After his first encounter with an issue of X-Men at the age of 10, he quickly fell in love with the iconography, the stories, the bright colors, and—you guessed it—the lettering.

Since then, Ellis has grown up to be a comics writer/editor/publisher, an advertising and publication designer, and a longtime Font of the Month Club member. He approached me initially in 2020 to see if I could help him develop a font inspired by the comics lettering of his childhood. My first inclination was to say no—I had very little experience reading comic books, and I knew that comic book lettering is a whole world unto itself…there is already an incredible array of comic book fonts out there produced by specialized foundries.

But Ellis convinced me that he was looking for something different: a variable-first comic book superfamily, with all the weights and widths and accoutrements that a typographer might expect from a workhorse sans, but designed specifically for a wide range of comics dialogue and caption styles. This month I am thrilled to send you a beta version of Indoor Kid, our first step towards that ambitious goal.

Indoor kid condensed

These comic type specimens were created by Ellis and his collaborators—Ellis did the writing, Nick Brokenshire did the illustration, and Frank Cvetkovic did the lettering.

Comic book professionals still call it “lettering”, but since the 1990s, captions and dialogue in many comic books have been typeset digitally with fonts, as opposed to being hand-lettered with pen and ink. Variable fonts don’t seem to be a big part of this practice—at least not yet, but we think they should be! (And we are certainly not alone in thinking this...see for example Comicraft’s Mighty Mouth.)

First and foremost, Ellis wanted a flexible width. On a macro level, a typeface with a wide range of widths gives letterers the power to adjust the rhythm of the storytelling to fit the amount of dialogue in the story. And on a micro level, it’s extremely helpful to be able to make subtle tweaks to linebreaks and copyfit when typesetting text inside small speech bubbles (without having to resort to stretching the type).

Indoor kid widths

Ellis also requested a custom Emphasis axis that would make it easier for letterers to enlarge and vertically center words or phrases within a block of text. This is a longstanding comic book practice, especially for Bold Italic text. With conventional fonts, it can involve a lot of tedious adjustments to font size, baseline position, and leading. But with a variable font, it’s a quick flick of a slider, and the letters grow from the center as the stroke weight is maintained throughout.

Demo of variable Emphasis axis

Ellis wanted the design to be a tribute to the pre-digital era of comic books, and most of the first year of our collaboration was dedicated to research. We dove into pages of lettering by some of Ellis’s favorites like Gail Beckett, Tom Orzechowski, Stan Sakai, Gaspar Saladino and John Workman. We were not interested in trying to revive a particular piece of hand-lettering or emulate a particular letterer’s style. Instead, we were trying to identify details that really worked in one context (how much bounce in the baseline, how much variation in the stroke weight, how much speed in the gesture) and synthesize them into a flexible system of weight and width.

Since then, it has been nearly three years of slow-burn trial and error. I would send Ellis a new batch of fonts, and he would pop them into an existing comic he liked, analyze how it compared to the original, and send lots of feedback. Without his expertise and intuitive sense of what works and what does not, I would be totally lost.

To be able to iterate over such a large designspace, my process involved a lot of spline-based drawing and some very heavy use of the LTTR/INK tool. Even though the source material we referenced was exclusively pen-and-ink, we agreed that Indoor Kid should feel crisp and “typographic”, and didn't make much of an effort to simulate the blobby, irregular edges of ink on paper. But this is very much a beta font, and I do intend to come back and give these outlines a little more TLC.

Indoor kid normal

We were also sure to include features that professional comic book letterers have come to expect. Indoor Kid includes three variants for each letter to give your text a little extra bounce (not unlike the feature I recently added to Daily Special…make sure you have Contextual Alternates on!). There’s also a capital I that is serifed when it is alone and sans serif when set within a word. In addition to my standard character set, you’ll find some extra goodies in the glyph set such as breath marks, stars, hearts, and musical notes that are sometimes found in manga.

Ellis says, “I’ve wasted a great deal of my life rebuilding simple things from scratch to suit my taste. This thing is one of those things, and I could not be more proud.” I have loved the opportunity to discover comic book lettering through Ellis’s eyes, and with a lowercase already in progress, I think this is only the beginning…

February’s Font of the Month: More Daily Special

Font of the Month, 2024/02 PDF Try Buy $24
Daily special tarot

A letterboard in Greenfield, Massachusetts, with my reflection in the glass.

After I sent out Daily Special last month, I heard from several club members (including my own spouse!) who suggested that the font could do more to simulate the imperfections of real-world letterboard typography. 

When you set type by pushing little plastic letters into rows of felt, slight misalignments and inconsistent spacing are inevitable. And when you begin to run out of the finite amount of letters you are provided, it’s only natural to improvise—an I becomes a 1, a flipped M becomes a W, and so on. 

Your helpful feedback convinced me that physical elements like these are central to the charm of this typographic style, and deserve to be a big part of any digital interpretation. So, with that in mind, I’ve taken another month to make Daily Special even more special.

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In this update (uninstall the previous fonts first!), Daily Special’s imperfection engine is governed by OpenType stylistic sets. Stylistic Set 1 shifts around the spacing between letters and rotates every other letter by up to 1.5°. It’s subtle, but it’s enough to throw off the rhythm of the text, giving everything a slightly wobble. (You should feel free to use baseline and kerning adjustments to throw things off even further!)

Stylistic Sets 2 and 3 substitute in similar letters, including flipped ones, as you might do when you’ve run out of the letters you need. This adds a chaotic element to the design, as many of the flipped letters are also vertically misaligned because of how they would sit on the rows of felt. These alternates can get pretty chaotic pretty quickly, so I suggest sprinkling them with care.

Daily special opsz photo

Daily Special’s original style approximates Letterfolk’s 3/4-inch letters (in this font, approximately 70pt), where the dimensional bevel accounts for a major portion of each stroke.

As the original plastic letters get larger, their bevel stays the same size while the flat face of the letter becomes much more prominent. To mimic this behavior, I’ve also added optical sizes to the family, allowing you to adjust the thickness of the bevel depending on the font size.

The new Display and Banner sizes correspond to the 1-inch (94pt) and 2-inch (188pt) sizes, respectively. I also threw in some color variable fonts with an optical size axis, because why not? Just keep in mind that these color variable fonts don’t work in all environments, including Adobe apps.

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Last but certainly not least, Daily Special now has a lowercase! While the original all-caps design was directly based on Letterfolk’s house style, the lowercase is an original creation. It was commissioned by Letterfolk so that they could use it to produce a separate set of physical lowercase letters that would complement the pre-existing caps.

Daily special lowercase letterfolk

From a design perspective, the lowercase doesn’t offer much in the way of surprises. But I appreciate that it is able to maintain some sense of rigidity—it’s easy for chunky fonts with round stroke endings to feel soft and squishy. 

This turned out to be a much deeper dive than I expected to take into the world of letterboard typography. I hope that these new features—the rotated alternates, the letter replacement, the optical sizes, and the lowercase—make the typeface more fun to use, and create more room for designers to play within this style.

Daily special djr specimen7

January’s Font of the Month: Daily Special

Font of the Month, 2024/01 PDF Try
Daily special cover

In 2017, I got an out-of-the-blue email from Johnny, someone I went to high school with. As we caught up, I learned that he and his wife Joanna started a company called Letterfolk that produced felt letter boards. You know, the kind that you’d see used for the specials board in a diner, or the menu at a café, or the directory of an office building. Or, as Johnny and Joanna discovered, the kind that is increasingly used for home decoration and family photo-ops

Even though they dealt with letterforms in the physical world, they were looking to create some digital fonts that could A) help users plan their letterboard designs digitally before committing them to felt, and B) be used to produce additional characters and styles of physical letterforms. And thus a typographic collaboration was born.

We agreed that, after a period of exclusivity, I could expand and repurpose these fonts for wider use. So this month, I’m excited to send you Daily Special, a dimensional letterboard color font based on Letterfolk’s house style.

Daily special specimen

Letterboard alphabets are produced in various sizes—the larger the letter, the flatter the face. This particular design replicates the three-quarter-inch letters (1.9cm, or in this font, 70pt). It is an exceedingly simple sans serif design that feels more “engineered” than “drawn”, with no stroke contrast, no optical correction, and rounded stroke endings. Its most eccentric feature is perhaps the overhang on the top of G.

Johnny and Joanna sent a letterboard and a set of their letters for me to use as a starting point. I wasn’t able to find out much about the origins of this particular style—it seems to be one of several standard styles that have been replicated by many sign companies over the last half-century. (If you have any intel, please let me know!) 

These fonts were intended to go “full circle”—they were inspired by physical letters, and they were also used to produce new physical letters, including additional characters and symbols. It was fascinating to learn a bit about how these letters were produced, and to take these logistics into account as I created the digital design. I especially loved the challenge of figuring out where to place the little tabs on the backsides of the letters so that they would sit correctly on the horizontal rows of felt.

Daily special white

Recently, I came back to this design and converted it from a series of stackable layers into a proper color font. The interior edges of the color fields are crisper and more “graphic” than what you would typically see from a 3D bevel effect. To me this creates a heightened sense of dimensionality, taking what is otherwise a fairly workaday letter style and making it pop.

Daily Special’s Regular style will adapt to the current color of your text, while the other styles use predefined color palettes. Of course, you can always mix your own color palettes using my Color Font Customizer or CSS font-palette-values. And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I want to reiterate my hope that design apps will make it possible to customize color palettes as well!

Even if you don’t plan to produce tons of little plastic letters, I could imagine Daily Special being useful in book covers, posters, and logos that reference the vernacular, prefabricated signage we encounter in our daily lives. And maybe it could even be taken outside of the letterboard context altogether—regardless, I’m excited to see what you make with it! 

Daily special coffee