April’s font of the month: Polliwog

Polliwog

What follows is an abridged version of the Font of the Month Club’s April mailing:

Conventional wisdom tells us that text typography and display typography have opposite goals: a typeface should never catch the eye in extended text, but on a poster, being eye-catching is kind of the point.

I’ve always been intrigued by fonts that occupy the space between text and display. Subtitles, decks, introductory paragraphs, and text in children’s books are all pretty niche use cases, but they all lend themselves to a certain category of typeface. This typeface can be distinctive and eye-catching on a structural level, but must be drawn plainly enough to be suitable for reading in short bursts. (It’s sort of the counter-approach to last’s month’s font, Gimlet Banner, which features a relatively conventional structure drawn with eye-popping contrast.)

Polliwog display

I’m not sure if there is an agreed-upon name for this genre; personally I think of them as “novelty text” typefaces. I also like the term “advertising text,” which I first heard from from David Berlow when describing intended uses for my typeface Trilby. The term recalls midcentury advertising that featured a paragraph of copy, much more than we typically have today.

It’s kind of a weird impulse to take a super-interesting idea and then execute it in a boring-ish way. But I think it can be a useful typographic exercise to distill a style down to its essential elements in order to truly understand how a system works. This is what I have attempted to do this month with the whimsical Jugendstil lettering of Max Joseph Gradl.

Lettering work from Gradl
Lettering work from Gradl
Examples of Gradl’s lettering, large and small. From Schriften-Atlas, courtesy of Jason Carne’s Lettering Library.

Active around the turn of the twentieth century, M. J. Gradl was a German artist whose diverse body of work in the Art Nouveau style covered jewelry design, wallpaper design, and advertising. There have been various typographic takes on Gradl’s imaginative alphabets in the past, including an early digital version for Microsoft by the aforementioned David Berlow.

While existing digital interpretations celebrate Gradl’s work in all of its wavy grandiosity, Polliwog thinks small. (The name “polliwog” is actually a synonym for “tadpole.”) The typeface suggests that all you need to create a compelling rhythm in a block of text is a single drop of Gradl’s proto-psychedelic Jugendstil energy.

Polliwog text

The core of Polliwog’s interesting texture comes from the juxtaposition of straight stems and broad, swinging curves. Even though letters like A, U, and V are distinctively asymmetrical, there is a great deal of symmetry in the overall design; curves are just as likely to swoop to the left as they are to the right.

Outer curves flatten out abruptly as they hit the tops and bottoms of letterforms, causing the weight to clump up momentarily and emphasizing the horizontality of the line. This unevenness in weight is echoed in the softened and tapered stroke endings, giving a bit of wobble to an otherwise-skeletal design. The font includes a handful of alternates, giving you the opportunity to fine-tune the flavor of your text.

Alternates

Polliwog is available this April for members of the Font of the Month Club; memberships go for as little as $6/month, so do yourself a favor and sign up today!

M

March’s font of the month: Gimlet Banner

Gimlet Banner

Gimlet is one of my most extensive type families, released in 2016 in three optical sizes, four widths, and five weights. Many large serif families use thick/thin contrast to create dramatic tension, especially in display sizes, but Gimlet is different. Gimlet’s contrast remains relatively low throughout the series, owing mainly to the slabby roots of its inspiration, Schadow, designed by Georg Trump in 1938.

My interest in Schadow started with Nick Sherman, who suggested that I use it as a jumping-off point for a new design. Gimlet has always had an unusual relationship with its predecessor; rarely do my typefaces owe so much to a single source, yet strive to be so different from it. Gimlet isn’t really a “revival” even in the loosest sense of the word, but it draws so much from Schadow that it’s also hard to think of it as an entirely original design (in John Downer’s helpful classification, I think/hope it would be considered an homage).

Following in Schadow’s footsteps, Gimlet’s serifs aren’t quite slabs, but they’re not too far away from slabs either. But in my mind, Gimlet was never supposed to be a slab serif. I’ve always wondered what would happen if I took the design one step further from its source material and started to amp up the contrast.

comparison between Schadow, Gimlet Display, and Gimlet Banner

This month, I’m sending you an exploratory style of Gimlet Banner, a font intended for very large sizes that eschews Schadow’s low contrast in favor of razor-thin serifs and hairlines. I use the word “exploratory” to describe this exercise because, in a family as large as Gimlet, it’s nice to dip my toe in the high-contrast waters before committing to the development of 40 new Banner styles.

I’m not sure I’m 100% sold on this yet, but I’m warming up to it. The extreme thins are inherently brittle, and I might have gone a little too far. But I do like how the Banner style exaggerates the unusual thick/thin/thick transitions between stems and arches in letters like n or d.

Gimlet Banner

Interpolation has been a crucial part of Gimlet’s development (as it is for many large families); I was able to generate many variants from a relatively small set of master designs. But for this exploration I’ve chosen to work in the Bold Condensed style precisely because it is not one of the original masters.

This may seem counterintuitive at first. I’m creating extra work for myself, and should I choose to pursue Banner styles for the entire family, I’ll probably have to discard this version and redraw the family in a more systematic way.

But I’ve been thinking a lot about how easy it can be to rely too much on interpolation, and how difficult it can be to maintain a sense of individuality and specificity at any given point in a large, fluid designspace. (This is especially apparent in Gimlet, which has already taken many style-specific quirks from Schadow and ironed them out into a more unified family.)

So despite the inefficiency, this exploration has forced me to spend some time drawing in a less-familiar area of the designspace. And hopefully I’ve learned something in the process.

Gimlet Banner is available this March for members of the Font of the Month Club; memberships go for as little as $6/month, so be sure to sign up today!

Alternate ampersand

DJR Open Studio

← Fonts

One week ago, over twenty passionate and awesome font enthusiasts attended my Open Studio, braving great distances, mud and ice, and multiple flat tires in order to be here.

Stephen Nixon already posted a great thread summing up the event, and I just wanted to follow up so that there is some record of it here.

The weekend began with some sledding, followed by dinner and drinks at the Conway Inn.

Welcome sign
CJ hits the slopes
CJ hits the slopes
Photo by Stephen Nixon
Lily chases Josh
Lily chases Josh down the hill, as CJ walks back up

Some of us started Saturday with a hike through the woods.

Starting out the hike
Photo by Stephen Nixon
On the hike
Photo by Mary Catherine Pflug

James documented some of the interesting things that we passed in the big field.

As we got closer to our destination, we started to see tapped trees with tubes and buckets.

On the hike
Photo by Mary Catherine Pflug
On the hike
Group shot by Mary Catherine Pflug

We finally reached Boyden Brothers Maple, operated by Jeanne and Howard Boyden. They gave us an excellent tour and demonstrated how maple syrup is made, and then gave us samples of syrup, maple cream, and maple candies.

Boyden Bros Maple
Photo by Mary Catherine Pflug

After a few hours of hanging out and enjoying each other’s company, and maybe even getting some work done, we sat down to see some presentations.

Micah at work
Photo by Stephen Nixon

Stephen Nixon kicked things off, presenting about Recursive, his Type & Media project.

Stephen Nixon
Photo by Mary Catherine Pflug

Eben Sorkin introduced us to a new tool called EQX that can help designers review, document, and improve their typeface designs.

Eben Sorkin
Photo by Stephen Nixon

Next, Jenn Contois gave an eye-opening presentation on signage and ADA-compliant typography. We had a lot of questions.

Jenn Contois
Photo by Mary Catherine Pflug

We then moved on to the business track, which was totally unintentional but also totally awesome. Mary Catherine Pflug crunched data from MyFonts in interesting ways to tell stories about how folks buy and sell fonts.

Mary Catherine Pflug

Matthew Rechs shared some invaluable tips about doing business as designers.

Matthew Rechs

And Joyce Ketterer closed out the talks with campfire horror stories about font licensing. 🔥

Joyce Ketterer
Photo by Mary Catherine Pflug

After the talks, we had some hearty vegetable soup and fresh-baked pies from Baker’s Country Store and chatted the night away.

What a great group we had. I’m looking forward to opening my studio again soon!

The group
Photo by Stephen Nixon

Discounted tickets available for Fontstand Conference

True Blue

I am truly impressed by this use of Fern in True Blue, a story by Eliot Peper with immersive illustrations by Phoebe Morris and design by Peter Nowell.

True Blue

February’s font of the month: Nickel Gothic Wide

Nickel Gothic Wide

Deriving a sans serif typeface from a serif is rarely as straightforward as I want it to be. And that goes double for a typeface like Nickel, whose serifs are so large and distinctive that it’s hard to imagine what it would look like without them.

Longtime club members might remember Nickel as the Font of the Month Club’s inaugural release. It’s a stocky engraver’s alphabet based on a banknote inscription that I found in a New York Times article about the design of money.

If you look closely at that banknote, you can see that it also features small supporting text rendered in a squarish sans. It is blocky like the prominent serif above it, but also a good deal wider and heavier. This became the jumping-off point for February’s font, Nickel Gothic Wide.

Lines

Seeing those tiny bits of sans serif on that banknote made me realize that, hiding behind Nickel’s oversize, swooping serifs, there’s actually a lot of subtle-yet-interesting stuff that could serve as the blueprint for a sans serif design. And I think this true of many sans distillations; with fewer opportunities to show off, they need to reach a little deeper into their bag of tricks.

The new sans serif retains the overall squarishness and closed apertures of the original design, but its heavier weight and broader proportions endow it with an intense energy of its own. There is an unusual tension between the round counterforms (with two straight sides) and the round outside shapes (with four straight sides), which sets it apart from other straight-sided gothics.

There is also a certain rawness to Nickel Gothic Wide’s drawing style. The stroke contrast varies greatly depending on the complexity of the letterform (compare the horizontals of B and T, for example), and the shapes are defined by abrupt, near-mechanical transitions between straight and curved segments.

Bearded and clean-shaven G
Nickel Gothic Wide’s “bearded” and “clean-shaven” G

Despite its 1918 roots, Nickel Gothic Wide has a certain ’70s vibe that I made no attempt to shy away from. I was told by multiple people that this type of squarishness reminded them of Neographik, a typeface designed by Robert Barbour in 1970. I’m not sure I had ever seen it before last week, but I totally see the connection!

Neographik got me thinking about drawing alternates that would allow you to calibrate the amount of “Grottiness” in the design. The Neographik-style curvy R pulls the design a step in the direction of the British Grotesques, while the G without the little beard on the bottom (I’m calling it “clean-shaven”) pushes it towards modernist extended faces like Information and Microgramma.

cyrillic

I was curious about how Nickel Gothic Wide would look in other writing systems, and kind of fell into a rabbit hole drawing matching capitals for Cyrillic and Greek. I’m pretty happy with the results, and I hope at least some of you appreciate the additional language support.

Special thanks to Masha Doreuli, George Triantafyllakos, and Irene Vlachou for their comments on the Cyrillic and Greek, and Sybille Hagmann, André Mora, and Nick Sherman for their general suggestions about the design. And finally, many thanks to María Ramos and Stephen Coles for writing/publishing the review of Nickel on Typographica, which convinced me to move forward with an expansion of the design.

Nickel Gothic Wide is available this February for members of the Font of the Month Club; memberships go for as little as $6/month, so be sure to sign up today!

greek

January’s font of the month: Roslindale Variable Italic

italic

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of sending out Roslindale Variable Italic to the members of the Font of the Month Club. Try it on v-fonts.com to get a feel for what it does. Here’s a little bit more about the design.

As you may remember from previous months, Roslindale is my take on the style of De Vinne, a typeface attributed to Gustav Schroeder and Nicholas Werner and released by the Central Type Foundry in 1892. The family grew over the following years to include De Vinne Italic, which was essentially a sloped version of the original Roman design.

But I didn’t feel like a sloped Roman was enough for Roslindale. Like De Vinne before it, Roslindale combines a rational structure typical of the Victorian era with echoes of historicized “oldstyle” shapes. And because Roz has a foot in both the “modern” and “oldstyle” worlds, I felt that its Italic should as well. (I should say that I have no problem with sloped Romans in general…in fact, I’m particularly proud of Gimlet’s funky Italics that juxtaposed sloped Roman letters with exuberant swashy forms.)

specimens
De Vinne Italic, as shown in Pacific Coast Blue Book, American Type Founders, 1896

Compared to type family extensions like weights or widths, Italics can have an especially complicated relationship with their companion Romans. This is because they can differ from the Roman not only in slope, but can draw (to varying degrees) on an entirely separate calligraphic tradition of cursive forms with different letter structures, densities, and textures.

The recent(ish) introduction of OpenType Variations has made this complicated relationship more apparent: even though a variable font file can theoretically contain an entire family, it is often more pragmatic to maintain separate variable fonts for Romans and Italics if the designs are just too different to combine.

Variable Fonts also gives us an opportunity to rethink the role that an Italic plays in a type family. Could there, or should there, be a space between Roman and Italic? What would that even look like? Would it actually be useful to fine-tune the “italicness” of a font?

I honestly don’t know the answers to these questions, or if taking the time to explore them makes any practical sense. But there is some precedent for this kind of thinking in families like Auto and Arietta and even Dwiggins’s Electra that were drawn with multiple italics, I figured it was something worth playing with. With a sloped Roman in its DNA, Roslindale seemed like a suitable playground.

Roslindale Variable Italic on v-fonts.com

So, in addition to issuing the self-explanatory Roslindale Display Condensed Bold Italic (which I hope club members find useful, by the way), I also issued an experimental variable font called Roslindale Variable Italic. This font allows you to manipulate Roslindale’s “italicness” independently from its slant. Rather than drawing separate Roman and Italic masters, I drew alternate cursive-style forms in both upright and optically-corrected-oblique configurations. These are available as OpenType Stylistic Sets and also begin to appear (in a somewhat-logical progression, maybe?) as the variable Italic axis gets more and more Italic.

upright

In addition to being able to customize the “italicness” of the Italic, this font also gives you the ability to incorporate Italic forms into the upright Roman as well. I was excited to see this part of the experiment dovetail with the upright cursive forms of ITC Bernase Roman, a 1970s interpretation of the same De Vinne style.

ampersand

Roslindale Variable Italic is available to members of the Font of the Month Club; memberships go for as little as $6/month. If all goes according to plan, I’ll also send out a bonus version of Roslindale Variable that will incorporate all of the extensions that I’ve offered so far (Weight, Optical Size, and Italic), but only to those members who have also received Roslindale’s previous installments. So make sure you grab those back issues on the signup form!

December’s font of the month: Dattilo DJR

envelope

Last summer, I received a big envelope in the mail from Roger Black. You might already know that I worked with him on a revival of Forma, the sans serif published by the Italian type foundry Nebiolo in 1968. But what you might not know is that Nebiolo also produced a slab serif counterpart to Forma in the early 70s called Dattilo. And what Roger’s envelope contained was a handful of original specimens of that design.

specimens

Forma and Dattilo share an interesting history as the product of a committee of eight prominent Italian graphic designers led by Nebiolo’s art director, Aldo Novarese. The struggling foundry assembled this committee to create a new “universal” typeface that would compete with the likes of Helvetica and Univers. Indra Kupferschmid documented this unusual tale of design-by-committee in an article that accompanied Forma DJR’s release, and even more detail can now be found in a pair of recent articles by Alessandro Colizzi. Just like Forma, Roger has admired the design for decades, even commissioning a phototype version from Jim Parkinson for a 1977 cover of Rolling Stone when the original metal was unavailable.

With our revival of Forma published in 2016, a complementary revival of Dattilo seemed like a natural next step for the design system. And this month I’m happy to share with you a preview of the lightest weight of the largest size of the new in-progress family: Dattilo DJR Banner Extra Light.

chiarissimo

Picking up where Forma DJR left off, my interpretation of Dattilo is guided by the things that Roger loved about this era of typesetting: the meeting of lofty ideals of universality and perfection and the realities of working with ink, metal, and paper. Rather than trying to achieve the most beautiful or perfect shapes, I was focused on conveying some of the design’s physicality. So you can see slight variations in stroke contrast, as well as blunted corners and ever-so-slightly tapered serifs…but no tapered stems this time!

One of Forma’s defining characteristics is its super-tight spacing, which is a bit harder to achieve in Dattilo with all those serifs in the way. But that additional space endows Dattilo with an interesting rhythm and a typewriter-influenced personality distinct from its sans serif counterpart. And the spacing still prioritizes closeness over a steady rhythm, giving text a 70s vibe.

A few of Dattilo forms diverge from Forma’s design, and instead borrow from Forma’s set of Swiss-style alternates, including the R with a curved leg and the bearded G. And while Dattilo retains Forma’s trademark single-story a, it does come with a two-story alternate.

alternate

Now that I’m sending the Extra Light to you, I’m going to use this as an excuse to spend some more time with the heavier side of the family, which diverges even more from Forma in its look and feel.

Dattilo DJR has already been used to great effect by Roger in the latest issue of Type Magazine (pictured below), as well as by Mark Porter in his recent redesign of Domus, the Italian architecture and design magazine. Now I’m excited to see what you do with it!

Dattilo DJR Banner Extra Light is available this month to members of Font of the Month Club. You can join for as little as $6/month, and gift subscriptions are available!

alphabet

November’s font of the month: Pappardelle Party

Pappardelle Party Font of the Month

It is no secret that I have a soft spot for fonts with horizontal and reverse stress. In fact, I was worried that this affinity would lead me to lean too much on the genre when choosing what I would make you for this club.

So I am celebrating a small milestone this month: I managed to make it a whole year without featuring a horizontal stress face in this collection. What restraint! And what better way to celebrate this milestone than to break that streak and send you one right now?

Pappardelle Party is a stencil version of Pappardelle, a twentieth century take on the French Antique that I released last October. Compared to its wood type predecessors, Pappardelle takes a more modernist approach, interested more in the abstract shapes than in their connection to the ruggedness of the Wild West.

The stencil version further abstracts the design into a geometric grab bag of lines, rectangles, and semicircles. Even though Latin stencil designs tend to have vertical “bridges” that hold the shapes in place, the bridges in Pappardelle Party follow its contrast, creating horizontal bands that cut across a line of text.

specimens

But Pappardelle Party’s true novelty comes from its unconventional combination of chromatic glyphs, Open­Type contextual alt­er­nates, and a variable axis. With a palette of four colors, the font cycles through four different arrangements of colors for each character that is typed.

The starting point of this endless cycle is governed by a variable “Color Spinner” axis. This allows you to vary the “seed” which begins the contextual cycle, and is also great for animation and interaction.

With all the things that Pappardelle Party does, it is also notable for one thing it doesn’t do: interpolate. Unlike other variable fonts out there, there are no changing weights or morphing outlines; the variable axis simply swaps out glyph after glyph (a big thank you to Irene Vlachou for her technical advice on this). I hope this will lead to more exploration of how variable fonts can give users new ways to access alternate glyphs.

There are a few flavors of color fonts out there, each with their own complexities and support issues. I am sending you two: COLR/CPAL, which has a smaller filesize and is supported by most modern web browsers, and SVG-in-OT, which is supported by apps such as Photoshop and Illustrator (Photoshop can be a little finicky though, so you may have to disable and re-enable Contextual Alternates to get it working).

And because alternative color palettes are not supported in apps and browsers quite yet, I now have a new and improved Color Font Customizer, where you can drag on your font, pick your own colors, and download a customized version. Many thanks to Chris Lewis for putting it together!

I fully admit that Pappardelle Party is one of the tackiest things I have ever produced. Try not to do anything too cringeworthy with it, okay? 😉

Pappardelle Party is available to order as a back issue for all members of the Font of the Month Club.