This year, with the conference entirely online, I had the opportunity to contribute a short ad for Font of the Month Club. But alas, I waited until the last minute before realizing that I have no A/V skills, I am horrible with software like After Effects. As the deadline approached, I had no idea what to make.
As I was stressing out, Typographics organizer and Type@Cooper director Cara di Edwardo encouraged me to just have fun with it. She planted the idea of doing something that recalled the pages of a tear-off calendar, which seemed perfect for a monthly subscription like mine. But what to do about the music?
A couple days before the deadline, I sent a message to type designer, dancer, and musician Jeff Kellem asking him if he had any interest in recording a last-minute jingle for the ad. Amazingly, he was available, and asked me if I had anything in mind. I quickly sang something silly into my phone and sent it to him.
In less than 48 hours, Jeff transformed the idea into a real piece of music, with a charming opening fanfare, a catchy melody, big band instrumentation, and vocals! I couldn’t be happier with it.
In spring, I am always taken by surprise here in Western Massachusetts. Since I wrote you last, flowers are blooming, deer and wild turkey are visiting, and birds are chirping...there’s even a nest directly above my front door! And the forest floor in the woods around my house—just dirt and dead leaves a few weeks ago—is now covered in a thick blanket of ferns.
These ferns are lovely, sure, but I couldn’t help but feel that they were taunting me...a constant reminder that I still haven’t figured out what to do with my typeface Fern, a family that has been described on my website as “coming soon” since 2016! 😬
I started Fern Micro in 2013, in an attempt to translate the diagonal stress and ribbonlike texture of Jenson (and its twentieth-century ancestors like Centaur and Dante) to small sizes, especially on screen. Originally intended to be a part of Font Bureau’s Reading Edge Series for small text on the web, Fern Micro’s large x-height, loose spacing, and low contrast helped it stand up to the limitations of screen resolution and text rendering at the time. But I always thought of Fern Micro as the start of something bigger, and here I am eight years later still figuring that out.
I tend to have a love-hate relationship with my own work, but I’ve always liked Fern Micro. It’s a simple typeface that does a simple job: read nicely at small sizes. But as screen resolutions get sharper and folks use larger sizes for body text, the cracks start to show. Its chunkiness makes it super robust—a much-needed feature in small sizes—but can also make it feel horsey as it gets bigger. (It was this same impetus that sparked the creation of Roslindale Deck.)
I’ve tried a couple times to go-big-or-go-home and draw a cut of Fern for huge sizes, but each time I found myself stymied by dissatisfaction and indecision. I’ve sharpened the serifs, I’ve boosted the thick/thin contrast, and I’ve completely rearranged the proportions so that the lowercase was narrower and smaller in relation to the caps. It never worked for me. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why, but I guess the sharpness and contrast felt uncharacteristically loud and showy for a font that isn’t really about seeking attention. Fern isn’t trying to be the prettiest, most exquisite interpretation of Jenson’s Roman, and it’s not trying to be a postmodern deconstruction of it either. Fern is just a simple text face.
I decided I needed to embrace that simplicity, so I went back to the problem that I was actually trying to solve: Fern Micro gets ungainly as it gets larger. So, what I’m sending you this month is a “re-tuning” of Fern for those larger text sizes (I’m thinking 11–14pt, but your mileage may vary). It makes the same kinds of changes that I attempted in the scrapped Display cut (smaller x-height, higher contrast) but in smaller, subtler moves. I think it does the job!
Several of you have asked for a Bold weight for Fern (a reasonable request!), so you’ll find that in the package as well as an update of Fern Micro. The variable version unites Text and Micro along an Optical Size axis, which now works automatically in the latest InDesign (I’ve been playing with this feature a bunch since the Forma DJR expansion I released earlier this month with Ruggero Magrì.)
Forma DJR was conceived as an expansive family, and I’ve always felt that the weight range in the original release didn’t reach its potential. Now it has. I’m excited to announce a significant update to the family with four new weights, that take the design to light and dark extremes, and variable fonts, which give you full control over this expanded designspace.
This all began when Roger Black asked me revive Aldo Novarese’s Forma, a slick neo-grotesque typeface, and make it a family that would work for editorial and branding typography. Under Roger’s direction, I embraced the qualities that were present in fresh proofs from metal type, and was guided by Indra Kupferschmid as I developed the rounded corners, tapered stems, and other imperfections that captures the feeling of ink on paper.
In the years that followed, I drew a Black and then a Hairline weight as outliers, but I never found the time to incorporate them into the family. Fortunately, Italian type designer and longtime Forma fan Ruggero Magrì stepped in and completed the project. He expanded the revival’s language support, drew a Hairline Italic, and brought the family together as variable fonts.
I drew Forma DJR’s Black weight in 2017 for the Belgian broadcaster VRT as part of the rebrand of their news outlet, VRT NWS. Working with the branding agency Today and Type Network, I tried to preserve the general weight and appearance of the original Forma Tonda Nerissima, but added a bit of width and thick/thin contrast so that this style would work seamlessly with the rest of Forma DJR.
Before its release in 2016, Forma DJR was used for glamorous magazine headlines, and it has always excelled in large sizes. So an extremely light style was only a matter of time. In June 2019, I reduced the design to its skeletal form and released Forma’s hairline weight for the Font of the Month Club. With hardly any weight at all, its tapered stems and rounded edges are especially noticeable...but I like it that way.
After that came out, Ruggero took over, and I couldn’t have been happier with the Hairline Italic he drew. He managed to capture the naturalistic curves of the original, without any feeling of it being digitally skewed. And he managed to do this while maintaining consistent weights and round edges at a 13° angle, which is no trivial task!
Ruggero also took the opportunity to add Vietnamese language support, bringing it in line with my other recent releases. Donny Truong, creator of the incredible Vietnamese Typography resource, advised us on the project, and was particularly helpful with the crucial diacritic horn.
We were nervous about using a straightened horn, which would be an unusual feature for a sans like this one, but we thought it vibed with Forma’s Modernist leanings. To our delight, Donny encouraged us to keep this more daring shape, and we took his pragmatic suggestion to provide a curved alternate for those who prefer it, especially in text.
As you may have noticed, Forma DJR’s super-tight spacing is incredibly sensitive to size. Its Optical Sizes were designed to make its spacing comfortable from tiny 8pt captions, to massive 144pt headlines. Now, with variable fonts, you’re no longer required to choose between “Banner” or “Display” font names when setting large type, or “Text” versus “Micro” when things get small. You still have as much control as before but it should take less work.
Some environments will even do that work for you. InDesign is starting to roll out their support for automatic optical sizing, which will match the Optical Size axis to the point size. Forma DJR is a perfect example of why this nifty feature should exist.
All weights of Forma DJR, including its variable fonts, are now available for licensing at djr.com/forma. Folks who’ve already licensed Forma from me can get in touch to upgrade at no additional charge. Free testing licenses are also available, so I encourage you to take it for a spin!
Sometimes I like to think that letterforms are made up of skin, muscle, and bone. There are typefaces that have conventional skeletons, but do something exciting with the way weight builds up around the skeleton (muscle). Others play with surface-level attributes like line quality and roughness (skin), but don't do as much with weight or proportions. And for some, the focus is primarily on the skeleton itself, relying on unusual proportions or letterform constructions to set the typeface apart.
Extendomatic is a typeface that is all about its skeleton. I started this design in 2015 while living in Los Angeles. My wife Emily and I spent many weekends exploring LA’s residential streets and documenting the cursive signage of its many “dingbat” apartments. Standing on a sidewalk in Manhattan Beach, I found myself admiring the exaggerated baseline of the “Sounds of the Sea” sign, pictured below, and that’s what got me drawing. But the typeface quickly shifted towards a more Streamline look, abstracting away any hint of the handmade and relating more to the Deco stylings of early mid-20th-century cars and appliances.
Over time I found myself less interested in taking this design in an overtly Retro direction, and more interested in doing some sort of geometric deconstruction of the style. Of course, there are plenty of great typefaces out there already that run this gamut (Raceway, Frigidaire, FIG, Orion), but I tried to steer clear of those while designing this font, and follow where the geometry was taking me.
Over the years, this typeface has gone through several iterations: slanted vs. upright, thick vs. thin, narrow vs. wide. And a lot of questions remain: Do the round corners help pull this typeface out of the Retro category, or should I go beyond the skeleton and think about weight, contrast, and edges a bit more? Should every word begin and end with a long baseline, or is it a good thing that I’ve employed special alternates to limit them at the beginning and end of each word? I feel like I’m still in the process of exploring this space and figuring out what works and doesn’t work, and now with Extendomatic’s variable font, you can do that with me!
Extendomatic’s variable font can vary in stroke weight and slant 20° to the left or to the right, but it’s the tracking axis that steals the show. Tracking a connected script is rarely a good idea, but this variable axis extends the baseline as it spaces out the letters. This allows the letter spacing to increase tenfold while the letters still stay connected, and helps Extendomatic live up to its name. (I’ve designed the underscore (_) and overline (‾) to act as snap-on extenders, in case you want to go even further 😅).
And finally, a couple technical asides:
There seems to be some rendering issues in Adobe apps when the typeface gets super-wide, and some alternate difficulties when you try to use multiple tracking values within the same word (you can always disable contextual alternates to get a more predictable result).
This variable font is unlike any other I’ve sent before because it isn’t anchored by drawings at every corner of the designspace. Instead, I’m using this as an experiment to see how much I can trust the variable font renderer to calculate shapes automatically when two or more axes are employed simultaneously (I’ve already notice Slant+Weight causing some slightly wobbliness, for example). It’s sort of the variable fonts version of “Here be Dragons”...I know these locations exist on my map, but I can only guess what’s actually there!
Go ahead and hit your CAPS LOCK key, because this month I’ve added an uppercase to Club Lithographer!
Last November, I sent you my first draft of this eccentric, high-contrast italic, but I wasn’t happy with the capitals so I simply omitted them. Since then, I’ve occasionally poked my head into the font file to mess around with what I started, scratch my head, and try to figure out why they were bugging me so much.
This typeface came about as the result of me riffing on Farmer, Little, & Co.’s Lithographic Italic. I never intended to do a revival or even a reinterpretation of this typeface, but I did borrow liberally from the design, including its wide proportions, extra-long serifs, and steep Italic angle. I made my design a lot more flowing, with loose curves, and blobby serifs. It’s almost as if the letters were formed out of spilled maple syrup...though I might just be thinking this because March is sugaring season here in Western Mass!
All of this proved to be a lot more difficult to achieve in the caps. Capitals tend to be more constructed than their pen-inspired lowercase counterparts—all the symmetry and straight lines and bilateral serifs fight against the free-flowing vibe I was after. Plus, there are just so many more serifs and the caps, and in this design they are so long and distinct that they were starting to get overwhelming.
My original uppercase more-or-less followed the “engravers” style of the original Lithographic Italic, but eventually I decided that they were too sharp and too heavy for this design. So I threw out all the caps I drew last year and started from scratch, this time emphasizing their width and wobbliness.
I also took this opportunity to dig up more specimens of Lithographic Italic, and was excited to see the liberal use of Swash capitals in the examples...they even appeared in all-caps settings and in the middle or the end of a word (see “OR”, above). These swash caps succeed in bringing more of the lowercase’s flowing curvature into the uppercase, so of course I couldn’t resist drawing a set of my own.
Swashes are at their best when they are lightly peppered into a document at the typographer’s discretion—you might not get great results if you apply Club Lithographer’s OpenType Swash feature to entire blocks of text. They lend themselves to a “hunt-and-peck” style of typography, where a designer swap in different glyphs for a particular word (traditionally achieved by literally swapping metal blocks, but very possible using the Glyphs palette in a design app).
However, the concept of “lightly peppering” something can be a much trickier prospect when content and styling are separated. I’ve been doing more and more work in HTML/CSS and DrawBot, and it takes a bit more creativity—and sometimes more restraint—to make swashes succeed in a stylesheet- or template-based environment. But I’m convinced you can do it! 😁
As I write this, I’m already regretting not taking the time to add Small Caps and other typographic niceties to this font, and I’m curious to hear where you’d like me to take it next...does it even need an upright companion? In any event, I hope you enjoy this small update and find more utility in this design now that it has a full U&lc set.