An interview with The Weekly Typographic podcast

League of movable type

It was an absolute pleasure to chat with Olivia Kane for this week’s episode of The League of Movable Type’s Weekly Typographic podcast! We talked about origin stories, Emigre, font distribution, fighting for novelty fonts, and a whole lot more.

You can give it a listen wherever you stream your podcasts (including spotify, apple podcasts, and google podcasts), and I also suggest you check out their other recent interviews...they’ve had some incredible guests on recently.

October’s Font of the Month: Nickel Gothic Condensed and Compressed

Font of the Month, 2022/10 Try Buy $24 PDF
Nickel gothic condensed big 2000

Six months ago, I sent an update to Nickel Gothic that included lowercase and a couple narrower widths. As I hit “Send” on the mailing, I felt a pang of regret, thinking to myself: “I should have gone narrower!”

After that, I started to notice narrow, rectilinear sans serifs in the wild—on freight train cars, on construction equipment, and even on the sign for the church in the next town over. They taunted me. And they made me think about how much more useful and fun Nickel Gothic would be if it was used in the same way that folks employ classic fonts like Impact and Haettenschweiler. So I made it narrower.

Nickel gothic church

Saint John’s Church, Ashfield, Massachusetts

The Condensed Sans genre is a crowded one. It’s one of the reasons I’ve hesitated to update Bild even though I know I should…I’m still trying to find the thing that makes Bild special. But for whatever reason, Nickel Gothic feels easier. I said in my April mailing that each letter of Nickel Gothic should land with a resounding thud, and a big part of that has to do with the exaggerated flatness of “round” shapes like O

Plenty of sans serifs get more rigid as they get narrower, exchanging their ovoid O for a stadium shape. Heck, it even happens in Helvetica Compressed! But Nickel Gothic has “rounds” that have straight sides to begin with, not to mention completely flat tops and bottoms. These flat-top exteriors contrast with the round-top interiors and leave additional weight in the corners (shoulderpads?), giving Nickel Gothic the feeling of being more “engineered” than “drawn”. 

The problem with making Nickel Gothic narrower is that these distinctive flat tops started to get less and less noticeable. So I raised the thick/thin contrast and reduced the corner radius of the exterior shapes, accentuating the flat surfaces as much as possible. And I made no attempt to create a gradual transition between the straight and round segments, further underscoring the flatness that sets Nickel Gothic apart.

Nickel gothic flat top 2 2000

I tend to gravitate towards typefaces that hang out in between genres. The thing I like about Nickel Gothic Condensed is that it’s not materially different from a classic headline sans, but its flat-top style moves it one step closer to abstract shapes. It’s an odd midpoint between a functional sans like Bild and a novelty sans like Fit

Nickel Gothic’s narrower version exacerbated the difference between closed-in, double-stroke letters like O and C and open, single-stroke letters like E and T. The latter group had to get significantly narrower in order to avoid leaving big open spaces in text. Diagonal letters like v and y also took lots of extra massaging to get their intersections to not feel overwhelmingly congested.

But, as I was writing up this mailing a couple weeks ago, I started to feel the same pang of regret that I felt in April. I should have gone even narrower!

Nickel gothic compressed 2 2000

I didn’t necessarily feel the need to explore the illegible extremes of something like Barcode (after all, Fit has been there, done that), but as I was looking at uses of Permanent Headline and Compacta I wondered if Nickel Gothic could be a flat-top alternative to those as well. I followed their lead and added a bit of letter spacing to battle the picket-fence-effect that Compressed fonts get when the space outside the letters is equal to the space within them. 

These new styles get pretty far from the 1918 Chinese banknote that served as Nickel Gothic’s jumping-off point, but I think they feel like a logical extension for the family, not to mention a lively variable axis to play with in your headlines.

Thanks for letting me take the extra time this month, and I hope a few of you appreciate that these four new widths are available in Cyrillic and Greek as well. Let’s plan on the next mailing landing late as well so I can play a little catch-up. 😅 Enjoy your month!

Nickel gothic all widths black 2000

September’s Font of the Month: Gimlet Sans Optical Sizes

Font of the Month, 2022/09 Try Buy $24 PDF
Gimlet sans blah screenshot 2000

At the very end of 2020, I issued Gimlet Sans Blah, which is probably my silliest font to date. It uses a little OpenType trickery to replace all text with “blah blah blah”, helping the user get some distance from messaging apps (like Slack) and unwind a bit, while still remaining logged in.

But this jokey font revealed a serious limitation of the Gimlet Sans expansion I sent out earlier that month: those four letters (and one wordspace) didn’t look great at small sizes! I didn’t bother mentioning it at the time, but I had actually modified the forms in Gimlet Sans Blah to make them feel a bit less cramped when used in a text or interface setting. The x-height got larger, the letterspacing opened up, and thus, the idea for Gimlet Sans Optical Sizes was born.

Gimlet sans text sample 2000

I’ve been working on a few UI fonts for clients in recent months. Each time we’ve had to figure out how to address legibility/accessibility concerns without boiling out every last bit of personality from the typeface. So I’ve been asking myself a lot recently, how far can you stretch a design before it stops feeling like that design? And conversely, how much personality can you get away with in a font made for small sizes?

Size-specific adjustments in type are a pretty subjective thing, but they generally follow the same playbook. As a font gets smaller, it gets looser, airier, simpler, and more obvious. A small-size font is a ruggedized font…details need to get exaggerated or they need to disappear.

That being said, it feels like we are turning a corner in small-size typeface design. It once felt like open forms were the key to a great UI font (Lucida, for example), but with better rasterizers and higher screen resolutions, many of the common UI fonts out there today have closed apertures, including San Francisco and Roboto. My hope is that this is a stepping stone towards more diversity and expression in small-size text.

Gimlet sans sizes sample 2000

You tend to see optical size variants a lot more often in serif fonts, where changes in thick/thin contrast, serif sharpness, and proportions tend to be more radical or even showy (take the changes I made to Warbler Banner several months ago). 

As a sans-serif, Gimlet Sans already had a lot going for it in terms of small-size-friendly attributes: it was low-detail and relatively low-contrast, and already had a decently-high x-height. Much of its off-kilter charm comes from its wide stance and exaggerated underbites, so I didn’t have to worry about anything being too narrow or subtle.

But it did need something. So just like I did with Warbler Text, I grabbed my trusty HTML test page and custom stylesheet and I started changing stuff and testing it. And while I did, I’d ask myself two questions: Does this change genuinely make the text a little easier to parse? And, does this still feel like Gimlet Sans?

Gimlet sans wiki sample 2000

So much of typeface design is about the trial-and-error process of figuring out “recipes” that transform one style into another. What I mean is something like this: Increase the x-height and lowercase width by nearly 10% while maintaining the existing stroke width. Then, loosen the letterspacing by roughly 100 units and increase the gaps of the pothook terminals by 20–30 units, including the distance of dots and accents to the base letter.

At a certain point, the system breaks down and I have to shift my focus towards managing the details. It turned out that round-sided shapes needed to gain a little more letter-spacing than straight-sided ones. The taller lowercase letters couldn’t tuck underneath capitals like T and F anymore, so I created untucked alternates to manage the transition. 

I tried to keep as many distinctive Gimlet-y quirks as I could, but I did have to part with some along the way. The pothook of the lowercase f got to be way too crowded in the now-reduced ascender space, and I begrudgingly replaced it with a simpler form. The t’s pothook, on the other hand, didn’t feel as disruptive, but there’s a simplified alternate in case you disagree. I even toyed with the idea of throwing in high-legibility alternates into the mix, including a Verdana-style serifed capital I and a lowercase l with a tail (which both felt sufficiently quirky and Gimlet-y to me!)

Gimlet sans text diagram 2000

This month’s download contains a bunch of fonts. You get the new Micro size (optimized for 9pt and below), a Text size (optimized for 10–13pt), and fresh cut of Gimlet Sans Display (previously “Gimlet Sans”), which has various improvements such as tighter spacing, OpenType alternates, tabular figures, and (*gulp*) a few bug fixes—thanks to the club members who reported them!

And it finally has Italics. Instead of shooting for a more flowing Italic, I stuck with the approach I used for Gimlet Serif, which follows Schadow’s unusual mix of oblique Roman forms and exuberant cursive outbursts. It features a round v and w, and I even managed to shoehorn in the notorious x, which is essentially a backwards c glued to a forwards c. It’s weird, but it’s not overly-crowded and definitely not subtle. I figured I might as well see if you’ll let me get away with it! 😆

Gimlet sans italic sample 2000

August’s Font of the Month: Glyptic DJR

Font of the Month, 2022/08 Try PDF
Glyptic djr microscopic 2000

When I look at a Victorian type specimen book, I feel like time flattens out. I’ll catch the 1880 vibes, for sure, but also whiffs of 1970 and 2022. I’ll see frilly fonts on one page that feel hopelessly antiquated, relics of a bygone era. Next to them, I’ll see fonts that feel strikingly contemporary, virtually indistinguishable from what’s popular today. It’s funny to see them coexist, and it reminds me of how limited my definition of “contemporary” can be. 

Glyptic is one of those frilly fonts that, at first glance, feels hopelessly antiquated. But underneath its Victorian veneer, it contains fascinating choices that I would never make as a type designer, and I wanted to digitize it if for no other reason than to understand what the heck is going on. So this month I’m sending you my revival: Glyptic DJR.

Glyptic franklin 2000

Glyptic, as shown in the 1889 Franklin Type Foundry Specimen

Glyptic is an ornamented Latin serif designed in 1878 by Herman Ihlenburg and issued by the Philadelphia type foundry Mackellar, Smiths and Jordan. Longtime club members will recognize Ihlenburg’s name, as I’m a repeat-reviver of his work: Bradley DJR is a revival of his interpretation of Will H. Bradley’s lettering, and Crayonette DJR is based on a typeface that was in turn inspired by Ihlenberg’s Crayon.

What to say about Glyptic…it’s kind of a chaotic design! It contrasts sharp triangular serifs against delicate spirals and curlicues. On top of that, it comes with a host of unconventional letters: a razor-sharp R, an uncialesque U, loads of descenders, and a M / W pair that abandons the typical alternating thick-thin construction in favor of a near-symmetrical looped form that is downright bizarre.

Glyptic djr piquant 2000

My digitization mostly follows the proportions of Glyptic’s two-line pica cut (24pt). But in my interpretation, I chose to double down on the design’s frenzied energy and heighten the contrasts between sharp and round elements. The original vertical serifs on letters like T dangled like delicate tendrils; mine, on the other hand, are more angular and severe. The descenders of H, M, and J follow suit. The original K has a surprisingly conventional form, which I felt was a missed opportunity. I drew an entirely new form to match the aggressive tails of A and R. (Don’t worry…the original is available as an alternate.)

As I was making the pointy stuff pointier, I was also adding heft and rigidity to the rounder elements in the design. The counterforms of curved shapes like O have entirely straight sides, and the ends of the curlicues become full-on ball terminals…all of those spirals were surprisingly hard to draw!

Glyptic diagram 2000

Whenever the original Glyptic was shown, they always went really hard with the ornaments. So I made sure to include them in my revival and feature them prominently in my showings too. Since they often enclose the text, I made them alternates of the parentheses, brackets, and braces, so you can type them easily. You’ll even find that the humble wordspace has an ornamented variant!

Glyptic djr antiquites 2000

At least to my knowledge, Glyptic hasn’t been a part of the design conversation for 100+ years, and maybe there’s a reason for that. It is doubtlessly a product of its time, and it’s okay for some styles to get left behind as tastes evolve and trends cycle in and out.

But in my view, this long absence makes it all the more ripe for a comeback. Type revivals give us an interesting opportunity to hack the timeline and short-circuit the cycles of fashion that we live in. It’s a chance to interrogate the vicissitudes of our current tastes and better understand why we use the fonts we use. And in that process, we might even broaden our contemporary tastes.

Glyptic djr cookbook 2000