May’s Font of the Month: Lab DJR

Font of the Month, 2023/05 PDF Try Buy $24
Lab DJR element

I love a good pixel font, and I always suggest that type enthusiasts try their hand at making one. Some of my outline-based fonts have started as pixel fonts, and I think they are a great way to experience the playful system-building aspect of type design without the stress of drawing nice curves.

A few weeks after variable fonts were introduced in late 2016, I made my first one. It was about as simple as a variable font could be—each letter was assembled out of a single, repeating, morphing shape.

Looking back, this font was an obvious precursor to the kind of small-scope, experimental fonts that I love to make for this club. But back in 2016, I had no idea what to do with it—as an early variable font, it didn’t work in any shipping browser or desktop app at the time. So I never gave it a proper release and it has been gathering dust on my desktop ever since.

Once or twice a year, someone will ask to use Lab DJR for something; I’m able to send them the old version, but I always think that it’s about time for me to dust off this project, reconstruct it using the latest variable font-making techniques, and expand it. So this month, that’s exactly what I did.

Lab djr styles 2000

Lab DJR offers variable axes that lets you morph its default square pixel into a circle, a diamond, and a sparkle. On top of that, you can adjust their size in a variety of ways and even “split the atom” to divide each shape into four similar shapes. But the real fun comes when you mix the axes together and the outlines start to glitch out. When you use two at a time, the transformations are usually somewhat predictable, but after three or more, chaos reigns.

This typeface joins a rich and growing genre of dynamic pixel fonts, ranging from ambitious proto-variable systems like Bitcount, Elementar, FindReplace, and various projects by Muir McNeil, to imaginative variable-centric designs like Tiny, Littlebit, Homecomputer, Handjet, and Gridlite (which was used to great effect in the 2021 identity for the Typographics festival)...just to name a few!

Lab djr basic color specimen 2000

Lab DJR was supposed to be the simplest variable font possible, but upon revisiting it, I couldn’t resist adding one more layer of complexity: color. I wrote a python script that randomly assigned one of eight colors to each pixel, and created OpenType contextual alternates to mix up the colors in repeating glyphs to make things feel even more scattershot. 

Of course, I don‘t expect a confetti pixel font to have a ton of practical uses, but I think the magic of “toy fonts” like this one is how they can unexpectedly cross the divide from impractical to practical. What looks cheesy with random colors has the potential to become a tasteful pattern or decorative drop cap once you harmonize the color palette with the other elements in your design.

Which brings me to the other thing that toy fonts are good at: offering interesting use cases for emerging font tech. My Color Font Customizer lets you drag on your font, customize the color palette, and download the modified version. But even better than that is CSS font-palette, which web browsers have started shipping in the past year—Myles Maxfield and I published a little font-palette how-to, if you’re interested. Desktop apps have been slower to support dynamic color palettes, and I hope Lab DJR serves as a nice reminder that it would be so cool if everybody did! 🥺

the lowercase alphabet of Lab DJR

April’s Font of the Month: Warbler Banner Italic

Font of the Month, 2023/04 PDF Try Buy $24
Warbler Banner Italic ULC 2000

 In a font editor, there are two main ways to manipulate a vector shape: you can nudge points by repeatedly tapping the arrow keys on the keyboard, or you can drag them around with a mouse. 

For those of you who draw letters, I’m curious if you consider yourself to be more of a nudgy-tappy designer or a pushy-draggy one…I think I tend to be more nudgy-tappy myself. You can hear an audible taptaptaptap as I move points around in increments of 1 or 10 units, a method which allows for precise, systematic, and repeatable changes to the shapes in a font.

Typefaces with a sense of organic looseness may lend themselves to a pushy-draggy approach. This way of editing feels less surgical and more sculptural, as if you’re pushing clay back and forth until you arrive at the desired shape. And gosh was it refreshing to chill out a bit, set aside my measure-twice-cut-once ways, and do some pushing and dragging in Warbler Banner Italic.

Warbler Banner Italic UC 2000

This month’s installment is unique in that it started as a commission. Michael Russem of Katherine Small Gallery (my favorite place for type books new and old) asked me to draw a few words in Warbler Deck Italic for an upcoming book. Size-specific designs for Warbler’s upright styles have been available since last March, but this ended up being the push I needed to finally give the same treatment to its Italics.

Even though what Michael asked for is in the middle of the optical size range, I did my work in the most extreme variant (Banner Italic) and then interpolated my way back to the Deck. This indirect workflow was a bit more effort, but it provided me with the starting point for the full range of optical sizes that I’m sending you today. 

The other nice thing about drawing in the Banner Italic was that I didn’t have to worry about holding back. I could focus on figuring out what these letters should look like with their full range of expression, knowing that I could always tone it down for smaller sizes at the end.

Warbler Banner Italic Sizes 2000

Warbler’s Banner Italics mostly follow the same script as the uprights: shorter x-height, longer ascenders and descenders, and a radically high stroke contrast with razor-thin hairlines. I mostly worked directly from Warbler Text without consulting other references, as I didn’t find large-size Italic cuts of Bulmer and Martin’s types from 1790, and ATF’s Bulmer Italics had a slightly different flavor than what I wanted here. 

I tried to play up the aforementioned looseness of the drawing, so that it continues to feel wobbly and delicate and not too perfect or crisp. This included subtle exaggerations to the variety of italic angles, the “sway” of m and n, the asymmetry of o, the distinctive ascender of p, and the unusual instrokes of v and w. The uppercase remains slightly too heavy for their own good, set apart by the charactertic cursive forms of J/K/N/T/Y.  

This update continues Warbler’s 14-month journey from a simple pair of text fonts into a multisize family for book design and editorial use. If you have the v1 uprights from last March already, these fonts should install right alongside those. I hope that this Italic serves you well, not only as a faithful companion to the upright, but as an expressive typographic accent all on its own.

Warbler Banner Italic Compare 2000

March’s Font of the Month: Megascope weights

Font of the Month, 2023/03 PDF Try Buy $24
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 PDF Try
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…