June’s Font of the Month: Fern Text

Font of the Month, 2021/06 Try Buy $24 PDF
Fern text sample

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.

Fern blanket

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.)

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My original drawings for Fern Display, now scrapped

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.

Fern text vs fern micro

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.)

Ornaments

And I know I just said I was trying to keep things simple, but when it came to ornamentation I couldn’t help myself. On a whim, I added a set of ornaments that follows a system I found in a book by Centaur’s designer, Bruce Rogers. You can access them via the Glyphs palette, via a separate font mapped to a QWERTY keyboard layout, and even via a DrawBot script (inspired by James Edmonson’s Hobeaux Rococeaux borders script as well as Marina Chaccur’s recent talk on the Kaba ornament). 

I’m excited to share a little piece of my woods with you, so that you can go forth and cover your endpapers and empty spaces in a thick blanket of greenery! 

Have a jubilant June, and maybe “see” you at Typographics?
—DJR

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Little ferns

Fern photos by Emily Richardson

More-ma! Forma DJR gets new weights and variable fonts

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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.

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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.

Four years later, VRT NWS still uses the typeface every day, on TV, on the web, and on social media. And I can’t tell you how much I love seeing it on the weather report!

Read more about the VRT NWS rebrand at Type Network »

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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!

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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.

Forma indesign

Forma DJR Variable’s Optical Sizes subtly tighten the letter spacing as the type gets larger.

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!

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May’s Font of the Month: Extendomatic

Font of the Month, 2021/05 Try Buy $24 PDF
Intro

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.

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Sounds of the Sea, Manhattan Beach

Park western

Park Western, Los Feliz

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!

Expand

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 😅).

Cols

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!

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April’s Font of the Month: Club Lithographer v2

Font of the Month, 2021/04 Try Buy $24 PDF
Litho promo 01 2x

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!

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Lithographic Italic, as shown in Farmer, Little, & Co.’s 1867 specimen

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.

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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! 😁

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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.

Sending you my warmest regards this April! —DJR

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March’s font of the month: Job Clarendon

Font of the Month, 2021/03 Try Buy $24 PDF
Artboard 1 UC2x2

Last August, I shared the Hairline weight from a Clarendon that I have been working on for the better part of two years. A collaboration with designer and writer Bethany Heck, It pulled heavily from the condensed, bracketing-heavy Clarendons of the 19th century, but took the style thinner than those types (cut in wood) could possibly go. This month, again with Bethany’s guidance, I’ve expanded the design and pushed it to the opposite extreme.

Extremes may define the range of a variable font, but I often find that the true challenge is figuring out how to keep things interesting in the middle. Especially in a low-contrast design like a Clarendon, an over-reliance on interpolation can produce bland results. But when it’s managed, I like to think that interpolation can produce a family whose sum is greater than its parts, allowing it to exceed the bounds set by its historical predecessors and find uncharted territory in and around well-worn typography genres.

Boston Type Foundry Clarendon

Clarendon wood types from the Boston Type Foundry, 1856. Photo by James Puckett, used under Creative Commons license.

If you were around to receive Heckendon last August, the first thing you might notice is the shiny new name. I’ll let Bethany explain it: “Job Clarendon is an homage to ‘job printing’ – display-heavy designs made for posters and flyers in the heyday of letterpress printing. This style of Clarendons was wildly popular in this genre of work, and I've always been interested in how adaptable they were. The style was fattened, squished and stretched to accommodate lines of text both short and long and type foundries across the globe each found their own unique features to contribute to the Clarendon stew.”

Indeed, adaptability is the name of the game for this typeface. This design changes across weight more than any other typeface I’ve designed (ok, not counting Fit 😉): stems get up to 45 times thicker from Hairline to Black, and the average letterform more than doubles in width. Amidst these radical changes in design, Bethany and I sought to preserve the dense, clunky charm that sets Clarendons apart.

Artboard 1 copy UC2x2

The chasm between Hairline and Black was far too wide to interpolate across effectively, so I incorporated new drawings in the Extra Light, Regular, and Bold weights to act as additional “tentposts” to support the design. This gave us the ability to question each element of the design and how it transforms across weight: At what point do the round characters completely lose their straight sides? At what point does thick/thin contrast get introduced, and how much? At what point does the increasing density force the vertical serifs and terminals in letters like C and S to stop aligning with each other?

In a low-contrast design where virtually every counterspace is enclosed by inward-facing terminals, letterforms can get clogged up pretty quickly. Bethany and I decided that this clogginess should be a feature and not a bug, so in the Extra Bold and Black weights the letterforms are given license to collide with themselves and each other.

Most of the time these collisions happen gradually, like the terminal of the a that eventually merges with the lower bowl. But we do give special treatment to collisions that involve the inter-serif gap (see h, n, and m). With serifs this thick, the rhythm of these gaps becomes so important, and we didn’t like the idea of them just vanishing into nothingness. So instead, we picked a point in the weight axis and forced them to snap shut.

(I’m not always crazy about animations like this, but it’s an easy way to demonstrate the mix of gradual and snappy transitions.)

So what’s next for this in-progress family? Bethany wants to go narrower, and I think that makes a lot of sense. An Extra Extra Compressed Black will certainly take our concept of intentional clogginess to the next level.

The Clarendon stew is a rich one, with so much variety in wood, in metal, and in Béziers. We hope that you think this is a worthy contribution to the pot, and that you enjoy putting it to use.

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