February’s font of the month: Megavolt

Font of the Month, 2021/02 Try Buy $24 PDF
Megavolt ulc

A new semester just began at Massachusetts College of Art & Design, and with it, the typeface design course that I teach.

In my class, the first project is always pixel fonts. Drawing beautiful curves can be annoying and time-consuming, especially for a beginner, so to start we set that aside and build letters out of tiny blocks. It’s kind of like a typographic sketch: students rough out a vocabulary of shapes, quickly explore variations on the theme, and get an overview of the type design process in a fraction of the time it would take to draw a conventional typeface. (If you want to give it a shot, FontStruct is a great place to start.)

A few weeks ago, as I was preparing my course materials, I decided to put myself in my students’ shoes and mess around with a pixel font of my own. I truly didn’t expect this exercise to lead anywhere, but in a low-res environment, where it’s possible to draw as fast as you can think, it becomes a game to puzzle out how all the different shapes will fit together. And this one turned out to be a puzzle that I simply couldn’t put down.

Megavolt pixel

Megavolt prototype, quickly rendered in pixels.

Diagonal strokes in pixel fonts are always a challenge because it’s difficult to avoid the jaggy staircases created by going against the grain of the pixel grid. But rather than avoiding those staircases, I leaned into them, adding diagonals to letterforms wherever I possibly could.

I could have let this remain a pixel font. After all, I love them and have a great appreciation for expansive systems like Elementar and Bitcount, for Toshi Omagari’s explorations of arcade game fonts, and for Alanna Munro’s broadcasts where she occasionally creates pixel fonts in Animal Crossing. But with Megavolt, I became more interested in the potential of so many diagonals than I was in the pixels themselves, and the jaggies distracted from that so they had to go.

So I converted the pixely blocks into outlines, added some optical correction to the proportions and stems weights, and changed the 45° staircases to sleek 54° diagonals...essentially the typographic equivalent of “Zoom in...now, enhance.”

With that, the design of the typeface became a different kind of geometric game, with me rotating and rearranging triangles and trapezoids as if they were tangrams. I didn’t bother adding curves; as I said before, they’re annoying and time-consuming!

Megavolt uc

I was so busy inside this game that it took me a while to step back and ask myself questions like, “So what’s the point of this font?” and “How would anyone use it?” Megavolt’s vocabulary of shapes is incredibly basic, but it’s funny how easily simple shapes pick up unplanned connotations and associations when put in the context of the greater typographic landscape.

For some reason, I had it in my head that this had the vibe of the old Reebok logo and the legendary typeface Motter Tektura. But then of course I looked and they were completely different. I thought about the irreverently angular typefaces of Benoît Bodhuin and the blocky angularity of ’70s designs like New Zelek and Checkmate. But where I feel this typeface really belongs on the poster for an ’80s sci-fi thriller or maybe the show of a thrash metal band (see also Metal Lord and Metalista, not to mention pretty much the entire DaFont Sci-Fi category).

I think of Megavolt as a cousin to Megabase, the design I sent out one year ago today. Both are built around a set of incredibly simple rules about shape that I’ve imposed upon the alphabet (perhaps uncompromisingly so, at the cost of legibility). And both are unsubtle in their sci-fi vibes: Megabase takes a funky, bright view of the future, typical of sci-fi in the ’60s and early ’70s, whereas Megavolt embodies the darker, harsher, and edgier directions that sci-fi took in the decades that followed.

Megavolt words

As far as metal goes, I confess it’s not a topic I know a ton about (guess I was more of a ska kid 🤷). So I was grateful to Nick Sherman for helping give me a lay of the land and for providing me with some appropriate listening material as I fleshed out the design. He also observed that Megavolt might be even less legible than Fit, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s an achievement unlocked!


January’s font of the month: Klooster Thin

Font of the Month, 2021/01 Try PDF
Klooster alpha 02

One of the joys of this club is having the opportunity—but not the obligation—to revisit and expand upon my previous work. It feels like a natural way to let some fonts grow into multiaxis families (Roslindale, for example) while others can simply remain one-offs (ahem, Pappardelle Party).

I always thought that Klooster was one of those one-offs: a font that I never expected to revisit, and certainly one that nobody has asked me to revisit. I sent out Klooster three years ago as a single heavy weight inspired by a bookplate I saw while browsing a friend’s book collection (shown below). I don’t think anybody has thought about it much since then, and hey, that’s fine with me...it’s not like there are a lot of contemporary use cases for a wacky bold uncial!

But this typeface has always been a personal favorite of mine because it was one of the first club fonts that really got me drawing outside of my comfort zone. It gave me the opportunity to research the uncial hand, a phase of the Latin script I knew relatively little about, and forced me to consider what the alphabet was like before the lowercase had fully evolved.

Klooster muijsenbergh

The image from Dutch Bookplates by D. Giltay Veth that served as the jumping-off point for Klooster

A typeface is a system of shapes, and a type family is a system of those systems. It can be taxing to track the consequences of every little change across a family, and I’ve written before about how this requires a different kind of thinking in interpolating variable fonts, which demand a certain level of compatibility across variations.

But with nobody very invested in Klooster’s original weight, I felt free not to worry about fealty to it or compatibility with it. Instead, I decided to let the new Thin style lead me in new directions. I know designers can champion “systems thinking” but this is a perfect example of where too much of it is a bad thing; I cannot tell how refreshing it was to focus on the problem in front of me and not sweat the rest!

While the original Klooster had a vertical axis, this time I ended up with a diagonal axis more closely connected to the calligraphic origins of the uncial hand. And while the original Klooster had tails and terminals on letters like R and E that gradually gained weight, this new style is dominated by extraordinarily long wedge-shaped vertical serifs that abruptly protrude from the letterforms. And because this is not a variable font, I was able to easily change minor details that I felt made more sense in this new weight (the triangular period, for instance, or the serif on the middle stroke of the M and W).

Klooster thin compare 02 tall

Every time I opened up the font to work on it, I kept on making those vertical serifs longer and longer until they became arguably the most important feature in the new design. I liked how the rigidity of the vertical wedges contrasted with the broad, round shapes that are characteristic of the uncial style, adding some snap and elasticity to the curves and giving the letters an untamed energy.

Having so many of these serifs opened up a host of spacing and kerning issues. There’s a bit of tension every time two vertical serifs appear next to one another...I think of it like the tinge of feedback you might get when two microphones get too close. After testing out ligatures and alternates to help them blend in more seamlessly, I decided to let the weirdness stand...some dissonance felt appropriate for this typeface, and I hope it doesn’t bother you too much!

Klooster thin text smaller

December’s font of the month: Gimlet Sans Weights

Font of the Month, 2020/12 Try Buy $24 PDF
Gslite promo text

Whether I like it or not, a typeface will always be defined by its relationship to typographic convention. Classics from 50 or 500 years ago cast a long shadow in how we think about and talk about type, and often the most effective new type designs are those that can offer something new within a familiar space. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my two best-selling fonts happen to be the closest things I have to Times and to Helvetica.)

In May’s mailing about Gimlet Sans Black, I wrote about how sans serifs can be exercises in distillation, as there’s a relatively smaller number of details available to set the typeface apart. With narrowing options in an ever-expanding field of sans serifs, it’s easy to feel pressure to add eccentricities that are, for lack of a better term, quirky for the sake of being quirky (QFTSOBQ?).

This month, as I moved Gimlet Sans to lighter, more conventional weights, my challenge was to sort out which of the typeface’s many quirks were QFTSOBQ, and which were manifestations of some central logic for the playful quirkhorse family.

Gslite schadow

Schadow specimen, C.E. Weber, c.1953

I don’t remember consulting Georg Trump’s Schadow much while doing my initial pass on Gimlet Sans Black...it felt too far removed. But now that I’m tightening things up and paring the vocabulary of shapes down to the bare essentials, I figured it made sense to take a close look at Gimlet’s source material for the first time since 2016.

The squarishness of the curves, the underbite, and the super-closed terminals...I couldn’t bear to part with them. They all feel too central to what Gimlet is.

On the other hand, the thin/thick stroke contrast and the wider-than-usual proportions felt like elements that could be tamed in the lighter weights in order to make the family a bit more versatile.

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Gimlet Sans sits at the midpoint between the superelliptical rigidity of Eurostile and the off-kilter playfulness of Ad Lib. And now that there are more weights in the mix, it’s funny to see how it moves across that spectrum.

Take for example the lowercase a: in the Black weight, its curves are mechanical and its tail short and stubby so it doesn’t interrupt the letterspacing too much. In the Light, however, the curves are more organic and the tail is allowed to stretch out.

I’ve also taken the opportunity to align certain horizontal terminals in the Light, even when there wasn’t room to do so in the Black. As you can see with the e and s in the image below, I created breakpoints in the designspace so that the terminals would either definitively align or definitively not align, never falling in between.

I’ll keep looking for more opportunities to tighten up this design, and if you mix the weights together, I’ll be curious to hear how you how you think the original Black weight clicks with the lighter end of the spectrum!

Gslite promo 01

November’s font of the month: Club Lithographer

Font of the Month, 2020/11 Try Buy $24 PDF
Litho promo 01

Like many other type designers, I have numerous typographic “sketches” that sit around in a folder on my computer. Sometimes they’ll contain a full alphabet, but usually they’re just a handful of characters...just enough to rough out a developing idea. Every couple months, I’ll crack open one of those files and noodle around for a bit, trying to see if I can get something in the design to click. And if it doesn’t, then usually I’ll forget about it for a while.

This month I’m sending you Club Lithographer, a sketch I’ve been playing with on-and-off since 2017. It’s a wide-set italic with elongated serifs, blobby outstrokes, and an unusually steep 24° angle. (My italics tend to be in the 10°–15° range.)

Lithographic italic

Lithographic Italic, as shown in De Vinne’s 1891 Specimen

As I am wont to do, I started this sketch after seeing something I liked in a Victorian-era specimen book. This time, the spark was Lithographic Italic, credited to Andrew Little and published by A. D. Farmer & Son in 1873.

Ever since the angular chancery cursives of the Renaissance, Italics have tended towards the narrower end of the typographic spectrum. In contemporary use, this helps create a contrasting rhythm between Italic forms and their wider Roman counterparts when they are set together in a block of text.

I think this is why Lithographic Italic feels so refreshing to me: with no Roman counterpart to speak of, there is no need to squeeze. There’s no hint of choppiness or angularity, and you can feel the laconic freedom that each letter has to take up as much space as it pleases.

Litho promo 02

While Club Lithographer follows its Victorian predecessor closely in its overall proportions, it diverges greatly from the rigid and spartan drawing style of the original. In my rendition, I tried to take advantage of all the extra space to make something curvier and more free-flowing. I played up the expansion contrast present in this style of lettering, letting the weight quickly swell up in the downstrokes in a way that’s reminiscent of the expanding nib of a pointed pen when pressure is applied.

I admit I know very little about pointed pen calligraphy (and most of what I know comes from videos of Erik van Blokland’s pointed pen tool). But what I do know is that serifs and outstrokes in this style tend to be hairlines, where there’s very little pressure on the nib. I decided that the imagined calligrapher behind Club Lithographer should do the opposite, punctuating the beginnings and endings of strokes with expressive blobs.

Litho promo 05

You might have already noticed one conspicuous omission in this font: capital letters. If you want to think of this as a high-concept modernist reduction à la New Alphabet, I’m not going to stop you. If you want to think that I wasn’t happy with the capitals I drew, and was simply more interested in the lowercase’s asymmetry and syncopated rhythms, that might be slightly more accurate.

Either way, I hope you’re able to think of it as a fun constraint in your designs—a challenge to create an unexpected pairing of typefaces, or a challenge to sidestep the need for capitals altogether. 😉

October’s font of the month: Megabase Open

Font of the Month, 2020/10 Try Buy $24 PDF
megabase title

After the big Roslindale update I sent out in September, I figured I would go easy on myself this month and cross off something fun from my to-do list. Megabase has been one my favorite projects to work on this year, and ever since I sent it out in February, I’ve been dying to give it an inline companion.

Megabase Open involved relatively little drawing; I used some tools to help me carve out the space inside the thick strokes while matching the weight of the existing thin strokes. Then I manually cleaned up a few shapes (those tricky corners on A and M, for example), and voilà, it was pretty much good to go.

I could have stopped there; maybe I should have stopped there. But even the most straightforward project provides opportunities to trip and fall into a typographic rabbit hole, and fall I did.

megabase fade

It irked me that Megabase Open doesn’t distinguish between the counterforms of the letters and the interior “cores” of the horizontal strokes. They are all just negative space. I felt I needed something more complex than black and white could offer, and I looked to color fonts to help fill the void...both literally and figuratively!

My first instinct was to make a a color font with no color at all. Megabase’s “Fade” style shown above simply plays with the opacity of the interior shapes, letting whatever is behind the type show through the letterforms veiled in a semitransparent grey, simultaneously interacting with the background and sitting on top of it.

Then, a couple weeks ago, longtime club member Agyei Archer happened to mention gradients to me during an unrelated chat, and it struck me that they could be the key to taking Megabase Open to the next level.

megabase svg gradients

There’s a big problem with gradients, though: color fonts come in a few different flavors, and not all of them support gradients. For example, I know it is possible to include gradients in a SVG image and then embed it into an OpenType-SVG color font, supported in some Adobe apps. But I don’t know of a way to specify a gradient in a COLR/CPAL fonts that builds up layered glyphs by stacking up a font’s native glyph data. (There is a proposal to add gradients to COLR/CPAL, but it has not been implemented.)

COLR/CPAL could really use a catchier name, but it’s the only flavor of color font supported by all modern browsers, and as we’ve discussed in the past, it’s the only flavor of color font that can also be variable. I got a bit carried away running experiments on how I could approximate a gradient in a COLR/CPAL font using only outlines and flat colors.

color font diagram

I settled on an approach that effectively rasterizes the gradient, turning it into a series of narrow stripes of subtly varying colors. With every tiny stripe now stored in the font as an alternate glyph, a font with 800 glyphs turned into 8000. And then, in the spirit of just trying things out, I added a variable slant axis (and I actually kinda liked it).

Was all of this a good idea? Probably not, but you never know until you try. Even though I probably won’t include these styles in the final Megabase family, I’m excited to share them.

Chris Lewis helped me build a demo where you can try out the color variable gradient font, and users with the fonts can use my Color Font Customizer to download their own versions. The randomize button (↺) can yield some pretty intense results! 💈

megabase stripe