February’s font of the month: Megabase

Font of the Month, 2020/02 Try Buy $24 PDF

Megabase is February’s installment of Font of the Month Club. As always, you can sign up for as little as $24!

zenith slab djr specimen

Most typefaces strive to set text with an even color. Of course, by “color” I don’t mean red or blue or purple, but rather the “typographic color” that describes the overall texture and density of text on a page or screen. Essentially, even color is what enables a typeface to remain more-or-less consistent regardless of what words are being set.

If even color is the measure of a typeface’s success, then Megabase fails spectacularly. While the horizontal-stress fonts I’ve made in the past use their serifs to balance out the light and heavy parts of the letterforms, this month’s design has no serifs to fall back on.

I forced myself to embrace Megabase’s uneven color, allowing top-heavy, bottom-heavy, and diagonal forms to stick out like sore thumbs and interrupt the flow of reading. Some words will have unsightly gaps in them, and others will feel way too heavy. The overall texture is punctuated by black bands at irregular heights, like the music roll from a player piano.

Gothic Bold, 1889
Gothic Bold, 1889. Mechanical from Rob Roy Kelly’s American Wood Type. Photo by Ben Kiel.

Typeface designers have been trying to solve the puzzle of the horizontal-stress sans since the early days of sans-serif type; examples of “Italians” with the serifs removed go back as far as 1840. I love these 19th-century designs such as Gothic Bold (pictured above), and how clunky and uneven they dared to be.

The genre truly hit its stride in the late 1960s and early 1970s, taking on a new space-age resonance with typefaces such as Sintex, Strada, and Zipper. I don’t think I’m 100% satisfied with any of the individual faces from this era (except maybe Jackson), but I definitely sought to capture some of their funkiness in my interpretation.

Interest in the horizontal-stress sans continues to this day. Recent releases include Anouk, Maelstrom Sans, and Signal Compressed, and just the other week, we learned that Cheee began as an interpretation of Sintex.

I’m not entirely sure what I’m trying to do with Megabase, but I think I’m interested in synthesizing the lumbering unevenness of the 19th-century designs with the slick sci-fi curvature of the 20th-century ones.

Megabase U&lc

While most faces in the genre compensate for their thick tops and bottoms by thinning out the middle strokes, Megabase lets all horizontals remain thick. And unlike its forbears, Megabase uses different thicknesses depending on how busy the letter is: T (one horizontal stroke) is thicker than C (two horizontal strokes), which in turn is thicker than E (three horizontal strokes). This sacrifices horizontal alignment between letters, but adds a nice little bounce as the eye travels across the different heights.

The most volatile part of the design is the diagonal strokes, which abruptly break up the system of thick tops and bottoms. The default diagonal forms follow the example of 19th-century designs, reversing the thick-thin contrast of the modern Roman. These thick vertical and diagonal strokes are super disruptive, but I like how they add a bit of chaos and energy.

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I’ve also included several alternate sets to give you some control over this volatility. The round forms are more consistently horizontal, and have more of that 70s vibe. The wavy forms take that even further by echoing the designs of the Copacabana sidewalks and the MUNI worm logo. Meanwhile, the streamlined forms go in the other direction, introducing hard corners and asymmetry that feel a bit darker and more severe.

Before I sign off, I want to say thank you to Nick Sherman for coming up with the name Megabase, and André Mora for the helpful critique of the typeface.

I hope that you enjoy Megabase, and that it gives you an excuse to explore all of the other wacky and wonderful designs from this little corner of the typographic universe.

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January’s font of the month: Gimlet X-Ray

Font of the Month, 2020/01 Try Buy $24

Gimlet X-Ray was January’s installment of Font of the Month Club. As always, you can sign up for as little as $24!

Gimlet X-Ray text

Recently I’ve been converting a lot of my older font families into the new(ish) variable font format...and for the most part, it has been pretty tedious work. It involves wrangling tons of disparate outlines in order to get them working together in a single designspace, where their point structures match and everything interpolates.

It is a tricky balance of family unity on one hand, and specificity and variety on the other. And it has forced me to think a lot about Bézier curves as a medium and how outline interpolation affects the way I design (for better and for worse).

Needing a break from working on Gimlet, I started experimenting with a variable color font that could showcase the internal mechanics of an outline as it transforms inside a variable font. The result is Gimlet X-Ray, a font that wears its insides on the outside.

gimlet xray

A variable font this complex is feasible because of a recent OpenType enhancement that we don’t talk about enough: contours are now allowed to overlap.

Gimlet’s overlaps are exposed in Gimlet X-Ray. For example, you can see that the g is defined by one counterform and by three separate shapes. This allows each curve to transform independently from how it intersects with the others.

On top of that, Gimlet X-Ray has its own overlapping contours, with hundreds of thousands of independently-moving squares, circles, and lines. (Probably the hardest part of this project was the trigonometry that I had to re-learn in order to draw the angled handles...SOHCATOAH to the rescue!)

Widths

Gimlet X-Ray lets you explore the design across weight and width, and offers additional controls over the the size of the control points and the outline thickness.

As was the case with last month’s font, you can drag the fonts onto my Color Font Customizer, choose your own colors, and download a customized version of the font. Also included is Gimlet X-Ray SVG, which is not a variable font but will give you the colors in Adobe apps. And finally, I stuck a little DrawBot script that shows how you can use the OpenType Stylistic Sets to customize the color layers.

To see the color variable font in all its glory, Chris Lewis helped me put together a Gimlet X-Ray demo page where you can play with the color palettes and variations. I hope you find this to be a fun experiment! 🎨

Layers

December’s font of the month: Zenith Slab DJR

Font of the Month, 2019/12 Try Buy $24 PDF

Zenith Slab DJR is December’s installment of Font of the Month Club. As always, you can sign up for as little as $24!

zenith slab djr specimen

I’ve been taught to see a typeface as a kit of parts, a group of repeating elements that are the glue that holds the disparate shapes of our alphabet together. I always find it interesting to see what happens to that kit when a new part is added to the mix.

That’s exactly what I’ve done this month with Zenith Slab DJR. It’s a slab serif take on Zenith DJR, a set of Art Deco capitals based on a fire station inscription in Charlotte, North Carolina. This sans serif version was released in July 2017 as the third-ever font of the month.

Charlotte fire department

Charlotte Fire Department, South Blvd, Charlotte, NC

Like the sans serif before it, Zenith Slab eschews traditional thick/thin models in favor of an Art Deco-inspired approach that allots a single heavy stem to each letter (popularized by Broadway). This unusual dynamic gives strings of text a distinctive rhythm, which is emphasized by the colorful inlines that lay within the heavy stems.

Zenith Slab adds distinctive angled vertical strokes to the mix, which completely transforms the tone of the typeface. While the sans serif is spare and a little stoic, the slab serif borders on playful. I let the vertical serifs to extend beyond the baseline and cap-height, and I think these little spurs add even more texture and flavor to the design.

LSC Caslon Roman

This typeface may lack a lowercase, but it makes up for it with a plethora of other features.

Zenith comes with the fonts in two layerable weights, Regular (inline) and Bold (solid). In addition, I’m also including color fonts where the color information is stored within the font itself.

These color fonts are still a little experimental, and I’m hopeful that releasing more color fonts will lead to better support. Until palette customization is implemented, club members can drag the fonts onto my Color Font Customizer, choose their own colors, and download a customized version of the font. The “Color SVG” version is mainly for use in Adobe apps, which don’t support COLR/CPAL yet.

There are also nearly 200 alternate glyphs in Zenith Slab DJR, including an entire set of spurless serifs. There a bit less playful, but maybe more fashionable? Perhaps my favorite alternate set are the diagonals with “backwards” thick/thin contrast, which you can employ to tweak the thick/thin rhythm of your text. 

Greek and Cyrillic

Like its sans serif counterpart, Zenith Slab supports basic Greek and Cyrillic in addition to the usual Latin alphabet. I love how the design’s triangular forms translate to the Greek Lambda (Λ) and Cyrillic De (Д).

I usually try to consult with native speakers when I work in these scripts, but I completely ran out of time this month. So yeah, let’s think of these as Beta, and your feedback is always welcome. 😅

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November’s font of the month: Roslindale Ultra

Font of the Month, 2019/11 Try Buy $24 PDF
roslindale specimen

When making a type family, one of the biggest challenges is deciding how big it should be...sometimes it can be hard to know when to stop.

Expansive type families can be great, but there’s definitely a point of diminishing returns as one ventures away from the family’s “core” styles. (A font’s Bold Italic Small Caps will never get used as often as its Regular lowercase.)

On top of that, there’s always the question of how much can change in a typeface before some parts of the family start to feel categorically different than others. And that is precisely the question I am asking myself about November’s offering, Roslindale Ultra.

roslindale djr sample

As longtime club members may remember, Roslindale was inspired by De Vinne, a typeface attributed to Gustav Schroeder and Nicholas Werner and released by the Central Type Foundry in 1892.

But as you can see in the image below, this new style of Roslindale bears only a passing resemblance to De Vinne’s wider styles. The overall skeleton is virtually unchanged, but the originals never got this bold, and featured a lot more uneven angularity and wobbliness than I was able to retain in this latest rendition.

Cuneiform in use
De Vinne No. 2 in the 1912 American Type Founders Specimen.

In fact, whether I like it or not, Roslindale Ultra may owe more to the bold, high-contrast, Victorian-inspired serifs of the International Typeface Corporation (better known as ITC) and designers such as Herb Lubalin, Tom Carnase, and Ed Benguiat that came to define American typography in the 1970s.

I noticed a similarity early on between Roslindale and ITC Bernase, but as the font gets bolder and wider, the high contrast and buxom curves typical of the ITC aesthetic become more and more prominent, and the connection is harder to ignore.

LSC Caslon Roman
LSC Caslon Roman by Tom Carnase, transfer sheets from my collection.

As I continue to expand this family, I’m trying to figure out whether I’m okay with this. With all of these influences, does it feel new enough? Should I try harder to preserve some of that Victorian eccentricity in the far corners of Roslindale’s designspace, or is this just a natural progression of the design?

Roslindale Ultra is November’s installment of Font of the Month Club. As always, you can sign up for as little as $24!

roslindale ultra u&lc
roslindale ultra uc

October’s font of the month: Clavichord

Font of the Month, 2019/10 Try Buy $24 PDF
clavichord djr sample

In my worldview, typography has always lived at this fascinating intersection of history, technology and problem-solving/design, and I often approach my work through one or more of those lenses. But recently I’ve been thinking a lot about how type can also work on a visceral level, designed to evoke an emotional response rather than a historical connotation or general sense of elegance or craftsmanship.

There seems to a moment happening right now for this kind of expressive type design. I had the privilege of attending Les Rencontres de Lure this summer and was able to discuss this topic with a number of boundary-pushing French designers (including several members of Velvetyne Type Foundry). It is also a recurring theme in this recent interview with Jules Durand.

All of this led me to unearth a spindly blackletter that I started a couple years ago and abandoned shortly thereafter. I didn’t return to the design because I love the style or because think it is particularly useful. I returned to it because it makes my skin crawl.

clavichord specimen

This month, I’m sending you that spindly blackletter, which I’ve called Clavichord. I found its jumping-off point back in 2017 while browsing the private library of a friend here is Western Massachusetts. (Fun fact: this was actually the same day that I encountered the book that led to the creation of Klooster, December 2017’s Font of the Month.)

I spent a bunch of time with an 1860 tome called The History of Ink, published by one of the largest ink manufacturers at the time. Thanks in large part to the help of Florian Hardwig and the Fonts in Use moderators, there is now a post on Fonts in Use that showcases many of the typefaces used in this over-the-top book.

Cuneiform in use
Italian Text / Cuneiform, as used in The History of Ink, 1860.

Of course, Madisonian steals the show as the book’s main text face, but my attention quickly turned to the bony, frail textura at the top of the first page. Called Italian Text or Cuneiform, depending on where you look, this typeface isn’t even the most beautiful American blackletter of that era. I guess what I appreciated about it was its ability to be both beautiful and a little icky at the same time.

This dichotomy is something that I tried to push even further in my interpretation of the design. Unlike the straightforward revival I took on last month, Clavichord takes many more liberties with the concepts set forth in the source material.

It is anchored by a distinctive “sparkle” shape, an abstraction of the diamond-like form made by a broadnib pen held at 45°. (It is certainly not alone in adopting something like this; recent examples include this striking piece by Wei Huang and Frida Medrano’s Jabin typeface.)

But Clavichord’s connection to the broadnib pen ends there; the rest of the typeface descends into lavish Victorian excess, with spirals, decorative ball terminals, and hairlines so razor-thin that they virtually disappear.

In the end, I added a variable Optical Size axis that allows you to control the hairlines thickness, keeping them at 0.5pt from 76pt to 332pt!

Clavichord variable font

I’ll admit that this was a hard typeface to draw, and it might prove to be an even harder typeface to use. But I hope you can find a place in your designs to add a little “ick factor,” even if it’s just a drop cap or some words on top of a big photo. Happy Halloween!

Clavichord is October’s installment of Font of the Month Club. As always, you can sign up for as little as $24!

Clavichord variable font