August’s Font of the Month: Megazoid

Font of the Month, 2021/08 Try Buy $24 PDF
Words UC2x2

On a conceptual level, geometric shapes endow letters with a timeless beauty, transforming them from handmade marks into emblems of mathematical ideals. But on a practical level, building up letters out of circles and squares is just really, really awkward.

In most geometric sans serifs, the job of the type designer is to smooth out that awkwardness, introducing optical compensations and refinements in order to achieve a unified result. And in the past decade, “geometric sans” has become a catch-all term for clean, general-purpose sans serifs with disparate influences (including humanist and grotesque) and varying degrees of connection to pure geometry.

I’ve never felt like I had much to add to this genre, and over the past fifty (!) months of the club I’ve mostly steered clear of it. But this month I’m psyched to send you Megazoid, a chunky geometric sans serif that feels equally at home on a guitar amp as it does on an interstellar satellite. And while I’ll concede that recent trends have made the geometric sans feel a bit safe and boring, Megazoid is here to remind you that geometry can be raw and weird and anything but.

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Megazoid pits square and circle against each other, contrasting blocky exteriors with counterforms that are mostly circular and cylindrical. This juxtaposition recalls the classic Radio Shack logo and its distinctive retro-futuristic vibe, but Megazoid leans towards corners over curves maybe 25% more often. This gives Megazoid a distinctive squarishness that sets it apart from the more figurative, stroke-based designs in this genre (I’m thinking Blippo and Pump, or recent entries like Bonkus, Marvin Visions, and Nichrome.)

At the same time, Megazoid avoids going into complete abstraction by not getting as heavy or extreme as designs such as Baby Teeth, Ginger Snap, Morro, Shotgun, and Strand. Instead, it bridges the gap between figurative strokes and abstract shapes, essentially functioning in the space between the super-literal Futura Extra Bold and the hyper-stylized Futura Black.

I really enjoyed playing with the tension between slick and clunky. It was a challenge to puzzle out how to make the more figurative shapes like s and o play nice with weirdos like a and e, even when their texture and color are totally dissimilar.

And you won’t find much in the way of triangles in Megazoid. Rather than introduce more symmetry, I took a page from Avant Garde and drew A, V, Y (and alternate M and W) as asymmetrical trapezoids that add a touch of off-kilter dynamism to the otherwise static design.

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I didn’t plan this, but I’m really happy that Megabase, Megavolt, and Megazoid have formed a family of sorts, each one exploring a different mode of sans serif with heavy science fiction connotations. They all have plenty of non-sci-fi potential as well, not to mention a link to the phototype and dry-transfer typefaces of the 1970s.

A glance at any Letraset or Photo-lettering catalog is enough to tell you that this style lends itself to outlines, shadows, and textures. So I totally encourage you to go all out! Outline it, inline it, and offset it to create groovy drop shades à la Papirtis Pink Mouse. I held off on making a tricked-out color font (for now) but I did include Fill and Shade styles to give you a little head start.

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You’ll also find that I was particularly indecisive this month and left in a slew of stylistic alternates for you to explore. And last but not least, I also explored a Cyrillic version of this design which I found to be particularly fun. Many thanks to Jovana Jocić for critiquing the Cyrillic, as well as to Eben Sorkin, Mathieu Triay, and Donny Truong for their comments on this design.

Cyrillic UC2x2

July’s Font of the Month: Pomfret Lowercase

Font of the Month, 2021/07 Try Buy $24 PDF
Pomfret lines 2000

Exactly one year ago, I sent you Pomfret, a set of titling capitals I made in response to Bertram Goodhue’s striking cover for an 1892 edition of The Knight Errant. Ever since I took Roger Black’s suggestion to draw something based on Goodhue’s work, I’ve been looking for an excuse to get back to it. So what better way to celebrate Pomfret’s first birthday than with an accompanying lowercase!

Typically I like to mix things up for the club, and I try to avoid sending you back-to-back family updates—especially two “classical” serif updates. But I do think Pomfret is an illuminating counterpoint to last month’s Fern Text. Fern is firmly rooted in the pen-informed, diagonal-axis tradition of Venetian text faces dating back to Nicolaus Jenson. Pomfret has hints of the Venetian style (the internal serifs atop M and N, the gently draping tails of K and R), but structurally-speaking it’s an entirely different beast. It is delicate and high-contrast, with an entirely vertical stroke axis and shapes that feel more constructed than written (I guess that makes sense for something based on the work of an architect).

Pomfret alpha mc 2000

As far as Pomfret’s lowercase goes, I’ll admit I kinda winged it. There was no lowercase precedent to be found on the Knight Errant cover, and even though Goodhue drew a similar design for the Merrymount Press, its lowercase just didn’t fit the sharp, delicate, restrained direction in which I’ve taken Pomfret (I did borrow a couple features from Merrymount though, including the serifed crossbar of t.) 

In my first pass of the lowercase, I looked for opportunities to echo the signature moves of the capitals letters. Certain features—the underbite of C, the “shy” tail of K, and the complexity of W—translated easily to their lowercase counterparts (I never get away with this, but Pomfret’s w is literally two v’s, just like the caps!).

Pomfret lines small 2000

The lowercase has so many more round shapes than the uppercase, and I quickly realized that I would have to heighten some of Pomfret’s other design elements to give it enough of the rigid refinement of the caps. The caps have a pretty high waist already (see E and P), but I pushed that even further in the top/bottom differentiation of a and e (the swooping curve of a also has a lot in common with a backwards s.) The difference in width between straight and round letters is also more extreme in the lowercase. 

Pomfret’s lowercase also needed to span the stylistic divide between the Venetian-esque detailing and its unwaveringly upright axis and constructed appearance. The double-sided “head” serifs atop n and u are an unusual contrivance (typically head serifs only stick out to the left), but they echo the distinctive double-sided serifs on the capital M and N. They also serve to connect the design (at least superficially) to the angle of a broadnib pen, and are similar to shapes you might find in the Speedball textbook or University Roman.

Stunt roman 2000

Stunt Roman, from the Speedball Textbook. See also Ross F. George at Letterform Archive.

I’m usually a stickler for keeping the overall openness/closedness of arches and terminals consistent in my typefaces. For example, the arches of Fern’s n and p are flat and the “mouth” of the e stays open in order to echo that flatness. In contrast, Gimlet’s arches bend until they smoothly join the stem, and its terminals follow suit and close in. But in Pomfret, I forced myself to let go of this habit and the arches close in while the terminals remain wide open, another effort to bridge that stylistic gap.

Pomfret compare 2000

All in all, the lowercase I ended up with for Pomfret was certainly not the lowercase I expected. It probably has more in common with ’60s quasi-inscriptional designs like Americana and Friz Quadrata than it does anything created by Goodhue. But I *think* it coexists happily with the uppercase, and I hope you do too!

What’s next for Pomfret? Now that I’ve done this lowercase, I’m curious to see how it translates to an italic. And I know that Pomfret’s utility is extremely limited by its super-high contrast, so I’ve been sketching a low contrast version for small sizes as well...

My Typographics 2021 ad spot

View on Vimeo

I’m a big fan of the Typographics Festival and its associated TypeLab, and have been excited to play a small part in the conference them since its start in 2015 (most years, I generate the badges).

This year, with the conference entirely online, I had the opportunity to contribute a short ad for Font of the Month Club. But alas, I waited until the last minute before realizing that I have no A/V skills, I am horrible with software like After Effects. As the deadline approached, I had no idea what to make.

As I was stressing out, Typographics organizer and Type@Cooper director Cara di Edwardo encouraged me to just have fun with it. She planted the idea of doing something that recalled the pages of a tear-off calendar, which seemed perfect for a monthly subscription like mine. But what to do about the music?

A couple days before the deadline, I sent a message to type designer, dancer, and musician Jeff Kellem asking him if he had any interest in recording a last-minute jingle for the ad. Amazingly, he was available, and asked me if I had anything in mind. I quickly sang something silly into my phone and sent it to him.

In less than 48 hours, Jeff transformed the idea into a real piece of music, with a charming opening fanfare, a catchy melody, big band instrumentation, and vocals! I couldn’t be happier with it.

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.)

Fern display scrap

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

Fern text sample 2
Little ferns

Fern photos by Emily Richardson