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

Waterfall blog

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!

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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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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.

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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!

Horns