I had the privilege of participating in the Dinamo Type Foundry Survey, where the folks at Dinamo asked some really thoughtful questions about the type biz and generated some refreshingly frank discussion from my colleagues about what’s involved in running a type foundry today.
One of my favorite bits of film jargon is “the Heavy”, a term that refers to the central villain of a story. Sure a villain can be physically large, but in my understanding, the weight of the Heavy is more metaphorical. It describes an antagonist whose mere presence is so forceful and looming that it casts a shadow over the events of the film—a shadow that propels the story as the hero fights to get out from under it.
Nickel Gothic is bold, but it isn’t the boldest or widest font in my library. However, it has a singular presence, with square shoulders and a lumbering heft that makes you think that no font could possibly be more imposing. Every letter lands on the page with a resounding thud.
This month, I was in need of a palette cleanser. Two months of Warbling involved so many little tweaks, optical corrections, and harmonizations, that my brain was fried. I needed to work on something where I could work fast, where every move I make could be big and unsubtle, and where there was no need to get bogged down in manicuring and fine-tuning. And there’s no better way to reset than to make a blocky or modular font.
So I went back into my archives and dusted off Nickel Gothic Wide, an all-uppercase sans serif that I drew back in February 2019. It was based on some small capital letters found on a Chinese banknote from 1918 that I saw in a New York Times article about the design of money. (Thanks Mom for sending me that article!)
The first thing I did was add a lowercase, figuring it would make the typeface that much more versatile. Fortunately for me, Nickel Gothic’s capital G is bearded, which creates a little divot on the bottom right of the glyph. This shape was outlier in the original caps, but it ended up being a foundational part of the entire lowercase. I love when I can borrow something from the existing vocabulary of a typeface rather than having to come up with something new.
Then, I tried my hand at a narrower width where the capital letters are closer to a square. This style starts to play in the same sandbox as designs from the ’70s like Neographik and Serpentine. I leaned into this vibe by tightening up the letter-spacing across the family, which I hope makes Nickel Gothic better suited to headlines with upper-and-lowercase settings. (You can always add a bit of tracking to the caps if you want.)
We’ve seen a resurgence of high-octane sans serifs in recent years—Conductor, Tempel Grotesk, Review, and Mortier to name a few. What sets Nickel Gothic apart is its approach to “round” shapes like O: there is a tension between the flat tops and bottoms of the exterior shapes and the rounded tops and bottoms of the counterforms. This forces the corners of the letters to get thicker than they typically would, essentially acting as shoulder pads that give Nickel Gothic its extra strength and heft.
Maybe this is pushing my metaphor too far, but I kinda like the idea of casting typefaces in a project like they are roles in a film. You might need a relatable protagonist that caters to a wide audience, but a Heavy doesn’t need to do that. The Heavy’s job is to create intrigue and tension, and I wonder if this tension is missing in too many contemporary type palettes. Without something to resolve, it’s hard to tell a good story.
The moment I sent out last month’s mailing about Warbler Text, I started to feel self-conscious. I was happy with how the typeface came out, but I had only tested it in a very specific setting (20px running text, on screen), and I started to wonder about how it would fare in other, larger contexts.
Scalability is one of the primary attributes of a digital font, but things can get awkward when the desire to make type big bumps up against typefaces that weren’t meant to get big. Feeling a bit mischievous, I hacked around with a variable font that forces Warbler to stay below 15pt. This is a bad idea for the record, and what I should have been doing is channeling that momentum into a true cut of Warbler for large sizes.
This club is all about variety. I like to mix it up and usually I wait six months or a year between sending out variants of the same family. But I hope you’ll bear with me, because this month I’m breaking my own rule! Here is my progress on Warbler Banner.
I’m actually including a few new styles of Warbler: a 96pt Banner cut for massive titles, a 48pt Display cut for headlines, a 24pt Deck cut for subheads, and a variable font that encapsulates all the space between Banner and Text—those point sizes are just suggestions. These are still very much in-progress (as far as I was able to get in the short month of February), and I imagine the design will continue to change as I adapt the small caps and Italics from the Text version and add a Bold in the future.
I’m still on the fence about whether it’s more effective to derive a display cut from a text cut, or vice versa. My own library is split: Roslindale and Forma started as displays, so I had my full range of expression to explore their personality and flavor before taming them for smaller sizes. Meanwhile, Gimlet and Fern began as small-size cuts, so I could focus on making sure they had good bones before spending any time polishing up the fancy little details.
If Forma is my most subtle take on optical size, Warbler is probably my most extreme. The x-height gets noticeably smaller, ascenders and descenders get noticeably longer, proportions get noticeably narrower, and the thick/thin contrast gets not-just-noticeably but dramatically higher.
The trouble is, the more contrast I add, the sharper the serifs get and the more I start to lose that lighter touch that I loved so much about the types that William Martin cut in 1790. It starts to feel more like a Modern than a Transitional, so I did what I could to counteract this and preserve Warbler’s delicate nature. It’s a display cut, so I want it to sparkle—the trick is to make it sparkle in a way that’s not flashy.
I played a lot with Warbler’s line quality to “slow down” the typeface so it feels more brittle and elegant than it does forceful or dynamic. Curves and bends don’t go directly where they need to go, but meander a bit instead…see the bottom of e or the shoulder of n. Ball terminals and vertical serifs are a little smaller than I’d usually make them. The proportions are a little irregular, retaining Martin’s wide L and T. And letters like a, g, and t are allowed to lean, adding a little wobble to the “picket fence” of vertical stems.
Looking back at William Bulmer’s title pages from the 1700s and 1800s, I saw that the letterforms aren’t the only thing that exercise restraint: the entire typographic palette has a distinctive lightness of touch. Everything is nice and airy, with plenty of margins and letterspacing, and absolutely no sign of borders, ornaments, or even lowercase! (Contrast this with the decorative showings of Benton’s twentieth-century revival.)
In the typographic vacuum of these title pages, size becomes *the* crucial element of the visual hierarchy. So even though the Warbler family is far from complete, I like that there is precedent for achieving great results with a limited palette. Our contemporary typographic environment is far less restrained, but I hope that Warbler can help you find moments of quiet in your typography, and new ways to use optical sizes in your designs.
The first time I ever picked up metal type was in Barry Moser’s letterpress course. The assignment was simply to typeset my name, and the case of type I ended up in front of was Morris Fuller Benton’s 1928 typeface, Bulmer.
The design of Bulmer was based on the types cut by William Martin in 1790, for the English printer William Bulmer. Martin likely trained at Baskerville’s foundry, and as Patricia Cost writes, “Martin’s design seemed to bridge the gap between the Baskerville and Bodoni types—it was more condensed and contrasty than Baskerville, but less mechanical and modern than Bodoni.” (I guess this makes it a transitional Transitional?)
Since that day in the letterpress shop, I’ve had an affinity for this style. Maybe it was the tactile experience of holding letterforms in my hands, and maybe it was Martin’s gentle (maybe even genteel) approach to the Modern serif. There’s something placid and comforting about this lighter touch, especially when compared to the vigorous, authoritative Scotch Romans that would follow it.
I don’t see Bulmer often in current use, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it used onscreen. I suppose that makes sense: social media tends to reward eye-catching display designs, and this style’s delicacy doesn’t pack much of a punch if you’re just scrolling by it quickly. But Martin’s types are filled with small, subtle gestures that will grow on you after a while, and that’s what I tried to tap into in my interpretation, Warbler Text. Don’t get me wrong—I love a sharp, expressive serif as much as the next designer—but my hope is that this little throwback can help remind us of their softer side.
I spent a lot of time debating how to make Warbler’s small gestures big enough to telegraph at text sizes (à la Dwiggins’s M Formula), without becoming so big that they felt like a caricature. I’m talking about the swing of the a, and how its bowl rises a little before it falls. About the low waist on the k, how the g leans back a little, and how the weight of the t and e sags a bit in the lower-left.
And I’m thinking about more systemic things too: the slightly-too-heavy capitals, the slightly-too-small small caps, the slightly-too-spaced-out numbers. How the different angles of the italic lowercase make it dance a little, and how even a handful of the Italic caps (J/K/N/T) get cursive forms. And I finally got to use the life-hack of flipping the Italic J to make a pound sign (£)—so satisfying!
My goal with Warbler Text was to spend more time using it than I spent making it. To narrow my focus, I decided that 20 pixels would be the onscreen target size for this font, and used a custom stylesheet to override my browser fonts so I could do all my reading in it. There were periods where I was regenerating a new version every five minutes or so, just to see how my small changes would play out at the target size.
Watching how my computer rendered the shapes helped me measure the effects of my changes. I took screenshots and zoomed in on the pixelated letters to see if my moves were enough to flip a pixel from black to grey. This helped me take general, unanswerable questions (“Is this noticeable enough?”) and turn them into specific, achievable goals (“Does the spine of the a swing enough to flip some pixels from black to grey when set at 20px on my MacBook Pro Retina Display?”).
It has been a while since I’ve drawn a new text face for the club, and I’m grateful to the members I corresponded with who encouraged me to work on one. I will admit that even with all the small gestures I mentioned, I’m worried that you might think this typeface is too conservative…and maybe it is! I wonder if the next step might be to move to the opposite end of the spectrum and work on the display side of things (below is a sketch I did a few years back). In the meantime, I hope you find the time to spelunk around what I hope is a quite usable text face, both onscreen and elsewhere!
This month I’ve made a pretty straightforward update to a far-from-straightforward typeface. Exactly one year ago, I sent out Klooster Thin, a set of spry uncialesque capitals with energy to spare. This time, I’ve gone ahead and added a brand new lowercase, which I hope will open up possibilities for using this relatively niche design.
Klooster is based on the uncial hand, a script that was popularized many centuries before the existence of the lowercase we use today. So the entire concept of a “lowercase uncial” is anachronistic at best, and this expansion is in some ways a work of historical fiction.
Klooster is far from the first typeface to explore a bicameral uncial. As demonstrated in Dan Reynolds’s excellent piece on Victor Hammer, uncials often functioned as a “lowercase” intended for running text that would be paired with Roman capitals or even enlarged initials (to be used as versals or drop caps). But unlike American Uncial, Klooster leans more towards uppercase already, so this precedent didn’t feel quite right.
Without the burden of historical authenticity, I had the freedom to think of uppercase and lowercase not as two distinct alphabets but as a single sliding scale. Instead of going back in time to Roman capitals for Klooster’s second case, I turned the dial a few notches forward to a fully-evolved lowercase.
Klooster’s lowercase preserves the extremely long serifs and snappy, elastic curves of the original caps, and it introduces new proportions, prominent ascenders and descenders, and even more rounded forms.
Some forms had to change radically; b/d/p/q took on “ball-and-stick” constructions with flat joins and large apertures that give them a bit of a Blue Island vibe. But because Klooster’s “uppercase” already incorporated so many lowercase elements, the construction of most letters didn’t need to change very much at all. If O/o and Z/z can have the same form in both cases, why can’t H/h or M/m work that way too?
I’m especially happy with how a, e, and g came out; they sit on a weird precipice where you can see both lowercase and uppercase in them at the same time, almost as if it is an optical illusion.
The last little family of letters that I’ll call out is f/j/r/t, which gave me the most trouble by far. In typefaces, these letters are often drawn narrower than you’d expect, in order to avoid spacing problems. Helvetica, for example, slices f/j/r/t on the vertical despite having horizontal terminals everywhere else.
I initially took the same approach in Klooster, shortening the vertical serifs significantly so that letters would tuck underneath f and pop over j. But in the end, I decided that the elongated vertical serifs are such a crucial part of this particular design that I could not part with them...to hell with even spacing! I think the width and distinctive swing of these four letters contributes a lot to Klooster’s off-kilter rhythm, which I hope goes to show that uneven spacing is not always the same as bad spacing.
The last three months here at the club have featured a Roman rustic, a blackletter, and an uncial: three styles that I like to think are as vital today as they were in antiquity. And I’m always happy to hear if there are any other families you’d like to see updated in 2022, or any new styles you’d like to see explored. I hope your new year is already off to an excellent start! — DJR