Category Archives: type | schriften

Four-letter words

My con­tri­bu­tion to the world of spread­sheets is called Axel. It has been writen about quite a bit already, like here, but the nam­ing still seems to need explain­ing. As the illus­tra­tion shows, Axel saves space while still being leg­i­ble, mak­ing it a wel­come typo­graphic alter­na­tive for those poor peo­ple who have to work in Excel and other spread­sheet apps every day. So these users tell me. But one of them, Dan Reynolds, thinks it could have been even bet­ter by being called Axl.

All my type­faces have four-letter names: Meta, Info, Unit. ITC Offic­ina came ear­lier and is the excep­tion. I wanted to name this one Exel, but the peo­ple at FontShop in Berlin were a lit­tle afraid that the big com­pany in Seat­tle might take excep­tion to the obvi­ous ref­er­ence. I don’t think that would have been a prob­lem, but then I am not the dis­trib­u­tor. Axel is homo­phone with Excel, and it has four letters.excel2007-win-10pt

Alternate a, again

A Ger­man daily paper sets its head­lines in FF Unit and uses the alter­nate cut for another level of hier­ar­chy. It makes for a sub­tle dis­tinc­tion, and that’s obvi­ously what they wanted.


Typographic half-knowledge

On the one hand I’m always flat­tered when I see a big Ger­man news­pa­per (Süd­deutsche Zeitung in this case) use one of my type­faces. Espe­cially so, when it hap­pens to bring out one of its good char­ac­ter­is­tics, like being very leg­i­ble in small sizes on rather coarse paper, as with FF Unit shown here.

On the other hand I am a lit­tle sur­prised that they would have used the alter­nate cut, the one with the round a and the single-decker g. That may have been delib­er­ate although I don’t think that the round (Futura-)a is par­tic­u­larly leg­i­ble. I do have my doubts about the design­ers’ typo­graphic knowl­edge. When design­ing a table like this (and a TV pro­gramme is just a table) they must have real­ized that FF Unit both in the Type 1 and the Open Type ver­sion not only pro­vides alter­nate char­ac­ters but also a few dif­fer­ent sets of fig­ures. For a timetable like this it would have been much bet­ter to use Tab­u­lar Fig­ures, so that all the hours and min­utes would be posi­tioned neatly under­neath each other. That does not only look neater, it also makes things more com­pa­ra­ble and bet­ter to under­stand in a hurry. The tab­u­lar fig­ures in FF Unit still have slight Old Style char­ac­ter­is­tics, and if that would appear too noisy for some appli­ca­tions, there are Lin­ing Fig­ures as well, also all of equal widths.

Painted type

This paint­ing shows a part of the East­side Gallery in Berlin, a stretch of Berlin Wall along the river Spree. The only sub­stan­tial part of the wall that’s been left stand­ing because it is cov­ered in pic­tures. Those get repainted now and again, as the paint­ing by Edward B Gor­don shows. In spite of his English-sounding name he is a Ger­man painter liv­ing in Berlin and has been putting out a paint­ing a day for 900 days now. gordon_painting

There are two rea­sons why I am show­ing this here:
1. Gordon’s paint­ings show the Berlin I know; not always roman­tic, not always bright, not always flat­ter­ing, but always observed with affec­tion and painted quickly, before the moment goes away. Great stuff, all Oil on Board, 15x15cm (i.e. 6x6 inches).
2. Although there are only three and a half let­ters to be seen, it seems enough to iden­tify the type­face. Five steps away from the orig­i­nal – painted type on wall, paint­ing of that scene, repro­duc­tion in the news­pa­per, scan on my desk­top, repro­duced on your desk­top – I iden­ti­fied it as FF Type­s­tar.galerie

Except for that r. And the i. Seems like who­ever painted these let­ters knew more about type than most graphic design­ers and cer­tainly used the free­dom of the brush to shorten that long hook on the r and the long top serif on the i. A clever solu­tion to avoid a gap that would draw too much atten­tion to this combination.

Helvetica can be nice

Every type­face needs its own lay­out that will make it look good and appro­pri­ate. An Ital­ian pro­ducer of plas­tic fur­ni­ture with a show­room in an old indus­trial build­ing in San Fran­cisco could do worse than dis­play­ing its name in large Hel­vetica let­ters. Rotis or Meta would have been totally wrong there.


News from SF

I haven’t been to San Fran­cisco since Jan­u­ary, and I have not pub­lished any­thing on this blog since then. There is just too much going on in Berlin: the office has more than 30 peo­ple now, we have a new house, thou­sands of books that need sort­ing, a lot of travel…
Here in SF there are only two peo­ple in the office and I can finally get down to some writing.

Around the cor­ner from our lit­tle house here is the office for Dwell mag­a­zine that pub­lishes under the motto “at home in the mod­ern world”. And by the door I finally found an exam­ple for the stain­less steel house num­bers I designed for DWR last year. These are the “TECH” num­bers with­out any diag­o­nal lines. Design Within Reach has them dis­counted – appar­ently there is no mar­ket for “designer num­bers” in the USA. Luck­ily, I have the rights to my designs and will be sell­ing them myself very soon, also in Europe.


Unit Rounded


Round type­faces keep going in and out of fash­ion, for many rea­sons. One of them always has been the media the face would be used for: type on screens and back-lit signs suf­fers from radi­ant light. Sharp type will look blunt, and the amount of blunt­ness that occurs is usu­ally unpre­dictable. Enter a font already blunt, i.e. rounded.


Way back in let­ter­press days, some of the most suc­cess­ful type­faces for every­day print­ing (then called job­bing) were faces like Reklameschrift Block with its wob­bly out­line and blunt cor­ners. The let­ters looked hand-painted, spon­ta­neous, or pre-destroyed. Even bad treat­ment on platen presses couldn’t make them look bad.

When I designed FF Info, the cor­ners were made blunt to coun­ter­act light shat­ter on signs at the Düs­sel­dorf air­port, where this type­face was first used.

Otl Aicher designed a type­face for Germany’s sec­ond TV chan­nel, the ZDF, in the early 70s, which was basi­cally Univers with very round cor­ners. TV then was very low-res.

Other type­faces used round cor­ners – the “Frank­furter (as in sausages) look” – to con­vey friend­li­ness and were often used for food packages.

Then came Web 2.0 and rounded type­faces made a major come­back. I think they are here to stay, both as a fash­ion state­ment and for phys­i­cal rea­sons, like in the old days. There will always be bad media which needs inde­struc­tible fonts.

FF Unit Rounded started as an exclu­sive type­face we designed with Chris­t­ian Schwartz’s help for Gravis, the biggest Apple dealer in Ger­many. They needed some­thing friendly but pre­cise, to be used on-screen, on signs, in print and on T-shirts.



Gravis Round only has two weights, and when I wanted to make a com­plete fam­ily, I turned to Erik van Blok­land, inven­tor of the Super­po­la­tor soft­ware. You can down­load one of the lit­tle movies here to see the Super­po­la­tor live in action. Well, almost.



The Super­po­la­tor at work.
Each frame of the movie stands for one instance. The amount of radius on the ter­mi­nal changes inde­pen­dently from the thick­ness of the strokes. The lighter strokes needed less of as flat bot­tom than the heavy ones. With­out any flat­ness at all, you get the pure sausage effect.

Erik ran sev­eral tri­als to estab­lish the right amount of round­ness for each weight. The lighter weights have almost no flat bot­tom, whereas the bold weights have straight bot­toms on the main strokes, met by rounded cor­ners. The radius had to be dif­fer­ent for each weight, so Erik showed me alter­na­tives as lit­tle movies with a slider to try out dif­fer­ent ver­sions. They all had a num­ber to them so we could decide what worked best for which weight. The Super­po­la­tor also took care of a lot of the issues with inter­nal curves and those prob­lem­atic areas where curves meet straight lines or – even more com­plex! – diag­o­nal ones.


EvB and his Super­po­la­tor pro­vided many choices
and made deci­sions for the right weights and the amount of round­ness quite easy.


There remained quite a bit of man­ual inter­ven­tion which was car­ried out by FSI’s able experts who end up with all the detailed stuff that us type design­ers are too lazy for. Just look at these screen grabs: the soft­ware wants to insert curve point at the extremes of each curve. In this case, how­ever, that not only added unnec­es­sary points, but also cre­ated weird arte­facts. So all these point had to be removed by hand. And we are talk­ing about 450 glyphs per weight.


FF Unit Rounded is Open­Type and has all the fea­tures
that come with that for­mat, like four dif­fer­ent types of figures.

FF Unit is seri­ous enough to be rounded with­out becom­ing a sausage face or one only suited for comic strips. It looks friendly with­out los­ing its pre­ci­sion and changes its appear­ance quite dra­mat­i­cally as it grows in size. The Rounded ver­sion should be avail­able at your local FontShop any day now.

Typographic detail, handmade

Appli­ca­tions like Inde­sign and fonts in Open Type for­mat pro­vide tools for mak­ing great stuff that older gen­er­a­tions of typo­graph­i­cally inter­ested design­ers could have only dreamed about.


As we all know and can wit­ness every day, these tools, how­ever, are no guar­an­tee for great design – not even for good craft. I find it even more grat­i­fy­ing and pleas­ant to behold when I see some­one pulling all the stops to achieve typo­graphic detail even when those tools are not all available.

The van for this com­pany that sells grilled chick­ens and other good­ies on San Francisco’s Farm­ers’ Mar­ket has been care­fully let­tered, even though those let­ters may be a lit­tle worn by now. The designer had to use Frutiger for rea­sons I don’t know. But that didn’t pre­vent him or her from want­ing to apply old style fig­ures which are not avail­able for that par­tic­u­lar type­face. The sim­ple solu­tion for this prob­lem is to sim­ply move ordi­nary fig­ures down below the base­line to achieve the effect. The 1 can just be cut off at the bot­tom as long as it doesn’t have a serif to lose. Fig­ures 3, 4, 5, 7 and 9 look almost like the real thing when shifted down. The only prob­lem is pre­sented by the 2, as that should be redrawn to the size of the x-height and have no ascender.


As seen in Bodoni’s Man­uale Tipografico, the mas­ter took lib­er­ties when it came to design­ing his old style fig­ures. He does draw a short 2, but doesn’t give descen­ders to 3, 4, 5 or 7.

Con­ven­tions are not nec­es­sar­ily rules, just habits.

Dublin Type 2

The art of writ­ing or carv­ing elab­o­rate signs is all but dying out. Self-adhesive plots on vinyl have replaced paint­ing signs with drop-shadows in fan­tasy type­faces that didn’t come from the Font­Book or any other “proper” source.


It may only be a mat­ter of time until these hand­made signs will have dis­ap­peared from build­ings in Dublin as well. These are a few that I found on a recent trip.


Uncial type has been the style of Irish writ­ing since before Guten­berg. It doesn’t, how­ever, look very con­vinc­ing today when applied to every­thing in order to achieve that “Irish” look. (By the way: This ver­sion of Quay Sans looks weird indeed.) Per­haps time for a work­shop on Irish typo­graphic identity?

Dublin Type 1

Nobody can design a “clas­sic”; whether a type­face ever becomes a clas­sic will be decided by how it gets used over time.
FF Meta has been around for almost 20 years now, and it’s still sell­ing. While new gen­er­a­tions of design­ers con­stantly redis­cover what the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion dis­carded, after a cer­tain time and enough expo­sure even a once fash­ion­able face like Meta becomes a stan­dard and gets con­sid­ered for quite archane appli­ca­tions like the one on this facade in Dublin.


The large type on the house was obvi­ously hand-painted years ago. When that type needed to be applied to the newer signs over the shop-fronts below, two dif­fer­ent sign­painters used two dif­fer­ent solu­tions. One took Meta as his model and re-invented it for him­self – that is Messrs Maguire on the green sign.


Some­body else seems to have copied the type for the pur­ple sign from that first copy, adding his own touch.
The metal let­ters, how­ever, must have come from dig­i­tal data. It is a fairly faith­ful ren­di­tion of the orig­i­nal Meta. I’m never sure whether this sort of mess­ing with my type­face should please me or annoy me. It cer­tainly proves that Meta is not con­sid­ered a pre­cious, high-brow designer-typeface any­more. Hav­ing arrived on the front of pubs in Dublin, painted by hand, doesn’t quite make it a clas­sic, but it cer­tainly puts in out there.