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Type Minds

type pieces
Photographs by Christopher Gardner

A Silicon Valley revolution in type design has spawned typefaces mimicking everything from the Renaissance to celebrity handwriting. Behind every particle that fills a page, an unseen artist has worked countless hours to make it letter perfect.

By Richard Sine

'TYPOGRAPHY with anything to say aspires to a kind of statuesque transparency," writes Robert Bringhurst, champion of paradox and poet of print. And there's a sort of statuesque transparency to the Palo Alto home of type designer Sumner Stone. Everything about it seems to transmit the respect for minute intricacy and quiet beauty that the typemeister brings to his craft. The front yard is a Japanese garden, with bright red azaleas, a brass gong and brass cranes preening over a pond filled with koi. Above the drafting board in the converted garage where Stone works are two beautiful, calligraphic ampersands he blasted in sand and framed in wood. Across from the board is a microscope Stone uses to pursue his new hobby of mycology, the study of fungi.

The term "type foundry" brings up an array of images of an almost Medieval tone: boiling vats of lead, craftsmen hunched over their benches etching out each letter on steel punches using jeweler's tools. But this clean little room is in fact the Stone Type Foundry, of which Stone is the sole employee. The biggest single object here is the huge computer screen on which Stone designs his typefaces.

Once the exclusive domain of a few huge foundries that made typefaces to package along with their pricey typesetting machines, type design has seen an explosion in the number of little "foundries" composed of nothing more than a computer and a designer. Before the Macintosh computer broke open the world of graphic design to the masses, there were less than a dozen well-known type designers in the world. By contrast, nearly one hundred designers at a recent trade conference displayed new typefaces. Thousands more are using font-design software to try their hand at their own fonts.

Yet true professional type designers remain a tiny guild. Despite the updated and detoxified surroundings, Sumner Stone retains an air of placidity, of scholastic refinement, that somehow feels very old. It is easy to imagine him spending a meditative day here, contemplating the shape of an O.

More on Fonts
Designers worry about pirated type.
High tech trips up typography.
The man behind the X in X-Files.
A few font related web sites.

Pixel Perfect

STONE fell in love with letters while taking calligraphy classes at Reed, a little Portland college known for harboring individualists. He plied the quill briefly for Hallmark Cards in Kansas City--"Happy Mother's Day, Get Well Soon, that kind of thing"--then moved to Sonoma, where he designed wine labels and brochures for wine tourists. After a detour studying mathematics at Sonoma State University he launched a career in type design.

Stone became a 24-point player in the type world when he joined Adobe in 1984 as director of typography. Adobe programmers had just completed Postcript, the page description language that would make graphic design on desktop computers feasible. Stone helped decide on the 13 typefaces that would come bundled with the original Laserwriters. But as graphic designers seized upon Postscript, they started demanding a bigger variety of typefaces. Stone began licensing more faces and quietly designing his own face, which he called Stone. When the Stone typeface--actually a small library of 18 different faces in three different styles--became an instant success, Adobe picked up the pace of its type licensing and hired a couple of type designers of its own. A little revolution had begun.

"Thanks to Adobe, the type technology business is centered here in the Silicon Valley," says Roger Black, the Los Gatos graphic designer who is a co-founder of The Font Bureau, Inc. and who has pioneered designs for Rolling Stone and The New York Times. "Creative type design doesn't even have a center any longer, because new technologies make it possible for font designers to work wherever they want."

Liberated from the physical restraints of steel etching or even drafting on paper, Stone and his companions from Adobe were free to make font designs that could look like just about anything--a liberty which some of the more avant-garde graphic designers have started taking with some success. Instead, the "advisory board" of type designers Stone had assembled recommended making digital revivals of centuries-old classic typefaces. "Our objective was to prove to the book world that digital type could be of high quality," says Carol Twombly, one of the type designers hired by Stone. "Back then, digital type had a poor reputation."

The team started with a revival of a typeface by Claude Garamond, a sixteenth-century Parisian typecutter. Famous craftsmen like Garamond tend to have several different versions of their work by different cutters lying around, and Stone felt it was time to set the record straight for the digital version. "The available versions all seemed deficient in some way," Stone says. "Particularly when you compared them to the original Garamond, which was quite beautiful and elegant."

In 1991, after Stone left Adobe, the International Typeface Corporation offered to send him to Parma, Italy, to head a team of five typographers who were reviving the Bodoni typeface. Stone jumped at the opportunity. He claims he didn't do it just because he loves the cheese. He wanted to improve on Bodoni revivals early in the century that had been "drawn like machine parts."

Giambattista Bodoni, known as the most prolific of all type designers, was the personal printer for the Duke of Parma in the early 1800s. He spent his entire life refining a single style of print, cutting out punches for 146 sizes of his roman and italic fonts and over 100 title and script fonts. Robert Bringhurst, author of The Elements of Typography, calls Bodoni "the nearest typographical counterpart to Byron and Lizst. He is typography's arch-romantic."

The Parmesano have devoted a little museum to Bodoni within the Duke's library. Stone and his team visited for three summer days, photographing book pages and his steel punches, which Stone has described as "remarkable pieces of sculpture." Their mission was to decide which three type sizes among hundreds somehow epitomized the Bodoni look--or, as Stone more portentiously puts it, "the Bodoni spirit."

"Doing revivals is a very tricky business," remarks Stone. "It seems like it would be simple to just copy a text. But if you look at revivals, they're all over the map. There are many different interpretations of the same style. The best of them have some connection to the original thing and some relevance to our current use of typeface. You have to dwell into their time. Why did they make letters? What was their life like? What did they print?"

The ITC Bodoni team was able to emulate Bodoni's feat of a lifetime within only a few months, using an Adobe-pioneered technological breakthrough called "multiple master" typefaces (essentially mathematical equations that alter the type outlines). Multiple masters allowed digital typographers to revive a crucial subtlety that had been lost with the demise of the punch-cutter.

Type Cast:David Siegel describes type designers as"fanatics" who inspect the letters and printing on almost everything they read.

Preferred Type

TO UNDERSTAND the importance of multiple masters, think about the type you are looking at now. Because the size is fairly small, the strokes of the letters are quite thick. If these letters were blown up to street-sign size, they would look splotchy and gangly. Conversely, if you shrunk down most lettering in most big signs, which uses thin letters, the fine points of letters would be so narrow as to almost vanish.

As an expert typecutter, Bodoni had perfected this sort of optical illusion. He made each size of his type look a little different. Larger sizes were more delicate, with a larger contrast between the thick strokes and the smaller tips, or "serifs"; smaller sizes were bolder, or "heavier," all around.

This subtle technique added much to readability. But it was abandoned with the advent of phototypesetting and then digital design, both of which permitted wholesale scaling up or down from a single size. The new technology of multiple master typefaces allows typographers to create a nearly infinite number of adjusted fonts by interpolating between a few different hand-drawn designs. Other multiple master typefaces allow the user to microscopically adjust the width or boldness of the letters.

Stone and his fellow traditionalists are always aiming for a beautiful typeface, which Stone describes as a composer would a sonata. "The basic thing is a consistency in letter forms. There has to be a harmoniousness, so the typeface has its own integrity. It has to have proper alignment, a rhythm. It needs to be regular, but not monotonous."

Most type designers share little in common with Bohemian artist-types. They won't tell you their faces were inspired by a song from the Muse, a family trauma, or a political cause. Instead they say they work to solve more practical problems. Stone says he designed his first typeface, Stone, so that it would look good on both the computer screen and a laser printer, as well as a Linotype machine. A more recent typeface, commissioned by Print magazine and simply named Print, was an "exploration" to see how compact a face could be and still remain legible.

Since founding his own type foundry in 1990, Stone has invented only a handful of his own typefaces. Each takes him one or two years and bears his painstaking touch. For example, for his Silica typeface, Stone went overboard on the process known as kerning, that is, carefully adjusting the minute spaces between each letter so that they read well. Stone says he kerned six thousand different character combinations of the font before releasing it to the public.

Perhaps it is understandable, then, why Stone admits that being a type designer requires a certain "stubbornness."

Alphabet Soup

FOR SOME REASON, expressions of exactitude in American society often refer to letters. The conscientious accountant minds his Ps and Qs; the scrupulous businessman knows to dot every I and cross every T. It would seem, then, that the typographer, who is required to serif every E and M, not to mention design every letter and numeral plus guillemets, ligatures, octothorps, et cetera, would have to be the most anal-retentive kind of human being in the world. And most type designers are quite willing to admit that the Type Type personality is a little ... focused.

"We're fanatics," says David Siegel, designer of the Tekton face. "We go to a restaurant and it will be five minutes before anybody starts to figure out what they want to order, because we're all analyzing the type, figuring out what laser printer they're using and which version of Times Roman they've used."

"It takes a strange kind of obssessiveness to be a type designer," says Rudy VanderLans, who is married to type designer Zuzana Licko and runs the avant-garde type foundry Emigre in Sacramento. "That, and their reclusiveness, is what makes them so attractive. The only way to make something good is to be obsessive about it."

"They tend to have an elephant's memory. They don't use jeweler's tools anymore, but they haven't lost that fascination with these little details," says Chuck Byrne, a graphic designer who writes about typography. "Even designers of non-traditional typefaces end up being like the old guys. When you're working on these twenty-six letters and testing combinations, it's a very complicated problem to work out. There are a million different ways they can go together.

"Eventually designers start to ruminate on the fact that they are responsible for making these decisions. They realize millions of people are going to read these 26 letters millions of times, and read them for decades. Boil that down to how to construct the serif on your lower-case 'b,' and it's bound to warp your personality a little."

Forgotten Faces

WHERE THE REST of us see only letters, the type designer sees Renaissance typefaces, Baroque typefaces, Lyrical Modernist typefaces, postmodernist typefaces. To Robert Bringhurst, the Canadian poet who has become the bard of this neglected guild, Helvetica is one of the "bleakest souvenirs of the Industrial Revolution." Clarendon reflects "the hearty, stolid, bland, unstoppable aspects of the British Empire." Poliphilius is "a rough, somewhat rumped yet charming face, like a Renaissance aristocrat, unshaven and in stockinged feet, caught between the bedroom and the bath."

The craft of type design developed slowly, but its styles still have a tremendous effect on the way we perceive the words we are reading. We associate lettershapes with periods and attitudes, and with aesthetic rules which we don't quite understand. Letters with big serifs were popular in the Old West and tend to remind people of saloons and "Wanted: Dead or Alive" signs. Letters with no serifs at all, like Helvetica, have a sleek modern feel. And the heavy, Gothic style known as Fraktur was Hitler's favorite font. It is impossible to read Fraktur without thinking of goose-stepping thugs.

Until very recently, only type designers and graphic designers understood how type could influence the reader. But with the advent of digital design, the magic of typefaces has become revealed to just about anybody with a desktop computer and a laser printer. High school kids know that term papers look longer when set in Courier, but more studious when set in Palatino. The church volunteer debates whether Geneva or New York is best for announcing the potluck dinner.

At your local computer sales emporium, of course, you can now get thousands of fonts for as little as a few dollars apiece. Cynthia Hollandsworth, marketing manager for the type distributor Agfa Compugraphic, says the type business is reaching $100 million a year. Maybe $20 million of that is in sales to the average computer user, a market that didn't exist a decade ago.

Every Pixel Tells a Story

NOT ALL type revivals get inspiration from typographers who are long dead--or from typographers at all. David Siegel of Palo Alto has made architect Frank Ching's handwriting into a hugely popular typeface called Tekton. Siegel originally designed Tekton for architects. He had long admired Ching's drawings and books, and Ching agreed to draw up several sheets of his letterings for him. Siegel scanned and outlined them for use as models, but many of the final letters are not actually Ching's. "You get twenty-five As, all of which are good, but you have to make the one A that will work forever. You fall in love with ten of them. Then you mold them together into the canonical A you can't do with a pen."

Siegel says a letter that looks comely by itself may not dance well with partners. "You can get an A that looks good and an E that looks good, but they may not look good together."

Siegel took seven weeks to design Tekton. Then came the hard part: coming up with a name. "It's almost as hard as making the face. So many names are taken. You have to look across all font names and all software program names. It takes thousands of dollars to get a good name searched out and registered."

Tekton was a huge hit as a display typeface the moment it was released by Adobe in 1989. Architects, its intended audience, almost never used it. But the text for the thought bubbles in the movie "Home Alone" were in Tekton. "For about a week you get all excited when you see your font," says Siegel. "Then it gets old and you don't want to see it anymore. Then it shows up in McDonald's commercials, and you wish you'd never done it."

Siegel is moving out of the type design business to focus on designing pages for the World Wide Web. He continues to work on fonts, however. Siegel convinced the estate of Frank Lloyd Wright to allow him to imitate the architect's famous lettering for a typeface. The result, based on the letters Wright used for a single 1927 blueprint, is a lush Art Deco-style face called Eaglefeather. (Siegel has kept the price of Eaglefeather high to ensure that only "serious" designers get hold of it.) Wright was such a versatile lettering artist, continually morphing his handwriting, that Siegel says he could probably do twenty fonts based on his lettering.He once offered Madonna $10,000 for use of her handwriting to make a font. But the Material Girl wanted more.

Siegel has attempted to create fonts based on the handwriting of celebrities--not just any star's scrawlings, he says, only styles that would look good when digitized and repeated. He has had less success with these projects, however. Siegel's Andy Warhol typeface, though completed, was never released due to disagreements with the Warhol estate. He once offered Madonna $10,000 for use of her handwriting to make a font. But the Material Girl wanted more.

Writing on the Wall

CAROL TWOMBLY is standing in her office at Adobe in Mountain View, flipping through a book on the history of lettering. "People are fond of saying that in the type world, there's nothing new. All the old guys stole our best ideas. I think Fred Goudy said that."

Twombly and Stone, her former boss, are birds of a feather. They share a soft-spoken, bookish manner that suggests libraries and antique shops. They both savor long hikes through the South Bay hills. Twombly is best known for her classically inspired typefaces Lithos and Trajan. Both are "display typefaces," designed for titles and posters rather than to be set as book texts.

Despite their ancient heritages, these typefaces are bought by just about everyone and used for just about any purpose. Lithos is inspired by Greek lettering from the 4th century B.C.E. (though Twombly had to infer such details as modern Roman numerals.) Books about African Americans and American Indians use Lithos for its "ethnic" feel, even if it's the wrong ethnicity. The San Jose Sharks have used it on jackets and mugs. McDonald's and Taco Bell have used it in ads. MTV used it all over the place for awhile.

Trajan is an interpretation of the lettering on the Trajan Column in Rome. It's been used in Microsoft print ads, Isuzu Rodeo TV commercials, and on the America Cubed yacht sails, as well as on dozens of book jackets and movie posters.

Like Stone, Twombly spends up to two years designing a typeface. One of her proudest accomplishments is Adobe Caslon, based on the work of William Caslon, an 18th-century British engraver. Much of the challenge in designing Caslon consisted in figuring out what Caslon's original design actually looked like.

It's not as simple as looking at the books from Caslon's printing press. One "A" from his printing shop could have looked quite different from another, because some metal punches were designed by his sons, and the ink sploshed out from the punch in a slightly different way every time the punch smacked the paper. And most of Caslon's original punches are long lost.

To discern the exact shape of Caslon's letters, Twombly stared at them under a high-powered microscope to discern where the metal had actually punched into the paper more than 200 years before. Once she had settled on the right shapes, Twombly sketched out her versions of them and scanned them into the computer. (Twombly has the uncanny ability to draw three-inch-high freehand letters that are so gorgeous that they appear to come from a printing press.)

Each letter and symbol requires endless revisions. Many symbols, like the yen and dollar signs, had to be designed from scratch because they did not exist in Caslon's day. Twombly also added bold and semibold fonts Caslon had never designed, imitating the Caslon style. To design the heavily flourished "Swash Cap" font which Caslon never completed, Twombly had to look back to Caslon's own Dutch influences.

When she was done with all the roman faces, the italic faces, the swash faces, the semibold and bold faces and all the combinations of these, Twombly had designed 22 fonts for the Caslon family. At 240 total letters or symbols per font, it comes to 5,280 characters. No wonder Twombly jokes that type design is a "sick compulsion."

"Type design will always be around because designers like to use new shapes and people like to read them. People say there are too many typefaces. But we can't stop and won't stop. It's the creative urge."

Twombly has also designed a few typefaces that spring largely from her hand alone. "I sketch shapes I see on signs, on buildings, in tree branches. It must be by osmosis, because for my own typefaces I don't spend a lot of time looking through type books and really studying letters."

It is hard to imagine somone of Carol Twombly's temperament getting angry, but there are a few things that will really piss her off. She doesn't like seeing her type overly compressed or stretched. It destroys the design coherence of her letters. (Ironically, Adobe's own Illustrator software makes this possible.) Even more upsetting for Twombly is when she sees her work pirated, an unsolvable problem in the type design world.

Letter of the Law

THE COURTS do not allow type designers to copyright their own work. Judges argue that lettershapes are in the public domain. They do allow type designers to copyright the software programs that create their letters, however. To circumvent these laws, many unscrupulous companies modify a designer's font program slightly and give the font a new name. With no time, sweat or tears spent on designing the faces themselves, the pirates can significantly undercut the original designer's prices.

Pirating is so widespread that designers frequently see a pirated version of their own typeface within a few months of its release. Hollandsworth, the industry expert, estimates that eighty percent of all fonts in use are illegally reproduced.

Pirating is especially damaging to designers like Stone or Twombly who spend a year or more designing a font. The layperson generally can't tell the difference between the real Bodoni and a fake, though the font expert can. Hollandsworth, among other designers, believes the copyright should be applied to fonts, as well as other creations of industrial design. "Why? Because they're works of art. It's clear as day."

Most typographers, with their love of classical balance and legibility, insist that typography is the most inflexible of all crafts. After all, the basic shape of the letters we all use has not changed in many hundreds of years. Yet they, too, have been forced into the postmodern world. Their painstaking typefaces, which draw upon ancient artifacts and crumbling manuscripts, are instantly absorbed by fast-food companies and sports teams. The big companies, of course, don't give a damn about the inspiration for these fonts; they just want something that looks cool or different. And the companies these type designers work for, in the name of profits and freedom of design, have created programs that allow their own fonts to be distorted beyond recognition. In such an environment, true conservativism becomes nearly impossible. "The type design world will have this huge debate on a letterform," says Chuck Byrne. "A month later, it's on TV for a McDonald's commercial."

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From the August 8-14, 1996 issue of Metro

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