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Few things in life inspire as much obsession as typography and football. So surely designer Rick Banks’ decision to bring them together in his new book Football Type makes perfect sense. It’s a limited edition title which explores some of the weird and wonderful ways in which fonts and footy have intersected down the decades; from Gaudi’s influence on Barcelona’s shirt numbers to Maradona’s famous “10” (and all that it evokes in any still-bitter Englishman.) And with all the proceeds going to The Football Foundation charity, there’s simply no excuse not to make this the next addition to your bookshelf, in whichever of the five different covers you can get your mitts on. Football!

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    Rick Banks: Football Type

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    Rick Banks: Football Type

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    Rick Banks: Football Type

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    Rick Banks: Football Type

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"Don Marti, says Wikipedia, "is a writer and advocate for free and open source software, writing for LinuxWorld and Linux Today." This is an obsolete description. Don has moved on and broadened his scope. He still thinks, he still writes, and what he writes is still worth reading even if it's not necessarily about Linux or Free Software. For instance, he wrote a piece titled Targeted Advertising Considered Harmful, and has written lots more at that might interest you. But even just sticking to the ad biz, Don has had enough to say recently that we ended up breaking this video conversation into two parts, with one running today and the other one running tomorrow.

There will be a single transcript for both videos; it's scheduled run with the second one.

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It was March 2nd, 2011, and I was fifteen-years old. I was in the clouds. My font family, Expletus Sans, had just gone live on the Google Webfonts Directory (now simply called Google Fonts). Plenty of positive feedback and a generous reward from Google had made me expect a lot of it. But it didn’t take very long before I started laughing at the high regard I once had for Expletus Sans, and its silly name. The elegance I once saw in it was soon mixed with a decent dose of clumsiness and amateurism. However, Expletus Sans did provide me with the motivation and opportunity to invest in my skills, and keep designing typefaces.

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(author unknown)

A local shop is part of an ecosystem — here in England we call it the High Street. The owner of a local shop generally has no ambition to become a Tesco or WalMart. She’d rather experience steady growth, building relationships with customers who value what she brings to the community.

People often mourn the disappearance of their “local shops.” I’m sure it is the same in many parts of the world. Large chains move in, and the small local businesses, unable to compete on price, close. As the local shops disappear, customers win on price, but they are losing on personal service.

At local shops, they know their customers by name, remember the usual order of a familiar face, are happy to go the extra mile for a customer who will come through the door every week. It’s most often the business owner who is behind the counter filling bags and taking money.

This direct and personal relationship with the people that their business serves quite naturally provides the local shop with information to meet the needs of their customers. Customers come in and ask if they stock a certain product, one that they have seen advertised on TV; or that is required for a recipe on a recent episode of a cooking show. The local shop owner remembers that three people asked for that same thing this week, and adds it to their order. We’re not dealing with the careful analysis of data collected from thousands of customers here. The shop owner could name the customers that asked for that item — she will point out the new stock to them next time they come in.

One single store is unlikely to attract much footfall, so the business of one store relies on being part of a vibrant community. Within this community the local shops and tradespeople support each other. A customer pops into a store and mentions while paying that they are having trouble with their car; the shopkeeper recommends the garage down the road — “don’t forget to tell Jim that I sent you!”

As the co-owner of a bootstrapped digital product, I often feel like we are that local shop on the web. I know many of our customers by name, I know the sort of projects they use our software for. I follow many of them from my personal account on Twitter. I love the fact that they come to speak to me at conferences; that they feel they know us, Drew and Rachel from Perch. This familiarity means they tell us their ideas for the product, and share with us their frustrations in their work. We love being able to tell someone we’ve implemented their suggestions.

We’re also part of this ecosystem of small products. Unlike the village shops we are not bound together by location, but I think we are bound together by ethos. When selecting a tool or product to use in our business, I always prefer those by similar small businesses. I feel I can trust that the founders will know us by name, will care about our individual experience with their product. When I get in touch with a query I want to feel as if my issue is truly important to them, perhaps get a personal response from the founder rather than a cheery support representative quoting from a script.

This is business. We make a thing, and we sell it at a profit. The money we make enables us to continue to create something that people want, and to support our customers as they use our product. It also enables us to support other people who are running businesses in this digital high street we are part of, from the companies who provide the software we use for our help desk and our bug tracking system, right through to the freelancers who design for us.

I am happy with my small shopkeeper status. I talk and write about bootstrapping because I want to show other developers that there is a sane and achievable route to launching a product, a route that doesn’t involve chasing funding rounds or becoming beholden to a board of investors. I love the fact that decisions for my product can be made by the two of us, based on the discussions we have with our customers. If we had investors hoping for a return on their investment, it would be a very different product by now, and I don’t think a better one.

I think it is important for those of us succeeding at this to talk about it. As an industry we make a lot of noise about the startup that has just landed a huge funding round. We then bemoan the disappearance of products that we use and love, when the founder sells out to a Yahoo!, Twitter, or Google. Yet we don’t always make the connection between the two.

Small sustainable businesses rarely make headlines. So we, the local shopkeepers and tradespeople of the web, need to celebrate our own successes, build each other up, and support each other. I’d love there to be more ways to highlight the amazing products and services out there that are developed by individuals and tiny teams, to celebrate the local shops of the web. Let’s support those people who are crafting small, sustainable businesses—the people who know their customers and are not interested in chasing a lottery-winning dream of acquisition, but instead are happy to make a living making a good thing that other people love.

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Original author: 
Joseph Alessio


In the first installment of this two-part series on type classification, we covered the basics of type classification — the various methods people have used, why they are helpful, and a brief survey of type history, classifying and identifying typefaces along the way. Unfortunately, we only got as far as Roman (traditional serif) typefaces and the early-19th century. Now we’re back for part 2!

Part 2 will primarily cover sans typefaces, with a nod to display typefaces and other less common categories, as well as address a few of the questions people have about whether type classification is helpful and necessary.

If you haven’t read part 1, now’s your chance to go over it. It lays important groundwork for this article, covers the categories of serif typefaces, and contains plenty of useful information about the development of serif type. If you already have read it, here is a quick recap to get us started before we move on to the new material.

type classification


Type Classification Systems

Type has been classified in many ways over the years, both formal and informal — Thibaudeau, Vox, British Standards, etc. None of these are complete or all-encompassing, but they’re helpful as an aid to study as well as for learning to use type correctly and effectively. The material in this two-part series draws heavily from the Vox-ATypI system, which is the most “official” of the systems today, having been adopted by the Association Typographique Internationale in 1962 and still the most commonly referenced system.

Is it perfect? No, but it provides a good overview of what is out there; and when you describe typefaces using the terms you’ll learn in this series, anyone who is reasonably familiar with typography will know what you’re talking about.

Here is a quick overview of the type categories we covered in part 1.


Venetian Typeface Characteristics

  • Notable calligraphic influence, patterned after handwriting.
  • Strongly angled axis or stress.
  • Based on typefaces designed in Renaissance cultural hubs such as Venice.


Oldstyle Typeface Characteristics

  • Less calligraphic influence because type began to be viewed as separate from writing.
  • Named after influential type designers Claude Garamont and Aldus Manutius.
  • Still has a tilted axis but less obvious than in Humanist type.


Transitional Characteristics

  • No calligraphic influence. Designed independently, sometimes on a grid.
  • First appeared in the late-17th century.
  • Virtually vertical axis and high contrast between heavy and thin strokes.


Didone Characteristics

  • Extreme contrast between thick and thin. Rigidly vertical axis.
  • Abrupt, or unbracketed, serifs. Very precisely designed.
  • Named after Firmin Didot and Giambattista Bodoni.

Slab Serif

Slab Serif Characteristics

  • Very heavy weight and low contrast between thick and thin.
  • Unbracketed, prominent serifs.
  • First typefaces created expressly for display purposes.

Sans Serifs

When we left off in part 1, it was circa 1815, with the first appearances of slab serifs, also called Mechanistics or Egyptiennes. By the time slab serifs were being popularized, early sans serifs had already been around for some time in a variety of forms. To follow the progression of sans serifs, we must step back in time a number of years.

History of Sans Serifs

The earliest sans-serif letterforms were, of course, not type, but inscriptions, dating back to as early as the 5th century BC, and enjoyed a resurgence in engraving and inscriptions in the 18th century.

etruscan type
Caslon’s Etruscan type, as seen in a 1766 specimen book. Larger view. (Image source: Typefoundry)

Strangely enough, the first “sans serif” type was created not for the Latin alphabet, but for use in 18th-century academic works on Etruscan culture, which preceded the Roman Empire in the geographical area of modern-day Italy. Circa 1748, the foundry of William Caslon (with whom you should be familiar) cut the first known sans-serif Etruscan type for the Oxford University Press, although there are earlier usages of sans serifs in similar applications.

Embossed Type
Haüy’s type, created to emboss pages so as to be read by touch, was oddly ornate for its purpose. Larger view. (Image source: Camille Sourget)

Another interesting typographic innovation was the work of Valentin Haüy, who founded a school for blind children in 1785. In 1784, a year of preparation during which he devoted himself to educating a single student, Haüy developed an embossing typeface with which to make tactile books. The typeface, which, along with his method, is called the Haüy System, is an early form of sans serif, but it reads more like an upright italic or a disconnected script.

It was first embossed and then often carefully inked over the top so that it could also be read visually, as in the photo above. It looks lovely, but was superseded in both practicality and readability by the system devised by Louis Braille, himself a student at the school Haüy founded.

Caslon Sans
William Caslon IV’s sans serif was categorized as “Two Lines English Egyptian,”. (Image source: typophile)

William Caslon IV — who inherited the type foundry, as well as his name, from four generations back — is credited with the first sans-serif printing type for the Latin alphabet, appearing first in the 1816 Caslon specimen book. It featured only capitals and was marketed as “Two Lines English Egyptian,” the “Two Lines” being a reference to the size of the set type. There was much confusion over this new style, being variously called Egyptian (despite early slab serifs also being marketed as Egyptians), Gothic, Grotesque and Antique, among others.

Figgins Sans Serif
A sans from an early Vincent Figgins type specimen. Larger view. (Image source: Typefoundry)

Eventually Vincent Figgins (whom you may remember as being credited with the first slab-serif type) called the new style “sans serif,” which became the widely accepted term, although you’ll see many of the old terms in use on some typefaces.

Classifying Sans Serifs

At first glance, you might think that sans serifs can’t be classified the way that serifs can, since fewer variables are apparent in the ones we see most often. However, plenty of details can aid specificity when discussing, using and pairing typefaces, even within the broader category of sans serifs or, as Maxmilien Vox termed them, “linéales.” Subcategories were implemented by the British Standards classification, a permutation of Vox’s system, and they provide excellent means of discerning characteristics. I am presenting here a slight variation of those four, with a couple of minor differences for the sake of practicality.


The Grotesque category covers the early sans serifs, specifically those designed in the 19th century and the first decade or two of the 20th. Many of these typefaces had only capitals or exist only in centuries-old specimen books, but a number of them are still quite commonly used. These typefaces tend to be very idiosyncratic, with awkward weight distribution around bowls of characters and irregular curves.

Monotype Grotesque
(Image source: MyFonts)

Monotype Grotesque (above, 1926), based on Berthold’s much earlier Ideal Grotesque (1832), is an excellent example of the quirks commonly evident in Grotesques. Note the awkward “a” and “g,” the squarish bowls, the odd curves and angles at the tips of strokes in the “J” and “S,” and the overall irregularity.

The capital G in a Grotesque is usually spurred, and the British Standards specifies a curled leg on the capital R, although that is not apparent in many typefaces of the period. They tend to display some variation in the thickness of strokes, but the contrast does not show calligraphic influence or a logical pattern. The style became more sophisticated over the course of the 19th century. Perhaps the finest sample of this category appeared in the Berthold Type Foundry’s 1896 release of Akzidenz-Grotesk, which, along with Schelter Grotesk (1886), served as an archetype for many Neo-Grotesques, most notably Neue Haas Grotesk and Univers.


Interestingly enough, it has been postulated that Akzidenz-Grotesk was based on Walbaum or Didot. Despite looking extremely different at first glance, a simple comparison of the basic forms shows that the metrics are very similar.

Examples of the Grotesque category include Franklin Gothic, Monotype Grotesque and Schelter Grotesk.


The Neo-Grotesques, also called Transitionals or Realists, include many of the most commonly used sans. They are based on the later Grotesques and take the design of the sans-serif to a new level with their careful construction and aesthetics. They are much more refined than the Grotesques, during which period type designers were still feeling their way around the new style; thus, the Neo-Grotesques lose many of the awkward curves and idiosyncrasies that are common in earlier sans serifs. You’ll see much less variation in line weight, and most often a single-story “g.”


Created with an emphasis on neutrality and simplicity, they were extraordinarily popular among the Modernists and remain popular today. Despite many claims otherwise, simplicity does not directly translate into legibility: A tight vertical rhythm and pinched apertures keep many Neo-Grotesques (including Helvetica) from being good choices for body text. In fact, in the 2013 edition of the DIN 1450 (the German standards on legibility in typefaces, published by the Deutsches Institut für Normung), Helvetica is used as a negative standard. That’s an entirely different topic, however.

In 1957 — a big year for Neo-Grotesque sans serifs, as Frutiger’s Univers as well as Folio (originally thought to be a stronger competitor, although history has proved otherwise) were released — Haas Foundry released Max Miedinger’s Neue Haas Grotesk, which drew heavily on Schelter and Akzidenz Grotesks. In 1960, Haas, in an effort to market it more effectively, rebranded Neue Haas Grotesk to what we know as one of the most ubiquitous typefaces of all time — you guessed it — Helvetica.

helvetica specimen
Many people love Helvetica so much that they’ll hang prints of vintage Helvetica specimens as decoration. (Image source: etsy)

The quintessential members of this group are, of course, Univers and the immortal Helvetica, which has gone through quite a number of permutations over the years (as have all of these typefaces) and was recently revived by Christian Schwartz as a rerelease of Neue Haas Grotesk. A nice informational minisite was created by Indra Kupferschmid and Nick Sherman for the release. Other typefaces in this category include the DIN 1451 and its derivatives, and Bell Gothic and its successor Bell Centennial.


If you remember the most important quality of Humanist serif type, you’ll be relieved to learn that the same quality carries over to the sans serifs! The primary characteristic of Humanist type, both serif and sans serif, is a strong calligraphic influence, basing its shapes and flow on forms that could originate from a pen or brush. This means a much higher stroke contrast, and some Humanist sans even feature some stress, whereas nearly all other sans serifs have a completely vertical axis.

Another interesting characteristic of Humanist sans serifs is that their proportions often derive largely from Roman inscriptions and early serif typefaces, rather than 19th-century sans serifs as the Neo-Grotesques did. Because of this design process involving older letterforms, the lowercase “a” and “g” are most often two-story in Humanist sans serifs. All of these characteristics combine to make most Humanists a more legible choice than other types of sans faces.

Humanist Sans (Optima)

Hermann Zapf’s Optima is one example that clearly shows the calligraphic heritage, with an unusually obvious difference between thick and thin strokes, while many others in this category have more subtle features. The Humanist sans group includes classics such as Gill Sans and Frutiger as well as more recent releases like Myriad (1991), Trebuchet (1996) and Calibri (2005).


Geometric sans serifs are exactly what their name suggests. Instead of being derived from early Grotesques, like a Neo-Grotesque, or from calligraphic and engraved forms like the Humanist sans, they are built on geometric shapes. The characters often have optically circular bowls and are otherwise typically very rectangular, sharing many components between the various glyphs.

Erbar Grotesk
Erbar’s small x-height, among other factors, renders it difficult to read. Larger view.

Jakob Erbar, whose eponymous typeface is credited as being the first Geometric sans, reportedly based his construction on the circle. Released in the 1920s, Erbar-Grotesk was intended to be legible. Ironically, because of the awkward visual rhythm, resulting from strict adherence to geometric forms, Geometric lineals are among the least legible of sans serifs and are usually suitable only for display type. Geometric sans serifs usually show little or no stroke contrast and usually feature a single-story lowercase “a.”

Geometric Sans

Paul Renner’s Futura, Koch’s Kabel and Lubalin’s Avant Garde are typical examples of the style. H&FJ’s Gotham is also a Geometric sans, although it is less strictly geometric than some and allows for more variation in the heavier weights.

The Rest Of The Story

That’s the basic classification for sans serifs! While the two parts of this series primarily deal with serif and sans type, there are many other styles to consider. The Vox-ATypI system also provides five subcategories of “calligraphics” (i.e. type that is derived from handmade letters), but as they are largely self-explanatory, I won’t dedicate much space in this already lengthy article to them. Here is a brief summary of each category.


Script Metal Type
A case of script metal type. (Image source:

Scripts are, of course, typefaces based on handwriting, particularly formal scripts. The letters often connect, but not necessarily so. They range from the very formal — Matthew Carter’s Snell Roundhand, named after the author of a 1694 booklet on penmanship, originally released in 1966 — to the very casual — Ashley Havinden’s eponymous Ashley Script, from 1955.


Trajan Inscription
Carol Twombly’s Trajan was based on this inscription at the base of Trajan’s Column in Rome.

Glyphic typefaces are those derived from engraved or chiseled letters. Many of these typefaces look like they could be classified as serifs but are based on the work of a chisel, rather than having gone through the traditional design process and referencing the stroke of a pen. As such, Glyphics, also called “incised” typefaces, sometimes contain only capitals, and the serifs tend to be small, as a natural detail of the chiseling process rather than as a design feature. Trajan and Friz Quadrata are excellent examples of this style.


Graphic Wood Type
Graphic wood type from the extensive Hamilton Wood Type collection.

Graphic is essentially a sort of catch-all label for display type that doesn’t fit into any other category. It includes anything that would be drawn or designed, with a brush, pen or any sort of tool. If it’s not exactly a sans, not exactly a serif, and you’re not really sure what it is, it is most likely a Graphic typeface!


Gutenberg Bible
Gutenberg printed with type designed to mimic the late-medieval Fraktur style of handwriting. (Image credits: JMWK)

Blackletter type began with Gutenberg and was used in printing, even printing body text, until the early- to mid-20th century in Germany. It is based on a medieval scribal hand, written with a broad-nib pen, and differs from graphic typefaces and scripts in that it has been used at length in body text. It has a very dense type style. When the traditional style that Gutenberg had used began to give way to the more readable early serifs (the Humanist/Venetian designs of Aldus Manutius and his colleagues), printers called the new style “Whiteletter,” in reference to the negative space-to-ink ratio on the page; thus, the old type was termed Blackletter, and we still use this term today.


Gaelic Type
Gaelic type includes the Latin alphabet as well as some additional glyphs. Larger view. (Image source: mathewstaunton)

Gaelic type is based on the insular script found in manuscripts throughout the UK. As with Blackletter, it has been used in printing body text in Ireland, from its earliest appearances in the 16th century all the way through to the mid-20th century, but is no longer popular as a text typeface. The Vox-ATypI system was amended to include the Gaelic category in 2010 at the ATypI annual conference, appropriately held in Dublin.

Non-Latin Type

Beyond that, there is still another world of type to discover. The entirety of these two articles on the subtleties of type (and, believe me, it can get much more complicated!) have discussed only the Latin alphabet, which, while quite commonly used, is merely one of many writing systems used today. I encourage you to learn more about, and get involved in, the typography of other writing systems! Some are very widespread and used daily by hundreds of millions of people; others are used by mere thousands.

Regardless of how many people use it, each writing system needs quality typefaces. From the commonly used (check out Nadine Chahine’s interview on Arabic type) to the rarely seen (Jean-Baptiste Levée gave a fascinating talk at last year’s TypeCon on creating Air Inuit Sans, supporting Inuktitut glyphs), the typography of non-Latin writing systems promises an exciting future.

Closing Remarks

We’ve barely scratched the surface of the fascinating subject of typography and type history in this two-part series “Making Sense of Type Classification.” Hopefully, it has piqued your interest in this intriguing field. Knowing your way around the typographic resources available to today’s designers is essential, and it is helpful to understand a little behind the characteristics, history, visual character and idiosyncrasies that make each typeface unique and that define how it communicates.

At one point in the history of Web design, an extensive knowledge of type history was unnecessary because a Web or interactive designer was limited to half a dozen typefaces, and those in limited weights and variants.

Today, however, the landscape of Web design is completely different, and the typographic possibilities are endless! Also, while this material is covered in many design schools, a significant portion of designers today haven’t had a formal design education, so now is the best time to catch up!

That being said, we also must remember that, while type classification is an important aid to studying type, it is not a hard and fast system that cannot be questioned. Many typefaces combine characteristics and could easily fit into multiple categories, and no classification system can cover all of the possibilities. In the end, type classification is an excellent means of learning to recognize common patterns and distinguishing characteristics of typefaces, and we get to learn some type history along the way.

With this short series, you’re now equipped with a strong knowledge of categories of type; you’ve learned to analyze typefaces and pick out unique aspects of letterforms; you’ve seen how type has evolved with culture; and, most importantly, you have a solid foundation for further study of typography and type history! It cannot be overstated how immensely important sound knowledge of typography is for anyone in the broad field of design, and the material we’ve covered here will serve you well in navigating the world of type.

(al) (ea)

© Joseph Alessio for Smashing Magazine, 2013.

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Original author: 
Sean Mitchell

Delicate yet solid curves courtesy of Sudtipos, a sturdy serif from FontFont, a cosy type family by FDI, a whiskey & gin inspired face from Hold Fast Foundry, tetragonal splinters from Benoît Bodhuin, a Dieter Rams inspired face by The Northern Block, a minimalist sans from Mostardesign, a dotted typeface by Nina Stössinger, a versatile sans from Hoftype, and a new softened slab by Insigne.

Sudtipos: Esmeralda Pro

Designed by Guille Vizzari

Delicate yet solid curves, serifs and endings give each composition a fine, elegant and exquisite feeling, along with a firm and sturdy look.

FontFont: FF Dora

Designed by Slávka Pauliková

Based on a detailed study of today’s handwriting styles, the main focus was on transforming handwritten shapes into a serif text typeface, not a script face.

FDI: Canapé

Designed by Sebastian Nagel

Based on the idea of letters with a subtly curved and slightly modulated line. Through this, the typeface has a warm and friendly, almost haptical appearance which brings some kind of cosiness to your communication with type.

Hold Fast Foundry: Gin

Designed by Mattox Shuler

Like a brother to the Bourbon family, Gin is distilled from similar letterforms, but condensed less. Inspired by the likes of old serifs and classic bottles of whiskey and gin.

Benoît Bodhuin: Mineral

Designed by Benoît Bodhuin

Fractured into multiple tetragonal splinters, rectangular modules slightly spaced, like quartz and pixels.

The Northern Block: Tabia

Designed by Mariya V. Pigoulevskaya

Inspired by the work and principles of the iconic german industrial designer Dieter Rams, who is closely associated with the consumer product company Braun and the Functionalist school of industrial design.

Mostardesign: Mettro Pro

Designed by Olivier Gourvat

A sans-serif with a technological and minimalist look, it has six versatile weights from Air to Black with an alternative glyph set to improve its use in different graphic contexts.

Nina Stössinger: Sélavy

Designed by Nina Stössinger

A dotted typeface loosely based on the 13 punched-out caps on Marcel Duchamp’s 1934 Green Box.

Hoftype: Qubo

Designed by Dieter Hofrichter

A forcefully drawn monoline face, Qubo is neutral, cool and very versatile.

Insigne: Sancoale Slab Soft

Designed by Jeremy Dooley

Crafted from Sancoale’s simple geometry, new softened slab serifs provide a lively typeface that conveniently enhances its cousins: Sancoale Softened — a sans with blunted terminals; Sancoale Slab; and, certainly, the first Sancoale.

Sponsored by H&FJ.

This Week in Fonts

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Original author: 
Rob Alderson


It’s always interesting to get a glimpse into a designer’s personal process and way of thinking about their work, even more so if that designer is a bona fide legend. As part of a new campaign by Mowhawk, Pentagram’s Michael Bierut put together this video featuring Massimo Vignellis talking about his approach to designing books. In two minutes we discover why the grid is like underwear (“You wear it but it’s not to be exposed”), why drawing by hand is still Massimo’s starting point and why he enjoys being the “director and cinematographer” of the book. Short, simple and insightful.

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Original author: 
Rob Alderson


Bored of the latest brand press release explaining why brand x has tweaked their logo ever so slightly to reflect their revitalised sense of self blah blah blah? Well this new book by Artur Beifuss and Francesco Trivini Bellini is just the tonic, analysing as it does the logos of terrorist groups from across the world. These insurgent movements are working at the sharp end of graphic design, needing their logos to recruit supporters, visualise their aims and ambitions and work across quite heterogenous socio-cultural contexts.

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Advertise here via BSA

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Original author: 
(author unknown)

For ideal typography, web designers need to know as much as possible about each user’s reading environment. That may seem obvious, but the act of specifying web typography is currently like ordering slices of pizza without knowing how large the slices are or what toppings they are covered with.

If someone asked me how many slices of pizza I wanted for lunch, I would probably say it depends on how large the slices are. Then—even if they told me that each slice was one eighth of a whole pie, or that they themselves were ordering two slices, or even that the slices were coming from Joe’s Pizza—any answer I might give would still be based on relative knowledge and inexact assumptions.

Such is the current situation with the physical presentation of responsive typography on the web. The information at a designer’s disposal for responsive design is virtually nonexistent outside the realm of software. Very little knowledge about the physical presentation of content is available to inform the design. The media query features of today can only relay a very fragmented view of the content’s actual presentation, and related terms from CSS are confusing if not downright misleading.

The immeasurable pachyderm

Among all the physical qualities of web typography, the elephant in the room is the issue of size. I’m not talking about em or rem or “reference pixels” ¹ or even device pixels. I’m talking about real, actual, physical, bona fide, measurable, size!

It’s ridiculous that we can send robots to Mars yet it’s still virtually impossible to render a glyph on a web page and say with confidence: “If you measure this glyph on your screen with a ruler, it will be exactly 10 millimeters wide.” Although actual physical size isn’t always the most important factor in web design, in some cases it is critical. For example, consider content for partially-sighted or low-vision readers: the ability to tweak designs according to physical sizes would enable designers to make conscious design decisions with much more sensitivity to how the type is actually being seen. And even where physical sizing is secondary to relative sizing, why shouldn’t we nevertheless be able to factor in physical size when establishing the relationships between different elements?

Physical considerations ≠ print design

I don’t believe web typography should be a screen-based imitation of print typography. One of the greatest benefits of web typography, and web design in general, is that it is flexible, adaptable, fluidly adjustable, without being locked into any one specific configuration. However(!), that doesn’t mean web designers should be forced to design without any means to address the issues of physical presentation. On the contrary, responsive design will not reach its full potential until it allows the ability to respond to the very important physical variables of digital media.

Please pardon the cliché, but when it comes to typography, on screens or otherwise, size matters. Physical size affects optical issues that change how the eye and brain process typographic images. Not surprisingly, typographers and typeface designers have been compensating for optical size-related issues as far back as Gutenberg.

You can’t expect a paragraph of type with the same relative line-height, column width, letter-spacing, and glyph proportions to function just as well on two different displays that have the same number of pixels but completely different physical sizes. It’s great that designers can adjust proportions between typographic elements if the canvas varies in relative size, but any such compensation is still based on guesswork and assumptions about the physical size of that canvas. When people disagree about the size or spacing of type on a website, there’s a very good chance that their opinions are based on completely different physical manifestations of the same content, even if their software and settings are identical.

Resolute resolution, absolute absolution

One of the most crucial factors in the size equation is resolution. And when I say resolution, I don’t just mean “how many pixels is this?”, or even “how many device pixels is this?”, but also “how large are these pixels?”

This is very different from the W3C’s “resolution” media feature in the current draft of the Media Queries Level 4 spec. You will note that the spec refers to resolution in terms of “CSS ‘inches’”—the quotes around “inches” are theirs, implying that they are not actually inches at all.

For an example of why physical resolution matters, imagine you are rendering text on a digital billboard with a physical resolution of one pixel per inch (1 PPI). Now imagine you are rendering the same text on a 200 PPI mobile device display. Even if you knew the actual number of device pixels that would be used to render your type (which itself is difficult to do with confidence these days), you would want to treat the two compositions very differently, both in terms of the typeface as well as typographic layout. The billboard type would likely require less space between letters. The letterforms themselves would benefit from narrower proportions, and could endure a higher ratio between thick and thin strokes. The type might even require different colors to optimize contrast at that size. These are all basics of typography and typeface design.

Unfortunately, in the current landscape of media query features, there is no way to know the difference between 16 device pixels on a crude LED billboard and 16 device pixels on a high-density mobile display. Heck, there isn’t even a reliable way to know if your type is 16 device pixels at all, regardless of how large the pixels are!

Pixels still rule, for better or worse

I know what some em-based enthusiasts might be thinking: “But you shouldn’t be specifying type sizes in pixel units to start with! All type sizes should be spec’d abstractly in relation to each other or a base font size!” However, in the current world of web typography, no matter what unit of measure you use to spec your onscreen type sizes—em, rem, px, pt, in, %, vh, or whatever else—at the end of the line, your specification is being mapped to pixels. Even if you leave the base size of your document to the defaults and specify everything else with em, there is still a base size which all other sizes will ultimately refer to, and it is defined in pixels.

This is because, currently, the only unit of measure that can be rendered onscreen by any operating system with absolute confidence is the lowly pixel. Until we have media query features that allow us to spec for situations like:

@media (physical-resolution: 1device-pixels-per-physical-inch) { … }


@media (device-width: 10physical-centimeters) { … }

… any compensation for physical size is based entirely on rough guesses about the devices our content will be presented on.²

It’s a complete fallacy that the official CSS spec allows so-called “absolute” units of measure like inches, points, and centimeters to be mapped to anything but actual physical units. Ironically, previous versions of CSS treated these things as you would hope and expect, but a change was made “because too much existing content relies on the assumption of 96dpi, and breaking that assumption breaks the content.” Call me idealistic if you will, but I am more of the mind that a spec should be written based on what is best for the future, not to cater to things that were made in the past.³

Getting physical

Any ability to leverage physical variables for web design will require a joint effort by several groups:

  • Device manufacturers will need to provide APIs that can inform the operating system—and, by extension, web browsers and web designers—of the actual physical properties of the hardware being used to present content to the user. Some device APIs are already beginning to show up in the world, but there is a long way to go before functionality and adoption are anywhere near dependable.
  • Standards organizations—the W3C in particular—will need to establish specifications for how to reference physical properties when formatting content. They will need to update (or at least augment) their existing “absolute” units of measure to be more meaningful, so they are more than just multipliers of sizeless pixels.
  • Software manufacturers will need to implement support for new specs relating to physical media features. Browsers are the most obvious software that will need to implement support, but the biggest challenge might be in getting native support for device APIs in operating system software.
  • Type manufacturers and type services will need to provide more diverse ranges of typefaces that have been optimized for a variety of physical properties. Ideally, many of the needed variations could even be provided on the fly using a broader approach to the ideas of font hinting.
  • Web designers and developers, last but not least, will need to build their sites to respond to physical properties, leveraging all variables to the benefit of their users.

Size and resolution are just the tip of the iceberg of physical variables that could be considered when improving web typography. Things like viewing distance, ambient light, display luminance, contrast ratio, black levels, etc., etc., could all be factored in to improve the reading experience. Even the ability to know some variables within the realm of software, like the user’s rendering engine or the presence of subpixel positioning, would go a long way toward helping web typographers design a better reading experience.

In the meantime, I’d love to see more of the players mentioned above start to at least experiment with what’s possible when physical features can be specified, detected, and factored into responsive designs in structured, meaningful, and predictable ways. Until we can do that, we’re all just ordering pizza without knowing exactly what will end up on our plate.

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