“Hard and fast categorization is anathema to creative typography”

June 25th, 2012

We caught up recently with Nick Shinn, type design expert, founder of ShinnType and creator of FF Fontesque, FF Merlin and FF Oneleigh on pushing the possibilities of type design and unlocking the delights of OpenType. 

Nick Shinn
Nick Shinn, April 2012 (Photo by David Sudweeks)

You’re known for developing fonts that push the possibilities of the OpenType layout features to their limits. Do technical possibilities inspire you to create new typefaces?

Absolutely! The Contextual Alternates feature in particular. The idea that character forms can respond to text is a genuinely new idea—“smart fonts”. And the degree and manner in which glyph forms may interact with one another is way beyond traditional ligatures. In ten years, we’ve only scratched the surface.

During the revision of FF Fontesque, you conceived a very sophisticated contextual feature. Would you agree that it is no longer possible to design typefaces with handwritten-character without implementing some sort of random effect?

FF Fontesque
FF Fontesque’s contextual alternates make for a better handwritten character.

That’s a question which gets to the heart of type design and its relationship to mark-making technology, be it pen, printing or pixels. It seems to me that there are three design spaces involved—for the writer, for the font designer, and for the typographer. And there is interplay between these.

For the typographer the distinction between pseudo and faux is crucial. One can choose an OpenType font which imitates writing through a pseudo-random Contextual Alternates effect, for a convincing naturalism—or one can exploit the faux quality of a basic script font as a signifier. In that case the font would be set against the grain of naturalism, with typographic regularity (flush left, on evenly spaced, dead straight baselines), and with no concern that doubled characters have identical glyphs. So for a brand of organic food, the packaging would not need to “really” look like it was hand-written, because there is a point at which that has negative connotations; nonetheless, typographic use of a basic, amateur-looking handwriting font would signify the brand’s market position, used in the manner of any other one-glyph-per-character typeface, a manner that graphic designers are very comfortable with. I think one should be aware of both approaches, and choose where to position one’s work on the axis of mimicry accordingly.

For the writer who is a polished scribe, if one ignores flourishes, the genre of formal calligraphy may often aspire to a strict regularity. So even within the world of natural media, there is spectrum of possibilites between icy perfection and haphazard extemporization, and this distinction provides creative tension and design space—aided and abetted by happy accidents—in which the calligrapher operates, deciding whether to disguise artifice or put it on show like hammer marks on Arts and Crafts pewter.

As a type designer, I have to admire how a type such as Mistral distills dramatic gestural style into a minimal alphabet where every glyph combines perfectly with every other glyph. But what interests me now is of course contextuality, with multiple glyphs for each character, and my intention is to invent new ways of integrating it into type design. I’m designing fonts that are novel tools; the challenge is for typographers to find ways to leverage that newness in their work, ways that I can’t anticipate.

In Duffy (2008), your random code cycled between four alternates of every character. In the more recent FF Fontesque OT, there are only two versions of each. What made you decide that was enough?

I reasoned that enough letters could be put between repeating characters, that two glyphs of each would suffice to produce the pseudo-random effect. It helps that there are no words in which any characters are tripled (except for a very few in German). Then I devised coding to switch glyphs to avoid any repetition with fewer than three letters between the same character repeating. That amount of separation is beyond a single saccadic impression in the macula (centre of the fovea), which registers no more than three or four letters, so glyph-repetition irregularities cannot be physically perceived during immersive reading—because that’s below the threshold of what the brain registers in text decoding.

FF Fontesque
Some of FF Fontesque’s alternate characters

But why bother with randomness if the eye can only see a maximum of four letters sharply at a time—wouldn’t it be enough just to deal with doubled letters? Well, I don’t believe that one only “reads” the text encoded in letters—I think one is aware of pattern and texture, in the way that one may identify a piece of music from its timbre (even from a single chord, such as George Harrison’s opening strum in A Hard Day’s Night), with no melody or tempo. And in display work, of course, repetition is far more likely to be noticed. Also, one doesn’t just design a document for its immediate users, it also has professional-grade meaning for the design trade, where it may be examined minutely for non-textual plastic qualities. Ultimately, it exists on its own terms as a cultural artefact with an infinity of possible meanings.

One of the original ideas for FF Oneleigh’s Italics was to design letters like T, V, W and Y so that kerning would be almost unnecessary. While you made the Pro update, what was it that convinced you to switch to more “normal” forms, and to offer the originals as Swashes?

I love this face so much, I wanted to shower it with features. Small caps and all kinds of alternate figures, of course, discretionary ligatures, even. Then, as several swash capitals already existed in the face, a full Swash feature [see following images] was a no-brainer—and it didn’t hurt that they were fun to draw! It also gave me the opportunity to further explore a theme I happened upon several years ago, when designing a book title in Bernhard Tango and realizing that face set quite nicely in all caps.

FF Oneleigh
FF Oneleigh
FF Oneleigh

Now, with the Swash feature in layout applications, if it’s applied to any particular character, I don’t want the typographer to think something’s wrong with the font if nothing happens. So there’s a swash alternate for EVERY capital letter of the alphabet. However, the original idea, that a handful of italic capitals could be swash as default (as in Baskerville and some of Goudy’s faces) has not been abandoned—it’s available as a Stylistic Set.

New ideas and concepts, drawing, digitizing, font programming, marketing… do typeface designers today have to be jacks of all trades?

Not necessarily. I’m a generalist anyway, with a varied career before becoming a type designer, fortunate enough to get into it in the early days of digital, and the learning curve over 20 years has thus been fairly manageable. So being jack works for me. But the industry has evolved with more specialization, to meet the demands of increasing complexity, and I do find myself working more collaboratively now.

On top of your design work, you’re very active in online forums like Typophile. How do you manage your time? Is it difficult to keep up with the technological changes in font production?

I’m afraid I don’t manage my time, and my studio is very messy. I just work on what I feel like at any given moment—apart from commissions of course, which do tend to focus one’s mind. I keep up to date with the latest technology, in the sense that I’m fairly aware of what’s happening, by online surfing and going to conferences—but I pick and choose what I incorporate into my workflow. No doubt I could be more efficient, but I try to strike a balance between hands-on artist and production-line technocrat.

You are primarily self-taught as a type designer. You have your own foundry, and you make commissioned typeface, too. You retail typefaces through several distributors. Why are FF Fontesque, FF Merlin, and FF Oneleigh FontFonts?

Historical contingency: before the World Wide Web, it took a full-time commitment to run a foundry profitably. Marketing floppy discs though direct mail was expensive and time consuming. But afterwards, one could establish a presence with a web site, sell through e-commerce distributors, and build up one’s catalog incrementally while keeping one’s day job—and make a higher percentage royalty to boot.

In 1993, when I first started making digital fonts, FontShop had a bricks-and-mortar retail franchise in Toronto, and I had known its proprietors, David Michaelides and Tina Hadjidimetriou, since they started out—selling graphic design books, actually. As an art director, I frequently licensed fonts from them. David realized that the FontFont range was Eurocentric, and while up-to-date in the deconstruction department, could do with some representation of the North American Grunge phenomenon. So he persuaded a number of Canadian designers to submit loosely-drawn types to FontFont’s TypeBoard. As an already published type designer (Gryphon and Shinn Sans), I was a likely suspect, and submitted Fontesque. Not really grunge, but casual enough to ride on its coat-tails. Since then, it’s been a breeze working with the people at FontShop International (they also distribute Shinntype through FontShop), and I was quite thrilled when they completely commited to all the OpenType upgrades to FF Oneleigh and FF Fontesque which I proposed, and then some—it was a deal of work for all concerned.

What is the story behind FF Merlin? At first glance, it looks like another 1990s grunge typeface. But a second glance reveals typographic sophistication. The Italic uses “true Italic” letters, and all three of the fonts show understanding of letterform construction – no surprise, since they came from you, but still unusual for this style of fonts.

I’ve had a long working relationship with newspaper designer Tony Sutton; he’s a bit of a fontaholic, always pestering me for new fonts, bless him—so I thought it would be amusing to design something he’d have a hard time using. Hence Merlin. There are some other ideas in it too—it’s the evil anti-Fontesque, and has fractal serifs (serifs on serifs on serifs).

FF Merlin

FF Merlin

How does the process of working on your FontFont families differ from your other typefaces?

Other than the fact that I’m not designing any new FontFonts, not much; I’ve been upgrading earlier designs to OpenType and Webfonts, both Shinntype fonts and FontFonts. In both cases, I’ve had some production assistance.

Do you ever miss Art Direction?

Yes. There is some compensation in producing type specimens, though. And I do collaborate with my wife Karey, doing the graphic identities for her art projects.

FF Fontesque’s Cyrillic characters came out especially vivid, especially in the Italics. Did you need to do a lot of research into those forms? Did you have something like a Cyrillic “supervisor?”

No, I’m not interested in other people’s opinions of what my glyphs should look like. I was already familiar with Cyrillic typography, having studied it during the development of the Modern Suite, and I knew what the Cyrillic characters looked like in different type styles. So I was able to shape them according to the same principles I had applied in the original Latin of FF Fontesque.

FF Fontesque

FF Fontesque includes Cyrillic glyphs, and in your own library, Figgins Sans and Scotch Modern include both Cyrillic and Greek. Do you have plans for any more Greek typefaces? Might Greek extensions appear in later revisions to your FontFonts?

That’s for FontFont to decide; I’m game if they are. There’s not much of a market for Greek fonts per se: it’s a country of less than 10 million, and the academic Classics community is flooded with free fonts, and too conservative even for FF Oneleigh. But there is a market for “Pan European” fonts that service corporations operating in the European Union—which includes both Bulgaria (Cyrillic) and Greece. I’m presently working on the release of Richler, which will have Greek and Cyrillic support.

Your FF Fontesque and FF Oneleigh Pro revisions were among the first FontFonts to include capital Eszett glyphs. This is still a relatively new character in the type scene, and its validity is questioned by some type designers and typographers. How do you feel about it, and how did you decide upon the specific forms for the letter?

In terms of validity, it’s a legitimate Unicode character—and, as almost virgin territory (if such a thing is possible), a fascinating design challenge. When the Unicode status was first announced in 2007, a thread developed at Typophile in which the whole issue of grammar and design was discussed. There are two basic forms the character can take, depending on whether the right side is treated more like an S or a 3. In both FF Fontesque and FF Oneleigh, I’ve opted for the S, which I think is more appropriate for types informed by the classic serif tradition. However I’ve used both approaches elsewhere, having employed the character in eleven typefaces up to now. It’s a question of getting a feel for it, and how it can be designed to best harmonize with a particular face.

FF Oneleigh
German capital sharp s in FF Oneleigh

About FF Fontesque Text, you’ve written, “I've seen Fontesque used over the past few years, that in many instances people would prefer a little more heft.” I’d like to hear more about how FF Fontesque Text and FF Fontesque Display diverge from the original FF Fontesque design, especially since FF Fontesque is one of those types where my knee-jerk classification would be a “display” face!

Yes, it’s a display face, but as we all know, hard and fast categorization is anathema to creative typography. What Display signifies here is optical scaling for use at very large sizes, with the glyphs having fine details. I imagine it being used in an understated manner for posters, signage, magazine headlines or book titles, as a script might be used, with a very organic presence.

FF Fontesque Sans does not have optical sizes. Do you think that optical sizes are less necessary, generally, when it comes to sans serif designs?

FF Fontesque Sans

As far as I know, there are only two sans faces with optical sizes—the new Haas Helvetica, and my Brown Gothic. Generally speaking, changing the tracking is all one needs to do to optically scale a sans. I would say that FF Fontesque Sans, with its tight fit, is more of a display face, and recommend adding tracking, and dare it be said, a touch of horizontal scaling, for body text setting!

Of the articles that I’ve read from you, your research into the 1830s British inspiration behind continental typefaces like Akzidenz-Grotesk and Helvetica is my favourite. Are you particularly inspired by the history of British design, or is there another country whose tradition interests you to a higher degree?

I’m not interested in national cultures per se. A face like FF Oneleigh, which is speculative fiction informed by the historicist movement of the early twentieth century—which was international—draws its influences from designers in the USA (Goudy, Cooper), Germany (Schneidler, Koch, Bernhard), Holland (de Roos) and so on.  

FF Oneleigh
How do you think your work fits in to the larger story of contemporary Canadian graphic design?

Outside the type industry subculture, type designers are rarely recognized for their œuvre as a whole, but individual typefaces do make it into graphic design history. I’d say there are three of mine that might have relevance in a specifically Canadian context:

FF Fontesque pairs with Val Fullard’s FF Mambo as the happy face(s) of the Grunge craze of the mid 1990s. They were huge in Canada, and internationally.

The Richler commemorative type is worthy of mention, due to Mordecai Richler’s ongoing celebrity as a Great Canadian Writer.

And perhaps too my custom types for The Globe and Mail (“Canada’s National Newspaper”), given that the paper is such an institution, and an anomaly, both in terms of design (oldstyle types, modernist layout with no justification) and performance—increasing its readership when the newspaper industry in general is declining. Its 2010 redesign was voted best in the world in the 32nd Society of News Design awards.