Ludwig Übele on the origin of FF Tundra

July 8th, 2013

Definition of Tundra: sub-polar regions found north of the Arctic timberline and characterised by permafrost

Ludwig Übele on the origin of his FF Tundra typeface. The original article, in German, appeared in Typographische Monatsblätter.

FF Tundra

“Five years ago, I saw a page of text from St. Augustine’s The City of God. It was hand set in the Bremer Press’s 12-point Antiqua face and had been printed in 1925 at the Bremer Press in Munich. I was thrilled. The even colour of the text on the page fascinated me, as did the balanced lines of readable text and the liveliness of the letters. How did this typeface manage to do all that? How should a typeface be designed so that it can lead the eye so perfectly along each line of text?

Two years later, I picked up the question again. At that time, I was thinking about condensed text faces. Condensed types are popular because they save a lot of space; they can bring about a better line-wrap in narrow columns. For headlines, they are naturally advantageous, because they can pack more information into a line. Admittedly, condensed faces are usually more difficult to read, since their narrowness allows for less differentiation of form. They squeeze the text image too much and present a more monotonous appearance.

FF Tundra

Generally speaking, a typeface has two directions: the horizontal movement of the line, which helps move the eye forward during the reading process, and the vertical ‘picket fence’ effect. Vertical strokes in close proximity to one another are so loud, visually, that a monotonous grid develops automatically. This looks very much like the fences found around gardens or yards. Too much emphasis on the verticals bores and tires the reading eye and slows down its natural movements, because too much information is pressed into a line (with extended typefaces, the opposite occurs: the eye travels at a faster speed than it can actually read at). My conclusion after this consideration was as follows:

A condensed type must suppress the dominant vertical strokes by emphasising horizontal movement. In order to preserve their specific character, particular detail must be paid to the rounded forms.

How could I bring both directions – the horizontal and the vertical – together in the best possible way? The question brought me back to the Bremer Press’s Antiqua, because in my opinion, this typeface did just that.

The beauty of The City of God is primarily brought about by its perfectly-tuned typography: point size, line-spacing, and line length. The typeface itself is relatively broad and spaciously set. Due to multiple width versions of the letters f, r, s, t, ch and ck, word spaces could be more easily balanced. Asymmetrical serifs in the reading direction lead the eye forward and support the band-form effect of the lines. Flat shoulders and open apertures emphasise the horizontal. Would it be possible to bring these features over to a condensed type, and minimise the dominance of the vertical strokes?

FF Tundra

FF Tundra is not an extremely narrow typeface, and it should not ever become one. Rather, it is intended as a versatile and usable serif face. It is compact and space-saving, offering great readability in small sizes. Short ascenders and descenders allow for tight linespacing, which is particularly advantageous in magazine design. Like the Bremer Press Antiqua, I gave the letters in FF Tundra’s first draft asymmetrical serifs. These looked pretty good on the lowercase letters. Uppercase letters are constructed differently, however. They are more static, and do not have the same written dynamic that lowercase letters do. For the uppercase letters, it did not make any sense to only have serifs on the top-left and bottom-right sides; the letters looked mutilated, and the missing serifs contradicted the logic of the uppercase forms. I decided to give the typeface serifs on both sides of each stroke, as is typical.

Rather untypical for condensed typefaces, however, are the serif forms that made it into in the final typeface. These are strong – almost cantilevered. The round bracketing on the serifs gives the vertical strokes an elegant conclusion and diverts the eye towards the reading direction. The serifs tie the individual letters together, so to speak. And – perhaps more importantly – they limit the vertical extent of the typeface. Particularly along the baseline and the x-height, they form the edges of a band that gives the lines of text a calmer feeling.

For the reading process, the area between the baseline and the x-height is the most important: this is where the most complex parts of the letterforms are found, and these are the elements that give the typeface its unique character. In order to further strengthen the horizontal flow, the letters’s shoulders and joining stokes have been flattened. The apertures of the rounder letters are robust and open. Due to their minimal stroke contrast, the c and the e appear as if they have come out of a sans serif design. The rounded outstroke of the t is sturdy and flat. The outstrokes of the a, d, and u run directly to the baseline. The thickest parts of the curves are not at the left and the right, but have been pushed to the top and the bottom, in order to create a light northwesterly axis.

Overall, the forms have been drawn to fill up as much space as possible. Because of this, when the typeface is set in small point sizes, FF Tundra appears larger than it actually is. The r is not a cropped n, but rather an independent form. Contrary to the other letters, the transition from the tail to the stem is rounded. This references related forms, like the c and the f. The top half of the g is larger than is common. The sweep of the strokes in y and j are projecting and ample. The tail of the J, on the other hand, tapers out in a similar fashion as the Q. K and k are each made up of two separate forms. The lower legs feature serifs on just one side, which is nevertheless strengthened on the left, to increase stability. The same is true for the foot of the R. In general, all diagonal strokes are tapered towards an internal acute angle.

FF Tundra

The italics also follow the principle of the best-possible line formation. Their lowercase letters feature real serifs at the top-left, whereas their outstrokes at the bottom-right are the sort of rounded forms typical for italics. Nevertheless, these are still somewhat flattened in FF Tundra. f, p, and q have calligraphic terminals. The base of the z points diagonally downwards, referencing its written origin. Even the diagonal letters v, w, and y are zestfully formed.

FF Tundra

FF Tundra is available in six weights. The specific letter construction model is particularly beneficial for lighter styles. This might be due to the moderate stroke contrast. Because of this, I drew an Extra Light weight, in addition to the Light. In the Extra Light, the stroke contrast is lessened even further. In my opinion, many of the finest contemporary serif typefaces are designed with too much stroke contrast. Maybe this is a result of careless extrapolation.

FF Tundra includes multiple figure options, including proportional and tabular oldstyle figures as well as superiors and inferiors. The loops of the 6 and the 9 are open. A slashed-zero is available via an OpenType feature. Also available via the OpenType features is an automatic substitution mechanism for problematic letter combinations. The f will be replaced with a narrower version when it is followed by specific characters – usually accented letters – that would collide with it. There is a beautiful g-y ligature, too.”