Digested on March 30, 2005
Posted by David Earls

Staff shortages (translation: I'm ill and have yet to work out contingency plans for what to do when that happens) mean there is no digest for the last couple of weeks. That doesn't mean Yves isn't simply both fantastic and reliable though...

Bald Condensed
by Yves Peters

Veer recently released Gábor Kóthay’s Incognito/Terra Incognita. I was really looking forward to it as I had seen a sneak peek on Fountain’s Fresh/Upcoming page. It feels like an addition to or extension of his voluptuous Zanzibar, that — hadn’t it been a re-release — I certainly would’ve included it as a favourite of mine in Typographica’s Our Favourite Fonts of 2004 thread.

As Veer’s promotional blurb explains, years ago, designer Gábor Kóthay discovered a rare book containing historic maps and various cartographic signs. Gábor had been quite an explorer as a child, and this antique book enabled him relive his love for the term ‘Terra Incognita’ or ‘unknown land’. Working on the Incognito typeface was a typographic — and topographic — journey into his Hungarian past and the folklore and history of another time.

The Incognito/Terra Incognita suite of typefaces consists of a roman and an italic with their respective ligature fonts, augmented with small caps for the regular and four sets of swash capitals for the italic. The dingbat font Terra Incognita rounds out the collection. I was fortunate enough to receive review copies, which allowed me to properly test-drive the faces. Which was pure joy.

At first sight Incognito looks like another fine rendition of Nicolas Jenson’s Renaissance model, similar to Bruce Rogers’ and Frederic Warde’s Centaur, with a Cochin flavour in the capitals. Upon closer inspection though, the face reveals it is peppered with numerous quirky details, the most obvious being a cute pear-shaped bottom serif on the ‘S’ and ‘s’, the leg of the ‘k’ which extends below the baseline and a striking italic ‘w’. The outright bizarre numerals with their swash-like curly endings on the 1, 4, 5 and 7 brought a smile to my face. As for the lovely small caps, they incorporate a dotted ‘i’ and ‘j’ that only makes sense in Turkish. Weird, but beautiful. Although I personally would've liked to have seen more options in the ligatures fonts, a couple of idiosyncratic combinations make them worthwhile. I am especially charmed by the italic ‘ff’ and ‘fr’.

The Terra Incognita dingbat face is an extensive collection of design elements lifted straight from historical maps: symbols, ornaments, borders, blocks, catch words, navigational instruments, silhouettes of continents, even the obligatory funny-looking whale is there.

A striking feature of the italics are the four swash variations. Their names come from the Latin terms for the points of a compass, and indicate the general orientation of the swashes on the capitals. So Septentrio has swashes oriented upwards, to the south; Occidens to the west; Oriens to the east; and Meridies downwards. The design for those swash capitals is imaginative and daring. One can set them “out of the box” in combination with the lowercase to great effect, though for the accomplished typographer there’s the possibility to combine capitals from the four variations into stunning typographical compositions. This is not for the squeamish though, as it requires skill, compositional insight and judicious kerning, but the results are extremely rewarding.

The strength of Incognito lies in how the source material was approached. It all boils down to the level of interpretation when translating the found type into a digital font. Too often type designers will rationalise the character shapes to a point where the typeface looks sand-papered to death. You could draw a parallel with formula-driven pop music: it all slides through your ears like vaseline without making any lasting impression. The same happens with typefaces that are too slick — at first sight they might look beautiful, but in the end they fail to inspire you or challenge your creativity. Even the early Picasso included jarring or disturbing details in his otherwise naturalistic paintings to catch the viewer's attention. Perfection is boring.
Incognito on the other hand looks “authentic” by staying very true to its source material. Gábor understands perfectly that scripts on antique maps are so captivating and endearing just because of the slight awkwardness in their character shapes and the weird details, as well as the energy and unrestrained joy in the swashes and ligatures. These qualities have been carefully infused into the digital fonts, which results in an honest, inspiring and simply beautiful type family.

Another notable recent release is Jonathan Barnbrook’s Tourette. When discussing the face with David, he made a picture perfect analysis. For once I'll be lazy and simply quote him.

Hmmm, well the way I saw it was that he’d drawn two fonts, one straight and one with the vocal tics often present in a Tourette syndrome person’s voice represented in visual form. I think it’s clear to understand, just not that interesting to engage with as a design and concept. The straight one reminds me of film titling typography of the silent film era actually. Tourette himself was from the 19th century so that’d fit in with Barnbrook’s noted time period.

Barnbrook tends to be an acquired taste. His work defies categorisation, as he’s developed a unique voice and seems to evolve in a realm totally his own. Add to that his very outspoken political opinions and you get a designer who tends to polarise his followers and his detractors (the promotional text for Tourette can be seen as either deliciously offensive or plain sad and juvenile). Basically either you're into his type designs or you think he’s an overhyped poseur. It's up to everyone individually to decide whether he's merely rehashing the same basic ideas over and over or if he's perfecting a striking typographical language with this bold new arrival.

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Digested on March 2, 2005
Posted by David Earls

The main news item in the type world over the last few days has been the untimely and unfortunate death of Justin Howes, curator of the Type Museum here in London. The Times has published an obituary in his honour that can be found here. [Link from MS Typo news]

This week the digest is somewhat brief, giving the floor over to Yves’ mammoth review of an entire CD of fonts. Never one to do things by half is our Yves, even when inserting the word wikkid into the mix. I know it is for charity, but a whole CD, Yves...

Bald Condensed
by Yves Peters

This month Dirk Uhlenbrock is launching a limited run of 1000 CDs covering the first phase of his Fontomas site. I was intrigued, so I contacted Dirk for more information which he generously provided.

The concept for Fontomas’ first year is really interesting. The website followed the format of a magazine or tv-serial, as each week saw the release of another new free font. Those fonts — designed by either Dirk himself or other people whom he invited or who submitted stuff — had the life-span of exactly a week: they “disappeared” after 7 days. As Dirk explains it on the site:

I got some bad experiences with eyesaw, most people do use the web as a huge supermarket and they grab every thing for free they can have. there are less people out there who give their respect to the authors who did and made all the free products or just say "thank you".
When I thought about the next step of eyesaw I decided to include some limitations - it's harder to get the files, you have to be there at the right time or you have to ask for it. The way is a harder one but the "things" are getting more "valuable".

The restrictions of this format mean I will review that first year separately from the second year, which followed a less rigid and demanding schedule.

When you oversee the output of the first year, there are two main categories which catch the eye: the remixes/grunge fonts, and the geometric experiments. Although I think overall it’s a great collection of fonts, I’ll just go ahead and admit I have some reservations with a couple of remixes. There’s no doubt in my mind Persona was indeed scanned from labels on personalised mail and I’m willing to believe Thomas Schostock that most of the images [of the old filmsetting headline font Fiesta] are taken from old magazine ads (published in 1965/66) and dirty, worn jeans for After Midnight Sale. One might wonder though to what extent the outline data for Mess Age, Pyrostyle (and its remix Zorkon), Trigan and Y2K were reused from pre-existent typefaces. On the other hand I’m aware that remixes/grunge fonts have always been situated in a grey area, so I won’t be casting any stones.

For the rest though, I couldn’t be happier with the lion’s share of the first year. There is a sense of wonder and excitement that permeates the collection and it shows that the designers had loads of fun while designing the fonts.

To continue with the remixes/grunge fonts, Old Phart is a tongue-in-cheek hybrid of Old English Text and Optima, and Accient has a lovely fluidity which belies its origin as a distorted fax experiment. Rubber stamp face Testerus and destroyed circus font Melancholie display the right amount of wear and tear, while the multiple outlines on Scratch lend the face a disturbing nervousness. Then there’s Xmess, a typical “crunched” English script, and the riotous Halloween circus sideshow called Freaks.

The first year also features a couple of more conventional faces — “conventional” being a relative term. Cord is a delicious chubby shaded race car font, ideal for when you feel the need for speed. While Miguel Visser’s Basm Fat is an inconspicuous tag script, his graffiti style 4 Dead Mosquitos on the other hand is outstanding. Bully and Mole are rather inconsequential. I don't really know what to make of the stretched geometric semiserif Slick. The James Bond font Jetset simply looks cool, and Tunasalad is just a whacky idea turned into an alphabet. Not only is the four-weight Thaiga Thaipe a successful experiment in infusing Asian script influences into a Latin alphabet, it also forebodes of one of my absolute favourites from the second year.

As mentioned before there are quite a lot of geometric experiments included. Now, Oscar Wilde is rumoured to have said “Experiment is what everybody calls their mistakes”. In this instance though there are few mistakes to be found.

There are a couple of interesting tile designs. 9 Square Grid and Bath explore the possibilities of squares and quarter circles: the former does that in a — you guessed it — 9 square grid, the latter pulls it off in a much more demanding configuration: 4 high and 2 wide. U11 uses the same base elements but draws its inspiration from subway signage.

Next up are the pixel fonts. Quant is a typical coarse LCD-style pixel font; Pinx has slightly rounded inside corners; Pizzo uses a fine grid of circular pixels; Dotto allows superimposing of its dot pixels to achieve different outline and shade effects. ATP Interactive does something refreshing with the dot matrix motif, by applying ellipses for the corners and diagonals. Echoes of De Stijl can be found in Basm, September, Limbex and the truly imaginative Corner.

The strict square design Block It features some very nice glyphs; the squiggly Chromosome is simply mad and surprisingly readable, a joy to behold. Honey — using the honeycomb as a pixel grid —, Kazoo — an elegant, far more beautiful alternative for the ubiquitous Isonorm face —, and the wikkid sci-fi angular Tricky Treat all provide the possibility to create outline or shaded fonts by overlapping different weights, which is just peachy. Mega looks deceivingly simply and is impeccably constructed. Both Simon Schmidt’s contributions are very nice, but that's never a surprise. Neo-pixel faceClose Race is a generously wide square face, and by adding connectors to the lowercase he turns the sans Close Hookline into a script hybrid. Stephen Payne’s T-Series is merely an adequate college/army style sans, but his fragmented bitmap italic Eurasia has a lovely texture and vibrance to it. Two of my favourites are the soft and rounded Term that makes the most of non-connecting elements; and the striking Mighty Tiza, the other race car font in the collection which is beautifully upgraded for the digital age.

The two dingbat faces that top off the collection are a hoot: the weird little eyebats that populate Ispy are very original and stylish, and you can’t help but fall in love with those cute little Buddies. Brilliant stuff!

Over to the second year which features another 10 well-executed, hi-concept, lo-tech fonts/families, all by Dirk Uhlenbrock himself. With lo-tech I mean these at least are fonts that don't have to rely on OpenType niftiness to be successful. They're plain and simple good ideas turned into great type designs. (As these typefaces have no dedicated website pages, I linked directly to the PDFs)

Gen 3000 and Pile are — again — very well-conceived experiments in modular type design. The former uses straight-sided ellipses in an unexpected way, the latter is a strict geometrical square design which is especially interesting because of its horizontal division. The characters of the scripty sans Pellegrini are drawn entirely with straight line segments. Hannelore is the perfect pixel script for text-messaging passionate confessions to your secret lover. Turbon is an attractive connected sans which is reminiscent of 50s logos for refrigerators and motorised vehicles. The infectious Micro B hovers between a decorative face and a dingbat font. One can’t help but notice the influence of Neville Brody’s Tokyo Dome type in the condensed geometric sans Mass with its inline and outline variants, which unfortunately seems to lack adequate optical correction in some minor details.

My absolute favourites of the second year are Swisz — a stylish, sharp and elegant all caps sans which allows the creation of outlines by layering both weights; the beautifully ornate Ove and a simply mind-blowing mixture of hindi script and latin alphabet called Rickshaw. Here, as with the majority of his other designers, Dirk proves he is a keen observer and analyst, because to pull off such a beautiful blend of two unrelated alphabet systems is no mean feat. He doesn’t copy superficial minutiae by sticking foreign bits on his characters. No, he understands the true nature, the essence of what he studies, and succeeds in building that into the very structure of the glyphs. By doing so he escapes every possible cliché — not only has he created a typeface that’s challenging and engaging, but it is a thing of strange beauty indeed. This one alone is already worth the price of admission.

The Fontomas CD is a must-have for anyone who likes leftfield, inventive type. The collection is loads of fun and spans a broad range of unconventional styles. Furthermore at $40 for over 75 fonts it’s a steal, and the whole profit will be given to a children’s project by the international humanitarian organisation World Vision. I mean, what better reason do you need? All I can say is: order it. Right now. You won't regret it, I promise.

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