Author: Yves Peters

Published: November 2005

bald condensed from november 2005

You’ll have to excuse me but I don’t really feel like doing a full review of ATypI 2005 Helsinki - On the edge. One might be tempted to do a little comparison though. You may remember that David and the Typecon people had an almost-altercation a little while ago, both here and on Typophile. Now that I’ve experienced both conferences first-handed, I can attest that Tiff was spot-on in her blog entry. Yes, there’s more meat to the bones at ATypI when it comes to “pure type”, but the three tracks were sometimes too much if you have a broad range of interests — I often felt like I was missing out on something else when I was attending a presentation, similar to what you can experience when you’re at a rock festival with several stages. On the whole it was a successful, interesting and highly enjoyable conference, with loads of social activity, very nice food and some kick-ass partying. And I was humbled by the amount of people that showed up for my presentation, especially since I was competing with the House Inc. superstars on Track 1. And whaddayaknow, now I finally have proof it’s not all partying I do at conferences.

Two minor gripes though. First, Erik Spiekermann’s impromptu fourth track should have been located somewhere near the main hall, not on some lost floor. That really was a missed opportunity. Second, as the T-shirts were already stuffed in the goody bags, you didn’t have any say on what size you were getting. To my regret I can practically swim in mine (hey, there’s a reason I didn’t call my column Bald Extended) which means I’ll probably never wear it. The Typecon system makes so much more sense: pick your size out of the appropriate box when receiving your goody bag.

So much for the conference experience. Before I dive into my reviews, there’s something I’d like to clear up. People might start to think I have a vendetta against some of the majors, a secret agenda of some sort. That is so not true. Then again, I mean, come on, admit it, let’s be honest, when you look at the two recent releases below — they’re asking for it!

First ITC releases ITC Avant Garde Gothic Pro in feature-rich OpenType version. Brilliant news for all you Seventies-fetishists out there (yes you, you know who you are, you just can’t get enough of all those kewl geometric ligatures, can you?). Well, the bad news is they completely botched the oblique. Big time. Read this Typographica report by the ever-great Mark Simonson and weep. I’m not going to spend any more words on this slapdash job.

Then Linotype announces its new Bodebeck family (it was actually developed in 2002) by Swedish type designer Anders Bodebeck. To put it diplomatically — it’s not very good. Bodebeck looks like somebody slammed Trajan into Perpetua, reassembled the debris to piece together new glyphs, arbitrarily adding some Zapf curves (that uc D!) and then blurred the lot with a PMT camera. I find it difficult to understand that a foundry that boasts to be “The Source of The Originals” publishes such a derivative piece of work. As David correctly remarked when I was discussing this design with him:
“It would be unfair to describe this as a train wreck of a font, but it’s certainly one I’d be shunting into the buffers sooner rather than later. It’s all over the fucking shop, there’s no balance. Look at lowercase e, it’s, you know, cute and all, but is it in the same typeface family really?”
My thoughts exactly. If this is representative for Swedish type, I dearly miss Stefan Hattenbach’s refinement or Peter Bruhn’s playfulness.

Frankly, I’m disappointed, and I resent having to have a go at the majors yet again. These are two mainstays, two type foundries with a rich history and — up until recently — an excellent reputation. I really don’t get how they are willing to tarnish that very reputation and squander the goodwill of the type-loving community. And don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying all this to score points with our readers, but out of concern. Concern for the way in which major foundries release and market their fonts. This influences negatively the perception by the audience at large of the whole type industry. So, and I hope they don’t take this personally, I feel it is my sacred duty to point them out whenever they’re releasing crappy fonts. Consider this an attempt to coax them into being more self-critical.

A perfect example of how to do it right is the FontFont Library. Thanks to the Type Board which reviews any submission to the library, the collection is of a consistent quality, with hardly a hick-up. As a result of its success, FontFont has grown into the largest independent type collection, and boasts some undisputed best-sellers.

One of these best-sellers is FF Dax. Every time I see new additions to that face, the words of The Jam’s Going Underground ring through my head: “The public gets what the public wants”. You can’t really blame FontFont for cashing in on this success story, but it’s not for me. It’s all a tad too austere, too clinical. Although, the main problem I have with this family is that it is so insanely popular and so overused that there’s no way on earth I could use it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not implying this is a bad type family, it’s just that I feel enough is enough.

This time around, the Dax family gets augmented with a text cut: FF Daxline. It’s about time, because the number of times I’ve seen FF Dax used poorly as a text face... don’t get me started. Surprisingly, FF Daxline salvages the family for me. It is more generous in width, with larger capitals and optically equal weights. This makes it into a real grotesque face. It somehow manages to lose that overly stylised, rigid atmosphere without abandoning those typical Dax characteristics. The new cuts are warmer and more inviting. I’m even inclined to say I like it quite a bit.

Another best-seller that gets expanded is FF Meta. The new Headline version comes in regular width, Condensed and Compressed. After ITC Officina, it was to be expected that FF Meta would get the headline treatment as well, as both presented numerous problems when tracked tightly in display settings. All those problems were addressed by tweaking the letter forms, and by introducing some alternate glyphs. Again, admirably well executed by Christian Schwartz, but how much FF Meta can one handle? We get the impression that Erik is going in ever narrowing concentric circles — compare this one to FF Unit, a point I brought up in a Typographica article — closing in on the ideal, perfect typeface. Is that even possible?

Christian Schwartz also releases a family of his own: the all uppercase FF Oxide. I don’t get this guy, and I mean that in a good way. He’s freaky talented, but still manages to alternate his “gourmet faces” (Amplitude, Farnham, ...) with seemingly casual reinventions of archetypes. For example he turned the geometric sans inside out with the high-brow Neutraface series, reinterpreting two related models into one family: Futura (Neutraface Alternate) and its improvement Avenir (Neutraface). Christian says about FF Oxide:
“[The typeface] was really just something I had lying around on my hard drive that I decided to release because I realised there was some demand for it, and because I remembered that I had some fun using it back when I still did graphic design work. It’s a silly stencil face.”
The face explores the strict geometry of Agency, Bank Gothic and the likes. It obviously doesn’t strive to be a ground-breaking design; it’s content with being a relaxed, well-balanced, pleasant little family with just a smidgen of playfulness. And a beautiful A, Q and & by the way. If anything, this release proves that certain designers have stuff “lying around on their hard drive” that’s simply better than what other people release as if it was God’s gift to typography.

Talking about Christian — we were sitting next to each other during the presentation of the new Berling Nova type family by Örjan Nordling at the ATypI conference. The new digitisations looked absolutely brilliant. Everything was peachy until the last slide popped up onto the screen, showing some venues they wanted to explore with the family. Amongst them was — you guessed it — Berling Nova Sans. As if we’d rehearsed it, both Christian and I looked down, muttering: “Oh no...” When Örjan said he imagined Karl-Erik Forsberg looking over his shoulder and wondered what he would say, we — again simultaneously — spoke under our breath, with a wry smile: “Don’t do it”.

This just to say that I generally don’t like people chopping off or adding serifs to existing typefaces. It’s not the same as when it’s planned ahead — the Dutch type designers get away with it more often than not— but when it’s done afterwards it just feels like diluting a perfectly fine design. As with movies, the sequel is rarely as good as the original. Also using co-ordinated type systems is not that exciting at all and often results in safe, corporate-like design. What’s wrong with combining a serif with a sans that are not of the same family? Use your imagination, for crying out loud!

FontFont are known for their co-ordinated families, and this release includes both an example of how it’s done, and one... of the other kind.

The successful one is FF Absara Sans, a sans variation of FF Absara. This face by up-and-coming French type design star Xavier Dupré is inspired by the renaissance, and displays his pronounced personal style. Xavier clearly knows how to adapt a serif face to a sans variation, as his FF Absara Sans is not at all burdened by the serif forms it’s derived from. His distinctive signature g is present, as are the recurring subtle Dutch influences. I particularly like the calligraphic, slightly angular details in the italics and the tense, open curves. A colourful multi-purpose family with a nice range of weights and all the typographical goodies one might need.

The one I like less is FF Signa Serif. Already I wasn’t too wild about FF Signa for the same reasons I’m not very fond of the aforementioned FF Dax family – it’s all quite cerebral and aseptic, and ultimately a bit boring. If I have to pick a Danish tech sans, give me FF Max any day. When examining FF Signa Serif from up close it becomes clear quite a bit of thought was invested in this serif version. Placement of serifs, stroke modulation and contrast — everything looks well thought out. It’s a shame the end result is so strict, so rigid, it even borders on the aggressive. Seeing the different weights in a list, I couldn’t help but thinking of a military parade, with the characters lined up like soldiers. Also, I don’t understand why the family is marketed with the uprights and the italics in separate volumes. Personally I think this is a somewhat redundant expansion of a family that’s already spread out too thin.

I was always told to keep the best for last. In this instance that would be Veronika Burian’s FF Maiola. This typeface, well... how can I put it? It’s ridiculous. It’s frustrating. And it’s discouraging.

It’s ridiculous how much talent is on display here. This is a gorgeous face, showing a strong sense of nationality, referencing historical models but undeniably of the now. A peculiar trait is that I think this must be the first typeface where I somehow “feel” it was designed by a woman. There’s feminine touches in some stroke endings and curves that are really refreshing. As Tiffany Wardle commented: “Most men couldn’t design with that much nuance. Or finesse”. What’s odd is that it so obviously contradicts some of my preferences in type. I don’t like sharp typefaces. Check. FF Maiola passionately cuts through the paper with its subdued angularity, the sharp serifs hook themselves in your subconscious, and those italics — oh man what splendid italics they are — bring it up a notch with their calligraphic quality. I’m not fond of Zapf typefaces. Check. Veronika ever so subtly references — knowingly, or is it just my imagination? — several Zapfisms, but that doesn’t irk me. There’s also some Veljovic and some Trump in there, all in the right doses.

It’s frustrating to see a first typeface that’s so accomplished, so complete and so incredibly well executed. Hey, we’re talking fully featured, multi-language, multi-script OpenType here! Sometimes, I secretly dream of having a go at type design myself, only to be dissuaded by the knowledge of what an incredible amount of work it actually is, and by seeing mind-blowing typefaces like this one. And lastly, it’s discouraging to have to critique it, as it makes me feel inadequate and in way over my head, at loss for words and lacking the academic knowledge needed to properly analyse it.