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A Tale of Two Sorts of Typefaces

By Angela Riechers

Which would you choose: physical or digital type?

There’s nothing like letterpress and its slightly imperfect printed results. Enter a print shop and breathe in the fragrance of well-oiled machinery, ink, and good old-fashioned sweat. Get your hands dirty rooting around in California job cases of wooden and metal type. Run your fingers over the deep impressions of letterforms on paper rolling off press.

But digitally created fonts have a number of advantages over physical type. They allow greater precision; the ability to generate a wider variety of character sizes, glyphs, alternates, and options for language support; and they’re easier to distribute.

The good news is that today, you don’t always have to choose one or the other—you can have both. Some contemporary type designers now start with hand-drawn sketches, move into vector-based software to refine and complete the character sets, and circle back to the real world of wooden or metal type.

It’s a fascinating zone of typographic experimentation, as the following four typefaces demonstrate. The first two are based on chromatic wood types of the 19th century; the next follows a strictly Modernist bent; and the final one gets its look from classic Western films. The common thread is a design approach that marries the best of both worlds.

BIXA

Designed by Mark van Wageningen and released by NovoTypo last year, Bixa swerves between its virtual and physical iterations with great ease. The typeface family is based on the exuberant chromatic wood types on 19th-century advertising posters.

Van Wageningen originally envisioned Bixa as a digital chromatic font, using OpenType-SVG formatting that allows single characters to feature more than one color applied in different layers. But the designer’s love for letterpress, with all its irregularities and rough edges, the happy mistakes and little accidents that are part of the process, soon pulled him into translating the computer-designed forms into wood type. “Perfection is boring,” he says. “Letterpress printing shows, in a way, ‘the perfection of imperfection.’” 

Bixa has an odd timeline. The wood type was released in 2015 (even though its digital form—the starting point—could have been made available first), the chromatic web version came out in 2016, and finally, a hot-metal version renamed Ziza was released in January 2017. Bixa is meant for printing type at large sizes (215 pt.), while Ziza is optimized for 36 pts. The matrices for Ziza were produced on a computer-controlled CNC router that engraved the metal within tolerances as small as tenths of a millimeter. The entire project merges the best of today’s technology with time-tested type design and printing processes dating back to the 15th century.

 

GUAVIQ

The inspiration for the display typeface Guaviq and its development followed a similar trajectory to Bixa’s. In the summer of 2015, School of Visual Arts MFA Computer Art student Han-Ju Chou enrolled in TypeLab, a four-week intensive residency in typeface design at SVA. 

From the outset, Chou envisioned both a digital and physical version of the font. She began with pencil sketches, created digital characters, and then made basswood and acrylic printing plates for letterpress. 

While the digital characters are solid shapes meant to print in single colors, the letterpress version of Guaviq features multiple chromatic layers, producing a more ornamental effect described by Chou as “Art Nouveau, the circus, and a wacky vernacular!” As was true of older vernacular chromatic wood type, each letter in the Guaviq character set requires two printing blocks: an outline with drop shadow, and a second block for the solid part of the letterform plus decorative background stripes.

Chou designed the typeface as a prototype for a modern workflow intended to bring more varieties of wooden typefaces back to letterpress printing. “When print meets digital, letterpress can keep up with technology in harmony,” she says. Her typographic explorations continued into her final year at SVA, and Guaviq became the basis for her final thesis project.

LUSTIG ELEMENTS

This typeface got its start in 1939, when AIGA medalist Alvin Lustig fooled around with geometric pieces from the metal type case in his personal letterpress shop and ended up with a dozen letters of an alphabet. He was inspired by Oliver Byrne’s 1847 geometry text, The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid, with colored graphic illustrations of geometric principles prefiguring the Bauhaus and De Stijl movements. Lustig never completed the character set, and those twelve letterforms languished quietly in his studio until 2015, when MFA design student Craig Welsh teamed up with Alvin’s widow, business partner, and fellow AIGA medalist Elaine Lustig Cohen to finally bring the complete typeface into the world. 

Together, they created all the necessary characters, punctuation, and glyphs by using Alvin’s existing grid. They had a particularly spirited back and forth determining the shape of the @ symbol. “I don’t even know if the glyph existed in the 1930s, but it was tricky to figure out because it’s a combination of a lower case a and a circular form that didn’t really exist in Alvin’s grid,” Welsh says. “At one point, we had six distinct versions of that symbol.”

In addition to a digital version available from P22, Lustig Elements was cut as wood type at the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum, using legacy wood from the foundry’s last batch of milled and dried Wisconsin rock maple. Making the typeface available in wood as well as digital was a no-brainer, according to Welsh. “Its design is rooted in 1930s modernism. To stay true to this, wood type would have been the most viable commercial application of the font had it been developed back then, just as digital is the most likely outlet for commercializing a font created now. Most designers don’t work with physical pieces of type anymore, apart from the letterpress community, and since Elaine and I were working on the computer to put this together, we also chose to make a digital version so more people could have access to it. But letterpress is what’s closest to the roots of Alvin’s sensibility about type.”

SPANISH WESTERN

These sculptural letterforms milled in wood were not created for use on a printing press but as their own solid shapes to be filmed as real-world objects. The typeface was commissioned from Madrid design studio Dosdecadatres to feature in the opening credits for director Alberto Esteban’s documentary, Spanish Western. 

The design pedigree of Spanish Western, the typeface, pays homage to the spectacular landscapes of the American West, as seen in Western films mostly shot in…Spain. Many classic cowboy flicks, such as Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966), were filmed near Almería in the arid Spanish countryside. It’s a dead ringer for the plains and mountains of the American West, yet production costs were far lower. Quique Rodriguez, creative director of Dosdecadatres, says, “In researching this project, we learned that people living in these parts of Spain during the 1950s and ‘60s were very poor. There were no jobs for anyone. And, suddenly, someone decided that this place was perfect to shoot Westerns. Can you imagine the mix? All the glamour of Hollywood stars, stuntmen, producers, and directors sharing space with farmers and rural people who never saw a foreigner before. This is what the documentary is about, and what we tried to capture in our typeface.” 

Rodriguez envisioned Spanish Western as a landscape all its own; when he thought about Western films in the abstract, his mind’s eye conjured up sunrise over stark terrain and wood—a lot of wood. He used Morricone, a modular black slab typeface with Western references, as a starting point, and then collaborated with Rafa Martín, a fourth-generation wood craftsman, to shape the letterforms using a CNC router. The finished type has a harsh, dramatic beauty enhanced by the play of strong light and shadow used to film the black and white opening sequences of Esteban’s documentary. 

In July 2017, Rodriguez began exploring options to produce a full character set of wood type for letterpress in collaboration with Rob McConnell, a designer and educator at Brigham Young University, Hawaii. As yet, though, plans for a digital version of Spanish Western remain hazy. For now, this one stays firmly in the real world.