Agmena Marks the Triumphant Return of Jovica Veljovic to the Realm of Text Typefaces

Jovica Veljovic burst on to the typographic scene 30 years ago with his eponymous ITC Veljovic. It was an amazing debut, a mature text typeface in four weights with matching italics that could hold its own with the best faces being designed by the leading type designers of the time—Hermann Zapf, Adrian Frutiger, Aldo Novarese, Ed Benguiat, Matthew Carter and Gerard Unger. Veljovic quickly followed it with two more text families, ITC Esprit (1985) and ITC Gamma (1986). All three faces were designed the old-fashioned way, with pen and ink on paper, since the first digital software for font design, Fontographer 1.0 from Altsys, was not released until 1985. They are part of the transitional period of the 1980s when phototype was holding on for dear life and digital types had not yet gained widespread acceptance.

Agmena by Jovica Veljovic (Linotype, 2012)

Agmena by Jovica Veljovic (Linotype, 2012)

Veljovic is a calligrapher who became a type designer by happenstance. His interest in calligraphy brought him from his native Yugoslavia in 1981 to New York to meet Herb Lubalin who, in the pages of U&lc, had championed calligraphy including Veljovic’s work. During the trip, Veljovic met Aaron Burns, one of Lubalin’s partners in International Typeface Corporation (ITC), who urged him to try his hand at type design.

500pxpurposedrivenbrandAlthough ITC Veljovic clearly has a calligraphic sensibility, it is not a calligraphic typeface. In its sharp modelling, it has echoes of Trump Medieval and Frutiger’s Méridien, yet it remains wholly original. Calligraphy is virtually absent in ITC Esprit and ITC Gamma. The former is simultaneously soft and thorny with voluptuous curves, curling terminals and exaggerated serifs. Though there is no influence, it has a Baroque flavor that brings to mind the types of Johann Michael Fleischmann. ITC Gamma is the least exciting of these three initial Veljovic typefaces. Yet it too is an original design with precedents that are hard to pin down. It broadly belongs with the 19th century “old style” faces such as Old Style no. 7, or, the better known Century Old Style—but it is quirkier.

After the release of the trio of ITC trio faces, Veljovic went quiet for nearly a decade. When he resurfaced, it was with Ex Ponto MM, one of Adobe’s Multiple Master fonts, in 1995. Ex Ponto is a script that hovers between handwriting and something more formal. It’s probably the most popular and best known of all of Veljovic’s typefaces. Veljovic designed two more calligraphically-based typefaces for Adobe, Silentium in 2000 and Sava in 2003. Both are excellent, though little used. Silentium is a modern take on the Carolingian minuscule while Sava is a crisp, partially serifed, titling face with classical Roman proportions.

Veljovic’s turn towards calligraphic typefaces continued in 2009 with his first two releases for Linotype: Libelle and Veljovic Script. Libelle is an adventurous—though not wholly successful—rethinking of the characteristics of the English round hand script while Veljovic Script is a casual chancery cursive of great beauty and liveliness. In 2010, Veljovic updated ITC Esprit for Linotype, signaling a return to an interest in text faces. The fruit of his revived interest is Agmena, released in late 2012 but which I am only now getting around to examining in detail.

Agmena is a serifed face with Aldine characteristics and proportions. But it is subtly livelier than other designs in that narrow category such as Bembo, Minion or even Arno Pro. This is due primarily to a combination of small decisions by Veljovic rather than to any bold gestures (with the exception of the g, whose tilted bowl and angled loop give it a vigorous appearance; and the Y which has Greek arms). Horizontal serifs are slightly cupped, a rare strategy in contemporary type design; there is a slight bend to the bottom of the stems of d and u; the terminals of a, r and y exhibit a calligraphic flick; the k is a bit wider than expected; the lower horizontal serif of E kicks out and its upper horizontal serif (and its counterpart on the F) is spiky; the bowls of B, D and R droop; and some strokes (e.g. the diagonals of A and M) appear to be ever so slightly curved. There are other little touches that are hard to detect—even at large sizes—but which can be sensed. Overall Agmena has a greater stroke contrast than that of other Aldines, giving it a lighter feeling.

Agmena compared to Bembo, Dante, Minion and Arno

Agmena roman compared to some popular Aldine typefaces.

Agmena italic compared to Bembo, Dante, Arno and Minion.

Agmena italic compared to some popular Aldine italics.

Veljovic has outfitted Agmena with several alternate characters (Q with a long tail; a cursive ampersand; and finial swash versions of a, d, e, h, m, n, r, t, u and z). And along with the usual array of f ligatures, there are quaint ct and st ones and the functional tt. (There is also a set of long s ligatures matching the f ones.) In the OpenType era of excessive alternates, this is a surprisingly modest offering. Veljovic has essentially hewed to tradition as the alternates he has provided are little different from those found in the founts of Claude Garamont and Robert Granjon. Veljovic has also stuck with a newer tradition as he has limited the Agmena family to only eight members (four weights of roman with their companion italics) as ITC did in its heyday. I applaud his restraint in not succumbing to the present mania for stuffing fonts with every alternate character conceivable and for extending families ad infinitum.

Selected Agmena italic alternate characters and ligatures.

In essence, Veljovic has focused on the essentials of a text typeface (small capitals, oldstyle figures, etc.) and the basic aspects of a type family necessary for book design rather than magazine or advertising design. (He has said that its optimum size range is between 9 and 14 point.) His italic includes a full set of swash capitals and—again in keeping with the 16th c. French masters—a wider range of lowercase swash characters and ligatures (e.g. finial swashes for f and k; initial swashes for v and w; and such cursive derived ligatures as as, is, us, er and gy; and another quaint ligature sp). The finial swashes display some variety rather than being rote designs—though not all of them appeal to me. Two of the swash capitals are imperceptibly different from their italic forebears (I and O) and the fa ligature is baffling as there seems be no need for it nor any calligraphic or typographic precedent.

Agmena fig. 4

Instead of designing an unwieldy number of weights for Agmena, Veljovic has put his energies into adding Greek and Cyrillic characters—and, something very important to him, special accents for texts set in the languages used in the former Yugoslavia where he grew up. Although he lives in Hamburg today, his upbringing in the former Soviet bloc has given him a deep familiarity with Cyrillic, something most American and European type designers lack. However, there is no flash to Agmena’s Cyrillic as it keeps close to the spirit of the Latin design. Only in the Cyrillic italic has Veljovic allowed himself to include a few swash characters. Instead, it is Agmena’s Greek which shines. Its lowercase is lovely, its cursive nature offering Veljovic an opportunity to flex his calligraphic muscles (check out the sexy gamma and zeta). He has augmented it with a large number of ligatures.

Agmena fig. 5

In an interview on the Linotype website Veljovic is quoted as saying that his goal was to make Agmena “appropriately functional while retaining its poetic essentials.” He went on to say, “I found it most difficult to achieve the poetic rhythm that I had in my mind for the text as a whole. I tried to bring the letters to life when used for text, although I didn’t want them to be obtrusive, but to be subtle, majestic and full of character at one and the same time.” At first glance Agmena may appear ordinary, even dull, because of Veljovic’s conservatism. But that lack of outward sizzle can be seen as a positive thing, an indication that the typeface is well suited to its intended role as a bearer of thoughts rather than as a mask.

In comparing Agmena to ITC Veljovic and ITC Esprit it may seem as if Veljovic has lost his youthful swagger. Instead it may be a sign that he has gained the maturity and confidence to subsume his personality in order to design typefaces that serve the needs of others—agmena is an alternate spelling of the Greek word agmina, meaning “herd” or “horde”—rather than showing off his abilities. Agmena may not dazzle as those earlier designs did, but as a result it may end up having a longer life.

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