Can a Typeface Feel Pretty? Ask Tanja

Paul Barnes and Christian Schwartz of Commercial Type, London and New York, today released a new display typeface family called Tanja. It’s an extension to the Marian family (1554), exploring how something nuanced, complex and beautiful can be made out of the simplest possible form: a circle. They call it a remix of a remix and It was developed with help from a proprietary tool built for the purpose by Frederik Berlaen, a brilliant designer and programmer in Belgium. I asked Barnes and Schwartz to discuss the family’s origins and the idea behind a serif dot typeface that is modeled on the old yet appears so new.

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What is the inspiration for Tanja?
Christian Schwartz: Tanja is based on Marian 1554, which in turn is based on the work of Claude Garamond and Robert Granjon, two giants of type from the Renaissance. We were interested in the idea of making a remix of a remix. It started out as a proposed logo for a German publisher, and seemed like an interesting challenge to develop into a complete typeface. Although the original client didn’t go for it, the typeface is still named after her.
Paul Barnes: We have always enjoyed taking these forms when the idea of the Roman letter as a typeface was solidifying, and seeing if we can look at them from new angles. It’s a continuing dialogue with history.

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Dot faces are indeed fascinating, but why?
PB: Obviously dot-style typefaces are often associated with screen display typography, both small- and large-scale, and they are defined by grids, and it’s enjoyable to “free” them both from grids and also from all dots being the same size. We also realize how much graphic designers like using them: They add a different quality to both the printed page and to the screen, they remind them of, say, small LED lights or little jewels. Also as designers we realize that these things aren’t easy, however much the technology helps, and a real challenge to make them work, and like all typefaces, getting them to work is a real pleasure. We think the designers and users will appreciate the effort that goes into them.
CS: The idea of making something complex out of simple forms was interesting to us. A circle is one of the simplest shapes there is—how can a circle feel delicate, or pretty?

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Can you explain the statement that the dots are free of any underlying grid?
CS: The dots vary subtly in size, modelling the curves in a nuanced way and giving the stroke contrast that is typical for a serif typeface. Additionally, the dots follow the contours of the letterforms, rather than forcing the contours to fit onto a pixel grid the way a typeface like Stag Dot Bold or Pointille does.
PB: Our friend Frederik Berlaen in Belgium, who develops RoboFont (the software we use to make type), built a special tool to help us with producing this typeface. It fits evenly spaced dots inside a path, removing much of the manual work of getting the dots in place and evenly spaced as a first draft of the forms. In addition to manipulating the strokes to work better in their dotted form, each character needed a lot of manual work and optical compensation, to give the illusion of smooth transitions and connections between strokes, and the dots themselves had to be tweaked in places, where the script made circles that looked over- or underinflated.

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How long have you been working on this?
PB: We have been working on the Marian project since the early 2000s, and I came upon the idea for Tanja in 2009, but it’s been on the back burner. Every year it comes up and we say “next year.” In 2014 we released Dala Prisma just before Christmas, and we felt that we would do the same in 2015, except things as always slowed us down.

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How do you see Tanja being used?
CS: Like most of our typefaces, we think Tanja will find a home in editorial design, where it can bring personality to a cover or an opening spread, or give atmosphere to a page as a drop cap. The dots give some interesting opportunities for animation, and for use in atypical media, like being projected with light or laser-cut. The swashes make it useful for logotypes.
PB: By its nature of being based on classical typefaces, we can imagine that people will use it where they would use a classical typefaces, but with that element of surprise. We don’t think it’s the easiest typeface to use, but we know that people will enjoy the challenge. Because it’s made up of dots, we expect to explore the possibility of laser-cutting the dots, or embossing the dots, etc. We have already give some copies to some of our friends like David Pearson, so it’s probably going to appear on some book jackets in the near future.

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