Total Design: Specific Type for Specific Books

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By: Guest contributor | January 5, 2015

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by Scott-Martin Kosofsky, principal of The Philidor Company


If you needed a workable text type for an important publication back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, you might have had to make it yourself. What was available in the marketplace during those early years of PostScript type frequently suffered from one fatal flaw or another, most often an emaciated appearance at text size. It was a reminder that gone were the punchcutters, who adjusted a design for each size.

Having spent a decade casting and setting metal type, and having been a consultant for hi-tech type manufacturing, I was well prepared for the advent of tools such as Fontographer. I believed that the new technology had the potential to produce as good type as ever existed before. I also believed that making specific type for special projects would add significant value to my work. In 1989, I began work on a project that required a beautiful Hebrew titling face and, as no such thing existed in PostScript, I had no choice but to make one. The type was called Hillel in honor of my client, Harvard Hillel, and years later it was a winner in the first TDC2 competition.


Hillel type by Kosofsky


The next occasion to create a new type came with a project from David Godine, an edition of a composited “autobiography” of Michel de Montaigne. I considered setting it in Adobe Garamond, which was new then, but I found it far too thin for setting 10 ½ pt. text for a small-format book. I remembered that I had seen drawings made by Jan Tschichold for a foundry version of his Sabon type, in which the kerned character limitations of the metal Linotype version had been “corrected.” I didn’t have copies of the drawings, so I started fresh. It didn’t matter; I wasn’t out to make a replica, just a French Renaissance type that worked as I wanted.


Kosofsky’s type for an edition of a composited “autobiography” of Michel de Montaigne


Bell Type by Kosofsky


Kosofsky’s type for Kovner


Having a well-funded project in hand was the key to finding an excuse to make a new type. Writing History, a book celebrating the 150th anniversary of the A.T.Cross pen company was just such an occasion, and for it I made a type based on Richard Austin, the so-called “Bell” type of the 1780s that I knew from metal Monotype. Another was the book Scrolls of Testimony, by Abba Kovner, a complex work with extensive on-page annotations. For that I made a type after the Smit types that were created for Frederick the Great and which reside in the Bundesdruckerei, in Berlin. They are a kind of heavy version of Fournier—perfect for offset printing—and they have the qualities that I much admire: solid readability without distracting “beauty,” yet never monotonous.

Mastering Typography—A course by Denise Bosler
Mastering Typography—A course by Denise Bosler

By the late 1990s, as the technology and designers matured, more and more good text types began to appear, fresh interpretations of classic forms, such as Mark van Bronkhorst’s Verdigris, Fred Smeijers’s Renard and Custodia, Mário Feliciano’s Rongel and Merlo, and several from the Dutch Type Library. And there were many others that were less indebted to older fonts yet still part of the classical continuum, including excellent new sans serifs. Though the need to make my own Latin fonts ended, I still add the occasional special diacritic or will respace a font to my liking.

A decade ago, my work took a turn that brought me back to type-making in a major way: the design and composition of liturgical and biblical Hebrew texts for major new prayerbooks published by the two largest American rabbinical organizations. Biblical Hebrew, with its dual system of diacritics, was the most complex challenge faced by Renaissance type founders, and it took some fifty years to work out. There had never been a solution in the era of metal machine composition; TeX and LaTeX worked, but there was no interface or standardization. OpenType held possible answers to the problem, though early attempts at making Biblical Hebrew types were either half-operational or just plain wrong.

I needed to come up with a better method to alleviate—and automate—what would otherwise be a grueling labor, especially for books that hover at a thousand pages and take years to produce. I found my inspiration studying the surviving 16th-century Hebrews in the Plantin-Moretus Museum, in Antwerp. They were interested in making their lives easier, too.

Nearly all of the Hebrews I’ve made are specific to large book projects, and each is under exclusive license to the organizations that publish them, for whom the types have become essential parts of their identities. Not only are the types specific to the books, they are made specifically for the kind of light papers they are printed on and the inks used. As such, they are part of what one might call “total design” projects.


LeBé Type by Kosofsky


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