The Daily Heller: VanderLans & Licko Return to Their Bitmap Roots

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It is always a special day when an Emigre Fonts specimen book arrives in the physical mail. The most recent, containing showings of Rudy VanderLans and Zuzana Licko’s Littlebit, is a little bit of 21st-century design history—which is what I love about the booklets Emigre has produced over the years.

Littlebit is a type designed by VanderLans in 1985. It was an inauspicious launch, without even a name, because it did not exist as a font. VanderLans notes in the specimen’s introduction that “it was created as a series of letters using MacPaint, one of the first drawing programs that came standard with the Apple Mac 128.”

VanderLans would make words by cutting and pasting letters together. He used it a few times, and then pushed it aside. Until now. After 37 years, the Emigre duo decided to turn it into a usable typeface. With the original bitmap design, they found that the pixels necessary to create new characters were not square, so decided to generate a new face with variants devised from dot-shaped pixels.

The result is a modular, transformable face that has great appeal as a headline type. But as VanderLans warns, “we don’t suggest you use this font to set lengthy text, or any text, for that matter.” Nonetheless, it’s worth a try. It’s a fun face that, given its color permutations, is a happy one, too. I asked VanderLans to tell us a little bit more about the process and outcome.

Since you and Zuzana have been dedicating yourselves to your art, how often do you design new faces for Emigre?
The last year or so we’ve actually been doing a lot of type design work. We just released Littlebit, and Zuzana is currently working on a series of variations derived from her Lo-Res fonts. This return to exploring bitmap fonts was inspired by her recent ventures in designing woven and knitted blankets. We’ve also been experimenting with variable font technology, which we applied to Littlebit.

How long did it take to get Littlebit to final state?  
We worked on Littlebit off and on for about a year or so. The basic idea for the font was created in 1984, using MacPaint. So we had to turn it into a usable font and played around with different weights, finalized the character set and spacing, and then created all the variants. And then, when I worked on the type specimen and put the fonts to use, we went back and forth with final changes.

How do you want it to be used?
We feel that Littlebit is best used in short headlines and word logos or as drop caps. But we’ll just have to wait and see what people do with it. That’s one of the exciting parts of designing fonts. Once you send them out into the world, they live their own life, and you have little say over how they are used. And sometimes people really surprise us with how these fonts can be used in ways we never expected.

I love that you title your specimen book “bitmaps make the world go round.” I presume you had a ball making all the variations of this font. Does it make you smile?
Yes, we both had fun working on this one. We’re back to doing it purely for the pleasure of exploring, without the pressure of commercial viability. Kind of like when we started out. Plus, there’s nothing like revisiting and sampling your own work. It does feel like we’re coming full circle. Not sure where we go from there, though.