Turnip Patch Meets Type Technology

Posted inEllen Shapiro
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“Technology will change everything we know about type.” So predicts David Jonathan Ross, one of six full-time type designers for Font Bureau, the Boston-based digital type studio Roger Black and David Berlow founded in 1989 to create custom fonts for newspaper and magazine publishers. “Technology will change the way we draw fonts, we sell fonts, we use fonts,” Ross says. “Today we are modifying classic typefaces and designing new ones for 72-dpi screens. But as resolutions become finer and images become sharper, our technical approaches will change. What will not change is the idea behind the typeface, the way the shapes work together.”

A screen grab from my Skype interview with David Jonathan Ross. The type designer works remotely from his studio on the Vermont-New Hampshire border.

For five years Ross, 26, has spent his days making those shapes work together: customizing, modifying, and finishing up other people’s fonts (say, when they’re missing an essential weight or need foreign-language characters to make them a saleable release), testing fonts, and designing his own fonts.

Ross’s fourth original typeface, Turnip, was recently released by Font Bureau and Webtype. “A text typeface re-imagined from the ground up,” reads the promo blurb. Ross himself describes it as “earthy.” I, for one, am happily imagining where I can use it—perhaps for the brand identity for a client that runs and consults to farmers markets.

Ross uses food metaphors to describe Turnip: “The outsides are doughy and soft. The insides are crisp.”

Turnip is a Bookman-like serif face with rounded outer shapes and squarish inner shapes. It comes in six weights, from Light to Black, with lots of features, including ligatures, alternate characters, and ornaments. Among its most appealing characters are the graceful lower-case italic k and f’ that drop below the baseline.

“My inspiration was a feeling that there is a need for rustic typefaces for texts that don’t mesh with the evenness and prettiness of most text typefaces,” Ross says. “I’m talking about texts with informal or rustic subject matter, or with swearing, or with a strong accent or dialect. Many of my early Turnip proofs were excerpts of Tom Sawyer and Grapes of Wrath, which can look a little silly when set in something classically beautiful like Garamond or Centaur, and can be bland when set in a workaday face like Century or Times. One of my major visual inspirations was the 1930 Pynson Printers’ edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, set in Bookman, which has a rustic simplicity that feels so right for tone of the book.”

Samples set with the addition of alternate characters and ornaments in the Turnip glyphs.

But as Font Bureau also claims, “Turnip ain’t your grandpa’s book face.” It was released with a separate version redrawn and remastered for text on the web.

Web designers have long been forced to create non-searchable JPEGs to use type in faces other than the standard web-safe choices like Verdana and Arial. Since 2010, Font Bureau has been releasing Reading Edge (RE) fonts specifically designed for text on the screen. Turnip is the latest of eight RE font families redrawn to retain their distinctive characteristics at small sizes and low resolutions. “The widespread support of CSS @font-face has given designers access to a much wider typographic palette,” Ross explains. “RE fonts also include hinting data that instructs the font in fitting the pixel grid, ensuring best performance across all platforms.” Turnip RE, as shown below, is wider, more open, and has a taller x-height than its standard, print-oriented counterpart—modifications intended to preserve clarity at 11 or 12 pixels high.

Simplified yet complex: To retain their characteristics on screen, RE typefaces are wider and lighter, with larger x-heights and more prominent details.

David Jonathan Ross became a self-described type geek when he was a student at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. A Southern California native, he chose Hampshire because it allowed him to build his own course of study, focusing on the intersection of art, design, and technology. “I really like to draw,” he adds, “and typeface design is very basic drawing.” In school, he taught himself calligraphy, interned at a publishing company, researched the history of type design, and began designing his first typeface for text and display. As editor/designer of the college newspaper, The Climax, he got to field-test the face by setting the newspaper’s headlines and text in a different iteration every week, seeing the results and editing the characters—would the text be more legible if the counters were rounder, if the ascenders were taller?—and seeing it in use again in the next edition. The font family he worked on so diligently, also named Climax, was never released commercially.

Turnip is Ross’s fourth commercial release. His first, Manicotti, also begun in school, is a “faux-Western” display face “like a spaghetti Western,” with reverse stress—that is, the tops and bottoms are heavier than the vertical strokes. Trilby, another reverse-stress, is more subtle, a slab-serif with casual style. Condor is an art deco–inspired, high-contrast sans, a big family with five widths and six weights.

Also designed by Ross, from top: Trilby, Manicotti, and Condor

Listening to Ross talk about designing a new typeface is like listening to an author talk about writing a novel. “You have an idea. You think about it. Let it sit. Work on it some more. Have friends and co-workers review it before it’s released. Take a look at how they used it and what they think could be improved.” And it takes almost as long to produce a typeface as a novel: a minimum of two years from
concept to release date. Many novelists stick to a formula, though, producing spy novels or romances one after the other. Ross’s work reflects all kinds of inspirations, from 19th-century American wood type to French travel posters of the 1930s—and now the earthiness of Tom Sawyer.

The humble turnip may not be everyone’s favorite vegetable. But just try small, young turnips quartered and roasted à brun, Julia Child–style, with beef braised in Burgundy. Something about Turnip tells me it’s going to become a favorite typeface of many designers, and not just saved for salty language or Sunday dinner.

Earthy ingredients become sublime and tasty in the hands of a master.

..For more on using type online, download Jason Cranford Teague’s tutorial Six Steps to Better Web Typography.