Top This!

Posted inID Mag

A type system of multiple layers invites users to re-create or extend the evolution of font design.

History, designed by Peter Bilak for Typotheque, is an ambitious attempt to encapsulate the evolution of Roman typefaces. A set of 21 display “fonts” share the same widths and metric information, allowing them to be layered in any combination to create new fonts. An online application called History Remixer is available at the Typotheque website to assist users in controlling the layers.

It’s a tantalizing concept that unfortunately, though not unexpectedly, falls flat. The term “font” is misleading for each of History’s components, since only 15 of them consist of whole letters—and capitals only, at that. The other six are made up of letter elements, such as serifs and swashes. There are no weights, no widths, no companion italics.

History is a typographic ecosystem rather than a type family. Bilak has isolated what he believes are the essential features that define the different stages of type design’s evolution and has presented them for the user to either replicate typographic history or extend it. For instance, the user can take the modeled sans-serif capitals of History 02, which are reminiscent of Optima, and layer them with the bracketed serifs of History 08 to create a font that approximates Trajan. Or the monotone sans-serif capitals of History 04—inspired by Edward Johnston’s Railway Sans (1916)—can be joined with the slab serifs of History 11 to achieve a face similar to Memphis or Stymie. Or History 01 can be added to History 11 to make strange letters that recall Italians, those early-19th-century typefaces in which—to the everlasting horror of typographic purists—the weight and serif relationships of Egyptians were inverted. Or the rasterized capitals of History 06 can be layered and reversed out of the pixelated capitals of History 07 to form Lego-like letters. And so on.

The possibilities—especially when more than two components are layered and color is added—are apparently endless. Yet very few of them seem worthwhile. Many combinations, such as the first two suggested above, are crude approximations of existing typefaces. Some just don’t work as well as their historical antecedents, such as the various inlines (History 01 with either 04, 05, or 16), because their strokes are not parallel, as they should be. Similarly, the monoline swash component (History 17) combines well with History 01—though with little else—but its preponderance of horizontally positioned swashes results in seriously tangled letters in word settings.

Other combinations are flawed because one or more of their constituent layers is defective. For instance, the angle and depth of the shadows of History 13 (a design in the spirit of Umbra, intended to be used with History 04 and its decorative variants, History 12, 14, and 15) are flat-out wrong, so that any letter with a diagonal stroke running from upper left to lower right (e.g., N or R) is ruined. And then there are some components—most notably involving History 18–21, a skeletal Tuscan alphabet and its heavier and tonal offspring—that mix with the rest of the History system like oil and water.

Not all is lost: Inevitably, some of the combinations are pleasing, such as History 14 (striped neon lettering) layered with 15 (which resembles a Slinky); together, they look like stitching or railroad tracks. Or mix the skeletal letterforms of History 01 with the thick strokes of 03 and hairline serifs of 10, and the result is a variation on a Bodoni or Didot. Not exotic, but it works.

Using the Remixer is fun, but playing with History in InDesign is even more enjoyable because unexpectedly fresh letterforms result. Remixer limits the user to layering components directly on top of one another. But with InDesign’s capability for negative kerning, the user can offset layers and even mix layers from different letterforms (e.g., an R in History 01 with the slab serifs of an A in History 11). This involves more work, but additional possibilities can be discovered by adjusting baselines, mixing point sizes, or even combining History components with other fonts.

Still, History’s possibilities pale in comparison to those of FontStruct, the modular type–design program available for free online from FontShop. In the end, History’s flaws—some unavoidable, some not—make it more suitable as an educational tool, a means for explaining and exploring the myriad subtleties involved in designing typefaces, than as a working “font.”

Paul Shaw is a lettering designer and design historian and teacher. He writes frequently for Print, Baseline, Letter Arts Review, and AIGA Voice.

Photography by Mark Weiss