FontLife

by | Jun 17, 2024

What on Earth could cause me to resurrect an experiment abandoned 43 years ago?

Artificial intelligence. But not because it now provides the tools to finish the job; quite the opposite, in fact. My distaste for the relentless onslaught of new media—reckless, socially traumatic, environmentally devastating—when there’s still plenty of potential in the obsolesced media, has prompted me to revisit unfinished projects that involve pre-digital media, and the typeface design in question does just that. 

Furthermore, what I’m really interested in is the mysterious possibilities that emerge during the process of working in analogue media, especially when they interact with one another—in the physical world, which is beyond the range of text-based AI image generators. And this old project involved elements of raised printing, phototype, technical pen, pencil, brush and ink, darkroom technique; and now, scanning and drawing bezier paths on screen with a stylus and tablet. 

The inspiration

In 1981 I designed the branding for an artisanal Toronto bakery, the high point of which, for me at least, was to be richly engraved neo-Victorian stationery, printed by the prestigious M.C. Charters & Company. Unfortunately, the budget didn’t run to that, so instead I drew the logo image with a flex nib pen and had it printed by offset thermography—faux engraving for the rabble; but not without its virtues.

In thermography, a powder is applied to freshly printed ink, which upon heating expands, producing a raised surface with somewhat the appearance of engraving, but very slightly softened and rounded. It’s also shiny and catches the light.

The type style of the logo was chosen to match the distressed finish of the baker‘s hat drawing. It is Bernhard Bold Condensed, designed by Lucian Bernhard in 1912. The phototypositor typography employed a camera mod (-ification) to bend words along a circular path, with a perspective effect causing letters to neatly fill their allotted space.

The text type is of a similar vintage: Morris Fuller Benton’s Souvenir (1914), revived by Ed Benguiat in 1967, which I spec’ed because it matched the Bernhard in historical provenance, was amenable to the swelling effect of thermography (being already blobby), and because it was ridiculously ubiquitous—like Gotham today. And because I liked it.

The paper stock has a bit of nubbly texture too, Domtar’s Byronic Text, and that completes an overall scruffiness which pointedly avoided the slick modernism associated with fast food restaurants and mass-market packaging.


Thermography: three-dimensional, reflective.

The way light caught the raised type put me in mind of Goudy Hand Tooled, and the thought occurred that I might have a go at designing a highlight font. While I was impressed with the shiny softness of thermo-Souvenir, I wasn’t going to illustrate that quality by attempting to draw “hand tooled” serifed letters as three-dimensional objects. I needed a design system that would re-create the effect in a more abstract manner. To isolate the import of such a system, I applied it to that most inoccuous of alphabet shapes, the neo-grotesque. 

Construction


1  Letter outlines were lightly sketched in pencil, then firmed up with a Rapidograph technical pen, t-square and set square, and templates—circular, oval and french curves—and then inked in. At some point, I decided that a simple rounding of terminals would not provide sufficient drama, so I added a bit of blobbiness to enhance the effect, suggestive of a well-laden writing implement lingering momentarily at the beginning and end of strokes.


2  I made a reversed photostat of the artwork and added the highlights, with a mixture of pen and brush work.


3  Reversing back to positive, the design looked promising, but I balked at the prospect of all the fiddly work that would be required to clean up the highlights, and for which I could not imagine a schema that was suitably systematic, could not think how to resolve the ends of the highlights consistently, without tapering. So that’s where I left it, until last March.


4  To digitize the design, I scanned my old artwork, pasted it into FontLab’s background layer, then drew and constructed the bezier outlines with a tablet and stylus—manual tracing using a variety of cursor tools.


5  Using the Make Parallel Path tool, I created “train tracks” inside the letters, which were then snipped to create the appropriate highlights.


Finished: a highly stylized metaphor of gloss and dimensionality.


7  A “fill” font seemed like a good idea, for layering.


8  Actually, the Fill font looked quite interesting without the highlights, so, it being Bold, clearly a Regular weight was also required! (Not to mention italics…)

***

I thought up many brilliant names for the typeface, but they were all already taken.
So Shinn Gothic it is.