Announcing the Font Review Journal

The day that Typographica releases their annual typeface reviews is one of my favorite days every year. Typefaces take years of time and experience to craft, but there is so rarely any thoughtful analysis around new releases, even from the type designers themselves. I’m always disappointed when I go to research the creation of a font and can’t find anything other than a single paragraph of text explaining its existance.

I’ve always wondered why there wasn’t more work done to analyze and “review” the typefaces we all use, to help the community get a better sense for what makes a font special and to pay tribute to the hard work the type designers put into their creations.

So, after being frustrated by this for years and after spending quality time with some of the type designers I most admire at Typographics this year, I decided to build a site that would enable me to give this kind of resource to the design community. The Font Review Journal is my attempt to analyze and celebrate the fonts I love the most, new and old.

The Content

The reviews all follow the same basic format. There’s an introduction that speaks to why the typeface was chosen, followed by a section focusing on the historic influences on the typeface (or in lieu of that, the defining design details). The bulk of each review focuses on the specific strengths of the typeface and uses real-world examples to illustrate specific characteristics and trends in how designers use the font. Finally, there is a section to address any quirks or eccentricities of the font you should be aware of. In addition to the main text, there is a gallery of notable glyphs that I find particularily interesting in each typeface, and a brief writeup of why.

So often in typography we fall back on learned assumptions and rules about styles, typefaces and aesthetics, and I think that is a big reason why it’s hard for otherwise talented designers to get a firm grasp on the practice. It’s my hope that a different kind of discourse around typefaces and typography will help more designers find and be confident in their own typographic voices. I am making an effort to be direct in my descriptions of the successes and struggles of each typeface, and to avoid overly technical descriptions or problematic terms like “horsey” in my writing (if type looks awkward, let’s say exactly why). I want to focus on concrete, objective observations that designers of any skill level can understand while at the same time keeping the writing approachable and fun! I think people learn best when what they read is relatable and personal.

The Design

The first thing I designed was the specimens. As a wood type collector, I am a big sucker for 19th and early 20th century type specimen books and their format. The two columns imitate a spread in a book, and gave me enough space to play with different scales and weights in each specimen. It was in designing this section that I discovered that “Font Review Journal” looks really freaking good in Styrene (more on the typefaces in just a bit).

The citation system in action!

I wanted the site to allow for a multi-column experience so I could have illustration-dense articles and also accommodate images of a variety of sizes. Because of this, I went with an asymetrical presentation of the text to give myself a “wide” column and a “narrow” one. All of the images are captioned and cited with links back to the source when available. Because the images are crucial to the points being made in the text, I needed a citation system to clearly reference images in the main body of the text. Each citation links to an anchor tag where the appropriate image is placed, allowing you to easily find them as you read.

The Musings & References section at the end of each review allows me to call out any tertiary information that is relevant to the review but wouldn’t fit organically into the text. It’s also where I can define any terms I use during the review that might be obscure for newbies.

Color was added as a way to punch up the specimens and the notable glyphs section. The way it fades in as you scroll down from the top of the page was because I liked the idea of a clean, single color background between the header and the specimen on the initial load, but knew I needed the color field to create visual separation between the two columns. I got to have my cake and eat it too!

The site’s templating system.

The site is built in “blocks” for either full width images or a section of the right column of text, and each block can either have a single image on the left, a slideshow (solely used for Notable Characters) or no image at all. Any of the left-handed images can be aligned to the top, middle or bottom of each block. This gives me the freedom to craft layouts that feel natural but are still controlled by an easy-to-use system. Developer extraordinaire Phil Moody built the site in just a few weeks and did an incredible job, as always. There is nothing better than working with a developer who takes your designs and breathes life into them, making them stronger than you ever could have on your own.

The Typefaces

There was never any question in my mind that the body text would be set in Galaxie Copernicus. It’s rare that I do a web project without it, and it has such a clean, even visual grey. It gives a scholastic tone without being overly formal and I love the eccentric italics. Pitch Sans was quickly chosen as the tertiary face for labeling and captions, and serves as the “narrator voice” of the site. A monospace font allowed me to have captions in the main columns of text that are clearly different from the body copy without having to dramatically change their color, size, or add adorning elements like rules which I thought would be distracting. I adore Pitch and was delighted to use the Sans version, which keeps the same generous proportions of the original while losing the serifs and the ball terminals. The result is a wide-set monospace font with a robust set of weights that is crisp and clean but still has tons of character.

Styrene was the next epiphany, and was chosen while picking a typeface for the “Font Review Journal Specimen” heading on each column of the specimens. Once you see Styrene’s “J” in use, it’s hard to turn it down. The font is unique and noticable without being distracting, and it didn’t hurt that it plays very nicely with the final typeface, Untitled Sans. Untitled Sans is a “plain” grotesque that’s meant to have as little personality as possible, which seems fitting for a website about reviewing other typefaces. I’ve grown rather fond of it and see a lot of beauty in its restraint. It settles in against all the other typefaces effortlessly, and thus the type system is complete.

The Future

The Font Review Journal launches with 5 initial reviews, and right now the plan is to release one new review a week. There’s a newsletter signup on the site you if you’d like to get a nice email spotlighting the new review each week. I have a backlog of reviews that are mostly complete to allow for a steady stream of reviews on the site, so long as I can keep up the pace. Each review takes around 20 hours to research, write, design, upload and polish, making this a big time commitment. I hope you all can see the effort inside of the finished product.

I’m making an effort to cover a range of typeface styles from foundries big and small. If there is a typeface you’d be interested in seeing reviewed, please reach out! I am always on the hunt for new typefaces and this project has given me the opportunity to learn exactly why I love the fonts I’m drawn to. If there is a desire to create a community around the FRJ I will look into finding the best way to accomplish that and give designers a good space to analyze type together.

I do not currently have a way to monetize the site, though I’d like to at least cover the raw operating costs for the typefaces I use, hosting, and the purchasing of new fonts as I continue to write reviews. I do not plan on having sponsored reviews or ads on the site because I think it’s important that these remain as unbiased as possible, and frankly I don’t want to have to write reviews about typefaces I don’t love, and I hate ads, like, a lot. The purchase links on the site are for the reader’s benefit and I’m not getting any sort of kickback from foundries or sellers for linking to a particular site.

Thank you all for reading this and I hope you will check out the Font Review Journal and that you’ll all find it worth your time.


Thanks & Acknowledgements

Thank you to Jeremiah Shoaf at Typewolf, Richard Baird of bpando.org and everyone from fontsinuse.com for providing amazing resources that have been invaluable as I research each review. Thank you to Matthew Smith for his amazing copywriting notes, Jessica Svendsen for her analysis of my analysis, and Cherilyn Juris and Andrew Austin for their stress-testing and gut-checking. And thank you to Kris Sowersby, Nick Sherman, and Jonathan Hoefler for the insightful conversations that led to the creation of the site, and for their thoughtful feedback.