Designing “Assistant” — a Hebrew typeface family for Google Fonts

Ben Nathan
May 15, 2019 · 9 min read

A Hebrew version of the article at hafontia.com

How do you design a typeface? — is a question I ponder on and am asked about quite a lot. For better or worse, there is no simple answer, and looking back at typefaces I’ve designed, there’s no formula either. Instead, what I suggest is to closely examine a font design project I worked on between November 2015 and March 2016: Assistant — a Hebrew version to Source Sans Pro by Adobe for for Google fonts.

The brief was simple: design a Hebrew font to match the Latin. The goal was to understand the nature and spirit of the font and not simply copy/paste the Latin shape into a Hebrew typeface. In font design, as in translation — one must understand the meaning of a sentence as a whole and not just the individual words.

The Latin version, which was designed by Paul Hunt from Adobe, is a modern sans serif typeface designed for web use. The font family includes 6 weights, Extra light to Black. It’s meant to be seamless and serve as default, thus it’s meticulously designed and its basic shape is built from disciplined, geometric, calligraphy strokes with a hint of movement.

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Hebrew

Generally speaking, what has most influenced me as a type designer and has shaped my view and understanding of the Hebrew script is the Aleppo Codex. The shape of the letters and the rhythm of the font center around triangles in the joint between counter and horizontal stroke (as seen in the image). Even though I didn’t draw directly from the Crown of Aleppo type, when creating Assistant, I felt I was designing in its spirit.

Under the hood

I design typefaces with Glyphs. The design process includes creating masters, while each one represents an extreme weight of the type: the light or the black, the narrow or the wide. Working with masters allows interpolating between masters, meaning, creating the intermediate weights.

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I create the light and black weights and then let the software create the intermediate weights. In order for this process to work properly, one must make sure the font letters in the two masters are built correctly, that is, the shoulders and points must match the foot (you can find more information on interpolation here).

Source Sans has two masters: one for the extra light weight, and one for the black. In-between four weights in interpolation. Usually I prefer to start with the light weight, it’s an easier baseline to check the basic shape of the type and its color in a block of text.

From the start — a basic Hebrew typeface letter

I started with a simple letter “daled”, which consists of a joint between the horizontal stroke and stem. I first decided on the proportions between these two — In Hebrew sans serif script the stems are usually drawn thicker than the horizontal stroke, and Assistant follows this logic.

The proportions of the Latin Source Sans are not standard as the font is relatively tall and narrow. The Hebrew companion — despite being a square script — also mirrors it with proportions of a narrow, standing rectangle. In order for the typefaces in both languages to be harmonious, the height of the Hebrew typeface letter is slightly above the x-height, so that the horizontal stroke of the Hebrew typeface letter is above the horizontal stroke of the letter X.

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When I design a type family I think about the direction of motion which forms the letters, so in this sense, the Hebrew alphabet is reordered like in the image. This is a good method to test a typeface, but it’s not a hard fast rule. In Assistant for instance, the pair of ‘lamed’ & ‘kuf’ was split. The “lamed” joined the “alef-tsadi” and the kuf joined the “tet-shin” group.

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I knew I wanted to introduce triangles to the font. As a start, I chose to “neutralize” the letter which is most fun to draw — Alef — and draw it and the Tzadi as a stroke of straight lines which form sharp triangles in the counters of the letter, inspired by Crown of Aleppo.

Latin script is rounder than Hebrew and the “g” in Source Sans is styled as two circles on top of each other — the top, a perfect circle, and bottom, elliptical. This figurative richness is missing from the Hebrew sans serif script, but since I wanted to mimic the Latin, I had to insert rounder shapes to the Hebrew, which is charachtestically square.

This lead to the next group of letters, the rounded base group, in which I decided to incorporate an arch which intersects with an angled geometric stroke, in order to form a triangle.

This revealed the solution to drawing the letter “Tet”. I didn’t want to break away from the flow of arches and close the “tet” with a straight horizontal stroke, so I continued the stroke from bottom to top and terminated the stroke with an angle, to resemble a calligraphic feel. I then repeated this with the letters “samech”, “shin”, “ain”, “kuf” and “gimel”. It instilled the font with a lot of round white space and uniform flow, which help in creating a consistent rhythm.

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I repeated this in the Gimel & Nun group: a calligraphy stroke which surmounts the other straight horizontal stroke and echoes the stroke of the letter “tet”.

The letter “mem”, on the other hand, was drawn as round as possible. It’s letter with a lot of white space which instills circularity, especially near a sharp pair such as Yud and Vav

Details and finishing touches

When I thought about the design of the typeface I imagined the tool that drew it: A wide calligraphic pen. I wondered how to incorporate the feeling of a freehand calligraphy stroke into a simple geometric typeface letter like “vav”. So I added a tilted stroke at the tip:

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From Macro to Micro

After drawing a quick sketch of all the letters, I put together a layout of paragraphs to examine how to the typeface works in different sizes, how it appears as a whole what is the feeling it conveys.

A family of typefaces needs to be internally harmonious — if even a single letter is too wide or too narrow, it’ll pop out, be visible and obstruct readability. The working process entails a lot of emphasis on the best spacing of each letter, so that a fitting white space will form before and after each one and the text will appear uniform in texture and rhythm.

Some Hebrew letters require kerning. For instance, the joint between “daled” and “bet” demands negative kerning so that the space between the two letters won’t appear too wide. The blue space represents the negative kerning.

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Assistant’s style and tone are visible even from the first sketch. The typeface design and form are rough and imprecise, but the intention is present and visible.

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Drawing weights

After improving the first master of the light weight, I follow with the second master — the black weight. Or, what would happen to a typeface if it just ate too much and got fat?

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In order to adjust the Hebrew black weight to that of the Latin version, I had to give the Hebrew typeface the same appearance of color to reach optical symmetry between the two, i.e. a result that is visually similar even if not correct geometrically. I increased the cap of the typeface compared to the Latin and utilized even blacker proportions between stems and horizontal stroke — something I didn’t do in the light weight. These are largely the two main parameters to be played with when trying to reach visual symmetry, and one simply needs to experiment until they are precise.

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And so I duplicated the light weight master and drew the black on top of it with wider proportions. When drawing a black weight typeface the angle of the arch which forms between stem and horizontal stroke changes: In the light weight the arch has a wider angle both inside and outside, and in the black weight the angle is narrow inside and wide outside. This is an opportunity to bring out more white space into the apertures and counters and better define the shape of the typeface letter.

As seen in the image, all of the defining characteristics of the light weight remain in the black. I cut the letters in the same way. In the letter “shin” I narrowed the middle stem in order to maintain visual symmetry with the Latin version. I also increased the apertures in letters like “gimel” “mem” in order to achieve the same effect.

All of these changes are made for the sake of optical illusion and are related to the way we see text and read details when they are either increased or decreased. Without optical optimization, typeface letters might appear closed or completely black in small sizes.

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Readability QA

After having finished designing the type in all its weights, I ran several readability tests. As mentioned, Assistant was meant to be a web font, and so the tests I ran were appropriated accordingly. I tested how the font behaves in different sizes and formats, then refined it and prepared it for final use. For instance, I increased the kerning in the regular weight to better suit the most predominant use of the font — running text on a webpage.

Conclusion:

Designing a typeface requires a lot of time and is much like a puzzle. Personally, it helps me to analogize the design process to sculpting — One needs to chisel and carve out the typeface letter until it appears. Carving takes time and there are no shortcuts.

This process took approximately 4 months. It wasn’t something I worked on daily and part of the process included a group discussion on the google font group. In addition I also received feedback and consulted designer friends (this seems like a proper place to thank and mention: Meir Sadan, Yotam Hadar, Amir Avraham, Oded Ezer, Omer Ziv and Dave Crosland).

You can download Assistant for free from Google fonts.

Visit Hafontia.com for more Hebrew typography.

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