Zico — how lettering became type design

Zico is a new type family inspired by sports aesthetics and published on Typotheque. This is a story how it came to be.

Lettering is very different from type design, Zico is a typeface inspired by sport aesthetics that brings elements of type and lettering design into one project.

Zico began in 2015 as my final project for the Type & Media course at the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) at The Hague. I had already worked intensively with hand-lettering, quite a different discipline from type design. A lettering artist renders specific words in a specific size, in a specific colour, in a specific location, for a specific purpose: to tell a story that needs to be told. A font designer, on the other hand, seldom knows how his work will be used. Projected at large sizes on building façades by a professional? Printed at tiny sizes on a shoddy laser printer by an amateur? Rendered on thousands of smartphone displays of unknown resolutions? Anything is possible.

My lettering work for various clients (see more on www.markohrastovec.com)

From the start then, Zico presented a dilemma: I wanted to create a project that captured lettering’s strengths and immediacy, but I also wanted to produce a versatile tool that went beyond lettering’s limitations. To reconcile these two contrasting goals my teachers at T&M suggested narrowing the context in which the font would be used, giving it some of the specificity of lettering without losing the flexibility of type. The only question was which environment to choose.

Since I was in primary school I was into jerseys and their numerals, often trying to recreate them myself by drawing with pencils.

I decided to take the opportunity to explore the aesthetics of sports. Ever since I got seriously interested in graphic and type design I’ve dreamt about designing jerseys, with their robust numerals and bright colours. Of course the sports world offers a wide variety of design projects: tennis ball packaging, gym signage, racing cars, motor oil cans, etc. They all share a boldness that is somehow still warm and playful, a specific atmosphere that I tried to capture and use as the feel of my typeface.

At the time I was defining the project, I collected anything that could fall into category ‘sports — letters and numbers’

Translating the visual language of sports into a fully functional type family was not a very straightforward process. What makes sports jerseys so attractive is their broad, bold, ruthless character. They aren’t designed to work at small sizes on an archaic printer; they only care how they look on a HD plasma TV, with the sound of the crowd cheering in the background. The challenge was to capture as much of this milieu as possible while still constructing a versatile family of fonts.

Early sketches for Zico typeface. They are more doodles trying to capture atmosphere rather than specific shapes.

In this sense, the very heavy styles of Zico were the most straightforward to design. They are the sports celebrities of the family: beefy, self-confident and attention-grabbing. These extreme cuts became the foundation of the project, helping to define the design approach.

Sketching extreme is always useful, even if you know it’s just too much. Sometimes it takes going weird places only to learn it’s no good. Luckily, this time it was exactly where I was heading with it.

In order to translate these monsters into useful text styles, something less vain and more rational, I focused on the abstract parameters that define Zico’s character, the squarish curves, geometric proportions, heavy slab serifs, wider proportions, and variable contrast of thick and thin strokes. My intention was to develop a slab serif type family with a broad range of flavours that could handle not only bold titles and headlines, but also continuous text settings for editorial design. Could a single family combine subtle text and extreme display styles and still work as a team? How extreme could those contrasts be?

In type design, it takes lots of learning by doing. Here I started with a letter g which worked as part of a system but I couldn’t move on without trying other versions as well. It turned out they were silly and out of balance so it was round-trip .

To create a sufficiently versatile set of text fonts, the Thin styles needed to be as lithe and open airy as possible, in contrast with the compact, saturated Blacks. And because the Thin and Black characters have nearly the same widths, Zico manipulates the contrasts between their thick and thin strokes just enough to keep the counters open. In particular, the inner horizontals and stroke connections are much thinner than might be expected in heavy styles.

Zico weight distribution. Usually heavier weights gain more width as well. Zico’s heavier weights are only slightly wider than thin ones which results in airy Thin style and saturated, compact Black style.

Weight intervals were carefully chosen to produce complementary pairs: Light pairs with Medium, Regular pairs with Bold, and Medium pairs with Heavy, leaving the Thin and Black styles more independent. This makes a total of 7 weights of Romans and matching italics, 14 styles in all.

Working on 6 master styles at once — changing one detail automatically implies checking 5 other styles for the same detail. Consistency is one of the fundaments of type design.
Process often includes printing out digital drawings and doing interventions with tipp-ex. This allows for quick prototyping to see how different styles look like and what are the possibilites/limits for given design. Analogue design space.

The Display set (Black, Thin, Inline and Outline) that had guided the initial development of the text fonts were now ready to be fine-tuned. The thin inner horizontals and stroke connections used in the heavier text styles became a design feature of these cuts, and throwing out conventional wisdom about contrast, proportions and construction, each letter was treated individually to reduce the white space around and inside it, resulting in a mix of high-, low- and even reverse-contrast forms. In addition, special care was taken to achieve horizontality, keeping the ascenders and descenders as short as the slabs would allow. Special mention should be made of Arthur Schraml’s lettering work, which influenced the Inline style.

Arthur Schraml’s lettering work. This one was filed under ‘I definitely have to do something with that’ for quite some time.

Powerful as well as graceful, Zico is a family of fonts ready to tackle the most challenging projects.

Zico fonts in action
Zico was awarded Certificate of Typographic Excellence by Type Directors Club New York in 2016.

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