The Development of Orwellian
Orwellian is a reversed-stress typeface designed for display use. It was inspired by the concepts explored by George Orwell in his monumental work Nineteen Eighty Four and follows Henry Caslon’s Italian model. It was published by Lost Type Co-Op in December 2014.
The reverse-stress style has been making a comeback of sorts into mainstream typography (after being historically deemed perverse since its debut in the early 19th century) in recent years with many notable type designers exploring it in different ways for our digital era. Reverse-stressed faces have their roots in Caslon’s Italian, released with the book Specimen of Printing Types by Henry Caslon, published in 1841. Not surprisingly, it was met with heated criticism and has been deemed, among other things, “A typographic monstrosity.” Though it is most certainly ugly in the traditional sense, there is a difference between the Italian and a badly designed typeface: The Italienne was designed as an experiment in reversing the known form of the letters and it was done well with accuracy and some stylistic liberties. Though there are several revivals of the Italian, my typeface did not start as one. Rather, it had its roots in something completely different.
In between ongoing academic and freelance projects, I indulge myself in my love for designing typefaces. Type design is a long, laborious process that I find to be very rewarding. With Orwellian, I tried to create a typeface inspired by (and probably for the use of) George Orwell’s masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty Four. There is nothing new that I can say about the book. As a type designer, I found that this would be a nice way to achieve some kind of closure with it and the concepts explored within. It was a response to the stimuli provided by the experience of reading the book and watching the film and researching related topics.
My research led to me uncover the wealth of visual work already created for the book. Hundreds of different designers in different times have explored the book and the ideas within for it’s various covers. Aside from the book itself, the stylistic choices of those designers were influenced by the predominant styles and technical constraints of their times. I observed how the watchful eye is the central element in most of these renditions. The aspect of being watched at all times, by a malevolent leader unknown to the public is captured perfectly by using a single eye that seems larger than life. Some covers explore TV screens and some are very literal, figurative depictions of life in Oceania. More recently however, designers have explored other visual metaphors for it.
I was very interested in exploring the eye as the main graphic element. I confess that it isn’t the most original direction but I wanted to see what I can bring to this age old idea. The idea of being watched at all times, by an unknown entity was very intriguing. This idea is perfectly captured by using an eye, that seems almost voyeuristic and evil. While drawing, I reduced the eye to its bare minimum, trying to give it new form rather than draw a regular human eye that’s rendered in several styles. I drew an eye, that doesn’t seem explicitly human because of the simplified form and that is suspicious and malevolent in nature. When my friend looked at it and exclaimed that it looked like an “Evil CBS eye” I knew I was in the right direction.
At the same time, I was reminded of the early ’70s underground newspaper The East Village Other that explored the eye in a graphic way but a much different audience: That eye was clearly stoned. But the use of a reverse-stress face in the header where the counter of the “O” was the drugged eye made sense to the culture it was addressing. It suddenly made sense to me that the Italian would be a perfect visual manifestation of Big Brother: perverse and malevolent, yet technically powerful and memorable. I started drawing letters keeping the eye as the “O” while conducting research on the reverse-stress typefaces in history.
I first got introduced to the style when Typotheque released the Karloff family. This was back in 2012 when as a young design student, I was just beginning to grow interested in type design. The typeface was strange but the conceptual approach behind it had a very strong influence on me. As Peter Bil’ak states in the essay about the development of Karloff, the style definitely commanded my voyeuristic curiosity even though my taste buds weren’t refined enough to appreciate it at the time. Over the years since Karloff’s release, I’ve seen much interest shown in the style and grown to love it myself. Many type designers have approached the model in less experimental and more neutral ways like Roger Excoffon’s fantastic Antique Olive (that has become a model in its own right) and Evert Bloemsma’s FF Balance, both of which were designed to be usable for text and display settings.
What interests me most are the reasons behind the design of new reverse stress types. It is common to try to design something beautiful and useful but what are the reasons behind someone to invest time and skill to design something that has historically been deemed perverse? Something that is almost illegible and probably will be used very sparingly? It is of course not commercial viability. When the commercial aspect is removed, the type designer’s personal quest at exploring the idea unfolds.
In designing Orwellian, I was influenced by David Jonathan Ross’ brilliant presentation on the style, Backasswards. He goes into great detail about the history and contemporary applications of typefaces in the style as well as provides links to 24 contemporary ones. My favorite of all of the contemporary interpretations of the style has to be Kris Sowersby’s Maelstrom released through his Klim Type Foundry in 2013. It is an extremely high contrast reverse stress face that balances (beautifully) the delicate hairlines with the thick slabs. For Orwellian, I tried to look at the original Italian for inspiration. While not trying to make an exact revival, I tried to add dashes of character that would break away from the actual nature of the style (A reversed fat face) and take some creative liberties with the construction of the shapes. It took a while and a lot of drawing to achieve a standard visual language or “logic of the typeface” on which all the shapes will be based.
I worked with guidance and feedback from my teacher, Tal Leming, as with all of my type design work. I chose to introduce ball terminals for the “R” and “Q” that would continue as a visual element in the design of punctuations, accents and symbols. This change gave the typeface a friendlier feel that was a little contradictory to my original idea of making a malevolent typeface. I felt this gave the typeface its unique quality and made it more accessible for use by other designers.
My favorite part of the process is after the completion of the typeface: the applications. The typeface is by no means a neutral or multifunctional face. It has an extremely characteristic visual feel that limits its own usability. This was an interesting challenge, to try and use it for different projects. But I am constrained by my own work, as after creating it and spending so much time with it, my own application of the typeface could get rather predictable. A typeface is useless until other designers use it.
To my immense happiness, the first user of this typeface was my teacher Jennifer Cole Phillips, when she chose to use it while designing the MICA undergraduate student award, in which the letters will be cast in magnesium. I gave the typeface to some of my friends and designers whose works I admire to interpret it in their own way. Stephen Coles then accepted the face for the new Typographica nameplate, and Chris Hamamoto designed the implementation. After the completion of the typeface I approached Tom Grace of Virgo Type to hint it and Psy Ops to master it for release.
Inspired by Caslon’s Italian, I present to you, Orwellian.
Features & Formats
Orwellian was designed with the Latin Extended A Character set and supports Afrikaans, Albanian, Asturian, Basque, Bosnian, Breton, Catalan, Cornish, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Faroese, Finnish, French, Galician, German, Greenlandic, Guarani, Hawaiian, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Irish Gaelic, Italian, Kurdish, Latan, Latvian, Lithuanian, Luxembourgish, Malagasy, Maltese, Maori, Norwegian, Occitan, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Romansh, Sami, Samoan, Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish, Swahilli, Swedish, Tagalog, Turkish, Walloon, Welsh and Wolof.
The alternate “O” (or The Big Brother Eye) is accessible as a stylistic alternate or from the glyph palette. The font also supports subscripts, superscripts and full fractions. Orwellian is available in feature rich Open Type format (OTF) for print and in WOFF, EOT, SVG and TTF formats for the web. Orwellian was not put through a webfont generator and was hand hinted by Tom Grace of Virgo type.
My friends were the first users of Orwellian and created posters with it to promote the release. Their feedback after using the typeface was invaluable.
Acknowledgements and Credits
I am grateful to Tal Leming for conceptual and technical guidance on all my typeface projects.
Jennifer cole Phillips and Greg Gazdowicz for their invaluable advice on the tiny details. Special Thanks to David Jonathan Ross, Steven Heller, Stephen Coles, Riley Cran, Abbott Miller, Satya Rajpurohit, Ellen Lupton, Tom Grace, Rod Cavazos and the wonderful people at Psy Ops and the Myfonts review team for their feedback. My good friend, Karthik G for his work on the website.
Thanks to the designers who created the awesome specimen posters: Abhijith, Alex, Juhi, Daniel and Mahesh.
These books, essays and typefaces were invaluable to me in research and development of the typeface:
Books, Essays and Articles
Peter Bilak, Beauty and Ugliness in Type Design
Peter Bilak, Conceptual Type?
Kris Sowersby, The Development of Maelstrom
David Jonathan Ross, Backasswards
Rob Roy Kelly, American Woodtype Collection
Luc Devroye, Information Page on Caslon’s Italian
Paul Shaw, Caslon’s Italian by James Clough
Orwellian can be purchased from Lost Type Co-Op.
Every commercial license comes with a screen printed specimen poster too.