Variable — 2016 in Typeface Design
At long last typeface designers, no matter what rank, have broken away from the very recent obsession with perfecting the geometric sans as focus turned, this year, to variety and a glimpse into possible future directions via variable fonts.
An obsession that led Rudy VanderLans, demigod of digital typeface design from back at it’s birth in the early 90s, to suggest typeface designers have fallen into a type of ‘Infill-ism’ and for many others to ask if the design of typefaces had reached a saturation point. VanderLans described the term he invented — Infill-ism — back in June via the Fontstand blog, as a situation where “although the options are technically infinite, it becomes increasingly difficult to see the differences between (typeface) designs. (Designers are) left filling in the gaps and these gaps are getting smaller and smaller.” He was referring to the vast Emigre foundry back catalogue which he had recently been sorting through but others picked up on the term and expanded it to cover recent typeface design in general. As Stephen Coles noted on the Typographica blog, “There are more copycats now, and they come at a faster pace… There is more of everything. It’s just increasingly difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff”, he also added on a positivity tip that, “There are future needs we cannot fathom today. So, yes, we still need new fonts.”
Luckily, this discussion is already in the recent past (and boy, does the past moves quickly these days!). Looking back on 2016, sure, there was the now usual grab-bag of revivalists kicking around (of which Neue Kabel appears to be the most useless to date) but there was also a slew of diverse typeface releases that not only sought to create exciting, new and relevant typographic forms but also investigated new forms of font technology and models of distribution built on the back of platforms such as Github and software such as Glyphs.
Ellmer Stefan found a new and totally addictive way to get his typeface explorations into the hands of eager designers with his year long experiment known as The Pyte Foundry. Every week for the year 2016 Ellmer posted a new display typeface he called a ‘fount’ via his The Pyte Foundry site — ‘founts’ being a term related to the adaptation of letterforms using modular components originating in early woodblock printing. This fount was then downloadable for a week before being archived and if you liked the typeface enough and/or found a commercial use for it, you were very politely asked to donate towards further typeface releases (or risk breaking the EULA). If you missed The Pyte Foundry in 2016 you missed the 80s-tatsic Epitome, the elegantly bonkers Alcove and hyper-expressionist Vulture. 2017 will be slightly less exciting without a regular Pyte Foundry release every week but here’s hoping Ellmer keeps up-to-date on his polished, and not-so-polished, releases for years to come.
Ellmer’s approach to type design, although radical, still referenced past technologies. If you wanted a glimpse into, either the future of typeface design or another curious blip in it’s history (o hai Multiple Masters), you needed to turn your attention to ‘Variable Fonts’. This is the name given to a new web-based technology that sets extremes (such as Light and Black, Condensed and Wide) as parameters and then tweens the data inbetween, extrapolating all additional weights as it runs. On-screen designers then chose whichever style they like from the resulting cornucopia of weights and widths via CSS encoding direct to website. This idea has been jumped on by a vast number of type foundries and resellers looking to further enforce the bridgework between font supply and on-screen development. What it means for designers is seemingly infinite choice. Whether or not this is something designers respond positively too, we’ll see sooner rather than later, as the technology to produce these ‘variable fonts’ has existed ever since those ill fated multiple master fonts were released back in 1992. In fact, Glyphs’ (the application currently setting a new standard for typeface design software) most recent update included an option to export masters as ‘Variation fonts’ ahead of their implementation as a HTML standard.
Unlike, previous years there didn’t seem to be one particular typeface that struck a chord with the majority of designers all at once (such as Meta, Akkurat and Aperçu as in previous years). Circular continued to exert influence with diminishing effect. What did emerge was pockets of exciting experimentation such as at The New York Times magazine who not only put into play a whole raft of freshly commissioned fonts courtesy of A2 Type, but also continued to play with newly released and custom type style, possibly under the influence of type savvy recent recruit, Matt Willey.
Commercial Type were prolific in 2016 and diversified their catalogue with some curious new releases such as Greg Gazdowicz’s Lydian inspired, Robinson and Berton Hasebe’s Styrene. Henrik Kubel at A2 Type had a prolific year with extensive new releases the Moscow Metro and the aforementioned New York Times Magazine and well as a raft of commerical releases and updates to the A2 library. Swiss design University, Ecal, released some more student work, some of which was picked up by Ill Studio for their revamp of L’Officiel magazine. Fledgling French foundries continued to show a flair for the unconventional this year too with vivid new forms emerging from designers such as Yoann Minet at the various designers at Velvetyne collective and Production Type to name but a few.
Emigre: Time and Time Again
Interview with Rudy VanderLans by Sébastien Morlighem, June 2016.
Commentary: Rejecting Infill-ism and Waterfalls of Mediocrity
by Stephen Coles, June 2016
Introducing OpenType Variable Fonts
Version 1.8 of the OpenType font format specification introduces an extensive new technology, affecting almost every…
Variable Fonts for Responsive Design
by Nick Sherman, January 2015
New Features in Glyphs 2.4
Multiple master fonts
Most interesting foundries 2016
The Pyte Foundry
A2 Type Foundry