This article first appeared on xyztype.com.
If typographic spirit guides exist, I met mine as an eager undergraduate in 2000, when I first encountered the work of Rudolph Ruzicka. He has been a guiding voice in my work designing typefaces ever since.
Born in 1883 in what is now the Czech Republic, Ruzicka immigrated to Chicago with his family when he was 11 and left school to work at 14. After moving to New York alone at 20, he achieved quick success in wood-engraving, illustration, and book design. A self-made scholar, he possessed a deep understanding of the history of typography and a keen artistic eye.
Ruzicka was 54 when he submitted his first type design proposals to Mergenthaler Linotype, ultimately yielding the workhorse serif typefaces Fairfield and Primer. Both were immensely successful in the 1940s–60s, particularly for use in books. Today they have fallen out of favor, possibly due to the shortcomings of their digital versions.
My love of Ruzicka’s designs, which I feel deserve more attention than they get, drove me to complete one of his typefaces which had lain dormant for fifty years: the new/old typeface Study.
My avocation and my vocation
Although Ruzicka fully completed only two type designs, he never stopped coming up with new ideas. In 1968, he published a collection of his unrealized alphabet concepts in Studies in Type Design, a loose portfolio containing ten printed plates of hypothetical type specimens rendered by hand. The type styles range broadly — a practical text serif, a stately spurred sans, an eccentric Civilité, and more. Ruzicka explained in his introduction:
The temptation to clothe the twenty-six leaden soldiers in new array is irresistible. This is the only apology offered for suggesting still further additions to the seemingly infinite variety of existent typefaces.
It was this portfolio that stopped me in my tracks at the Rhode Island School of Design library my senior year — why had I never heard of this designer?
When Studies was published, Ruzicka was 85 years old and in failing health. Perhaps he saw the portfolio as a final resting place for these alphabets. But he acknowledged that there was work yet to be done, which I read as an invitation for their further development. Continuing the introduction, he wrote:
More serious would be the technical problems involved in translating the designs into type: the mechanical problems of fitting and of kerns, vital in metal though perhaps immaterial in the rapidly developing photoelectronic processes. For one concerned with legibility, there would remain the task of relating stem, hairline, counter and serif to each other and to the weight of the larger mass — it is a far cry from design to type face.
These alphabets were clearly proposals for typefaces, not simply lettering, so why had they never become fonts for metal, photo, or digital typesetting? Were they simply waiting for someone to accept the invitation? I saw an opportunity to extend the legacy of a neglected virtuoso. Despite some doubts as to whether I was equal to the task, in 2009 I decided to pick up where he left off.
I started with the first plate. Its tactile, sculptural lines show the confident hand of a master engraver. Taut curves wrap around angular counterforms, in a distinctly Czech combination of calligraphic and typographic forms. Amid the alphabet’s restrained elegance, Ruzicka’s idiosyncratic proclivities peek through: the notched A crossbar, the upward-gazing E, the “hockey stick” y, the k reaching out to the right, the proudly poised S. The characters are alive with humanity, dancing along the baseline. For me, it was love at first sight.
A far cry from design to type face
Despite his masterful lettering skills and extensive historical knowledge, Ruzicka had seen firsthand that the “technical problems involved in translating the designs into type” were beyond his expertise. Working decades earlier on Fairfield and Primer, he had submitted letterforms to the Linotype team as isolated paintings, and they had drafted technical diagrams to produce machine matrices.
To achieve elegance, consistency, and readability, his designs had gone through a rigorous process of trial and error, with many rounds of revision. Also, his drawings had been adapted to the peculiar constraints of pantographic engraving and hot-metal typecasting. Throughout, Ruzicka and his type director C.H. Griffith had exchanged letters, drawings, and progressive printed proofs. (Ruzicka’s friend and mentor W.A. Dwiggins detailed this method of design and production for him in “WAD to RR”.)
As my two eyes make one in sight
My role in creating Study echoed Linotype’s in creating Fairfield and Primer — a collaborator with Ruzicka, combining my capabilities with his ideas. Study is not a revival typeface. It is neither a translation of an analog font nor a pastiche of historical reference. I simply resumed production fifty years after it was halted.
Although the technologies for producing type have become far more expedient, the techniques for designing type are essentially the same. I go through similar stages of development to Linotype’s — epically intricate work, all to create a few small pieces of metal (or a few kilobytes of software).
Since I did not have the benefit of Ruzicka’s direct input, I dove into research at museums and libraries hoping to gain what insights I could. Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth holds Ruzicka’s personal archives, a trove of resources. Over several days there, I got to know his creative approach through his artistic engravings, lettering sketches, and design samples. His scrapbooks reveal whose work he was watching — primarily contemporary Czech lettering artists. His correspondence gives a sense of his life and personality. The paper trail of his client projects demonstrates his working methods. Rauner Library also holds the most crucial resource for this project, the original hand-painted masters for Studies in Type Design.
Until I handled these documents myself, my only reference had been the offset-printed plate in Studies. Suddenly, what had been solid contours came alive with brushstrokes, making every revision plain to see. Ruzicka’s handwork is astonishingly precise, but there were many details that I only fully understood by going to the source.
Is the deed ever really done
To maintain Ruzicka’s authentic voice, I asked myself how he would have handled each problem along the way. Yet Study is made for modern typography and technology. I wanted it to work well at a broad range of sizes, both in print and on screen, and to stand the test of time.
My key challenge was to translate the warmth of Ruzicka’s hand-painted specimen into cold, unforgiving vector outlines. Letters traced directly from the source would look awkward and inconsistent in a digital font, but overly sanitizing them would leave them cold and stiff. And then there was the question of how to invent the glyphs and font styles for which I had no direct reference at all.
The lowercase n sets the stage for its companions, which must function in tight harmony. After trying many different approaches, I devised a formula to bring the ambiguous details of the source into clear relief — confident curves and calligraphic swells offset by crisp straight edges. The stems maintain vertical stability when they repeat, slightly curved with organic asymmetry. Each of n’s serifs is constructed differently, but their visual weight is balanced. A subtle pinch just after the arch’s branch from the stem discreetly suggests the angle of a pen.
Ruzicka’s example of italic text includes multiple renditions of repeated characters, more loosely depicted than the roman alphabet. Some visual interest was lost when I reduced these many to one, so I imposed strategic variance upon the shapes to compensate. Where the original n’s begin and end with similar calligraphic strokes, I accentuated the differences between their structures. These changes continue systematically throughout the character set.
I kept the majority of Ruzicka’s calligraphic flourishes in the italic (seen here on t, e, w, y, f) but substituted straightforward seriffed forms as the defaults for those which would cloy in a text face (the swash A and the ascenders of d, h, k). I had intended to include these ornamental versions as OpenType alternates. But after many attempts, I failed to devise a successful alphabet of calligraphic capitals to support the lowercase swash ascenders. Not wanting to include the latter alone, I removed the swash alternates altogether. (I have not admitted defeat yet — if you would use them, please let me know, and I may add them.)
The family grew from Ruzicka’s single weight to a range of six, in both roman and italic. In all my digging, I have never seen bold weight lettering by Ruzicka. Rather than using visual reference, for Study Extra Bold I exaggerated the crisp calligraphic structure of the Regular weight, heightening the tension between form and counterform. I added as much weight as the forms could handle while maintaining their signature pinches, at an extreme that I hope would not have made Ruzicka cringe.
In the heaviest weights, some of Study’s details simplify, such as A’s notched crossbar and Q’s intersecting tail. I thought the sumptuous italic J and j would warrant a similar compromise in the Extra Bold Italic, but after a lot of sweat and tears — and giving capital and lowercase individualized treatments — they became some of my favorite characters.
The original plate showed a limited set of characters, so I had to get creative about the solutions for the remainder. I borrowed other Ruzicka ampersands, outfitting them in Study’s structural vocabulary.
A bit of Ruzicka’s calligraphy in Czech shows his linguistic bias in the structure of the diacritical marks. For Study’s, I referenced these as well as the types of Oldřich Menhart, a Czech contemporary prominent in his reference files.
I generally find numerals to be among the most challenging glyphs to design, and Study’s were especially resistant to my attempts at a logical scheme. Ultimately I established a kit of parts that related to the lowercase, but with their own calligraphic influences dialed up.
Where love and need are one
Through years of occasionally resuming work on Study when time allowed and researching Ruzicka’s work along the way, I was never quite satisfied with my interpretation. The project admittedly fell in danger of being shelved permanently. Ruzicka’s typeface might have remained trapped on the page if not for a moment of staggering serendipity last year. The Original Champions of Design (OCD) asked me to recommend typographic options for a new identity system for Dartmouth College.
My half-finished typeface Study was the perfect answer. A scholarly but approachable serif for text and display, with a strong historical connection to the university. In the 1960s and 70s, Ruzicka lived a few blocks from the Dartmouth campus and worked with close friends at the university on a number of projects, such as medals, bookplates, and books — including Studies in Type Design.
Suddenly, my pet project had a client deadline, driving me to finish it. The custom commission focused my design strategy with real-world use cases and gave me the benefit of savvy guidance from The Original Champions of Design.
Dartmouth’s Office of Communications underwrote the development of a customized version of Study called “Dartmouth Ruzicka,” with proprietary special characters and an additional Extra Light weight. Fortuitously, I was able to ready Study for public release as well.
Dartmouth has rolled out the identity system, which also includes a new logotype I drew based on another Ruzicka alphabet. I can’t think of a better home for this typeface than at the institution so dear to Ruzicka.
For the future’s sake
Study was intermittently “in progress” for many years. As I grow as a designer, I am inevitably dissatisfied with my earlier work and want to improve it if I can. I second-guessed my decisions and reworked this typeface several times over. Paradoxically, Ruzicka’s posthumous mentorship itself has helped sharpen my eye and raised my standards — I’m glad that I kept trying until I felt sure that it was right.
Now, on the semicentennial of the publication of Studies in Type Design, Study is finally publicly available. I hope Ruzicka’s legacy is a just a bit more secure.
I have racked up a debt of gratitude to a long list of people over the years this project has spanned. Thank you for helping me make Study a reality:
Peter Bain, Ben Kiel, Jennifer Kinon, Indra Kupferschmid, David Laing, Richard Lipton, Bobby Martin, Jeremy Mickel, Robb Ogle, Mike Parker, Dan Rhatigan, Paul Shaw, Alexander Tochilovsky, Jean-Marc Troadec, Dyana Weissman, Doug Wilson, Dartmouth College, Grolier Club, Lubalin Center, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Printing, Original Champions of Design, Rauner Special Collections Library, Smithsonian Institution, Society of Printers