Skeuomorphic serifs, variable fonts, digital media sans body

Me: “Seriffed type on screens is skeuomorphic”



Sowersby and his collaborators know how to market. But when you look at most of the typefaces, they really are smartly made. He’s not the only one aware of these concepts to digital type design, but taking the time to write about it, to self-publish ideas that are visible but not wholly self-evident is often the first point of understanding and noticing. When the interface is as broad and tactileless as a computer, it takes a bit of wading through what feels invisible to understand it.

Digitally native material. Medium natural. Nature?

Type designers are a medium themselves. It is a loss when an idea does not truly process in the mind and through the hands. That is the difference between a derivative, stiff revival and a typeface with palpable presence (the same goes for design in general: the time and process between research and production). Sketching is essential. Software designed for production is not software for sketching (at least for me, as I came up with hand-drawn sketching). The troublesome point for me is the meeting of body to digital interface: mouse and font editor. That is why drawing on the iPad is an intermediary for me.

Ignoring the digital medium is a mistake. That is the default substrate. Print substrates come to mind first; screen type feels vague. Perhaps the trouble is that the tools aren’t defined yet, as a printer and paper are. There isn’t a clear screen proofing tool; it is up to the type designer. What is a sheet of paper on the screen when the screen is responsive and variable in size? That is exactly the answer.

Static type families may become outdated. Variable fonts are restrictive and somewhat of a pain for getting to interpolate if one chooses to think non-linearly, but there is always a way to feel liberated in constraints. The constraints are just changing. Understanding them takes time.

Maybe the future idea of a type family is non-linear, in that all the fonts are variable and the family is a collection of styles (like OH no’s type collections.) Fonts used to be defined as an individual style and its point size, e.g. Garamond Italic 12pt, which makes sense for things like wood type. Now they are defined as just an individual style, e.g. Garamond Italic, or named for implied point size ranges (display, text, headline) as point sizes are fluid on computers. Stylistic adjectives like light, bold, italic, are now axes: weight, slant. Variable fonts are already called variable fonts and not variable typefaces.

I was a bit resistant against variable fonts but I’m realizing that was largely out of practical and skill-lacking insecurity. They add a layer of complexity to the already arduous process of producing a typeface, and as a fairly new framework to typefaces, not everyone wants to be on the frontline to dealing with getting them to work and easier to make. And they seemed to harden linear thinking in typeface design: here’s a skeleton, now just slide weights, slant, etc. That’s reductive and ignoring the things that happen when getting to the extreme ends of those axes, but point is that the collapse of those axes into being essential to typefaces is changing the definition of a font and a typeface. It is largely expected that a typeface have an italic and a range of weights. Eventually it will probably be expected that everything is variable. Responsive media asks for responsive type. It’s also annoying to have to go through a giant list of styles in InDesign instead of using sliders, or the same fluid mechanism that point sizes have.

I genuinely get why answering “what’s the substrate for this typeface?” is important now. I want to keep things as simple as possible, but ignoring the complexities is detrimental. The best way to deal with them is head-on and from the start. It takes a lot to be able to deal with production work. All type designers know the fun part is coming up with the idea, but then 90% of the work is getting it to work. If production work didn’t mean severing my hand or leashing it to a mouse, I would enjoy it a lot more. I don’t mind binding books, which is also repetitive and time consuming, but moving points on a screen? Gets a bit difficult to enjoy overtime. Which is worrisome. But the outcome! Can type be made without requiring vectors? Oigh.

Is this what feeling old is like?