"He Wears Black and Has a Beard"

Letters of Observation

Toby Roworth

Jul 1, 2013

I've been doing a reasonable amount of typesetting recently and, being the kind of guy who likes to zoom right into the type to get the letters to blend together just right, have started to notice how many don't. What follows is a few examples of letter forms that have stood out for some reason, and often have ended up being adjusted for the extra little bit of finesse.
At work I get the joy of working with Arial, for what I'll call historical reasons. I shouldn't need to say this, but Arial is rubbish. This is made even more apparent when you've been typesetting in Helvetica for a while and then, all of a sudden, Arial meanders onto the scene, spilling it's pint over everyone nearby. It's often said that Arial and Helvetica are basically the same typeface, but to the (slightly) trained eye there's a big difference - Helvetica strictly terminates all strokes horizontally or vertically, whereas Arial doesn't mind a bit of a slant. This is most evident on the lowercase "t", but can also be seen on, amongst others, s, r and c. A couple of weeks back I was working on a label for upgraded consoles. As this had to match the existing text on the consoles this meant I had to use Arial, with a stroke round it. For the uninitiated, putting a stroke round text is considered quite bad - a type designer spent years getting the curves of that letter just right, and a stroke changes those curves. This may not have been the case with Arial though...
After putting the text together, I printed it out and had a close look at it - I prefer to proof and analyse work on paper so I can draw circles round the things I need to change. Where the r and the a join one another the angles of the terminals clashed slightly. With some subtle adjustment to the vectors (also frowned upon, but sometimes necessary) I let the eye flow more easily form one letter to the next. This kind of adjustment is probably so subtle that no-one will ever notice it, and yet I feel it's a designer's duty to consider it. But if I noticed the problem with the original, there's a chance someone else might do someday, and that just wouldn't do!
It's not just me that makes these kind of adjustments though. When my mate Jam was designing the logo for Crown Church he noticed that the crossbar on the H and the top of the leg on the R didn't quite line up. A tiny bit of adjustment meant I never even had to notice a slight mismatch. For reference, the logo is typeset in Avant Garde Even Helvetica, the holy typeface, doesn't get away though. I'm not 100% sure about the outcome of this one. I actually noticed the issue with Arial, but then got upset when I found Helvetica did it too. The word "Tit" (capital and lowercase ts), which I type quite a lot at work, can end up having a very wobly topline, with the i's tittle and the t's ascender coming out of line with one another - the image below shows this on the left. My alternate has it's own problems here though, so this case isn't as clean-cut as I'd like. Interestingly the heavier weights line up better - shown here is Helvetica Neue 45 (Light), but 65 (Medium) works perfectly. But once you reach 75 the tittle gets narrower. note that w hen I encountered this with Arial, I ended up making the T's crossbar wider by a touch, rather than adjusting the tittle.
I still see both these solutions as imperfect - there's logic to why "Tit"s can look wobbly, but I'm still working on the best way to straighten them. Maybe we should rename out software Braan.
My final example of playing with letter shapes comes form a billboard I saw outside Paddington. It's not often I take photos of billboards, but this one made me very happy.

Note the way the tops of the t and h are cut with a single, straight stroke. So many times one couldn't draw a line through them, but here the typographer got it "just right".
if you have further examples of nice typography, send them to me and I might feature them next time I do a post like this.