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Through Thick and Thin

By David Jonathan Ross

Ever since I started to draw type, one of the challenges that has intrigued me the most is figuring out how letters carry their weight. Arranging thicks and thins and determining the contrast between them is crucial in assembling the systems of shapes that form a type design.

Historically, a letter’s thicks and thins emerged from the writing or drawing implement used to make it. The angle, direction, and pressure of a pen or brush can produce seemingly endless models of thick and thin in calligraphy and lettering. We sometimes carry these ideas over to typography, thinking of typographic letters in terms of imaginary mark-making tools. In type, the conventional definitions of stress and contrast are focused on the idea of stroke, telling us where a line swells to its thickest point, and how thick it actually gets.

For me, the relationship of thicks and thins is more abstract. While stroke and gesture are interesting subjects, what fascinates me is how any thick/thin relationship can define the vocabulary of shapes in a typeface, and how those shapes can in turn produce unexpected textures and rhythms of black and white. This fascination has served as the jumping off point for three of my typefaces, each one approaching stress and contrast in a different way.

My first exploration of thick and thin sprung out of the bombastic French Clarendon types of the nineteenth century. These faces are notable for having serifs that are heavier than the vertical stems (it’s usually the other way around). Following this model of “reversed” stress, I drew an alphabet that pushed the style to its extreme, and called it Manicotti since it reminded me of Spaghetti Westerns, only bigger and tastier.

Manicotti’s letters are so distorted that they lose any connection to an imaginary stroke. Instead, it’s a set of ideas that governs the thicks and thins, controlling the unusual placement of weight at the tops and bottoms of letters, and the thicks that grow to be up to three times the weight of the thins. The rules of stress and contrast compact the countershapes into a tiny vertical space, allowing the massive black areas above and below to create an interesting texture of railroad tracks across a line.

Like Manicotti, Trilby is driven by the backwards arrangement of thicks and thins. But everything that Manicotti is — cheesy, over-the-top, and stereotypically Western — Trilby isn’t. In Trilby I took a different approach to the French Clarendon style, chilling out that railroad track effect and introducing an open, contemporary letter structure.

More than anything else, Trilby’s character is defined by subtle shifts in weight. The other aspects of Trilby’s design are deliberately basic, leaving me room to play with the unconventional arrangement of thicks and thins. Even though the contrast is subtle, I was amazed to see that breaking just one so-called “rule” could have such a forceful impact on virtually every shape in the typeface.

In my next face, Condor, it is the contrast and not the stress that deviates from the norm. While most sans-serifs have relatively little difference between thicks and thins, Condor’s character comes precisely from that contrast. Amplifying the subtle vertical stress of traditional American gothics, Condor’s squarish, slender counters stand tall against the outer shapes.

High-contrast faces have an inherent unevenness, and letter drawers often use strategies like tapering stems and modeling edges to temper this effect. I went out of my way to avoid these techniques while drawing Condor, instead choosing to let the contrast do its thing. The other aspects of the design — the rational structure, the open forms, the tense curves — only serve to underscore the dazzling effect of the thicks and thins.

Approaching Manicotti, Trilby, and Condor through the lens of thick and thin has taught me how a typeface can be held together by a simple idea. The arrangement of thicks and thins in these three designs comes from an idea about how shapes should relate — the black forms to the white forms, and the interiors of letters to the exteriors. With these relationships in mind, I can separate the parts that make a typeface interesting from the parts that make it useful, in the hope that I can produce work that is both.

David Jonathan Ross is a designer at The Font Bureau. His typefaces include Manicotti, Trilby, and Condor.



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