Untitled Grotesk

Alex MichaelAlex Michael Posts: 23
edited June 2016 in Type Design Critiques

Hello everyone,

There's no sugar-coating it: I'm submitting what I'm sure is TypeDrawers' trillionth "So-and-So Grotesk" for critique, and I'm sure that's enough to get a few eyes rolling. I totally understand. The inconvenient reality, however, is that I genuinely love early-mid 20th century Grotesks, have always wanted to design one myself, and this puts me in an overcrowded demographic among type nerds. What can I say? The heart wants what it wants.

Here's an overview of the upper and lowercase alphabets so far:

I started this project mostly because I've developed an obsession with using my own typefaces and lettering as much as possible in my day-to-day work. I guess I'm becoming a kind of grizzly "type survivalist", and rugged self-reliance appeals to me. Naturally, I started with a traditional sans.

I've gone through a few different phases in planning my ideal Grotesk, but I settled on a pretty stable list of defining features and have tried to design everything in accordance with it so far:

1) Most triangles are slightly trapezoidal. This idea began with the /A, the first "seed glyph", and it pops up again in letters like /V, /W, /M, /N etc.:

Since this produces a bit of a geometric/industrial effect, I compensated for the relative smoothness of the lowercase set by adding linear "notches" to open up especially tight joins, such as the tail of the /a and points at which the curves of the /b meet the stem.

2) My original vision was to break convention by making the midline across the uppercase set entirely uniform. This resulted in an extremely high-waisted /A, which I absolutely loved in isolation, but that unfortunately never seemed to harmonize with other letters. I had similar issues with the /P and/R; also high-waisted to an extent, and also both stylish and impractical. I compromised by adjusting most of the midlines up or down from the theoretical center a bit, while trying to retain some of the original idea:

4) All terminals on curved strokes are brought inward as far as possible. So letters like /C, /G, /S, /a and /e look especially "closed off". My goal here was to evoke those quirks you often see in early 20th century Grotesks, like the exaggerated /2 in Akzidenz, before Helvetica and Univers popularized the look of extreme precision and neutrality. My favorite Sans are the ones that balance their uniformity with awkward little bursts of color.

As for my own background, I've worked with type for a while and have done my share of custom lettering over the years, but I've never undertaken a full-scale typeface project like this and thought it'd be wise to get feedback before diving in too much deeper. I don't have plans to release this commercially, but I want to treat its development as if I do. No shortcuts or corner-cutting.

With the alphabet done I've moved on to an initial stab at some metrics. The PDF specimen is spaced entirely with sidebearings. I'm trying to refine them as much as possible before adding any kerning pairs.

Near-term plans include:

- Fleshing out the character set in accordance with feedback to the work done so far.

- A Black weight and a Light/Hairline. Two interpolated weights in between (Bold and Thin) are an appealing idea as well, but I don't have concrete plans for them now.

- Text and lining figures.

Long-term plans include:

- True italics

- A complete set of small caps for all weights

Anyway, that's it. Thanks in advance for your time!



  • Hmm, well, for a first foray into commercial typefaces, I would recommend sticking with one style to learn the basics, and then building on that foundation. But since you intend to make heavier and lighter weights of these, you really have to think about those closed apertures and how they will work now. Or should I say, if they will work.

    I'm not saying it's impossible, but you should consider making enough characters to test a few words in all three weights to see if it works, before delving in to the rest of the character set. If you can make it work, great. Keep in mind, as you learned with your midline rule, that making something optically correct rather than mathematically correct is key. 
  • Excellent point. One lesson I've been learning is that depth is often more illuminating than breadth in a project like this, and expanding the Regular weight's character set at this point is only going to raise the stakes if I find that heavier or lighter weights don't work to begin with.

    If anything, I think the trapezoid effect might need to be increased in all weights for the sake of giving this typeface a real hook beyond "looking like every Grotesk ever made", and I see that being especially applicable to the lighter weight, but you're right that I could very easily run into some issues with the Black, especially if I want to keep vertex counts and locations consistent for a potentially interpolated weight in between.

    I'm honestly not worried about investing the time in a partial (or even full) alphabet for Light and Black. I think I'm going to learn much more about the feasibility of this idea that way than by finishing up the Regular weight in its entirety.

    Thanks very much for the suggestion.
  • James PuckettJames Puckett Posts: 1,303
    You’ve got too many ideas in this one. It’s mashing up Univers, Miller and Richard’s grots, Stephenson Blake’s grots, News Gothic, and so on. Pick one.
  • Alex MichaelAlex Michael Posts: 23
    edited June 2016
    I'm trying to regain some objectivity after looking at this for so long, but if I can unpack a small part of your comment, James, my guess is that what I'm calling the "trapezoidal" effect on letters like the /M and /N is at least part of where you're seeing a clash between the boxiness of Univers and the more rounded earlier Grotesks you mentioned. That may not have been your intent, but it's something I'm seeing now (and had been sorta pretending wasn't an issue thus far.)

    I really, really love the trapezoidal /A, but in my attempt at making it a defining feature of the entire typeface, I think I've more or less made the /M and /N incompatible with simpler, more organic-looking letters like /S, /D, /J and so on.

    Here's what I mean:

    This entire exercise so far has been an attempt at 1) avoiding the rookie mistake of putting every idea I've got into one face (whoops), while at the same time 2) avoiding the mistake of making a bland typeface that offers nothing new. Naturally those are a tricky balance to strike.

    For starters I'm going to rethink letters like /M, /N and see where else that leads.
  • Alex MichaelAlex Michael Posts: 23
    edited June 2016
    I also originally wanted to give the strokes angled terminals, but originally found them too hard to balance with letters like /S and /C. I made that decision early on, though, and the way the letters have evolved since then it seems like it might be worth rethinking.

    As I move away from the harder-edge features like the unintentional inktraps in letters like /M and /N, I wonder if this might also help to soften some of that Univers presence (which was never meant to be one of my direct influences).
  • You’ve got too many ideas in this one. It’s mashing up Univers, Miller and Richard’s grots, Stephenson Blake’s grots, News Gothic, and so on. Pick one.

    I can certainly see the wisdom in the recommendation not to mix too many different style elements, but I also cringe at the implication (probably not intended as such?) that Alex should strive to emulate an existing typeface rather than going his own way...

    I'm usually not a grot fan myself, but I find quite a few things to like here, such as the outrageously tight apertures. The /K/k junction is not working for me, though; my eye snags on it like on a splinter. Some letters have a certain spaghetti-like organic curviness to them (e.g., /S/a/e/s) that puts them at odds with the more rational tone of the other letters. Some of the apertures are a bit tighter than I'm comfortable with (e.g., /G/e), but then again, that might be a deliberate effect...

  • There's something about the /a and /s that I love. They're almost goofy, in a good way.

    Totally agree with Christian about the /K/k. Too distracting. I'm also not sold on the high crossbar on /A, even after your adjustments.
  • There's something about the /a and /s that I love. They're almost goofy, in a good way.

    what I was going for. I'm thrilled that those two details came across, at least.
  • Alex MichaelAlex Michael Posts: 23
    edited June 2016
    I've taken Dyana's advice and put together an all-caps Black alphabet:

    I've also attached a more in-depth PDF.

    I also modified the Regular alphabet caps as well:

    - The circular letters like /C and /O are more geometric.
    - I further emphasized the "flared" terminals on curvy letters like /C, /G and /S.
    - The /A is boxier (a trademark I'm going for with this typeface as a whole).
    - I've totally dropped the "inktrap" features added to letters like /B, /G, /M, /N, etc.
    - I simplified the /K after pretty much unanimous feedback that the original design was too unwieldy.

    Regarding the /A, for the sake of clarity and negative space rhythm, I felt I had no choice but to push its crossbar down for the Black variation. As much as I'd like to see the "high-waisted" look work out, it just wasn't feasible with such thick strokes.

    Also, on a workflow note, I'm amazed at how much I'm learning about my own ideas by pushing the Regular weight into Black. The sudden premium placed on space forced me to consider every decision I'd made with more depth, and fed insights and refinements back into the Regular weight.

    Despite the work involved I actually think it'd be worth doing a Black lowercase as well, since glyphs like /a and especially the two-story /g are going to push this weight to its limits. I'd rather know now exactly how many corners I'm potentially painting myself into before trying to finish either weight independently.
  • For the A bar, it might help to think of the decision not as height of the black bar, but rather the proportions of the white spaces above and below it. From that perspective you now have a regular bar that's too high and a bold bar that's too low. (Or whichever direction you want to push it stylistically, they need to be more similar proportionally. )
  • Also, on a workflow note, I'm amazed at how much I'm learning about my own ideas by pushing the Regular weight into Black. The sudden premium placed on space forced me to consider every decision I'd made with more depth, and fed insights and refinements back into the Regular weight.

    Yep! I'm glad you can handle the depth and breadth. The /a and /g as you note, and especially the /e will also give you a challenge. Not to mention, the Light, extrapolated from the Black through the Regular. At least, it will be a challenge to retain some of the quirks. 

    Also, don't lose sight of the counters as you make the Black, any that are too closed will disrupt the rhythm. 

    What method are you using for spacing these? 

    I appreciate the kerning for demonstrative purposes, but, it really is the last thing you want to be doing and should hold off/delete entirely, until you reach that point. 

    Otherwise, looks good so far. 

  • Alex MichaelAlex Michael Posts: 23
    edited June 2016
    I apologize in advance for the rather ugly specimens, but I'm in utilitarian-only mode after the latest round of additions and refinements.

    Here's a quick snapshot, but the PDF includes some proper body copy (if you can forgive the inappropriate use of small caps for the sake of an example):

    Quick summary: I've added a first draft of small caps, lining numerals, old-style numerals (which are the roughest addition of all), as well an initial batch of the standard punctuation and symbols. The black weight seen above is on the back burner again until this entire weight is finished.

    In larger terms, I've spent a fair bit of time trying to think more deeply about this typeface's stylistic goals, and I've come to some [tentative] conclusions:

    1) As the large asdf demonstrates above, the flared ends of the curved strokes, combined with the extra-tight apertures, are pretty much the central conceit. This means the heart of the typeface lies almost exclusively in the lowercase set (and the numerals, surprisingly, but I consider that a peripheral factor).

    2) As a consequence, the uppercase set is extremely plain, almost verging on a Helvetica-clone when viewed at a glance (with a few important exceptions like /C, /G and /S, and the nearly aligned midlines). I've come to terms with this, however. The capitals are essentially the neutral "stewards" of the personality found in the lowercase set; the straight man in the comedy duo. They provide a safely anonymous foundation upon which the lc can build their identity. (I have iterated through quite a few attempts at giving them their own stylistic trademark, btw, but everything felt bolted-on and contrived.)

    3) This leaves the matter of the /A, which was the original seed glyph for the entire project. Aside from a few exceptions, such as /V and /4, the "flat roof" look didn't find much of a foothold in the rest of the typeface. I can't spread it around enough to make it look as ingrained as I'd like, but I can't bear to part with it either. The high-waisted crossbar and clunky flat roof are just fascinating to me, and while I'm still open to adjusting them, I think that dropping them entirely would be one step too many towards generic grotesk-dom.

    So it doesn't really fit, and arguably conflicts with my other main stylistic goal. Nevertheless, my explanation is simply the following tautology:

    The 'A' in this typeface has a high crossbar and a flat roof because it does.

    That's it. It's just how the letter is drawn. No greater explanation or justification than that.

    As a final issue, I noticed that I have a mismatch between the descender and ascender lengths, brought about by the extra high x-height. I saw Hrant mention in another thread that the ascenders should extend above the cap height. This would be solve the problem rather easily, but is it that simple? I feel like I'm making a huge rookie mistake here, so if anyone cares to set me straight I'd appreciate it. (The descender length could be reduced, btw, but the two-story /g requires it to be about where it is).
  • Hrant isn’t necessarily right. Navigating the internet requires critical thinking.
  • Christian ThalmannChristian Thalmann Posts: 721
    edited June 2016
    To my eye, there are still a few letters that stand out as somewhat goofy while all the others try to be serious — a few people wearing Hawai'i shirts and flipflops to a business meeting, if you will. (Sort of like that sleazy-ass /e in Metro Nova.) The /a is probably the main offender here. Judging from your post above, the /a is intended to be like that, but then you'd need a lot more of that goofiness spread around the other letters. Alternately, I think you could make that /a look more «professional» to fit the other letters while still retaining a lot of its personality and originality. It's probably just a small tweak away...

    /V/v strike me as too wide, maybe /g as well. Is the top of /C/c a bit overhanging?

    I also prefer taller ascenders, but then I'm a militant humanist, so don't listen to me. :grimace: I'm always sorry for those poor crumpled-up /f's in grotesques, though. This one looks particularly unhappy...
  • Frode is right. And the best navigation takes into account how much critical thinking others have done. For my own, see that thread again: http://typedrawers.com/discussion/comment/20535/#Comment_20535

    BTW: :->
    But that might be a bit unkind, since it's possible to make it cute.

  • Not unkind at all. The "old lady face" was a connotation I was working extremely hard to avoid thinking about while massaging that godforsaken /e, and the rotting Jack-o-Lantern is an even better metaphor. The moral of the story: never try to convince yourself something that's clearly there isn't there! Thanks for the wake-up call.
  • I first want to thank everyone in this thread so far. The feedback has been enormously helpful and has forced me to answer about a thousand questions I wouldn't have likely acknowledged otherwise.

    Christian's comments about the uneven distribution of straight-laced and quirky attributes throughout my alphabet convinced me to once again go back to my sketches and confront what is clearly an incomplete design brief and try to unify my ideas.

    In short, I revamped the entire lowercase set (PDF attached as well):

    My goals were to 1) preserve [almost] every original idea 2) spread them more evenly across the entire LC alphabet, and 3) similarly revamp the UC set in a more unified way (still in progress). This involved reeling in some of the quirkier features, which were concentrated way too much on a few key letters, while adding some new personality to the overwhelming majority of letters that were totally lacking in it.

    Here's a rundown of everything I've done:

    - The trademark goofiness of /a and /s has been reeled in. I want to preserve the idea but give them enough dignity to avoid the "novelty" label that I think previous versions warranted. This freed me up to adjust more problematic letters...

    - ...like /e and /c, which have been de-Jack-o-Lantern-ified. The /c features a slight flare on its upper terminal only. Both letters have been spared the "old lady face".

    - Some of the apertures have been widened a bit as well. They remain tight, but they can breathe a bit more (namely in the /a and /s).

    - No longer as vigorously monoline; slightly more visible stroke contrast (in other words, less Helvetica, more Univers).

    - The joints between the stem and the bowl in letters like /b and /d now feature an exaggerated thinning of the stroke. This is seen in /r, /n and /a as well.

    - Those same glyphs, along with /r, /t and a few others, feature a rounded taper on the tail, which is designed to match some of the extreme curviness of /a and /s.

    - All purely linear letters like /k, /v, /w, /x, /y and /z, feature a rounded recession in the crotches that bring the width to near zero (best seen in the PDF).

    Those last two points are also two of the major features that will carry over into the UC set, especially glyphs like /M, /N and /X-/Z that otherwise seemed doomed to blandness.

    I'm confident that this latest character set is drawing from a unified vocabulary of ideas. What began as an admitted patchwork is starting to feel more like a consistent concept. Of course, as always, I'm looking for fresher eyes and greater experience to prove me wrong.

    Thanks again! This has been invaluable so far.
  • This is looking good!
    One thing I like to see is some relationship between the proportions of open/closed counters in /e/ and those in /a/. Right now (look at "dreary") /e/ is more extreme. It might work either way but I think you should choose a direction.
    Keep going!
  • Yes, this looks very much more consistent than before. Good job!

    I was going to warn you that some glyphs look like they're about to break in two, but you do mention an exaggerated thinning, so I assume it's intentional.

    The /e strikes me as somewhat mean-looking. Perhaps it has to do with its squinted eye. I agree with Craig that /a and /e need to agree on a counter size, and I'd probably prefer opening the /e over squinting down the /a.

    The very narrow /t and /f still bother me, but that might just be my humanist strain talking. Given that your lowercase is generally strutting about rather wide-legged and confident, I could imagine that a wider /t with a proper foot would fit in well. Perhaps you could even make a contextual alternate for /f with a wider flag, to be used before low characters...? Also, the /f might look less cramped if you lowered the crossbar of /f/t a bit. Not sure at which point it would start to disagree with flat-topped x-height characters such as /v, though.
  • The ink traps that you introduced in the last PDF aren't going to have any practical use, and doesn't help narrow down the (large) number of ideas that you're working with.

    I'd still urge you to seriously consider removing the high crossbar of the A and the "flat roof" details. These are a concept for a different typeface, and if there's no greater justification than "because I like it" you're probably hindering your typeface. Particularly, I don't think that this detail—which feels ver mechanical—works with the looser forms of /a/s/c, etc. Pick one for this typeface and use the other for something else.

    Lastly, I would recommend not trying to force more character into the caps than absolutely possible. The forms of the caps generally doesn't lend itself to carrying the stylistic weight—let the lowercase do the heavy lifting and just make sure that the uppercase feels harmonious.
  • The form of the K that you're using is also fairly ahistorical for this style, and so feels out of place in your character set.

    The direction that this has gone in reminds me of the very well done revival of Grotesque 6 drawn by Emilie Rigaud: http://www.aisforapple.fr/fonts/grotesque-6. You may be able to refer to this typeface for proportion and detail.
  • Ray LarabieRay Larabie Posts: 527
    I think the mod K works as gonzo-historical gimmick. There are already plenty of historically correct grotesques. I don't think it'll throw the reader off course. I think if you look at it in context with the AKVW, it works.
  • Alex MichaelAlex Michael Posts: 23
    edited June 2016
    Updated (image and PDF attached as usual):

    I finally gave up on the /A. As much as I'm still convinced there's some subtle, misunderstood brilliance behind the high-crossbar and flat roof, the consensus is overwhelming and it'd just be irrational to keep ignoring it. There's no denying it's a much cleaner project without this albatross of an idea in the mix. I'll revisit it some other time.

    Beyond that, I've made a number of other changes:

    - As was pointed out above, there was a bit of a mismatch between the bowls of the /e and /a. While I do very much want both characters to have the flattest, tightest bowls possible (not unlike some humanist serifs, like Jenson, for instance), I agree there was an imbalance and I've tried to fix it in this revision.

    - I addressed the issue of mismatched ascender/descender height by pushing the ascenders beyond the cap height. This may be slightly unorthodox for a Grotesk-influenced sans like this, but since I like the x-height where it is, the alternative would be condensing the two-story /g into a smaller descender space, which just didn't work (despite diligent effort).

    - The suggestion that I flesh out the curves on /f and /j was extremely valuable. I'd drawn both characters like this many times since starting this project and never liked the way they turned out, always returning to the clipped (and rather bland) style seen in most Neo-Grotesks, but when I finally increased the ascenders they suddenly made sense and hugely enlivened the lowercase set. Absolutely the way to go.

    - I've also rethought the modern style I'd drawn on for the /K and /k. The diagonals now blend with the stem through the same curves I'm using elsewhere, such as the inktrap-like recesses cut into diagonal crotches.

    Speaking of which, those inktraps (and the updated /K and /k) are details that I'm gonna have to stick up for despite what I'm sure is very informed critique. They just tie the typeface together in exactly the way I've been looking for this entire time, allowing even purely diagonal characters to reflect some of the curvaceousness seen in the trademark glyphs like /a, /s, /C and /G without betraying their own forms. I think the entire alphabet now "fits" in a way that it just didn't in every previous revision. So while it might come across as gimmicky (as inktraps often do), for what it's worth I can honestly say they were the product of protracted, reluctant thought that I only embraced because the results were so instantly compelling to my eyes.

    One last thing -- there have been some comments about the historical or stylistic "orthodoxy" (for lack of a better term) that this typeface draws from. While I've of course based almost every idea on some Grotesk from the early 20th century (in general terms), my goal isn't actually to revive anything in particular. As long as it adheres to some kind of consistent stylistic logic (which I think it's finally approaching), I'm not concerned about whether or not a given feature would be anachronistic relative to another.

    I just say this to make my own intentions clear; my point isn't that I'm above critique about stylistic consistency or confusion (both of which are welcome and useful), just that I'm not trying to hold myself to any particular historical standard.
  • The tapering middle strokes of /W/w/ mean there's an unsightly dark spot at the middle apex. 
    /f/j/ could go still wider. /g/ bottom might be a bit too wide. Would there be any sense in trying an almost-closed form of that /g/ descender to tie in with the signature tight apertures of the design?
  • Alex MichaelAlex Michael Posts: 23
    edited June 2016
    Thanks Craig, all really good catches. I agree with just about everything you mentioned and have adjusted things accordingly.

    Attached is another update (this time just in PDF form). I've totally redrawn the Black weight alphabet to match the updates I've done to Regular, this time making sure to address the trickiest characters to fit into the tighter space (namely /g and /s). This alphabet was done in one full-speed session, so a lot of tweaking remains (especially character widths, which I was winging for most of this process). I've demonstrated 

    Speaking of character width, it's all working for me at title/display sizes, but I'm seeing a lot of "rhythm" issues that will need to be tamed at text sizes (to say nothing of metrics, which are obviously hacked placeholders for now). My initial evaluation is that /a and /s are where I want them, but all the circular/full-counter characters (namely /b, /c, /d, /e, /h, /m, /n, /o, /p, /q, and /u) need to be narrowed a bit to match them.

    My next revision will likely have full character sets for Black and Regular with the width adjustments mentioned above, at which point I'll be able to make a better decision about where to take this project next. I'm still considering a hairline width, which I won't even touch until I've solved all issues with the two weights I'm currently juggling, but that would also open up the possibility of a full five-weight set by interpolating between the original three to get Light and Bold.

    Note: I threw random Black highlights into the body text in the PDF, but the punctuation is still Regular weight only.
  • The /f and the foot of /t still feel cramped compared to all other curves in the font. How about this approach instead? (Note that the /g's ear also needs some more weight.)

  • Jack JenningsJack Jennings Posts: 136
    edited June 2016
    I have to disagree completely with Christian. His proposed /f feels like a completely different direction from the closed apertures elsewhere.
  • The /f does not really have an aperture, and I feel like «horizontally sprawling» is a more dominant emerging trait than «closed apertures».

    (But you're right that the flat of my /f is probably too sleek. It would probably have to curve down a little toward the end.)
  • What other characters are sprawling? In general the caps are wide as characteristic of the genre… /r is perhaps wide but that feels like a future rectification than a central idea.
  • It's just a feeling I get when looking at those letters. High x-height, squarish proportions, short extenders; feels like the bodies of those letters demand a lot of space.
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