Mar 22, 2012

Type@Cooper: From Paper to Pixels

Blake Olmstead's picture
Blake Olmstead
Brand Experience Designer

As a Brand Experience Designer at Hot, I collaborate with client-partners and teammates on visual designs that change the way people interact with a website or app, and also with a whole company and brand. I see every online interaction as part of a broader conversation. On each project, I work with typography on some level or another. Sometimes it’s the foundation for an identity; other times it is choosing two or three typefaces that will be used to communicate a site’s content hierarchy. Regardless, it all ties back to the client-partner’s brand and how they’re connecting with people.

What attracts me, in part, to typography is the challenge of working within such a confined system—a system that everyone is familiar with, but few truly know and understand. A lower-case 'a' has to look like a lowercase 'a.' There are certain expectations that have to be met for any given letter to be understood by a viewer. A long and complex history has shaped the letterforms into what they are. There’s something about establishing an intimate relationship with those forms in order to bend and manipulate them into something completely readable but totally new that is fascinating to me.

Typeface Archeology
This fascination led me to Type@Cooper: a program at Cooper Union that teaches typeface design principles through workshops and lectures. While continuing to work at Hot, I completed my first term and am in the midst of the second. The first term at Type@Cooper offered me the space to immerse myself in the world of typography by designing a revival typeface. 

Though hundreds of thousands of typefaces are now digitized, many still remain on the pages of the books for which they were created. It really makes one pause for a moment to reflect on how far type design has come in such a short time. From creating punches by hand to the development of the pantograph, from the widespread use of photo-lettering to modern drafting programs like FontLab, the tools used in creating a typeface have radically changed.

Although technology has evolved, the theories and methodologies behind systematic and aesthetic choices have largely remained the same. That’s why a revival works so well for a first term project, because it forces a designer to bridge the world of manual typeface creation and novel technology by understanding and applying those theories and methodologies in real time.

Reviving a Typeface
For my revival, I was charged with finding a typeface which had fallen out of use and bringing it—or at least its essence—to the digital world. This process was the closest I have ever been to true detective work. 

I spent hours researching typography in the rare book archive at Columbia University, which houses the world’s largest collection of type specimens. The catalog was overwhelming, so I narrowed my search to the first type foundry that came to mind: Deberny & Peignot, a French foundry established in the early 1900s.

It was surreal to be in the viewing room of the Archive, a kind of glassed-in outpost on the top floor, waiting for preservationists to bring me one ancient book at a time. I carefully leafed through fragile pages, waiting for that one long lost typeface to find me. The room was darkened. The oxygen levels must have been low. My eyelids got heavier with each delicate page turn. But then I caught a glimpse of something as I turned a page.

Photo of Naudin type specimen taken at Columbia's rare book archive (these are the books foundries would use to showcase their selection and sell to clients)

Eureka! It was Naudin! What you ask? Naudin was the elusive typeface I had been waiting for, likely named after Bernard Naudin who may have designed the original typeface in 1911. Here it was in the second volume of the Deberny & Peignot 1923 type specimen—or pieces of it, actually. Only a few pages of text were there, but it was enough to take photos of and start the design process. Oh yeah, no scanners or photocopies allowed when the book is the last of its kind and nearly 100 years old. A few days later, a colleague found the entire basic character set of Naudin at the NY Public Library—and I was off to the races.

This is when theory meets practice in the Type@Cooper program. Calligraphy guided my understanding of how letterforms were constructed. Naudin is a face with strange quirks that I could only comprehend after deconstructing it into its most basic calligraphic pieces, and even then, the forms were clearly not based on a broad-nib pen. Rather, I interpreted these calligraphic pieces through the different tools the designer may have used in 1911. With further research, and application of lettering and spacing techniques, I was able to shape Naudin into a digital 'set' with letters, numbers, and contemporary symbols like '@.'

But is it right for the web?
So will Naudin appear on a website near you soon? Probably not. A typeface a like Naudin is more at home in the printed world, on packaging or as a display face; probably not on any of our clients' websites. Why not?

That’s what the Type@Cooper program is all about. Through an earnest exploration of the craft of typography, we are trained to make more informed and prudent typographic decisions. The typeface should be unique, vibrant, and in-line with the brand’s values, but never disrupt usability or content.

The understanding of this process and methodology has prompted me to ask deeper questions as I work on websites and applications. How often have we seen websites with 8 point text? How will a logo’s typeface get distorted as it moves from device to device? Can this typeface scale across the digital divide back to print?

All of these print and digital considerations are not only making me a better Brand Experience Designer, but a better problem solver for Hot’s clients. If we recommend the right typeface to a client, it becomes a powerful tool for expressing their brand and connecting with people in any medium.

If you love typography the way I do, leave a comment here and I’ll make sure you’re in the loop when I report back on my second term at Cooper Union.

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Deanna's picture

Beautiful typeface! Thanks for sharing. I'm heading to NYC (from San Francisco) to take Cooper's Hand-Lettered Logos workshop in June--I'm super excited.

Olga F. Honea's picture

An interesting discussion is worth comment. I think that you should write more on this topic, it might not be a taboo subject but generally people are not enough to speak on such topics. To the next. Cheers

Kyle Read's picture

A great review! what a dream it must have been to be in that glassed in library amongst the volumes of type specimens. I love the bit about your oxygen deprived eyes.
I'd love to hear your second round review!


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