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    Wednesday, December 07, 2005

    Counters and serifs and bearings, oh my!

    A fascinating article in last week's New Yorker entitled "Man Of Letters" introduces us to the foremost expert on typefaces: Matthew Carter. Unfortunately the piece doesn't seem to be available online. But you can read it in the December 5th issue. What I find most interesting about the article, aside from Carter's impact on the world of typefaces, is the approach taken by designers when starting a new typeface:

    According to Tobias Frere-Jones, a type designer in New York at Hoefler & Frere-Jones, designers don't regard the alphabet as a linear sequence. Instead they tend to see round letters ("O," "G," "C," "Q"), square letters ("H," "F," "L," "T"), and diagonal ones ("A," "W," "X," "Z"). The classic approach to type design is to begin with the capital "H" and "O."

    "Just drawing the 'H,' there are a number of choices to make," Frere-Jones says. "How substantial? How wide? Are there serifs, and, if so, how broad, how thick? When you get to the 'O,' you have to decide how heavy the heaviest part of the letter should be. There are reasons it can't be the same as the 'H.' If the heaviest part of the 'O' is the same as the heaviest part of the 'H,' the 'O' will look too thin, because the 'O' reaches its heaviest weight only for a moment, whereas the 'H' gets to hold that maximum weight all the way to the top. Also, if you draw the capital 'H' and 'O' at the same height, that 'O' will look too short, so the base of the 'O' has to fall a bit lower than the 'H,' and the top has to rise a bit higher for them to seem compatible.
    Incidentally, Carter prefers to start with the lowercase "h" and "o." I wonder if he uses FontExplorer X by Linotype? I do, and it's a wonderful free utility to keep all your font ducks in a row on your Mac.