History of a new font (notes on designing Fedra Serif)

Essays by Peter Biľak
974 words5 min read

Type design, like many disciplines, has often been driven by technology. Each wave of technological change in printing provoked the development of new approaches enabled by the new possibilities. In the eighteenth century, for example, new typefaces exploited innovations in papermaking and improved inking techniques to greatly increase the contrast between letters’ thick and thin strokes. The introduction of pantographic punch- and matrix-cutting in the late nineteenth century enabled numerous variations of a typeface to be manufactured from a single drawing. This understanding of the mechanical scaling of forms changed the idea of the alphabet; it was now a flexible system, resulting in a vast range of typographic variants — compressed, expanded, extruded, ad infinitum. In the mid-twentieth century the adoption of photocomposition systems meant that spacing and kerning could be adjusted with greater precision; among the many novelties that photo technology enabled, more fonts simulating connected handwriting were developed. And most recently the personal computer spurred a wave of new fonts based on previously unexplored motives, such as modularity or randomness. With each of these technological changes, typeface libraries were updated to reflect the changes.

Type designers are very fond of the problems imposed by the technology. They work in a discipline where restrictions and conventions define the frame of work. A problem is the type designer’s muse, and in the last decades we were blessed by enough problems to solve.


While working on the typeface to be called Charter, Matthew Carter was confronted with a peculiar technical problem. Early computers were not able to process font files over a certain kilobyte limit, so Carter quickly offered a solution: a typeface that would consist mainly of straight lines, thereby keeping the file size small by limiting the number of points needed to construct the letters. Proudly he claimed to the technicians, ‘I think I solved your problem…’ ‘What problem?’ the technicians asked; an even quicker fixing of the computer’s limitations would render Carter’s ‘solution’ useless.

Seeing type design solely as a problem-solving exercise is limiting, reducing type design to a response mechanism – a craft detached from its own history. When the idea of cultural progress is supplanted by technological progress, the more implicit motives of type design, such as continuity or self-awareness are neglected. Solving a particular technological problem is only a short detour in history’s path. Solving all the technical problems would mean the end of the type history, but this history can itself be the prime inspiration for new designs.

Carter, alongside many of the great punch-cutters, designers, and printers, has participated in the sequence of discoveries, summed up - for the sake of comprehensibility - as History. They contributed to the History of the profession by responding to current situations. Their aim was not to reinvent the existing, but to reveal an unknown aspect of the art itself. Typefaces designed to fulfill the needs of their times contribute their small part to the knowledge accumulated across the centuries; not necessarily by inventing anything revolutionary, but by extending and adapting collective knowledge to contemporary conditions. The spirit of continuity is crucial: each new creation is an answer to what has come before and each new typeface contains accumulated knowledge.


So: contemporary type design is necessarily historical. Typefaces are results of the processes, they are responses to the conditions in which they were created, and they immediately take a part in the history.

On the other hand, revivals, or typefaces teleporting their inspirations from concluded periods of time, are unrelated to contemporary demands. They discontinue the series of inventions, becoming a game of pastiche, merely repeating what has already been created. Revival typefaces are, then, ahistorical, as they place themselves outside their natural history. They create their short-lived parallel histories and fail to participate in the big story.

History has been gravely abused, and an excuse for many misdemeanors, but it always outlasts those who tried to abuse it. History’s only enemy is the end of the progress. Repeating what has already been created closes the circle of discoveries. The value of understanding history as an infinite source of accumulated knowledge is manifest in the intangible processes as much as the tangible results. The history is driven by intellectual pursuits. Most historical discoveries are the isolated discoveries of introvert individuals rather then mainstream technologies.

The Austrian writer Herman Broch, author of a number of formally inventive and intellectually ambitious novels, used to repeat this mantra: ‘The sole raison d’être of a novel is to discover what only the novel can discover’. My conclusion is equally optimistic: the purpose of type design is to explore its own possibilities by its own means.