Taking Script Typefaces To the Next Level
Supernova is a new family that combines the spontaneity of a script typeface with the versatility of multiple weights and cuts.
Does the world really need another script typeface? Is there any room for real innovation, any gap still to be filled in the world of type design? Can this project be worth the time and effort I will have to invest in it?
These are some of the questions I asked myself when starting this project back in 2010. But now that the project is finished, I can say that it was definitely worth it: the Supernova family successfully brings the flair of human handwriting not only to display text, but to body text as well.
The process of creating the typeface was both creative and instructive. It involved a lot of practical trial-and-error work rather than historical research since I was moving in a new direction and there were no similar projects to reference. So I am pleased to be able to share not only my explorations, but also some fairly technical information with others who are working towards similar goals.
Breaking New Ground
The design principles of script typefaces and text typefaces are different, in a way perhaps even diametrically opposite: script typefaces generally aim to emulate the spontaneous rhythm of lettering or handwriting with its variable forms, terminals, connections and ligatures that create variation within word shapes. Text typefaces, on the other hand are designed for maximum legibility, focused on creating consistent, repetitive shapes in order to make every character easily recognisable and create an even colour over large blocks of text. Designers use script faces, generally at larger sizes, for their emotional qualities and their illustrative value when designing brands or magazine headlines. They use accompanying text typefaces, generally at smaller sizes, to convey more verbal information.
Although historical developments in typography have trained contemporary readers to expect extensive blocks of text to be set in roman types, this was not always the case. In the 18th century, connected scripts were considered to be optimal for this purpose due to their origin in handwriting, and were widely used to set books. One well-known example is Civilité, a typeface by Robert Granjon based on his own handwriting and thought to be one of the first scripts cut in lead for letterpress printing.
Page of a book printed in Civilité, Den uutersten wille van Lowijs Porquin
The Industrial Revolution changed this, however, as printing methods were influenced by mass-production techniques. Roman typefaces began to develop into families containing a variety of weights, while script typefaces were cut primarily for display purposes in one style and weight.
Since then, the development of script typefaces has largely been limited to variations in shape and proportion (and with the advent of OpenType technology, the addition of alternate letterforms). Their application has continued to be primarily linked to their emotional attributes, while roman types predominate in body texts.
Supernova takes a step in a different direction and was conceived as a script typeface family comprised of several weights and cuts, including a versatile, eye-catching display version and a highly legible body-text version with five weights.
The Design Process
I did not use specific theoretical or historical references while working on this typeface, but many sources of inspiration came together during the design process. In general, the letterforms are based on the model of pointed brush calligraphy. My experiences from a workshop with Italian calligrapher Luca Barcelona and a workshop on lettering techniques with Ken Barber allowed me to understand how brushes react to speed and rhythm, factors that later shaped the characters of Supernova.
During this first stage of the process I defined the basic shapes of the letters as well as the structure of the family as a whole: there would be a poster version with several alternates for upper- and lowercase characters, plus various figure styles. There would also be a text version with fewer alternate letterforms, but with multiple weights and figure styles. In keeping with the practical applications that I imagined the typeface might have, there would be a set of ornaments: heavy, brushy frames for use with the poster version in packaging design or signage, and elegant flourishes for use with the text version to decorate chapter headings or title pages.
I worked on the poster and text cuts simultaneously, a method that helped me find the ideal tension between them, giving each cut the unique features it needed to fulfil its function, yet retaining enough similarity that they clearly belonged to each other.
While designing the capitals, for example, I experimented with expressive, flamboyant shapes for the poster cut, exploring variations in contrast, weight and style. For the text version I sketched more subtle caps that could work smoothly within the text flow.
Each cut also has a slightly different slant (chosen based on research on the slant angles of italic fonts): more moderate in the text version and more accentuated in the poster version to add speed to the strokes.
The next stage was to work intensively on each cut to suit it to its function.
Intended for display purposes, Supernova poster is an extroverted cut. Unlike the text version it contains many alternates per character, two styles of alternate capitals and an expressive ductus.
I designed the caps freehand, experimenting with striking contrasts and several weights.
I also drew a special set of caps that complement the small caps, but can also be used as alternate shapes with the normal lowercase characters.
In addition, I created frames for signage or packaging design. They are based on simple, heavy brushstrokes and can be used individually or connected horizontally and vertically.
The process of designing a script typeface for text purposes was the most complex part of the project because the nature of a script font is defined by the connections between letters and by the variability of their forms; eliminating these properties could easily have produced an ordinary italic cut. In fact, from a morphological standpoint, italic versions of text typefaces were the closest references that I could find.
The first step towards making the script more readable at body-text sizes was to open up the counters and the connections to generate more space within and between letters. This meant simplifying several letter shapes and shortening the ascenders and descenders while maintaining a consistent ductus. A critical decision was to reduce the number of alternates by eliminating some connections: for instance in the ‘o’, which connects differently with an ‘n’ than it does with an ‘s’. This made the cut less variable and more predictable without significantly affecting its overall connectedness.
The connecting characters, however, still required alternates without terminals in order to work properly at the end of a word.
The weights of this version were developed by interpolating between two masters and testing the resulting weights in actual text in order to determine the optimal distances between them.
The cut was completed with small caps and figures styles for use in a wide range of typographic settings. Additionally, for decorative purposes in books and text, I made a pointed brush interpretation of flourishes of English Round Hand calligraphy of the 18th century.
Novas and Supernovas
Designing and producing Supernova took about two and a half years. The text cut required the most attention, not only because it is designed in several weights, but also because it required thorough research and experimentation to make it legible at small sizes for contemporary readers.
The initial phase of the project was connected with an intense educational experience in the Type & Media program in The Hague, where I had access to the advice of a group of exceptional teachers. Afterwards the typeface was developed to meet Typotheque’s high standards and Peter Biľak contributed to the design process by commenting on the letterforms and suggesting design solutions, as well as programming the OpenType features.
This extended process led to a typeface system with a wide range of applications that expands the possibilities of script typefaces as we know them today. Its name originated in an analogy with astronomy: ‘Nova’ means ‘new’ in Latin and is used to designate what ancient astronomers thought was a newly-formed star. A supernova is a celestial event many times brighter than an ordinary nova.￼
A supernova - Image by NASA/ESA via ZooUniverse.org
As its name suggests, Supernova is fundamentally different from other scripts on the market, and I am pleased to put out a new idea that seems to have found its way through an unexplored area of type design. I am thrilled to see what impact it will have on the design sphere and on the future conception of script typefaces.
Thanks to: Erik van Blokland, Peter Verheul, Paul van der Laan, Petr van Blokland, Just van Rossum, Frank E. Blokland, Jan Willem Stas, Christoph Noordzij, Françoise Berserik, Nils Thomsen, Typotheque and Peter Biľak.