The Importance of Play

Typeface stories by Peter Biľak
1 438 words8 min read
merkur instructions

In the world driven by utility and performance, is there a room for open-ended typographic play system, that allows to discover something that was not entirely planned, something that the system hoped to allow, but could not guarantee?

In today’s world, a great deal of design is increasingly driven by metrics and utility. To maximise efficiency and capacity, most cars conform to certain broadly accepted parameters. To ensure an intuitive user experience, most operating systems rely on familiar interface elements. Cars look more and more alike, phones look more and more alike, yes and even fonts look more and more alike as culture conforms to the pressure of ‘what works’ and design becomes an exercise in utility rather than originality, predictability rather than imagination or fun.

In type design, the terms playfulor experimentalare often used in contrast to usefuland functional, a disclaimer of sorts that suggests that we not take the font too seriously, as serious typefaces are informed by history, built on precedent, designed to stand the test of time. From that perspective, playful typefaces may amuse for a moment or grace the odd project, but can’t be said to advance the field or contribute to our understanding of the art.

Is there room for playfulness in this world driven by quantifiable data and the pursuit of market share? Is play only for children, and then only as a foundation for learning the skills they will need to perform effectively in the real world? Can a typeface be serious as well as playful? Fun as well as functional?

One playful idea was born out of the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. In a time when money was scarce, Catalan printer and typographer Joan Trochut created SuperTipo Veloz, an ingenious modular system consisting not of letters, but rather of combinable geometric and alphabetic elements that gave printers an economical way to produce a nearly infinite array of letterforms, ornaments, borders and even illustrations.

SuperTipo Veloz
SuperTipo Veloz is the collection of typographic ornaments and modules created by Joan Trochut and produced at José Iranzo foundry in 1942, in Barcelona. In 2004, this modular system was revived by Andreu Balius and Àlex Trochut, the grandson of Joan. Images above are from Novadam, Volume 4, Esteban Trochut Bachman, Barcelona 1952, kindly provided by Letterform Archive.

Printers had used modular graphic elements to construct custom lettering and illustrations before. Patrona Grotesk(published by Czechoslovakia’s Slévarna Písem in 1931), and Fregio Mecano(published by Italy’s Nebiolo Foundry in 1934) were also based on the idea of a small set of geometrical forms that could be arranged and rearranged in many different ways. Both systems were inventive, but complex and time-consuming to work with, which limited their commercial success in an era when printers were looking for faster and easier ways to set text.

Fregio Mecano, from Nebiolo Foundry
Fregio Mecano, a modular font published by the Nebiolo foundry in 1934, consists of 20 different geometric elements. This image is from Creazioni Nebiolo, 1955, courtesy of Letterform Archive.

With the advent of the desktop computer and the democratising influence of DTP, type production became cheaper and hence less risky, work that could be done by an individual rather than by a design team. This opened the door to a new wave of playful typography, including Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum’s Beowolf (1989), which used the new technology to create random variations into the letterforms, introducing a jarring instability into a discipline long governed by convention and utility. Far from being just a passing whimsy, Beowolf is now part of the permanent collection of MoMa in New York.

LTR Beowolf
Beowolf, a random font imagined and engineered by Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum in 1989, which changed their shapes in the printer using raw PostScript.

At Typotheque we always try to balance our library of very functional typefaces with very inventive typefaces that are fun to use, like Julien, Audree and History. They require some time and some hands-on experimentation, and they may lead you to unexpected outcomes, but of course, that is what play is all about.

Designing an open ended system

Design processes are usually focused on controlling the results. For example, when I am working on a book, I need to anticipate the grain of the paper, the trimming of the sheet, the spreading of the ink during printing, etc. to achieve the desired finished product. But some design processes result in open-ended systems, tools that let you create things the original designer perhaps never dreamed of. This is what Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen wanted when he developed interlocking pieces for creative play. He had to balance structure with versatility, a system stable enough to work with, but flexible enough to accommodate the user’s curiosity and imagination. Ole's son Godtfred patented this creation as the ‘LEGO System of Play’.

Lego patent
The original patent issued October 24, 1961, proposes a design for a ‘Toy building brick’, conceived 25 years earlier. These interlocking plastic blocks are now known as LEGO, manufactured by The Lego Group, a privately held company based in Billund, Denmark.

Today, although individual pieces display a staggering variety of designs and functions, they are marked by remarkable compatibility; a Lego brick from 1958 still interlocks with one made today. And the system allows a tremendous variability. Two standard rectangular 2×4 Lego bricks can be combined in 24 different ways, and three offer 1,560 unique possibilities. With six, the number of combinations reaches 915,103,765, and with nine or ten, according to Danish math professor Søren Eilers, the number is incalculably high.

Lego brick 24 variations
Lego interlocking pieces constitute a universal system and basic two eight-stud LEGO bricks can be combined in 24 different ways, while three bricks in 1,060 ways.

Merkur, the first toy that I consciously remember playing with, is a construction set consisting of perforated metal strips, plates, wheels and axles that can be joined together with nuts and bolts, (much like Frank Hornby’s earlier Meccano).

merkur box
Instruction manual from Merkur, a metal construction set built in Czechoslovakia from 1920s.

Inexpensive, flexible and educational, it came with instructions for building engineering tools like lathes, drills and planers, which didn’t stop my brother and me from building time machines and batmobiles. Czech inventor Otto Wichterle used Merkur to prototype the first soft contact lens, further proof that a successful open-ended system can produce results far beyond its inventor’s imaginings.

merkur 1970s
Merkur 7, construction set from the 1970s

The Q Project is designed as a similarly open-ended system. Like any game, it is built on implicit rules that provide a certain stability. Various types of serifs, for example, can be attached to the base letters, and with a little experimentation, you will find that there are over thirty such combinations that can be placed on three different letter bases. But like any goodgame, it also provides room to create and explore. The serifs can be combined to generate unexpected shapes. The letters can be broken into strokes to create entirely new forms. Just as with toys such as Lego or Merkur, you can build what the designer envisioned, or you can ditch the instructions in favour of free play and create something else entirely. Beyond the standard OpenType fonts, the Q Project also includes physical and digital tools like drafting stencils with the basic shapes needed to construct the capital letters of the Latin alphabet in various styles.

Q shapes drafting templates
Three drafting stencil for Q Shape 1, 2, 3 are available as part of the project.
Q bases & serifs
Instead of defining static fonts, the Q Project (2020) comes with interchangeable parts available as separate fonts, which can be combined in numerous ways.

A good game allows for hacking and invention, providing a framework for creation. Creativity, however, requires time, and Q also requires some patience, since it is less a production tool and more a space to explore. In return, you may discover something that was not entirely planned, something that the system hoped to allow, but could not guarantee. This is the magic of designing games, the joy of inviting people to participate in your creation, to complete it or even reinvent it. Q invites you to solve puzzles that may not exist yet. It’s not the most practical way of working, but play is also an important way to achieve useful results.