25 September 2012

Beauty and Ugliness in Type design

Peter Biľak on the process of designing his newly released Karloff typeface, demonstrating just how closely related beauty and ugliness are. Karloff explores the idea of irreconcilable differences — how two extremes could be combined into a coherent whole.

In 2010 I was invited to a design conference in Copenhagen to speak on the subject of conceptual type. The organisers were interested in examples of typefaces whose principal design feature was not related to aesthetic considerations or legibility, but rather some underlying non-typographical idea. In my address I argued that there is no such thing as conceptual type, since type design is a discipline defined by its ability to execute an outcome; the process that transforms the pure idea into a functional font is a critical part of the discipline. Having rejected the topic of the conference, I nevertheless went on to speculate on what a true example of a conceptual typeface might be like.

At the time I was also interested in the idea of irreconcilable differences and how two extremes could be combined into a coherent whole. As an example, I looked for the most beautiful typeface in the history of typography — as well as the ugliest one — and for a way to meld them.

The Beauty

While any choice representing beauty is bound to be very personal and subjective, many agree that the high-contrast typefaces created by Giambattista Bodoni and the Didot clan are some of the most beautiful in existence.

Bodoni was one of the most widely-admired printers of his time and considered amongst the finest in the history of the craft. Thomas Curson Hansard wrote in 1825 that Bodoni’s types had “that beautiful and perfect appearance, which we find it difficult and highly expensive to equal.”¹ In his Manuale Tipografico of 1818, Bodoni laid down the four principles of type design “from which all beauty would seem to proceed”, namely: regularity, clarity, good taste, and charm.

His close competitors in France were the Didots. Not only did François-Ambroise Didot invent many of the machines used in printing, but his foundry endeavoured to render the types more beautifully than his rivals Baskerville and (later) Bodoni. Some considered Didot’s works the most beautiful types that had ever been used in France (up to that period),² though others found them delicate but lifeless.³

Didot, Impremirie Nationale, 36pt

The Ugliness

I have to admit that dealing with ugliness was a lot more interesting than revisiting the beauty contests of the classicist printers. The search for ugliness triggers a certain primal, voyeuristic curiosity, and from the designer’s perspective there is simply a lot more space to explore. Capturing beauty has always been considered the primary responsibility of the traditional artist, and even now it is rare to find examples of skilled and deliberate ugliness in type design, (although examples of inexperience and naïveté abound).

The eccentric ‘Italian’ from the middle of the Industrial Revolution was a clear choice. This reversed-contrast typeface was designed to deliberately attract readers’ attention by defying their expectations. Strokes that were thick in classical models were thin, and vice versa — a dirty trick to create freakish letterforms that stood out in the increasingly saturated world of commercial messages.

Five-Line Pica Italian

No other style in the history of typography has provoked such negative reactions as the Italian. It was first presented in Caslon & Catherwood’s 1821 type specimen, and as early as 1825, in his Typographia Thomas Hansard called the type a “typographic monstrosity”. Nicolete Gray called it “a crude expression of the idea of perversity”, while others labeled it as “degenerate”.

The goal of my project was to show just how closely related beauty and ugliness are. Donald Knuth, an American computer scientist with a special interest in typography identified over 60 visual parameters that control the appearance of a typeface. I was interested in designing typeface variations that shared most of these parameters, yet included both the ugliest and most beautiful letterforms.

Karloff, the result of this project, connects the high contrast Modern type of Bodoni and Didot with the monstrous Italians. The difference between the attractive and repulsive forms lies in a single design parameter, the contrast between the thick and the thin.

Karloff Positive

Karloff Positive Italic

Karloff Negative Bold

Karloff Negative Bold Italic

I asked Pieter van Rosmalen for help, and both of us worked on both versions. While at the beginning I looked at the Didot from Imprimerie Nationale as a reference, Pieter departed from this model and made the project more personal. We worked on both models at the same time, trying to be very strict about mathematically reversing the contrast between two weights. The advantage of working on both versions together was that we could adjust both of them to achieve the best forms, rather than creating one as an afterthought of the other.

Towards the end of the project, I worked with Nikola Djurek, our frequent collaborator, who helped with interpolation and fine-tuning of the fonts. Having designed two diametrically opposite versions, we undertook a genetic experiment with the offspring of the beauty and the beast, interpolation of the two extremes, which produced a surprisingly neutral low contrast version. Karloff Neutral required only minimal intervention, because the master weights from which it was interpolated were well defined.

About the name

Karloff was the artistic name of the British actor William Henry Pratt. He chose this pseudonym to prevent embarrassment to his dignified family, who considered him the black sheep of the family. Although he played mainly sinister characters, in real life, Karloff was known as a very kind gentleman who gave generously, especially to children’s charities.

Thanks to Paul Shaw, James Clough, and David Shields.

1. Hansard, Thomas C. Typographia: an Historical Sketch of the Origin and Progress of the Art of Printing, 1825.

2. Encyclopædia Americana, 1832.

3. Updike, Daniel B. Printing Types: Their History, Forms, and Use, 2001.

4. Gray, Nicolete. Nineteenth Century Ornamented Typefaces, 1938

5. Benson, John H and Carey, Arthur J. The Elements of Lettering, 1940

Sponsored by H&FJ.

Beauty and Ugliness in Type design

23 September 2012

The Complete Engraver

When it comes to the Gilded Age, the canon of design history teaches of broadside posters and the Kelmscott press. Wood type and artistic printing have attracted a following and are fighting their way in. Further outside the canon lies a neglected facet of design woven into society, personal lives and business — engraved stationery. The Complete Engraver introduces engraving as a subject worthy of the canon, and is an approachable, interesting, and compelling read.

Designer, teacher, and historian Nancy Sharon Collins is a leader in the preservation and revival of engraved stationery. She collects engraved ephemera, restores vintage presses, and designs stationery that has drawn praise from the likes of Martha Stewart and Vogue. Collins is erudite, formerly of the elite New York design establishment, and now works in New Orleans. She is eminently qualified to tackle the challenge of broadening our view of design history.

The Complete Engraver cover image


Like letterpress and lettering, engraving is attracting renewed interest from artists and designers who want to express themselves via analog processes. Collins writes for them, and for those who aspire to be them, persuading readers to engage with a tradition that is not dead, but merely in slumber.

Collins reminds us that engraving is an integral part of the bigger picture of printing and design history. She makes this case by weaving an elaborate history from threads about paper, department stores, and postal mail. These connections are critical to bringing engraving into the canon of design history rather than treating it as an aside.

Of course Collins explores the intersection of type design and engraving. Around the turn of the twentieth century type designers blatantly lifted designs from the work of engravers. Engravers later used popular typefaces in modern business stationery. We see stark evidence of this mutual expropriation in a specimen of engraved lettering styles that includes Franklin Gothic Extended, Helvetica, and Eurostile’s predecessor, Microgramma.

What makes engraving an especially compelling aspect of design history is the personal significance of engraved stationery. Stationery was inextricably linked to Gilded Age high-society, with young people demanding impeccable calling cards that spoke to their status. Personal monograms were common among the upper classes. Mourning required special stationery that changed to express the stages of grief.

Collins does not limit herself to engraving’s past. The Complete Engraver introduces engraving and printing techniques. Logo designers will find her examination of monograms and ciphers relevant. And Collins makes a case for reviving the calling card as a sort of business card without static contact details. The practice of serious letter writing is explained and advocated, although it may be a lost cause in this age of poor penmanship.


Designers Paul Wagner and Elena Schlenker created an appropriate vehicle for this content and subject. Formal script juxtaposed with all-caps sans type has never looked so good in a book. Similar to Marian Bantjes’ digestibly small I Wonder , Collins’s The Complete Engraver is an octavo that one can sit down and read comfortably. Books this size are welcome in design, a field overrun with bloated, oversized tomes best suited to winning awards and collecting dust.

Two companion fonts, both revivals of engraving alphabets, were created by Steve Matteson and Terrance Weinzierl of Monotype. A short study of their process is presented as an appendix. Both fonts can be downloaded for free from fonts.com.


Covering so much in 216 richly illustrated pages makes The Complete Engraver more of a complete introduction than a comprehensive encyclopedia. But The Complete Engraver is a grand introduction that should ignite further explorations of engraving. Collins herself will no doubt follow with years more writing and speaking. And young designers with a passion for elegance will find plenty of historical inspiration and justification for their work. The Complete Engraver succeeds as a welcome addition to the canon of design history.

The Complete Engraver: A Guide to Monograms, Crests, Ciphers, Seals, and the Etiquette and History of Social Stationery

ISBN: 978-1-61689-067-4

Nancy Sharon Collins

Foreword by Ellen Lupton

James studied graphic design at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, DC. He developed a love of typography at the Corcoran and wrote a thesis about the development of versatile typefaces as branding devices. After graduating with honors James decided to pursue type design full-time. In 2009 he started Dunwich Type Founders in New York City.

Sponsored by H&FJ.

The Complete Engraver

20 September 2012

Viral Video ‘Charlie Bit My Finger’ Gets A Horror Remix

[Click here to view the video in this article]

Viral YouTube video ‘Charlie Bit My Finger’ was uploaded five years ago.

It now has over 480 million views—making it one of the most-viewed videos on YouTube.

In a remix by What’s Trending, the innocent video reimagined as a horror film—eerie music, ghostly images and blood gets thrown into the mix.

Looks like Charlie isn’t that innocent after all.

Click to watch the video below:

[via What’s Trending]

Instagram Song Pokes Fun At Everyone’s Favorite App

[Click here to view the video in this article]

Put A Filter On Me’ is a song about Instagram filters that pokes fun at everyone’s favorite photo app.

In the video, it shows two blonde friends who can’t help but take filtered pictures of everything they see—from a homeless guy to brunch and even dog poop.

Eventually, one of them ends up in jail for ‘killing’ a thief for stealing her phone—but she remains optimistic because she still takes Instagram pictures of food—prison food.

Click to watch the video below:

[via Julia Mattison’s YouTube]

A Comprehensive Guide To The Art Of Copywriting

Here is a useful infographic for all aspiring copywriters.

Created by ABC Copywriting, this infographic serves as a comprehensive guide to those learning the trade—explaining everything you need to know about copywriting.

It provides you with tips, definition of key terms and even a list of the ‘most persuasive words’ to help you improve your copy.

Check out the infographic below:

Click to view enlarged version

Click to view enlarged version

[via ABC Copywriting]

‘First-Ever’ Pictures Of A Young Banksy Painting A Mural In Mexico

Did you know street artist Banksy was an amateur footballer before he became UK’s most infamous ‘guerrilla’ artist?

According to the Daily Mail, these are the ‘first-ever confirmed pictures’ of Banksy—taken when he was an amateur footballer for Bristol-based football club, Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls.

It was reported that in 2001, he joined the club on a tour of Mexico where they played against a team of Mexican freedom fighters.

In between games and during breaks, Banksy would be busy painting a mural depicting the freedom fighters struggle for independence.

“He went on tour with us to Mexico in 2001 and painted a number of murals in the community,” said Will Simpson, a club footballer who knew Banksy before he became famous, “He did one tour and shortly after, he might have moved to London. We see him every so often when he comes back to Bristol.”

The photos were first featured in the book titled ‘Freedom Through Football: The Story of the Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls’—however, Banksy’s face has been pixelated to protect his identity.

The book can be purchased on Amazon for USD$16.28.

Oh and if you must know—Banksy was a goalkeeper, which explains why he’s so talented with his hands.

[via Daily Mail, images via