Thursday, 16 December 2010

Day 352, like the circles that you find, in the windmills of your mind [16.12.10]

Dag tre hundrede tooghalvtreds. Well, I missed a post yesterday. Like I said I was never going to again. But I did. And I don't even have an excuse. I was just busy doing some graphic design for my school (will show you that someday), then homework, then replying to a crazily long Flickrmail I was sent. Crazily long but also a lot of fun to reply to. I still haven't finished it, I had to copy it to a text document so I didn't lose all that I'd written so far.

OK, as for the title: last night I had the song 'Windmills of your mind' stuck in my head, on constant loop. Very, very annoying. I'd heard it in some BT TV ad in between watching Grand Designs (goddammit, I love that programme), and I was instantly in love. Such a great, creepy mood to it. So I've decided to make another short film to that song, somehow. It's going to be really hard to make, lots of different locations, plus I need a person to be the main character whose mind-windmills the circles are like. It'd probably end up being me, but I want to try and avoid that. I've had enough of starring in my own videos. Trust me, you guys luckily haven't seen my old YouTube channel. Now there's a sight.


Here's a photo from my Flickr photostream (the second one, John Too). I really like it, it's got a super-short DoF 'cause I shot it through a magnifying glass, haha. I think you can see the rim of the magnifying glass in the top-left, which is a shame, but it's worth it just for that focus. And besides, you never realised that rim was there before I told you, didja?

The subject we're meant to be talking about is typography. Because, as you can see, I've been trying to design my own font. And it's seriously slow to do. Of course. I started with the E, which set a whole bunch of tricky parameters, then I did the L (took a while) and now I'm struggling through the F. I'm drawing them freehand in my Moleskine because apparently that's how you're meant to do it, and I really enjoy doing it manually. There's something really rewarding about it. And apparently it helps when you draw the curves, though I tried an O and it came out shit because I couldn't draw the curves consistently. Figures.

Anyway I think I've reduced typography down to four main points of consideration:

Creating a consistent style. This involves knowing exactly what your font is for, because typography isn't just about drawing nice letters. They've got to have a purpose, and that purpose has to be very, very well thought out. For example, I once saw a font based around the Fallingwater house architecture. You can base a font on anything, so long as that anything gives off a mood and an emotion. For example, Helvetica; strong, reliable, modern, elegant, stable. Futura; sharp, abstract, unique, bold, rounded, post-modern. That kind of thing.

Setting the font. ie. creating a set of rules to bind the characters together. Handwriting is inconsistent, and has no rules. You could write letters in any way and they'd fit into your handwriting. Typography isn't so simple. You've got to consider rules: for example what the balancing and finishing serifs look like and how they differ from each other, line weights, interaction points between lines and curves (eg. rounded joints or ink traps), what lobes look like, the x-height (height of the lowercase letters) and other key heights on the font. Part of the skill of typography is keeping these rules evident throughout the font.

Maintaining the colour. Colour is one of the trickiest concepts in graphic design, and it's totally unique to typography. It doesn't mean colours like blue or red; because that sort of colour is not considered in typography the word colour is used for something different.

I'll try to explain it to you. Let's say you've designed the capital E, as above. You want to design the F next. So you would adapt the E to create the F, for you're certainly not going to start from scratch. You'd remove the bottom leg and its serifs, sure. But that's not all you have to do. Oh no, this is where it gets tricky. By removing the bottom leg you leave a gaping hole in the design and the F will therefore seem emptier than the E. This is partially the black:white ratio and partially the overall balance of the design. No bottom leg means that the E will seem thicker and bolder than the F, and so is said to have a 'darker colour' because its impact on the page is greater. Putting the E and its bottom legless counterpart F next to each other would create an uneven colour, because one would be darker than the other. A font needs to have a consistent colour and you need to be aware that you set the colour the moment you draw that first letter.


Here we see some letters from the font Futura, mentioned above. The E is on the left, in grey and we see that the designer has changed the F slightly by squishing it to become thinner than the F. Squishing the F increases the black:white ratio so it is roughly similar to that of the E, and thus the two are at even colour. Other good ways of evening F colour are lowering the middle arm to fill up the empty space at the bottom, and increasing the size of the base serifs on the stem to fill up the space and make the letter more stable-looking.

On the right we can see an example of even colour in circular letterforms. The O is nearly a perfect circle with a consistent line width, but in adapting the O to form a G we're altering the colour. For example, we are adding some weight into the centre of the bowl (inside circle), and we also have an opening in the outside wall. To fix this, the designer of Futura has kept the left side of the G's bowl the same as the O, but has moved the right side into the centre. This offsets the lighter colour and form we may get when we open up the O to form the G.

Bear in mind that you have to do this to every single letter so they have the same colour as every other letter in the font. Time consuming is an understatement.

Kerning and leading. This is the most boring and the most fiddly part of font designing, and it also takes up the most time. It's closely related to colour and relates to the impact of the fonts on the paper and the ratio between black and white on the page, the colour of the font. Kerning is all about working out how much space should go in between certain letters. You can't just specify one space width (as in a monospaced font), because then you'd have big problems. For example, setting a width for OQ may be OK for OQ, but if you apply that to the space between JL it'll be way too small. JL has two verticals next to each other, which take up a lot of space, so more space (or kerning) is needed between the letters to stop it looking too congested.

Similarly, if you have LJ, you'd need to reduce the kerning a lot because L has a wide open right half and J has a wide open left half, thus the area between them would be very empty with standard OQ kerning. You'd need to change the kerning to be much shorter. Normally we'd call this character spacing, but kerning also accommodates for exceptions such as AV. A can fit into V and vice versa, so the space between them can be a bit shorter... but not too short to be congested! This directly affects your character design, because as much as you may like to make a Q with a massive swash coming from the bottom of the bowl, if you're typing QJ or QM then your swash is going to be tricky for kerning. You could fit it under other characters, but you'd have to then change those characters for their colour would be adapted by the swash underneath. Yeah, bummer, I know.

Leading - the fancy word for line spacing pronounced 'ledding' - is just like this but hopefully not as complex. Once again, this affects your character designs because Q and J could have really long terminals/swashes that mess up leading by whacking into the line beneath. Similarly, accents on top of blocky letters like Î and Ü are a problem because they may interfere with the line above.

Kerning and leading are the two most annoying parts of typography, and most type design programs can do it automatically nowadays - but beware, they're not always perfect, and poor kerning shows. It really does. The number of times I've seen a poorly kerned font, it's saddening. For example, the stylish sans-serif I downloaded from the internet named 'Hit the Road' has a wonderful R-form but the kerning in some of its letter pairs is disgraceful. Sure, get the computer to do it, but then check over afterwards. I find if I blur my eyes I can see bad colour and kerning better.

So yeah, that's what I've been up to. E, L and now F. Still working on the base serifs of F, they're tricky. Tricky colour, too.

~John

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