I remember the first time I read Rainer Marie Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. It was recommended to me by a dear writer friend of mine, and I distinctly recall it changing the way I viewed the creative process. What I consider to be the most pivotal passage went something like this (pardon my inexact paraphrasing):
“The most important thing is to wake up in the morning and ask yourself, ask your soul, must I write? If I don’t, will I die?”I grapple with this question often, and in all that I do.
I had never been in the position to give such advice, but recently, an student studying graphic design in Germany contacted me to ask a few questions about type.
Recently, I was contacted by a design-minded German philosophy student named Anton. His questions were thorough and thought-provoking. And I knew upon reading them that they would require equally honest and thorough responses.
With his permission, I publish them here, because I think both his questions and my answers contain some information that may be helpful or interesting. Also, I was touched by the work he put into his letters, and I was proud to have the opportunity to correspond with him.
Keep in mind, I am by no means attempting to create such a hierarchy between myself and this student as that which we may place between Rilke and whomever he was writing to. I merely preface this with a nod to the German master because it was from his sage wisdom that I was inspired to honor this student’s sincere questioning by offering as much as I could by way of research and detail.
Our (mostly) unedited correspondence follows.
Anton’s First LetterDear Nick,
By doing some web research into buying typefaces, I came across your website which has not just some excellent information about types, but is also very nicely presented. However, I did not quite find a answer to my question.
I am not a professional designer or anything like that, but merely a student who likes to present his work better than others because I believe that a) it matters, and b) I cannot help being enchanted by particular typefaces, and hate to settle for anything that I consider aesthetically inferior, simply because it is for free.
What I am looking for is hence not a full set of every stroke width of a typeface, but rather a package of ‘general typefaces’ that programmes like Microsoft Word tend to avoid, or replace original ones with their own versions (e.g., instead of Palatino they use Book Antigua, instead of Helvetica, Arial). I was particularly looking for the great standard typefaces that are not included such as Futura, Palatino/Aldus etc. Do you know if there are well-priced non-professional packages out there, that would not instantly go above 200 dollars or so, or do you have to buy them separately after all?
I would be grateful for any advice.
PS – I had once tried to get to grasps with the rather famous ‘Elements of [Typographic Style]‘ and although it is very good, I was wondering if you could recommend any more basic text on the subject as many books just seem overloaded or confused in their agenda.
My ResponseHi, Anton.
Thanks for getting in touch. And thank you for the kind words. It feels great to put a lot of work into something and to have someone appreciate it.
I can definitely appreciate your taste for type, and agree about not settling for the often inferior world of free type. I think I’m confused, however, about what it is exactly that you’re looking for. I’m wondering for starters if you’re using a PC or a Mac. If you’re using a Mac, you’ve got a world of wonderful type already at your fingertips. Hoefler Text, Myriad, Minion, Helvetica Neue and others are already licensed for use with OS X. If you’re on a PC (which I’m guessing you are if you’re asking about Futura, which also comes with OS X), your situation is a bit more complicated, but take heart. It will also make you a much more disciplined user of type.
If I had one suggestion for you, I would say that it pays to acquaint yourself well with a single family of type. That is, rather than looking for a package of general typefaces, I would say choose one. For what you might spent on such a package, you could get one single family and use it well. (Note that I don’t know of any packages of “general typefaces,” and if any existed, they likely wouldn’t be worth the money.) Consider this: The publication 8Faces is founded on the idea that professional designers need no more than eight typefaces. Eight. For a whole career! Consider for this purpose a family like Scala Sans, which comes in a number of weights (though I do wish it had a semibold, but that’s another topic) and is extremely versatile.
You might wonder why I’m encouraging you to buy a family, rather than a set of disparate typefaces, as you had asked. There are many reasons. The first is that, at some point or another, you’re going to have to pair type, as in the instance of typesetting headlines in one face and body copy and another. If all you’ve got is a varied bunch of type, your chances of pairing type skillfully will be decreased, whereas if you use, say, the bold weight of a single typeface for a headline and the regular or roman weight for body, you’ve got guaranteed beauty built in.
Ultimately, I’d have to know more about what you’re using your type for to suggest good type for your application. Otherwise, I could take a few stabs in the dark about things that might meet your needs. If you’re on a budget, consider a type foundry like Exljbris, who offers entire families of wonderful type for right around $100. That’s a lot of money, but as you implied, great type costs money. (Another great thing about Exljbris is that he gives away a free weight in each family.)
In a nutshell, Anton, I would say that a package of general type wouldn’t be worth it. Great type is like a great suit. Definitely spend the money on even a single one of quality, rather than a plethora of mediocrity. This, after all, seems to speak to your desire (of not using aesthetically inferior products).
Maybe I’m not getting to your question. Feel free to write back and name some specific instances in which you’d be using said type, and I’d be happy to suggest good type for that application.
Finally, some book recommendations. If you’re looking for something more digestible than Bringhurst’s Elements (although I’d argue that’s the only book on type you need), Matthew Butterick’s Typography for Lawyers is as accessible as it is practical. Also, Ellen Lupton’s Thinking With Type is a perennial favorite. (Note that a great deal of the content is available online for free!)
Make sure to write back if I’ve misunderstood you or you have further questions.
Warmest regards, Nick
Anton Writes Back
Thanks so much for your very informative answer. I am actually a Mac user, but have a rather old Macbook (6 years ago, maybe it wasn’t yet called a Macbook back then?) which comes equipped with some of the fonts you have pointed out, but lacking in others.
The biggest problem though is the reason you did not recommend ’packages.‚ I have Futura – but it’s of no use for setting text, due to its weight. I’d need Futura Bk for that. Similarly, I find that Palatino is not really good for setting text, either. So you are absolutely right, instead of getting many typefaces in their most basic variation, it would be a better idea to invest into one that you can actually adapt to the purpose.
Here is my first question: if may not be the most contemporary font, but I always quite liked Palatino. However, if I am not mistaken, the font Hermann Zapf created for text at the time was Aldus. However, there seems to be a Palatino Nova, that also has thin & text weights. I am not sure how familiar you are with the typeface, but if so, do you know if it is actually merely a more contemporary replacement, or is a new typeface that shares its name?
I also must thank you for the link to Exljbris, particularly since they offer one free weight, to get a feeling of the actual typeface. I was completely unfamiliar with the foundry, but then I don’t know many besides the obvious big ones. The one thing that I am never sure of, not being a designer or typesetter is how non-standard typefaces are perceived? Surely, one would think that typefaces are estimated according to their aesthetic value. But I feel that this might not always be the case.
To elaborate on your fashion example. Not merely does a well-cut suit cost you a certain amount of money, but the best cuts are usually seen to come from few, established ’houses‚ at any given point in time with promising newcomers merely seen as those who have the potential to join their ranks one day. Is it similar with typeface? Are their any current trends worth noting? To continue on the example: although fashion may be diverse there is an obvious trend in the past 5 years that blazers have become shorter and the fit tighter with slimmer lapels and ties to go with them: in short, very much a look akin to the early 60s.
The only trend I’ve noticed is the use of slab serifs. But this may be a subjective phenomenon and not actually account to where typography is actually at. Again, as my intention to buy suggests, I am somewhat of a ’classicist’ and believe that a good typeface will be good, if not forever, at least for a very long time. But I would still like to see whats happening at this moment. Are there actually any up and coming typefaces that, as a designer, you would recommend taking a look at?
Thanks again and best wishes,
My Final Response
I admire how much work and thought you’ve clearly put into your questions and comments. I’ll do my best to do your work justice. Here goes.
For starters, I’ve never quite understood why Palatino has such a bad wrap. I may be alone, but I think it’s one of Zapf’s better faces. We see a lot of Zapfino and Optima nowadays, and I’m pretty fed up with both. But Palatino still has some charm to me. I wouldn’t blame you, however, if you find that it isn’t good for setting text. I’d wonder what type of text you’re setting, but I have a few faces I’d recommend. If you’re looking for something that has the character of Palatino, but is more versatile (and perhaps more reputable), let’s look at some type history.
Palatino is a Renaissance face. (You might hear it referred to as ‘Old Style,’ but I prefer Renaissance, which is more descriptive.) These faces are based on the 15th century writings of scribes using a broad nib pen. Some of the digital revivals of this kind of type are really exquisite today, and are the result of a great deal of research and design. I’ll give you two of my favorite suggestions in this category.
The first is Jonathan Hoefler’s Requiem. Hoefler designed this particular typeface when he was 22, which still blows my mind on an almost daily basis. It’s distributed by Hoefler & Frère-Jones, and if you’re looking for sophisticated type, you can’t do any better. Their craft and attention to detail is nothing short of extraordinary. Requiem in particular has a number of features that add to its versatility. For example, it has optical sizes, which means that the letter proportions are slightly different depending on if you’re setting small text, running text, or display text. It also has some gorgeous decorative ligatures in its italic. It’s just a gorgeous and highly usable typeface that will last you a lifetime.
Minion is another excellent Renaissance face. Since you’re on a Mac, I would check and see if this is already on your machine. Minion has been bundled with OS X for a number of years, and you get quite a broad selection of weights and styles (regular, medium, semibold, bold, and bold condensed and their italics). If not, you can purchase a solid set for about what you’d pay for Requiem. It doesn’t quite have the lavish charm of Requiem, but it works just as hard. (To boot, it was what Slimbach chose to typeset The Elements of Typographic Style, so you’d be hard pressed to find much fault with it.)
Either of these faces would meet your needs for setting text quite well. But I only suggest them because you mentioned Palatino. If you’re looking for something sans-serif for text, you could always go with Erik Spiekermann’s iconic Meta, or one of my personal favorites, Martin Majoor’s lovely and legible Scala Sans. The entire packages of both of these fonts are pricey, but you could get a really long way with just a regular and bold and their italics. The reason for this is that new advances in digital type technology allow a greater number of glyphs per font, so these sets combine what used to be a number of fonts (one for small capitals, a few for different types of numbers, etc.).
I understand your concern about passing trends in type, but, as in the case of the Renaissance typefaces I mentioned earlier, much of the type we use now has been beautiful for 500 years. It’s definitely not going anywhere. That said, there are a number of new foundries cropping up, and talented type designers are everywhere. (Check out Type Together and Canada Type, for just a few examples.) Let’s stick with the fashion metaphor, which serves us well. Ultimately, a number of the faces I’ve suggested are like Burberry. Many of their garments retain the look and feel of what was produced around the turn of the century. Beautiful textiles in extremely detailed cuts. Type is the same way. The reputation that typographers like Hoefler & Frère-Jones and Erik Spiekermann have made for themselves will outlast our typesetting days. Quality type is an investment, but you can rest assured that nothing you buy that I’ve recommended will go out of style.
Regards and happy typesetting, Nick