December 2017 – January 2018

The Nation Reviewed

The new Grotesque

By Patrick Witton
How the Monthly changed its typeface

When it was decided earlier this year that the Monthly would undergo a redesign – from the masthead down – there were meetings. Ideas were floated, perceptions were questioned, things were said, and (as always happens when discussing concepts) hand gestures intensified. For 12 years the magazine had ostensibly looked the same; changes thus far had been incremental – a drop cap here, a dinkus there. This time, however, even the typefaces were to be refreshed: a change from Baskerville to Garamond for the text you’re reading now, and a brand-new creation – dubbed Schwartz Grotesque – for titles and pull quotes.

Discussing overall design is one thing, but when it comes to the particulars of a typeface (the general look of a character set) or a font (the particular size and “weight” of those characters), nomenclature usage peaks. It’s in this realm that language does a 580-year U-turn and people start talking of “bevels”, “ligatures”, “pothooks”, “barbs”, “spurs” and “frakturs”. It is a world dominated by the likes of Hermann Zapf (of Palatino fame) and Paula Scher (to whom even design schools turn when they want a new look). Here, the elements of a bygone era’s machinery-filled, inky factory mesh with those of today’s pixel-precise desktop.

The skill in designing a typeface is twofold: making a statement with the shape of the letters without detracting from the words that they create. As Simon Garfield writes in his comprehensive paean Just My Type (set in Sabon MT ), a typeface “should merely pull you in; once it has created the desired atmosphere it does well to slink away, like the host at a party”.

“Look at me and ignore me” is not easy to get right, but it is dreadfully easy to get wrong, as the scientists who discovered the Higgs boson in 2012 found out when they made their historic presentation in the much-derided Comic Sans. One Twitter user likened it to “playing JS Bach on a ukulele”.

What’s more, any word-processing program boasts a drop-down menu of hundreds of typefaces: old, new and ridiculous. This is, as Garfield says, “the spill of history”, and surely includes a style for any situation, from baby-shower invitations to ransom notes.

With this in mind, Fabian Harb, who was tasked to design the Monthly’s new typeface, knew that it was necessary not to reinvent the wheel but to echo and enliven that which had gone before.

Dinamo, Harb’s type foundry in Basel, Switzerland, looks about as unfoundryish as a business can: a shopfront housing long desks and white walls, with nary a crucible of molten metal. From here he has worked with business partner Johannes Breyer on typefaces for British record label Warp and the Estonian pavilion at the Venice Biennale. For the Monthly’s new look, the cheery 30-year-old’s starting point was a typeface called Times Gothic, which he describes as “a realist sans serif by classification, and one of the earliest Grotesques”. These are the family of solid, headline-friendly designs that became popular in the early 20th century as newspaper publishing technology expanded. Harb originally thought Times Gothic had a connection to the more famous Times New Roman, cut in 1931 for London’s Times newspaper, but some archive-digging at the Klingspor Museum of book art and typography, just outside of Frankfurt, revealed that Times Gothic pre-dated Times New Roman by at least two decades.

Where the design for the Monthly’s typeface departs from Times Gothic, Harb explains, is in its “diametric angled terminals” – the endpoints of lines in a letter’s design (the base of a “t”, for example) are cut on an angle in harmony with the rest of the letter. Giving a letter this treatment “opens up the counters [the open area within a letter, such as the white round of a ‘d’] and increases readability”. He points out that there is already so much complexity embedded in the alphabet – “boring letters like ‘I’, ‘l’ or ‘o’ are sitting in between crazy and dynamic ones” – that a poor design, one that doesn’t consider all elements, would too easily “make you feel and read the typeface more than the words and the content”.

His design for the Monthly aimed to be a little on the heavy side – firm and sturdy. To achieve this, he increased the contrast a little in comparison to its historic reference, giving the new typeface a “mechanical character”.

And it is at this stage that Harb’s descriptions move from dispassionate appearance to concepts of personality and behaviour. He hopes the typeface has a “feel of honesty and self-consciousness – that it doesn’t do any tricks to make itself look any better than it is”.

For readers, this new typeface may catch their eye, and perhaps be jarring initially, but if its presence eventually bows to allow the text to perform its role, then the objective will have been met. As Paula Scher famously (in certain circles) said, “Words have meaning and type has spirit, and the combination is spectacular.”

Patrick Witton

Patrick Witton is The Monthly’s production editor.

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