The National Geographic

This week I’ve been obsessed with Foreday by the DSType Foundry and the reason why is quite extraordinary: I think it might be the first variable font where the options aren’t just font weight or the width of the characters. Instead, you can choose whether you have a sans or a serif typeface and change it on the fly.

Here, take a peek:

Speaking of variable fonts (by the way should we capitalize ‘Variable Fonts’? It seems somewhat more Interesting and Important if we do and I like the feeling that somehow this new technology was Divined or Given to us from Above), apparently there’s a way to enable Variable Font Tooling in Firefox. I’ve yet to check it out but it’s amazing to see how much time Mozilla is putting into developer tools for making fonts work right on the web.

This week I’ve also been thinking a lot about Geograph by Kris Sowersby, although sadly I missed an event where he talked about some of his recent work at the Medium HQ here in San Francisco (which was an excellent talk by all accounts). Regardless of that, a while back he published his design notes about the process of building a new type system for the National Geographic and one point that caught my attention was this bit:

We stand, it is often said, on the shoulders of giants. This is especially true in contemporary typeface design — and it’s a reminder of the importance of looking backwards before forging on. It’s relatively easy to construct a timeline of typefaces over five centuries, yet I find it difficult to imagine the culture and worldview of typeface designers from the 1930s, 1730s, 1530s. It’s difficult to assess the typographic historicity. Looking at digital scans of typeface specimens somehow equalises them. Their specific temporality and regionality fade away, while their forms become more present. It feels like the past is a singular thing, collapsed and flattened. The relentless updating of the internet both exacerbates and normalises this feeling.

I think this is also because of what the internet has done to our culture in general; no longer do we have these island pockets of distinctly French, German, or Turkish typefaces. Instead we’re all messing around in the same playground and fooling around with the same toys.

Anyway, back to Geograph, I think the design is interesting simply because of all the alternate character shapes that were designed to change the flavor of the text depending on the situation:

Besides adding a brand new typographic system to their palette, National Geographic also commissioned Tal Leming of Type Supply fame to redesign the nameplate. In a short post about that process, Tal describes some of the decisions he made along the way, too. Including the design of a rather rare RA ligature:

Oh yeah, about the RA ligature. So, reintroducing the concave leg presented a problem. There was a large amount of space between the R and the A in the 1959 nameplate. The concave leg of the R in the new nameplate introduced even more space. It started to read as “GEOGR APHIC” which isn’t what I was going for. I tried all sorts of stuff before before accidentally overlapping the serif on the A with the leg of the R. “Oh. That could work.” I wish I could claim that it was the result of some sort of brilliant insight, but it just happened.

I love that ligature so dang much.