TDi: Type Design Summer Course Day 2

This is the second post in a series of articles covering my week attending the TDi summer course in Reading. Read the Day One.

Things are getting more and more interesting. Today we are narrowing the focus from the general history of type and general get-to-knowing the Non-Latin scripts to historical causes that led to the forms we have today, with an accent to variety and stylistic and functional inventions.

There are so many things going on that I’m again sharing just various (unstructured) bits that I find relevant from a web design perspective.

Key Considerations for Non-Latin Letterforms with Dr. Fiona Ross

Indian scripts are left to right, but all letters are unicase. They are not uniform or dull though, as we’ve been shown an Indian 18th century manuscript that features quite interesting flourishes (swashes). So it is possible to introduce a bit of style in an Indian typeface.

Arabic and Indian have the same set of problems like the Latin scripts (kerning, spacing, legibility), but these are much more amplified probably because the spacing is so delicate. Most of the time, Non-Latin scripts were simplified in form because of the printing process (think Linotype / Monotype machines), which also influenced how certain glyphs connected to one another, sometimes breaking the authenticity of the script. This is the legacy that has to be taken into consideration when designing the more authentic Non-Latin typeface.

Non-Latin type design issues:

  • character set
  • extra-wide characters
  • complex characters
  • tiered scripts
  • kerning requirements
  • joining and non-joining
  • reading directions
  • multi-level or base jumps
  • positioning of sub- an super-scripts
  • special spacing requirements
  • composing methods
  • software requirements

Calligraphy class with Ewan Clayton

This was a very practical workshop held by Ewan Clayton. We’ve used more than a dozen of A3 sheets for various calligraphic exercises, from simple straight lines with variable nib angles, to dozens of ways to end a stroke (hint: serifs and swashes), to simple loops, to writing a complete glyph with a single gesture.

Clayton draws a beautiful parallel between Roman Empire collapse around 200 CE (common era) and the Roman script becoming less organised and emphasises the development of “national / regional” less standardised scripts in areas that used to be under the much tighter influence of Rome. 50 BCE the time of great civil wars, the time of Julius Caesar. The war spreads to Egypt. Cleopatra is the queen of Egypt. At that moment everything Egyptian is fashionable in Rome. And in that period we can notice modulated thickness (modulation in strokes).

The simplest choice for modulating the thickness is using broad slanted nib. The “rustic family” of Roman letters have thick upward moving horizontal strokes (mostly influenced by the increased speed of writing), while more formal writing emphasises downstrokes.

Clayton explains the reasoning behind the width of certain letters in Roman capitals. Letters with lots of verticals like M or W should be designed a little wider. Letters with a lot of horizontals like E or F or S should be designed a little narrower. With curves in O or C we have to compensate for the optical illusion, so these have to slightly overshoot the baseline at the bottom and the cap heigh at the top. Most of us know this in theory, but when you actually try it, you quickly learn that the things are not that straight forward.

Here comes the mind blowing part. Lowercase letters were simply the super-fast versions of uppercase letters developed from 200 CE to 500 CE. Again, you know that in theory, but we’ve witnessed Clayton’s demonstration of transition from a perfect uppercase letter to the lowercase version. It’s absolutely amazing how everything falls into its place after you see how the increased speed changes the shape of the letter. That was another proof that form follows function.

Pro tip #1: Padded surface for calligraphy enables connection with the material. As Clayton explained, placing the nib on a surface is the same as landing a spaceship. You want the angles perfectly aligned. Experienced calligraphers use leather, but I was suggested to just use a paper tissue underneath the sheet of paper I was writing on — along with an encouraging remark: “You’ll enjoy much more”. And I did! It really felt different.

Pro tip #2: Writing on a table vs. writing on a drawing board: you have to refill the ink every two letters when writing on a table because gravity does its thing. On the other hand, you can write half a line when writing on a vertical surface, because the ink flows out of the pen at a much slower and more even pace.

W.A. Dwiggins with Gerard Unger

Once again Unger took us on a trip to history and showcased the work of William Addison Dwiggins, a famous type and graphic designer from the beginning of the 20th century. Dwiggins established the Society of Calligraphers and wrote the “Layout in Advertising” (still relevant today) among many other things.

Probably the most interesting of Dwiggins’ inventions was the M-formula (as in Marionette). That’s basically using hard angles (instead of the soft ones) to tame the light and produce the optically well pronounced end result.

“If Dwiggins can do it, you can do it” — Unger commented on mixing serifs in a lowercase “h” and adding an M-formula angle.


Everyone in the group is pretty engaged, so we are not missing discussions about typography, design in general and of course the cultural differences (including everyone’s favourite topic about each nation’s most disgusting swear). It’s super important to discover and share stories and realise that there are other cool people out there that can understand your pains and inspire you to move forward.

Read next: Day 3

Marko Dugonjić is a designer specialized in user experience design, web typography and web standards. He runs a nanoscale user interface studio Creative Nights and organizes FFWD.PRO, a micro-conference and workshops for web professionals.

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