The Mystery of Steile Futura (Topic)

Stephen Coles's picture

Hello friends. I'm perpetually in love with Paul Renner's Steile Futura (AKA Bauer Topic or URW Topic). I'm hoping those with type book collections can help me out with more information on its history and design. Digital versions are available from a few vendors, but none divulge any more than the number of weights and a price.

Digital Versions
URW Topic at MyFonts
URW Topic at FontShop
URW Topic at URW++
Steile Futura BQ at Berthold

Renner article at mentions a design date of 1953–55
Renner bio at Linotype mentions design date of 1952.

Reinterpretations and Followers
Tasse (Guy J. Nelson) This is the closest to a revival but strangely omits the italics which are the most interesting aspect of the original.
Solex (Zuzanna Licko)
Pakenham (Ray Larabie)
Hybrid (Simon Schmidt)

In Use
L.A. Obscura: The Architectural Photography of Julius Shulman
"The War Within" movie poster
"A Girl Named Zippy" book cover
H.N. Werkman book cover

Thanks for your help. I don't have Burke's Renner biography. Anything in there?

billtroop's picture

Guys, Charles Leonard has just posted a page of Renner's drawings which says more about the process by which a great type is made than any other piece of historical material I have ever seen.

How can you look at this unbelievable artefact that history has most unexpectedly vouchsafed us, and remain silent?

We have here the most unexpected window into the type-creation process we are ever likely to be able to look through. Doesn't that mean anything to you?

Have any of you any sense of the huge gulf that separates Renner's drawings from the finished type? Can you imagine the thousands of steps, the endless hours of thought, the anxious hours of discussion that must have transpired before this gap was filled?

What Charles posted is by far the most informative thing I have ever seen about Renner or any other type designer period. And not to rake up a pointless issue, but ... what does it say about a writer who must have encountered this material (if he didn't, he had no business writing the book at all), and who doesn't even mention it in a book that is so unremittingly and bafflingly lifeless? This was his moment to turn on the juice to say something that was actually informative, actually engaging. But no, he was probably more worried about how his type would look on the pages. Has anyone considered how very oddly self-serving it is to write a tribute to a great type designer and not use one of that type designer's types to set it in? No, instead, one uses a completely unrelated type of one's own. Is one writing a tribute to Renner, or an advertisement for one's type?

In my opinion Charles's image is the most important thing ever to be posted on Typophile or any other type blog or listserve.

I was thinking of posting some images to illustrate my uncertainties about fitting the font (I think it is too loose in metal but I have probably made it too tight in my present version) and the question of cap height, but I have been so blown away by this image that I think my past meanderings in trying to come to grips with Steile Futura are simply irrelevant.

Here are some of the basic questions that need to be answered:

What is the date of these drawings?

Are there other drawings, drawings from later stages, even from earlier stages?

Who is responsible for the final design? Did Renner effect the transformation between sketch and finished type himself, without outside intervention from the foundry? That seems unlikely, but it is possible. How can we learn more about this? What material is known to exist? Is there extant correspondence? Has any type historian read it? Is that type historian fluent in German or .... ?

What happens when we try to analyze what we have on hand - the sketch and the finished type? Can we see a logical path of development? Can we see some inevitable process taking place? Is there a demonstrable logic in the transition? Do we have a good idea of why the changes were made? If we do, we may ask ourselves if they are self-evident? Can we assume that Renner too knew they were self-evident? If that was the case, why didn't he just design the face that way from the start? Do we know anything of Renner's intentions with regard to these sketches? Did he mean them to survive? Was this a case analogous to the Bruckner symphony, where Bruckner's editors insisted on hundreds of changes and simplifications which Bruckner in unutterable despair gave in to, all the while saving a manuscript of the original, marked 'for posterity' ? Did Renner intend this sketch to show posterity what he would have done if only he had been allowed? Or was this sketch an unimportant doodle to him, something unwittingly preserved by the foundry? Was the sketch intended to represent foundational characters, or did someone ask for possible alternates and did Renner then provide this?

I have a postulate which could perhaps be tested. That Renner presented this sketch to the foundry as something he thought they could and should do. The foundry then came back to him and said, we can't do this, this and that, for this, this and that technical reasons. It is not possible in metal type. Instead, we suggest that you do this, this and that instead, to comply with our technical limitations. (They have aesthetic objections too, perhaps, but of course they don't mention them to Renner, as Bill was not working for Bauer at the time . . . .)

Is it possible that that is what happened? Can we illustrate it based on the material we have here? For instance, by making a little mini font of the sketches and seeing how they fit together, and respecting metal limitations? Or just by making duplicates of the characters, and pasting them into words, as used to be done routinely to 'proof' type sketches before font software was invented?

dezcom's picture

I can understand and appreciate everything in your last post. I agree that the material posted by Charles is really exciting and far more worthy of discussion than most anything I have seen to date.


Nick Shinn's picture

DeWitt, thanks for confirming my memory!


Chris Burke's "Renner" is one of my favourite books on typography. I particularly like its scope -- the way Burke relates so many aspects of Renner's life and times to his type designs, and its depth -- discussing issues like National Socialism and blackletter, and Renner's take on modernism. It is also a nicely designed book with many illustrations and specimens, superb production values, set in Burke's own Celeste and Celeste Footnote, with thorough index, footnotes, etc.

I contacted Mr Burke on a visit to the UK a few years ago, and he was gracious enough to have lunch with me and show me round the typography department at Reading University.

billtroop's picture

Nick, to understand what a biogaphy of a person living through the Weimar, Nazi, and post-Nazi eras could and should be like, why not take a look at Gitta Sereny's 'Albert Speer: His Struggle With Truth' a book which quite incidentally also makes a couple of instructive though subtle typesetting points. Sereny points the way to anyone who aspires to biography of anyone in that period and will give you an idea of the kind of exciting reading experience that you have a right to expect to occur when a biogapher is really knowledgeable about and really engaged with her subject. Speaking, off-topic, of subtle typographical points, Nick, can you tell us why Celeste footnote is a bad example of optically corrected design? (I am assuming that you have outgrown your Richler period, and I have concluded that this is the only interesting question CB's book raises.) Chris, I don't need to write a biography of Renner - Charles Leonard has already said what most needs to be said, most elegantly, most economically, merely by posting a one-page scan.

May I say that I am extremely bored by the evidence here of intemperate worship at the altar of a minor and most unlikely god-figure called Chris Burke? The depth of high-falutin moral outrage on display here is astounding. Did you guys spend so much energy when the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas in Afghanistan? When the remaining ATF material was dispersed? When the Imprimerie Nationale was endangered - still a current concern?

So I ask: what do you want to do with your time: blather, or try to think through the issues that have been presented here, which, entirely incidentally, and quite unimportantly, do not reflect well on the Apostle of Reading. Life is very short. I would rather talk about something important. And read good books.

k.l.'s picture

I am a bit amused about the question, if Renner or the foundry is to be considered the "author". (I exaggerate a bit, but this seems the essence of your post.)

There has always been the conflict between type designer and foundry. A good foundry, past and present, deals critically with the type designer's work. Sometimes the type designer worries about this, sometimes the typeface profits from the foundries expertise -- sometimes both at the same time. :) I would be irritated if a typeface would NOT develop inbetween drawing and release! So I really don't understand the author question.

At the time when Renner made the Futura, he obviously still was an amateur in type design, being a painter, then typographer first of all. Much of the refinement -- say, thinning round elements as they approach stems -- seems to come from the foundry.
But Renner learned a lot from working with Bauer, and drawings for his later typefaces show this. (And at a time he could complain that a foundry he worked with lacked the expertise he had experienced with Bauer.) My favorites are his later roman typefaces, by the way.

Personal comment:
On the one hand, Renner is known for Futura most of all. (1) Futura indeed seems to own much to Bauer. Then, it seems still unsolved whether the Futura uppercase were by Renner or an architect; I am not up to date and don't know if this is settled now. (2) Futura was not the "new" thing as that it was advertised. Typefaces of this kind were on the marked since 1920, like a "Grotesk" by Wagner & Schmidt in Leipzig, in 1931 issued as "Rund-Grotesk" by C.E. Weber. Unless you know all the internals of foundries -- which seems hard to get hold of -- you cannot really say "which came first". Also, around this time, various design schools taught lettering in the constructive style. This kind of typefaces was "in the air".
(If Futura is interesting, then not for the "innovation" as which it was sold (I consider this to be mere marketing, one shouldn't mistake marketing for historical fact), but for the still very "Germanic" remains in the first versions, like the long-s plus ligatures in this "moderne schrift".)
On the other hand, Renner proved to have become a master only with his later type designs -- which remain unknown. Steile Futura may be one of them; if someone showed you "Topic", would you have thought of Renner? Not to speak of the much better roman typefaces which mostly remained in the drawer.
There is nothing more ironic than history.


billtroop's picture

>if someone showed you “Topic”, would you have thought of Renner?

I can easily answer that honestly with a no. It is outside all norms and precedent. In type, that is. But not in German culture of the 1950s. Take for example Mann's Krull, a contemporaneous work, which is so totally unexpected from just that hand. No doubt there are many much better comparative examples in the painting and literature of that period. That raises again the question of period. Are we to regard Steile as decisively a post-war work? Or does it represent a hidden spring running through the 1930s and 40s which never was allowed to run quite dry, thanks to the protective influence exercised by Speer, who was always trying to live up to Tessenow's expectations?

>Not to speak of the much better roman typefaces which mostly remained in the drawer.

Exactly. The one commissioned by Speer should have been digitised and used to set the Renner book. Why doesn't anyone do anything with it, or at least explore its ideas? Not to mention its particular interest in one of the most daunting tasks in roman typeface design, aesthetically pleasing condensation which is, or should be, very much a green issue. Karsten, has anyone seriously looked into the possibility of digitising these typefaces? Like ... have you thought of doing anything with them? ? (Incidentally, what was Renner's opinion of Walbaum and Walbaum derivatives?)

>There is nothing more ironic than history.

Yes ... to those lucky enough to possess both an irony gene and a history gene. But there are some who don't. One would like to know what Heidegger would have made of Steile Futura. Would he have seen in it some incarnation of the technological era he was describing? That is kind of what Dwiggins, in his skillful PR for Electra, claimed for that face, but it can't really be taken seriously as the typeface remains too influenced by the late 18th century transitionals so admired by Updike, whose influence on Dwiggins cannot be overestimated. Renner's Steile by contrast really does mark a decisive break with the past. One can imagine, going far out on a limb, that Walter Benjamin would have found Steile authentic, Electra not.

Nick Shinn's picture

I am assuming that you have outgrown your Richler period,

I've moved on. OpenType has opened up new areas of interest. I wouldn't say that my Richler typeface is immature, as you imply.

I wonder what kind of work you do. I assume you are involved in font production, rather than design, as your posts often play up the importance of foundry workers in the process of typeface creation.

billtroop's picture

Oh come on Nick, put your ear to the ground if you don't know who I am. Not that it matters what any of us on Typophile 'does'. This is about Steile Futura, not about you or me.

Nick Shinn's picture

Bill, I Googled you, didn't find anything.
You're dissing my work (and Burke's) from behind a shield of anonymity, not revealing what kind of work you do, in your Typophile profile. Show some character, man.

hrant's picture

> The ink traps are completely irrelevant, of course.

Of course. That must have been a moron moment on their part, eh?
Oh, and you don't see the traps in any of the printing? Hmmm, I wonder why.

That said, besides your historic mental block concerning trapping,
the excitement you're showing here and the questions you're asking
are definitely needed. (And I won't bother to ask you to treat people
more fairly and with an open mind.)

Another quick thing: I like Richler.


billtroop's picture

Nick, rather than googling, why don't you call Matthew Carter, Sumner Stone, Frank Blokland, Robert Slimbach, Hermann Zapf, etc. and find out who I am and 'what I do.'

Now could we get back on-Topic, please?

Here's how my involvement started.

Back in 1994 when Jeff Level and I were forming Adagio Type (Jeff, as you will recall, is the guy who Robert Norton in 'Types Best Remembered/Best Forgotten' said had the best eye for type in the industry), we were very interested in Topic. Jeff (who gave Robert Slimbach his first job when he was the director of the type department at Autologic) was then working for Precision Type, and used the Font Company version for an order form that was quite a brilliant piece of design. But the spacing on the FC version (which is identical to the one URW sells today) was so bad that he had to hand kern each single word. So one of the many ideas we had was to revise Topic, which we thought only needed a quick fix.

It needed (1) a complete refitting and (2) in Jeff's perhaps overly-Aldine-influenced opinion, less tall caps.

This was a project that over 12 years I kept on returning to. The first obstacle was fixing the digitisation, which was really rough. That took some time. The second problem was redesigning all the non-basic-set characters, like the ligs, quotes, and all the symbols, because FC had used generic, Helvetica-like characters, not the real thing. But getting into Renner's head is not a part-time job.

This was something I did bit by bit, between other projects, whenever there was time, never giving it a solid slot of a few months to itself.

Several years ago, Phan Nguyen became interested in the project, and gave me his original brochures and other artwork, because he was convinced that there were fundamental flaws in the FC design (based on a VGC photo master) that I was not considering. I of course took that seriously, but I still thought the VGC master was good enough.

Now I look at where I am now and I am seeing some painful things.

1. I overcorrected on the fitting, which makes the font I have unusable at under 50 points or so.

2. Phan was right. There are a lot of problems in the artwork I was following. You see many weight problems amongst the individual characters. You see many problems when you compare it closely to the metal, which I have only recently begun seriously to do, and you also, at last, begin to see some faults in the metal that you would like to fix.

One problem I have going forward is that I don't have complete character sets in sizes above 24 points or so. It would be nice to have a complete set in the largest size - was it 80? But there are so many other problems. You can see why I am reluctant to take this further on.

Here's a sample showing FC/URW's data in red, and mine, based on Renner, in blue, at 780 points:

Stephen Coles's picture

Great stuff, Bill. I am not an expert in this arena, but it looks like the FC/URW cuts some corners, shows more evidence of digital/Bezier?

Do your other glyphs have the rounded/soft corners? Is this because yours is based on a master of a different size?

billtroop's picture

>it looks like the FC/URW cuts some corners, shows more evidence of digital/Bezier?

My instinct is to say the simplification must have occurred in the VGC photo conversion. My reasoning is that the FC work was done in Ikarus and the conversion to PS does not seem to me to have been radically simplified. But anything is possible.

I haven't done enough analysis of the size variations to come to any definite conclusions. I was hoping to avoid having to round off the corners because I seem to have spent my entire adult life rounding off corners in a hundred different typefaces, and it seems like such a waste of time in the greater scheme of things. Yet when it really comes down to it, I don't like supersharp corners in this typeface, I think it causes too much exaggeration. What do you think? I would really love to hear some persuasive arguments in favour of sharp corners. I've done my time on round corners.

k.l.'s picture

A bit belated -- I am not sure if I want to know what Heidegger or Benjamin had to say about a particular typeface. You could ask the shop assistant next door as well. Never inquire philosophers about arts.

has anyone seriously looked into the possibility of digitising these typefaces?

It would be nice to have a book which presents them. To enjoy looking at them, and to study how Renner approached certain design problems. (Like the great Schneidler book which is itself an amazing object.) But to revive them? They are period pieces. Right now I have much more sympathy for typefaces like Freight; it combines type history without being just a revival of anything particular, that is, it does not imitate individual letterforms, but addresses specific problems in a way which tells me that its designer knows something about type history.

but it looks like the FC/URW cuts some corners, shows more evidence of digital/Bezier?

Softening corners is a bezier characteristic. But FC/URW hints to Ikarus which uses circle-segments for curve description -- which have their own characteristics. :)


franzheidl's picture

sorry, double posted.

franzheidl's picture

It's getting interesting again.
Did somebody already have the chance to compare the digitizings on the market, esp. URWs vs. Berthold?

Miss Tiffany's picture

Bill as you continue this project do you think you will have text and display versions? Sorry if you mentioned this elsewhere, but I didn't read this. I really do prefer the rounded details/corners for smaller type, but when it comes to display I like to have a choice. I think the sharp corners often look wrong in text fonts. The corners disappear too soon.

First time I saw this typeface it did remind me of Renner, but only because I was already familiar with Futura Display. Maybe another thread could discuss it.

billtroop's picture

>I think the sharp corners often look wrong in text fonts. The corners disappear too soon.

That's an interesting observation and I support it, but obsessing with the corners does seem to triple your development time. It also leads you into all kinds of dicey digitisation choices. It is also interesting and unconventional that you want a choice with display. Theoretically, you will be scanning text too quickly to notice if there are sharp corners or not (unless you are looking at it with a type designer's eye) while in display you are much more apt to notice this kind of feature.

Whether it's text or display, though, a sharp corner results in all kinds of flaring effects (not on the serifs obviously, but all kinds of other terminal points) that may seem garish and I think that is a particular problem with Steile.

There have always been programs that would round corners, so theoretically you could design with sharp corners to save time, and then round off automatically later, but this has never appealed to me because you are going to have to look at each character anyway to make sure the effect worked the way you wanted it to.

Yes, I would want an optical axis, even if it was pretty simple. (Ideally, all single master fonts would be MMs with a single spacing axis, which would be better than tracking, because you probably want to space out rounds proportionately more than you space out straights as you go down in point size.) There are some great tools in Robofog which can theoretically greatly simplify this kind of development, but I have yet to get them to work. However, the tools are constantly evolving and sooner or later they will.

>as you continue this project

At the rate I am presently going, I would expect someone else to come out with 20 versions first. There is so much to think about. I still haven't really figured out where Steile and Tasse diverge, and why. A lot of intelligent thought went into that project. And there is always the hope that one day a Tasse italic based on Steile will appear. It is a little difficult to compare Steile and Tasse because there is not an exact weight/width match. However, it should be reasonably easy to interpolate one. What really happens with Tasse? What is changed, and why? One reason I am reluctant to put too much focus on Steile is that I keep on hoping that Font Bureau will ultimately release a Tasse italic. I think I remember David Berlow expressing the same wish, and saying it was up to the designer, who I guess is thinking things over. Somebody should contact him and see what is going on.

In the meantime, it would be interesting to hear more comparing Steile to Tasse and comparing Berthold Steile (bold and bold italic only) to FC/URW and to the originals. I seem only to have the low-res version of Berthold Steile, which is not much use for comparisons at the level we are talking about here.

hrant's picture

> you will be scanning text too quickly to
> notice if there are sharp corners or not

Ah, but the relevance of any real text face is always in large
part deeper than conscious "noticing" anyway. The difference
in "mood" conveyed by the effect of sharp or round corners on
the overall texture of a setting is fully half the story (the other
half being pure readability).

> better than tracking, because you probably want to space
> out rounds proportionately more than you space out straights

Not to mention the proper handling of "boundary
conditions" such as the right side of the "r", etc.


Nick Shinn's picture

I would really love to hear some persuasive arguments in favour of sharp corners.

At text size sharp corners, as in your big e post, are eroded by the process of putting ink on paper.

However, one's conception of the typeface is formed as much by inspection of display-size specimens as by reading text.

I would say that unless the sharpness is a broad theme of the face, rather than something which is occasionally an issue for terminal treatment, it's better to take a little off the arris.


The beautiful finish of Renner's drawings creates a lot of problems for typographic interpretation. A similar situation occurs with Oswald Cooper's 1930 sans serif drawings for the "American Alphabets" book, subsequently digitized as Highlander etc. Adrian Frutiger had a different approach, I believe, cutting shapes out of paper.

hrant's picture

> one’s conception of the typeface is formed as much by
> inspection of display-size specimens as by reading text

1) Not when the font is never seen set large.
2) Not when a layman doesn't know it's the same font (and he doesn't).
3) Deliberation and immersion are different animals.
Scale changes everything when it crosses a threshold.


Nick Shinn's picture

Of course, Hrant.
The "one" I was referring to is me/us, the typophile.

hrant's picture

While we should be talking about not us.


Nick Shinn's picture

But someone has to licence and specify the typeface in the first place, and that one will be aware of it in a deliberative manner.
So paradoxically, a face designed for immersive reading still has to look good at display size.
With the best of intentions, it's difficult for typographers to assess a typeface strictly on immersive grounds. This is the general problem all producers face, vis-a-vis users, in that they are overly familiar with the product, and can't perceive it as the user does.

hrant's picture

> someone has to licence and specify the typeface in the first place

Yes, but the good ones do so based on the needs of their users.

> a face designed for immersive reading still has to look good at display size.

Only to please graphic designers who don't know any better.

> it’s difficult for typographers to assess a typeface strictly on immersive grounds



billtroop's picture

... it’s difficult for typographers to assess a typeface strictly on immersive grounds

Yes. ...

And that's why everyone is afraid to do a great small text face, with thousands of kinks, gouges, and traps ... something designed not to look good to a graphic designer, but to use density to convey letter shapes to readers in the most effective way possible. Because it's more than just gouges, traps, etc. Once you really start looking at what's happening in small text, and once you start letting go of making your letters look beautiful, you can really confront what it takes to get things to work at six or seven points. I'm not saying that a small text font has to be ugly when examined at 14 points, but I am saying it is the easiest way to design it, if you can be freed from that pretty-at-14 requirement. That said, Sumner Stone's new 5 point size of Cycles manages to be both functional and not ugly. But that's Sumner.

hrant's picture

What's funny Bill is that one of the very few people who has really
tried to make an unapologetic small text face is... Chris Burke! :-)

> I’m not saying that a small text font has to be ugly when examined at 14 points

I am.


Nick Shinn's picture

everyone is afraid to do a great small text face

Small text faces are not something there's any demand for, except maybe for agate.
Digital work flow, high resolution printing, and being able to "see" small text on a monitor, rather than have to inspect a galley -- these may explain the perception that special faces aren't required for 5 or 6 pt. type. People will use Helvetica 45 on coated stock; tends to weed out the over-40s as readers, though.

I've done some news text faces, Worldwide and Brown, for use around 8 pt size, with kinks, gouges and traps, that look pretty horsey (not necessarily ugly?) at 14 pt. I could probably have made them look nicer, but it would have been a lot of unnecessary work, as there are also display versions.

hrant's picture

> Small text faces are not something there’s any demand for

But by the same logic one wouldn't design fonts at all! :-/

A central factor in terms of what most type designers actually
spend time making seems to be what each of us enjoys making.
Some of us enjoy lo-fi design, and will explore it no matter how
feeble the demand is.

The grand master of lo-fi type is Ladislas Mandel.
His individual letterform outlines contain more
thought than some entire fonts.


billtroop's picture

It would be so great to have a thread where small type could be discussed, and shown.

dezcom's picture

Start the thread.


billtroop's picture

I don't have the energy. In the meantime I have been looking at Charles Leonard's thesis, which is linked to in another Typophile thread,, and thinking about the dichotomy between what Renner wants to do in his drawings and what he has to do in the finished type. His ideas are always consistently more radical than 'type' will accept. I am surprised that Hrant and some others have not had more to say about this. We tend to be so prissy and self-censoring in type -- it is a necessity, I suppose, but as a mindset it impedes creativity. Renner was fortunate to be able to work in a situation where he could do what he wanted and leave the censoring to others. However, either way, nothing radical ever gets put into widespread use.

Karsten thinks philosophers shouldn't be connected to art or craft but I think this is rather limiting. Nietzsche spends his entire career obsessed with Wagner, and Heidegger spends most of his obsessed with Nietzsche, and large schools of their successors spend their entire careers obsessed with both. Walter Benjamin gives us the modern keys to looking at photography, reproduced art, mechanisation, appropriation and authenticity, all issues that are important to type. As regards appropriation, Edit DeAk has pointed out in an I think unpublished essay that current day appropriation can be compared to the book - you may own the book, but not what's in it (Well, can't you own your view of it?), and compares image appropriation to reading - if I read her correctly. You get at least some hints of these connexions in Charles's thesis and I wonder if they couldn't be profitably explored further? What is more hot button for type than authenticity, reproducibility, mechanisation, appropriation? A small thing I am surprised at in the Leonard thesis is the lack of attention given to Erbar, but I haven't yet read all of it.

In the meantime I am wondering if any of the ideas (are they ideas? -- or are they just glyphs?) in Renner's Steile sketches couldn't be incorporated into a new version. 'Version' is an underexplored concept, isn't it now? Now that is really interesting.

dezcom's picture

If no one ever sees my (or anyone's) type designs, do they really exist?


billtroop's picture

That isn't a Berkeleyan question because at the very least, someone did see it: you. Even if nobody else ever sees it, your experience of having seen it cannot be separated from your interactions with others and the influence you have on others. So my very simple minded vote is, it exists.

In the case of Renner's Futura variants, which were supposed to be the main event, we have the case where a few see them and most do not. In the case of the Steile sketches, we have something that was never made into type, and that only a very few have seen.

But back to the point: it is now possible for a machine to create a hitherto unseen typeface. So, if nobody actually looks at the output, does it exist?

k.l.'s picture

Karsten thinks philosophers shouldn’t be connected to art or craft but I think this is rather limiting.

Oh, I just said that you better not ask a philosopher about the design of a *particular* typeface. A philosopher is not a designer, and -- in most cases -- may not see more than other non-designers. There are exceptions of course, I could easily add Adorno to your list. However, I am not sure if what they wrote would help a designer answering particular design questions with comments like: "Better if you make this curve a bit smoother -- see the effect?" They deal with art in a very general way (music-an-sich, photography-an-sich). What Benjamin says about reproduction does not necessarily have consequences on how photographs look like.
Philosophic minds like Danto or Luhmann (German sociologist, system theory) tell you a lot about everything related to art. (There are such nice ideas like: If you start with a work of art, you got all possibilities to make whatever decision, but as you go on designing, with every decision of yours the possibilities get less and less, and you are more and more forced to subordinate to your artwork's structure. Not sure if this is Adorno or Luhmann who also had Spencer-Brown's Laws of Form in mind who in turn seems much "inspired" by Peirce's earlier "entitativy graphs".) But they don't really tell you what makes art art. And if you look for advice on making art, the cheapest "how-to" book is the better choice.
I like both realms, and they depend on each other and influence each other. In a very remote way.

... lack of attention given to Erbar, ...

What are you appealing to? That Erbar (but other typefaces too) changed over time, and some letters were modified to look more like Futura? ;-)

enne_son's picture

Call: I’m not saying that a small text font has to be ugly when examined at 14 points

Response: I am.

A better or more nuanced way to think of this, or think this through might be to consider that what works optical-grammatically at 14 points might not work at all optical-grammatically at 7 points.

At 14 point what works well optical-grammatically at 7 might appear optical-grammatically dysfunctional (= ugly?). This has to be purely a function of the ratio of receptor (rod / cone) density relative to proximal stimulus extent, and the visual spatial frequency band used in form resolution while reading versus inspecting.

On the gestural-atmospheric (mood) axis the 'mood signature' of a block of 7 point type in a given font will be totally incompatable with the 'mood signature'(ugly?) of the same type with all the parameters exactly proportionately scaled, for the same receptor density / frequency band reasons.

hrant's picture

A typeface is never really seen.


> I am surprised that Hrant and some others
> have not had more to say about this.

Well, there's so much to say about so many other things; and so
little time. That said, I admit to being much more interested in
Renner as a result of this thread. Thanks guys.

> you better not ask a philosopher about the design of a *particular* typeface.

On the other hand, in some cases, you better not ask
another type designer about a particular typeface! :-/

> what works optical-grammatically at 14 points might not
> work at all optical-grammatically at 7 points.

Or a little bit more firmly:
Some things that work at 7 will look ugly at 14.


hrant's picture

> A typeface is never really seen.

Any use of a typeface is a parody of it.


Miss Tiffany's picture

Off-topic: Joshua Darden's Freight Micro was intended for small texts. I remember him showing it to me in Prague (ATypI 2004) and saying that I would use it for titles. Later W magazine apparently like it so much Joshua created a version of it specifically for their headlines. Type Designers cannot control what typographic (graphic) designers see as beautiful and/or appropriate. They can only create what they think is going to work or get a response of some sort from the world based on current trends or what is in their hearts.

billtroop's picture

... A typeface is never really seen.

Any use of a typeface is a parody of it. ...

Those are good observations, but on an entirely simple level Chris's post resonates with me since I must be a good candidate for king of the unreleased typefaces. Some of them might be worthwhile, but believe me a lot of them are not, but that doesn't mean I didn't learn a lot from them.

k.l.'s picture

-- you better not ask a philosopher about the design of a *particular* typeface.
-- On the other hand, in some cases, you better not ask another type designer about a particular typeface! :-/

Yes! I often miss serious criticism of type -- not just nice articles about the latest stuff. But then: Only type designers have an eye educated enough to SEE details for they share the experience of designing type. Yet at the same time you never know if the criticism isn't just expression of personal amity or animosity, or of different approaches to type design (different "schools"). Who knows? Which means that a reader would need to be as critical (able to analyse) as the critic and have some information about work and personalities of both criticised and critic.

[I hope my use of "critic" and "criticism" is correct. I remember an article about differences in the use of these words in the US and in Britain. But this was written pre-1900.]

dezcom's picture

I think what helps is getting critiques from several different people. It helps if they are a mix of type designers and good type users. You see the differences in what they say as a way to balance what to make of it all. The other good thing is that it forces you to take a hard look at why you have done things a particular way. Sometimes you just see what a person says as correct. Sometimes you realize you were right in the first place but needed to really look hard at it to know that.
I have found the critique area here on Typophile to be valuable in that way.


enne_son's picture

What is the rap on Steile Futura in terms of suitability for text or display? What claims are made for it by the author of the prototype or the foundry that corrected it? What pretensions does it address.

What specifically do you love about it Stephen?
What aspects of the Renner drawings or the metal and digital realizations do you stuggle with Bill? What specific authenticity, mechanical reproduction, appropriation issues occupy you as you struggle with it's redigitization.

k.l.'s picture

I think what helps is getting critiques from several different people.

Definitely so. I take comments by non type designers serious. If they find that something is wrong, then something IS wrong, and you have to figure out what. But only type designers, by their own experience, can give comments like: "Make this curve a bit smoother, and it will look right."
What I cannot accept however is considering philosophers as authorities regarding type, photography, painting, movies. (With respect to type, Vilem Flusser comes to mind. He had great ideas about writing and type and invented etymologies that blow you away because they seem so evident -- why didn't I see it like that before? --, but this has almost nothing to do with the reality and practice of writing or designing. It's fancy. Beautiful, but fancy.)


hrant's picture

Peter, great questions.

Karsten, I think a good rule of thumb is this: the most informed an opinion is, the more it has to be "filtered" using context. For example, if I get a crit of a font from a person who I happen to know makes chirographic type, I certainly don't ignore it outright, but I do use that context to eliminate or focus the particular opinions. So for example if that person says "the 'g' is too dark", great; but if he says "the bottom of the 'd' is wrong" then I know to simply smile it into oblivion.


William Berkson's picture

Karsten, Flusser sounds very interesting--what do you recommend of his? What available in English?

On the issue of 'ugliness' of very small type, my main problem with Hrant's characterization is that if taken seriously it would mean that you can ignore aesthetics in small type, which I don't think is right. As Peter notes, the type might look decent from an aesthetic viewpoint at the intended size, even if wierd at larger sizes. And as Tiffany points out, some effective at small sizes at large have aesthetic interest of their own. So the better way to put this, I think, is that at small sizes changes have to be made for legibility that may look odd at larger sizes. I think that is about as far as one can go.

hrant's picture

> you can ignore aesthetics in small type

No, never ignore. Simply give it less weight. Do you
ignore function at display sizes? No, but you can and
do push legibility harder. Same thing, just the other
way around, in text.

> may look odd

Will look odd. And "odd" is basically "ugly" here.


Miss Tiffany's picture

Ugly is in the eye of the beholder.

billtroop's picture

'Ugly is in the eye of the beholder.'

Tiffany, I will hope some time to put up some examples that I think place the matter beyond doubt. However, they are not really historical examples, just my own private meanderings.

'What is the rap on Steile Futura in terms of suitability for text or display?'

It's obviously not intended for anything but short passages of text, set rather large. However, the smallest size cut was 8 points.

'What claims are made for it by the author of the prototype or the foundry that corrected it?'

None that I can find in the marketing literature beyond 'a new design by Paul Renner'. But then, what is needed beyond that?

'What pretensions does it address.'

Don't really understand the question which may be too broad. Could you talk a little bit more about this?

'What aspects of the Renner drawings or the metal and digital realizations do you stuggle with Bill? What specific authenticity, mechanical reproduction, appropriation issues occupy you as you struggle with it’s redigitization.'

When you are redigitising, redesigning, re-producing a type face, you want to think that are inside of the typeface, inside the designer's head, inside its time in history, and yet that you are fully present in the present. Well, at least that is what I want. How can you present a typeface if you don't understand it deeply? Very generally, I know quite well - it is not a matter of opinion or shading - that I am not deep enough in Renner's head, far from it.

Speaking particularly, let's look at the problem of the left and right quotation marks in Steile. I am dissastisfied with them in the metal, and also in the Tasse re-approach, which in this respect was too literal for my taste. There is too much space, and it has something to do with the angle of the angled quotation marks, which are in any case a difficult object to deal with under the best of circumstances. It is probably easily fixed by bringing them closer to straight and tightening them. But wait: suppose I fix them and a few lines look OK to me. What other problems have I now caused? The simple word 'it's' looks bad to me in Steile Metal and Tasse. But if I fix that to my liking, what other problems will I have caused? What is my liking and why do I have it? To what extent am I the prisoner of the present, and is this preventing me from imagining the future? Can my study of the past help me get to the future? Did they have a better way of looking at the apostrophe in 1950, and should I consider that as we move towards 2050?

Do I need to appropriate from the past in order to plan the future, or do I need to free myself from it? This is a particular problem we have in type at just this point in history. It arises because there are so many obvious craft and aesthetic issues we have to go back to the past for. Otherwise we will be stifled by our incompetence. Our problem is how to gather from the past only what is liberating. That isn't easy because it involves a lot of conceptual gear shifting.

Let's take another particular small problem, the ff ligature. In metal, this has a typical Linotype form that I find jarring. A big sweep for the top of the first f, and then a tiny sweep for the second f to make it consonant with standalone f. Can anything be done to resolve this problem? Should the top of the second f of ff be extended to make it work with the first f? In that case, should the standalone f be similarly changed? But that would be quite a radical decision, wouldn't it? Was the production version designed this way in the hope that Linotype would eventually adapt it? If so, wouldn't it be better to un-Lino it? But what will be the consequences of that? How can I know what is the right thing to do when I don't feel an overwhelming answer coming out of me? If I don't have an irrational voice saying 'do this' - and I would trust that voice if I heard it - what rational analytical tools can I use to determine the best choice?

Similarly, with the other f ligatures there are consistency problems. Each has been designed rather differently. Perhaps each is the best compromise possible, but some seem too curvy, like fi, for such an angular face How can we test that? And what about the flaring on the f of fi that is not present in any of the other f's?

Speaking of flaring, let's return to the e I showed. We saw that in this particular character, I de-cornered the bottom right feature to avoid flare. In this case, I was being faithful to the metal. But the analogous feature at the bottom left of the g has a much more intense flare in metal. To what extent should I respect that difference, or try to make each more consistent? How can I answer the question: why are the flares on e and g (and fi) so different? To what extent is consistency working for the face? To what extent against?

Will I address the optical scaling question? Bauer did an outstanding job in this respect, though the 8 point may seem a hair too dark to some. (I was noticing this problem in Lino Granjon recently.) Or would a variable bold axis be adequate? In that case, what do I make available to the user? Different optical sizes, or to keep things simpler, some weight variants?

So there are a lot of problems and frankly, I don't see how they can be adequately solved outside of a co-operative foundry environment. From this point of view, it's not surprising that the only real effort to bring Steile into the future came from Font Bureau, and it's not surprising that nobody had the energy to take on the italic.

Stephen is right. Steile is a mystery.

paul d hunt's picture

Ugly is in the eye of the beholder.

...acutally, i thought the saying wen thus: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but ugly is to the bone!"

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