Utilising Old Type Specimens to create New Webfonts
Radley (above) started life as a hand drawn design for a “jobbing serif” for use in a busy woodcarving studio. The brief was to create an upper and lowercase character set that was straightforward to draw as the basis for high quality hand carved lettering in wood. The uppercase could be used as an alternative to ‘Trajan’ for titling work whilst the lowercase gave a more casual face. Later Radley was digitised and it’s character set extended for use as a webfont.
The inspiration for the original Radley came from the types of Caslon and some heirs of that ‘old style’ lettering in the twentieth century, the lettercarving of Gill and Kindersley. Benton’s ‘Century’ was also an important part of the Radley ‘mix’, as it was a face that well represents the move in type design that took the old faces and ‘normalised’ them for the new print presses of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The addition of an italic (above) to the Radley family came later and is perhaps a useful case study in utilising old type specimens in the creation of new web fonts. Radley Italic was created from studies and directly from scans of a number of pre-digital type specimens.
The idea was to create an italic for Radley that could be used as standard italic in body text but could also be used for titling text.
Above – Radley Bold Italics, work in progress
Above – Radley Regular Italics, in progress
A Monotype specimen of ‘Antique Old Style’ (a Monotype cut of Phemister’s earlier Antique Old Style) seemed like a good starting point for an italic face for Radley. ‘Antique Old Style’ is part of the clear lineage shared with a number of late ninteenth and early twentieth century foundries’ Caslon ‘recuts’ and ‘revivals’; two being Linotype’s ‘Bookman’ and Monotype’s ‘Imprint’. Antique Old Style, like it’s derivative ‘Bookman’, was a fairly straightforward ‘Caslon revival’, but unlike Bookman, Phemister’s earlier face contained attractive details in it’s italic cut (Bookman italic was more like a slant of the upright roman). As the inspiration for the original Radley had also been found in the fonts of Caslon and their derivatives, it seemed very apt to go to Antique Old Style’s ‘Caslon’ for Radley’s italics. All of these faces were pooled in some way in the design of Radley and it’s italics.
The specimen of Antique Old Style was scanned at high resolution and Fontlab’s ‘Scanfont’ used to convert the scanned image into a Fontlab font file. This was used to create an initial Bold weight for the italics. Once the Bold weight was sufficiently complete a lighter weight was created with FontForge.
With Scanfont it is a very easy to go from a printed specimen to a FontLab font file, using quality print specimens, high resolution scans, and optimising Scanfont’s autotracing parameters.
Above – example of scan from 36pt Specimen of ‘Antique Old Style’
Once a bitmap is converted to a Fontlab font file from Scanfont, the outlines can be adjusted to the needs of the webfont. Faithful reproductions of metal letterpress type are possible using this process, but futher work was needed to the outlines for Radley’s italic. For example, the ratio of cap-to-x-height needed to be re-designed to give better legibility for reading on-screen. Also the angle of the italic ‘slant’ needed reducing slightly, again for the sake of improved legibility and also on stylistic grounds.
Scans from other relevant specimens were also made and converted to Fontlab files, for example; a Stephenson & Blake cut of ‘Caslon Old Face’, Linotype’s ‘Bookman’ and Monotype’s ‘Imprint’. These revived letterpress faces can then potentially be used to interpolate into the Radley Italic and form the basis of new and distinct webfonts.
Above – lowercase italics from a specimen of Stephenson & Blake’s ‘Caslon Old Face’
Above – Monotype’s Imprint Italic
Above – Radley Regular Italic, in progress
Above – Uppercase characters from Linotype’s ‘Bookman’
Above – Uppercase characters from ‘Antique Old Style’
Details and Tweaking
The practical process of designing Radley’s italics started with a set of lowercase characters from the scans of ‘Antique Old Style’, converted to create a bold weight font.
Once the upper and lowercase characters were drawn the weight of the characters was reduced to be compatible with the existing regular weight Radley roman. This weight reduction was carried out in FontForge using the ‘change weight’ tool before re-drawing. The design of characters were further refined paying attention to other cuts of classic Caslon ‘revival’ fonts, in particular italic cuts such as that of Monotype’s ‘Imprint’.
The uppercase characters, also scanned from the Antique Old Style specimen, were redrawn to lessen the original features of the capitals. In particular the slant angle of the uppercase serifs was reduced and the terminals rounded. The reshaped serif terminals harmonise with the rounded quality found in some of the terminals of the lowercase characters.
Overall the x-height of the font was increased, the thickness of stems on the y-axis made uniform, and the length of ascenders and descenders reduced.
Overshoots and overhangs were reduced and made uniform across all characters in the font. This optimises the truetype hinting needed for best rendering on legacy Windows OS’s.
Above – Uppercase ‘E’ and lowercase ‘a’ from specimen of ‘Antique Old Style 161’ (on left) compared to uppercase ‘E’ and lowercase ‘a’ from Radley Bold Italic (on right). The angle of the italic slant has been reduced, the x-height increased, and terminals of the ‘E’ have been rounded. Also the counters of lowercase characters have been opened up a little in Radley.
Above top The lowercase ‘n’ of Radley (on right) is near identical to the ‘n’ of ‘Antique Old Style 161’ (on left) apart from the change in slant angle. The lowercase ‘k’ (above bottom) shows a reduced ascender height compared to the original.
Web Font & Printers Font Specifics
The differences between fonts rendered on digital screens and fonts printed at high resolution to paper are significant, as are the differences of both of those compared to traditional and mechanised metal letterpress type. However there are some parallels between web fonts and letterpress type.
Modern printing fonts are objects used in a precision-rich environment of high resolutions, easy micro adjustments and perfect placement. Fonts rendered on digital screens, on the other hand, inhabit a far less precise environment: Even with sub-pixel rendering and precision hinting, the pixel grid of the digital screen is a fairly inflexible place for a typeface to inhabit. For example with letter spacing, adjustments can be made in units of fractions of a milimeter for modern offset printing, whereas on the digital screen adjustments are made against the much larger pixel unit. Likewise with letterpress[b], untill the advent of the mechanical type systems; very fine adjustment was less likely.
The new printing technologies of the late nineteenth century also marked a switch from printing to damp papers to printing onto dry, smooth papers. As a result the old metal faces, made for a technique of printing on damp, rough paper, printed ‘weakly’ and ‘thin looking’ on the new presses. This was a catalysing factor in the adaptation of the old faces via ‘revivals’ and ‘recuts’. Many of these faces were then redrawn yet again with the advent of photo- and digital type, as these new print technologies brought fresh demands for yet another wave of type variants.
With webfonts there are new demands again; the relative imprecision of screen rasterisation, the need to keep font file sizes small to serve files across the internet, and the need to keep the fonts freely available to all users without the obstruction of ‘paywalls’ or licences that restrict use.
Originality in Type Designs
Historically there has been little onus on ‘originality’ in the design of typefaces. Only in the early-mid 20th century did the Modern concept of The Designer emerge. Within that concept the notion of an individual being an auteur, the creator of singular, ‘new’ and ‘original’ design became dominant; previously such notions had been inconsequential or even absent compared to more functional aspects of a font.
Looking at the historical pool of faces that Radley draws from makes this clear; the new presses of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century necessitated derivatives of old printing fonts, for technical reasons as well as market needs. The old faces were not suited to the new printing methods, but also competition between foundries necessitated even further ‘copies’ and ‘cuts’ of these popular faces. Much of the revived type and font variations from this era are the result of the financial incentive for foundries to manufacture cuts of popular faces and bring them under private proprietorship.
Today there is a similar need for new ‘cuts’ of popular public domain faces, but now free of proprietory ownership so they can be used freely across the web.