Ben Jones: Restoring what Joanna lost

John Walters, of Eye magazine, interviews the design team behind the newly released Eric Gill Series typefaces. In this article, get a behind the scenes look at the type design process from Ben Jones the designer behind the Joanna® Nova typeface.

John Walters: When did you first work on the typeface family?

Ben Jones: I started work on Joanna in 2012. At the time, Monotype was working on a new corporate typeface for itself and it seemed very likely that it would be Joanna Sans Nova. Using Gill’s original Joanna as an accompanying text face was a natural choice and Dan Rhatigan, who was then the UK Type Director, asked me to look at our existing digital version of Joanna, just to see if it needed any cleaning up or refinement. Indeed, it did. Catastrophic is probably too strong a term, but digitization had not been kind to the Joanna fonts. For example, one of the most distinctive aspects of Joanna is the italic, having only a three-degree slope and instead using width as the main differentiator. In other words, the original italics are quite condensed compared to the upright fonts. However during digitization, the italics, for whatever reason, became even more compressed, to about 80 per cent of the originals, making them far too narrow. Correcting this and restoring other aspects that were lost was the main drive in creating Joanna Nova.

JW: When did you hear about the plan to put the three typefaces together in one big family?

BJ: Terrance had started the process by designing Joanna Sans Nova which was approaching completion when I began work on Joanna Nova. By the time it was nearing a finished state, the Gill Sans® Nova project was in progress. Combining all three typefaces into one package was too good an opportunity to pass up.

JW: How important was the problem-solving aspect of type design in producing Joanna? Had there been much interest in a digital version prior to this project, for retail or for clients?

BJ: Problem-solving was key and in fact, the reason the project began in the first place. I mentioned already the issues introduced in the transition from phototype to digital, but there were some aspects in Gill’s original that needed attention. For example, the shoulder serifs on the uppercase ‘M’ and ‘N’ are notably … odd. The lowercase ‘d’ was also problematic. In the original, as the bowl of the ‘d’ approaches the baseline, it becomes completely flat and runs along the baseline until it terminates with the serif. This becomes surprisingly distracting in continuous text. By very subtly emphasizing the lower curve of the bowl, dipping it under the baseline and giving it a slight rise before it meets the vertical stem, this is just enough to break up that very straight line and creates a more natural feel to the letter. The non-latin aspect was also something that needed addressing. The existing Greek design for Joanna (not designed by Gill) was terrible. Having graduated from the MATD at Reading only a year before, I could not have lived with myself if I hadn’t remedied this. I also took the opportunity to add Cyrillic as this was not previously available – both with small caps, a fact I know that Terrance was very appreciative of (it was decided that both Joanna Nova and Joanna Sans Nova should have feature parity). There’s nothing quite like being told to add italic Greek small caps to an old project you had thought finished. To my knowledge, there had been almost no real interest in digital Joanna before. In fact, this was a considerable motivator for me; Joanna is a great typeface that has been sadly, although understandably, under-used in recent times, thanks at least in part to a less than stellar digital version. By reworking it, extending its language support and expanding the number of weights and other typographic options, it’s my hope that we start to see more of it.

JW: What was the most challenging aspect of working on the Eric Gill series?

BJ: Most challenging for me was probably Joanna Nova’s UltraBlack weight. It was my attempt at an ‘homage’ to Gill Sans Kayo and, as Robin Nicholas pointed out at the time, designing a weight that heavy while retaining the character of the typeface is surprisingly difficult. As the strokes get heavier and heavier, there is simply less room for key structural elements, so you often have to find a different structure (for example, the ampersand in Joanna Nova UltraBlack has a different shape to the rest of the weights because the top loop would have been hilariously small otherwise) or simply remove non-essential elements such as serifs. It’s like watching an obese person put on cycling shorts; stuff just wants to spill out all over the place. The trick is to control which parts are allowed to do so and which bits should be kept hidden.

JW: Is there a character that best encapsulates what the Gill typeface families are all about? Or failing that, what’s your favorite character?

BJ: For me, the lowercase ‘e’ is ‘the Gill glyph’ as it always has that fairly distinctive underbite in all of Gill’s typefaces. As for my favorite character, I find that extremely difficult. I really like the interrobang in Joanna Nova UltraBlack but I absolutely detest any and all uses of the interrobang and assume that interrobang-users have the same pastimes as blackletter letter-spacers, so I wouldn’t want to do anything to promote its popularity.

JW: Many designers believe there is an intrinsic ‘Britishness’ or ‘Englishness’ to Gill Sans, and possibly to Joanna, too. If this is true, is this a bug or a feature?

BJ: Gill Sans appears in all sorts of settings all over the world, from movie titles to book jackets to logos to signage, but typically those uses don’t really make the most of the family. I think the British association comes about perhaps because many of the best, or at least most widespread, uses of Gill Sans have originated in Britain (e.g. the BBC, Penguin Books or that now infuriating ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ phenomenon).

JW: How do you think Gill would have tackled the challenges of making type for the different media we use for reading today?

BJ: Gill argued that the end-result of the design process should be shaped by (or rather, for) the human who will be using it, rather than by the means of production or artificial aesthetic constraints. The experience of using it is paramount; what it looks like or how it was made is trivial. With this in mind, Gill would certainly embrace the move towards producing fonts for specific environments.

Find out more about Joanna Nova and buy the family