New from old: the why and how of reviving a typeface

On November 4 2015 Monotype released the Eric Gill Series, a collection of more than 75 fonts in three families: Gill Sans® Nova, Joanna® Nova, and Joanna® Sans Nova. Derived from Eric Gill’s work, the series updates, extends and brings coordination to the family through the addition of long-awaited weights and new designs. It was a huge project that, as expected, involved an unprecedented exploration of the past, present and future of type design.

For Monotype’s type designer Toshi Omagari, the process of reviving a typeface is a familiar one, having designed a number of significant type reinventions in recent years including the Metro® Nova and Neue Haas Unica™ releases.

Like Gill, each of his projects requires extensive research and consideration, but inspiration can come from different places. In the case of the Metro Nova typeface, the starting point was William Addison Dwiggins’ Metro — although not the version most people are familiar with.

“Metro Nova came about through a request from director Doug Wilson for the Linotype film,” Toshi explains. “The Metro typeface most people know is actually the second version, Metro No. 2®, which became more popular than Dwiggins’ first design. Doug wanted the original Metro No. 1® design, which hadn’t been digitised.”

Metro No. 1, he adds, looks very different. “You can see the differences in the characters, the a, e and g, they’re more reminiscent of Gill Sans. The original form is so much more interesting.” Under Toshi’s hand, Dwiggins’ classic was given a new lease of life and recreated as a modern family.

The Neue Haas Unica typeface was also a revival born of demand, although on a different scale. The original Unica®, designed by Team ’77, was an attempt to create the ultimate sans-serif, a hybrid of Helvetica®, Univers® and Akzidenz Grotesk®. After its release in 1980 it earned almost mythical status in the type community as it was lost among legal disputes and never made available as a full, digital typeface. As far as Toshi was concerned, bringing it back was necessary. “We were asked for Unica all the time. For me, it was a question of ‘Why doesn’t it exist?’. I felt I had to do it.”

When I find something new to me I tend to think: That’s interesting, but is it good? Does it have a place today?

Reasons to survive

For other type revivals, it can be a case of personal discovery or a happy accident. The vast Monotype archives have no shortage of materials and act as a place for specific research or, as Toshi says, “to be surprised”.

“It’s not the case that I want to revive everything,” he adds. “Almost every typeface has something that didn’t survive into digital. In the ’80s and ’90s, when companies started digitising typefaces, the glyph set was limited to 256 per font and they had to exclude relatively unimportant characters like swash letters, sometimes even whole fonts.”

His decision to revive a typeface, he says, can be based on a variety of reasons. “When I find something new to me I tend to think: That’s interesting, but is it good? Does it have a place today? Other times I find things that aren’t quite right — they aren’t what the designer intended or the original material wasn’t as good as it could be, or they were working fine before but don’t meet the quality standard of today.”

For those that work with type, a modern-day revival also brings a host of practical benefits and new options. Newer technology means that inconsistencies brought about by limitations in older type production methods can be fixed without losing any of a typeface’s idiosyncrasies. There’s scope for useful new additions: the Neue Haas Unica typeface brings multi-language support, while the Joanna Sans Nova family has been designed specifically for the age of screen-based reading.

When reviving a typeface, Toshi admits he “almost always” adds more weights. “Type families don’t always grow in a consistent way, they can be a tangled mess,” he explains. “With older typefaces, a bold italic might have been created for a client when a bold doesn’t exist. While inconsistency itself is not necessarily a bad thing, and a typeface family can be more fun to use because of it, more weights bring more options as well as a consistent system that can have more worth in a visual language.”

Sometimes though, he says, they’re just overdue. “Whenever people come to the archive and see the original drawings of the Gill display weights, that’s what they ask for. My question is - why haven’t we done these before? These weights have been waiting a very long time to be digitised. To anyone who sees them, it’s obvious.”

The process of reinventing type

To re-create a typeface original materials are scanned and digitised, but choosing the right source material isn’t as easy as one might think. There are usually several master drawings for each size range — the smallest around six points, working up to 72 points. Toshi looks for the one that “seems intended”, or chooses multiple drawings to work from.

“I try to keep the feel of it,” he explains. “Not necessarily the drawing itself, the feel of the typeface and the capturing of the typeface is more important than the outline. When you look at typefaces, they often aren’t as beautiful as you might remember. The perfect version of a typeface exists in your memory; typeface revival is a process of its visualisation.”

Working with older drawings can also bring to light more unusual detail that’s no longer needed in digital. The original Unica typeface was created for phototypesetting, which meant its characters were designed with small spikes that overcompensate for optical rounding effects and make the character look as intended. Changes like these are a necessary part of the digitisation process but can involve the designer having to make personal decisions. What might seem at first glance like small or almost unnoticeable changes can be considered radical.

Personality is not something you try to express, it’s something you can’t suppress

“I try to stay faithful to the original, to what the designer would have done today,” he explains. “Some people actively put themselves in the original. I try not to do it, but it sneaks in no matter how hard you try to avoid it and inevitably becomes yours in part. Personality is not something you try to express, it’s something you can’t suppress. And because every designer’s perfect vision of a typeface varies, all revivals of the same typeface end up different. That’s what makes it personal and interesting.”

With that in mind, did working on a typeface as revered as Unica place a larger sense of responsibility on his shoulders? “It was a huge responsibility and a challenge, but I don’t really change the way I approach any typeface.” He laughs, “I did draw, space and test a lot more carefully.”