Interview with Brian Sooy about Type Design

Jessie McGrath, Senior Designer at Tyndale Publishing, interviews Brian Sooy about typeface design.

What aspects of typeface design do you find enjoyable, and what aspects do you find challenging?

Enjoyable: If it weren't enjoyable, I don't think I would be doing any of it! I look at type everywhere, so I suppose that counts as research. I particularly enjoy handlettering, using pen and ink to create letterforms, drawing letterforms of all kinds. I don't doodle, but when I do draw letterforms I'm trying to solve a visual or conceptual problem, and let the criteria of the problem guide my drawing. My background is in calligraphy and handlettering, and aspects of that are always present when I'm designing type.

I do enjoy the time spent creating letterforms, and also the time digitizing. I am always looking for ways to complete that part more quickly. I've spent considerable time creating a workflow that creates some efficiencies in the end of the process (spacing, kerning – the more tedious aspects of type design, but the most critical).

Having designed two typefaces used for Bible text, Lucerna and Veritas, you have a great deal of experience designing typefaces for situations where both space and readability are at a premium. What are some tactics you used in designing Lucerna and Veritas to accomplish maximum economy of space with enhanced readability?

I examined the relationship between "horizontality" and "verticality." Readers skim the top of the lowercase letterforms (the x-height) and the strokes that make up the top third of lowercase letterforms contribute to the horizontal, to guiding the eye along that pathway.

At the same time, I was very conscious of creating letterforms that were too condensed (hence the term narrow-width that I refer to regarding these fonts). If you look at a typeface such as Garamond Condensed, it's almost unreadable because of the verticality of the vertical strokes.

Both Veritas and Lucerna are attempts at striking a balance between these two opposing design criteria, with the goal of making the type easier to read when set on an appropriate line length. Lucerna also has a slightly heavier vertical stroke and hairlines to make it more readable for readers who may need bifocals.

Some of the readability benefits of the design are negated by some of the very wide line lengths that I have seen used in some of the NLTse Bibles that I've seen. Columns too wide for the size of the type, leading not deep enough, type set too small - narrow type gets narrower when it's set small!

With Lucerna, I researched characteristics of Latin typesetting, by considering the frequency of how many times specific glyphs (ie, a,b,c) appear per 1000 characters. Then we looked at what characters we could narrow a bit more - note that u and a doesn't have a tail, the s is a bit narrow... other little considerations like that added up to pace savings without sacrificing legibility over 1000-2000 pages.

In the case of Lucerna, Tyndale House Publishers wanted to retain aesthetic characteristics of Giovanni, which it used for typesetting earlier editions of their New Living Translation Bible. How did you begin this project, since a clear aesthetic precedent had already been established? Did you use existing glyphs as points of departure for creating new translations, or did you start from "scratch"?

The core outlines of Lucerna are based on Veritas – why redraw when you can recycle?
We chose glyphs that we felt captured the essence of Giovanni, such as those shown, and then designed Lucerna glyphs to mimic those features.  The e crossbar angles up to the right, the terminals on the s are bracketed, the M or N do not have terminals at the top, the U has a distinctive tail, and the terminal on the y – a work of art – has a similar feel.

These characters were submitted for review to show management and receive their approval. It assured them that we were retaining the beloved characteristics of Giovanni, we were able to proceed with creating a typeface that referenced Giovanni but also had its own character.

You have designed custom typefaces for many clients including Tyndale House Publishers, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Ernst & Young, the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, and Telarc International. Commissioning a typeface can be a big expense for a company. What benefits would you outline for a company interested in commissioning a typeface to outweigh the cost?

Benefits can be:

  • A proprietary typeface contributes to a visual branding campaign, and asserts the uniqueness of the entity or the entity's product/services.
  • It gives an organization something for their marketing materials that no other firm has – a distinct look and feel for arguably one of the most important (but often overlooked) aspects of branding
  • Licensing control: legally, because typefaces are licensed software, an organizations vendors and partners (particularly in the publishing industry) are legally obligated to individually and by location, license fonts used in the creation of materials for the publisher. For example, Tyndale cannot give an outside designer or a firm like Livingstone the typefaces that Tyndale has licensed because the EULA prevents this, unless a specific EULA allows for it. Since Tyndale owns the rights to Lucerna, they are free to distribute it as they wish according to the contract.
  • Ease of distribution and consistency. Ernst &Young commissioned Sooy+Co to convert their logo to a font, for versioning and distribution control.

Out of all the typefaces you have designed, do you have any favorites? Which ones and what do you feel makes them successful?

Veritas AND Lucerna are my favorites (since they are brothers). Both were designed to make the Bible easier to read – and that's what's really important, isn't it?

An underlying goal of each was to design a typeface with enough character to be distinctive yet to not overwhelm the words – to blend in with the page and make the words that are written the focus of the reader's attention. I know that might sound odd, but it's a metaphor for how the focus of God's Word is not about us, it's about God.

Both are successful in that they solved a particular design problem (increasing number of characters per line, fitting more text in a smaller space without sacrificing legibility or readability).

Lucerna succeeds more in that it's more confident, elegant, it wears the words well.

Could you recommend any resources for newcomers to typeface design to become better informed about type design and the industry?

Fonts.com, adobe.com, fontshop.com all have a wide range of what's available, as well as educational resources.

Typophile.com is a good resource as well.

Web Fonts are a huge deal and concern for type designers right now. ascendercorp.com also has launched a web resource for web fonts, their site has loads of info.  Visit TypeKit to license fonts for use on your web site.

On your website, Altered Ego Fonts, you made the following comment: "I strive to create letterforms which are new. I avoid anything that hints of derivation or revival." Type design seems to be a field with blurred parameters defining what is new. Do you have any criteria that you would use to evaluate what constitutes "newness" in type design?

While I might be inspired by another design, I do try to explore evolutionary changes in letterforms to keep my text designs fresh.

New is defined as in "not old," ie does it refer to lettering or type styles from the 20th century. I will often let calligraphic explorations reveal new ideas for letterforms.

As the creative director of your own design and marketing communications agency, how much of your work is devoted exclusively to typeface design, and what other types of work do you most often do?

Currently, little time is devoted to type design; about 10% of my time is devoted to visual brand development that involves manipulation or creation of new letterforms. The best new letterforms I keep filed for possible expansion into a full type family.

Do you find yourself using your own typeface designs for the majority of your design work, or do you have other favorite typefaces you employ regularly?

I rarely use my own type designs, as they aren't always suited to the work I do.
I do enjoy using Profile, Helvetica Neue (believe it or not) because of the wide weight width range, Caecilia, Mrs. Eaves, Frutiger, Kinesis, and TheMix.

I don't really play favorites, I find what is appropriate and use it for the projects we are engaged in.