Would it be necessary to preserve the original pen strokes of the letters in designing digital typefaces?

Frida VI's picture

Hi, everyone

I am a research student and right now I am designing typefaces as a part of my thesis.
Since the debate between the group that support and against using type forms based on pen strokes is still continuing in the present as Sofie Beier wrote in the book, Reading Letters, that:

"The discussion of whether typefaces exist on their own merit – separate from any possible influence of the pen – or whether the pen is a leading force in the shaping of all typographical styles continues to be a matter for discussion among designers and scholars to this day"

I would like to ask about everybody's opinion on the process in developing calligraphy or original script into digital typeface.

Would it be necessary to preserve the original strokes of the letters or would it be possible to eliminate the influence of the pen stroke out of the typeface design in order to create something new?

Thank you all for any comment!! Have a nice day!

bojev's picture

Necessary to preserve almost equals a rule - design really has no rules as such - if it works it works. Do not over think designs - scholars can have discussions after the fact but designers should just do what works with each design.

Bendy's picture

Both ways are certainly possible, it depends on what sort of typeface you're designing. My feeling is that pen-informed constructions give a sufficient set of parameters for text typeface design (the tool confers regularity and a human warmth to the design), whilst I haven't seen many successful non-pen-informed (chirographic) text designs. What that means is that alternative models using non-chirographic forms are ripe for exploration, probably better in subtle ways to avoid upsetting comfortable readability.

blokland's picture

Bob: […] design really has no rules as such - if it works it works.

Basically you are supplying a license for ignorance here. If type designers don’t know the fundamentals of their profession, who else should know? And if there are no rules, how does one judge the outcome? I would for instance certainly distrust a plumber who would state ‘if it works, it works’.

Of course, you can get away with this, like many punch cutters in the past, who by ‘tracing’ their predecessor’s letterforms automatically copied Jenson’s underlying structures and patterns. It is therefore not very difficult to imagine that letterforms could evolve into pictures of things this way. But Gill was absolutely right when he stated in his Autobiography (1940): ‘Letters are things, not pictures of things’.

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bojev's picture

Design has principles not rules - rules are rigid, principles give direction but do not limit. In art the term works is very different than in plumbing.

phrostbyte64's picture

In art you don't have water hammer or air venting issues.

blokland's picture

Bob: In art the term works is very different than in plumbing.

The question is whether this is also the case for applied art (what type design is IMHO)? I know that in art there is a high bla bla factor, but I've always considered my profession as something serious.

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William Berkson's picture

"If there are no rules, how does one judge the outcome?"

You judge the outcome by what works for the eye (and brain). What works for the eye is a matter partly of ease of reading, meaning low fatigue and ease of comprehension, and partly a matter of aesthetics. There are no doubt complex rules involved, not fully understood, in people's brains. Though particularly for aesthetics, tastes vary from one individual to the next.

The important point for the question here is that the rules of good type—such as evenness of color—are not simply pen rules, the path that a pen would take in forming a letter. The rules of the broad pen were taken up as general guidelines in latin typefaces, and have deeply influenced expectations of readers. Thus conforming to these expectations helps readability to some extent. However, departing from them also can help, or be neutral.

For example, most z's (including in this typeface, Georgia) depart from pen rules by having the diagonal of the z heavy, rather than light, which would be dictated by a broad pen doing a down stroke at 30-45 degrees. But in general, beginning with Jenson, letters are founded in pen rules, but also regularly modify and depart from them. Both the pen rules and the modifications are important. In particular there is a lot of modification of strokes for evenness of color. These may not change what is thick and thin on a letter, but they do violate what the pen would do in how thick or how thin a join or part of a stroke is.

Further, as type history developed, there is more and more departure. For example, if I remember correctly Griffo had more symmetrical serifs than Jenson, and the asymmetrical serifs are more natural to the pen. For that matter, slanted letters are also more natural, but vertical ones more readable.

blokland's picture

William: You judge the outcome by what works for the eye (and brain). What works for the eye […]

What the eye (and brain) perceives is mostly the result of conditioning (which, when it comes to type and typography, differs per script). In Art and Illusion Gombrich notes on this phenomenon: ‘The stimulus patterns on the retina are not alone in determining our picture of the visual world. Its messages are modified by what we know about the “real” shape of objects.’ David Kindersley defined the matter in Optical letter spacing simpler as: ‘It is a commonplace that we see only what we know […].

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bojev's picture

In a design that works all of the elements are in tune with the final result. If the parts do not work well together then the result is scattered and chaotic. The only limit with a letterform would be that it can on longer be read as a specific letter. I have no idea what a high bla bla factor is but I do consider all art to be serious. In Japan great calligraphy is often on a pair with painting - thus no distinction in seriousness for so called fine or applied art. I have long held we should be more like that

Nick Shinn's picture

…the process in developing calligraphy or original script into digital typeface.

Would it be necessary to preserve the original strokes of the letters or would it be possible to eliminate the influence of the pen stroke out of the typeface design in order to create something new?

Yes to both, as is apparent from precedent.

Interestingly, the formal “joining rules” of calligraphy (most evident in the cancellescara style) have a logic which translates into OpenType feature code in a very direct manner.

This is not the primary issue of “the stroke” as normally discussed in type design, which is more concerned with the stress of various nibs, but it seems to me that the flow of connected letters in writing is equally, if not more, fundamental.

**

As it is possible to either preserve or eliminate pen-ishness, the question you must ask yourself is: how do write the script in the first place, to be amenable to a particular interpretation process?

If, on the other hand, the script you choose to interpret was not created with fontworthiness in mind, then you must recognize in it something attractive (to you—intellectually and/or aesthetically) which you can leverage to a greater or lesser degree according to the typographic effect it produces, and hence make your own. Recognizing your own abilities in drawing and designing, as well as being aware of what is or is not technically possible, are major considerations.

You will not be able to create Medusa, for instance, without being adept at roundhand with a pen, vector drawing with a mouse/stylus, and OpenType feature coding with a keyboard.

Frida VI's picture

Thank you all very much for your valuable opinions on the subject. This discussion has shed some light on my own curiosity, which is very useful for the project I am working on. In my personal point a view, I think it is better to understand the root of alphabets, especially on how they were constructed to build better typefaces. However, I had a long discuss on this matter with my supervisors. Both of them have different opinions on this debate.

To explain more about my thesis, I am working on redesign an ancient script in Thailand called Khom Thai to make it's more accessible for modern audiences. My first approach was I redesigned the script based on Thai modern grid. However, one of my supervisor suggested that I should use the ancient proportion to create the typefaces. On the other hand, the other one suggested that I should stick with the modern grid since my objective in this project is about modernising this type of script. For this reason, I thought it is better to ask for professional designers' opinions so thank you all again for your valuable opinions.

I have put the link of a rough sketch I made for my project with this post. These alphabets are Khom script used in both Thailand and Cambodia. As you can see, the structure is quite complex and this script has very long ascendent and descendent, which I need to find the way to balance the proposition of the body and the cap height,etc. So I must decide whether I should design it based on its original script or use different approach.

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-oUZuNyJyZ_o/UcwiGyBTX2I/AAAAAAAAADs/056s-RzhZJ0/s1600/IMG_0124.jpg

William Berkson's picture

Frank: "What the eye (and brain) perceives is mostly the result of conditioning."

"Mostly" is not accurate, if by 'conditioning' you mean what one learns from being habituated to reading a particular script.

While habituation to a particular script does have an important impact, there is a much larger mechanism of pattern recognition that the eye and brain use, and this has still bigger impact on how we process and see words and letters.

For example optical illusions—which incidentally Gombrich makes much of—affect practically every letter, and they operate outside the realm of letters as well. For example, dividing a space vertically, to make the division look equal the top half needs to be a little smaller. This rule applies whether you are designing the E or a chair or a building. It is not specific to scripts.

Most significantly, issues of crowding, rhythm and color in type all are affected by eye-brain functioning in ways that are not script specific. Also non-linear features of optical scaling are not script specific.

Being aware of 'pen rules' is essential in type design. Focusing *only* on pen rules is a narrow and misleading way of thinking about type, because you can violate pen rules in ways that have good results, so long as they work with the human perceptual system in a congenial way.

Doesn't making pen rules dominant mean you can only create traditional looking serif types, and of a specific style? I *love* traditional type, but there are a lot of wonderful other designs.

Bendy's picture

Hm.

>My first approach was I redesigned the script based on Thai modern grid. However, one of my supervisor suggested that I should use the ancient proportion to create the typefaces.

What sort of 'grid' do you mean, and why are you using a grid? Converting a handwritten script to a typographic script is not really about using a grid; it's about enforcing regularity and evenness that handwriting cannot achieve.

These letterforms look very much like modern-day Khmer, so if any grid is suitable, I'd use a Khmer grid. BUT: isn't that disrespecting the Khom heritage? I'd personally want to look at as many example of Khom script as possible, to understand the behaviour and proportions intrinsic to the script.

Be very cautious about 'modernising' a script. Giving modern typographers the tools they need for complex typographic environments is not necessarily at all about making changes to letterforms.

blokland's picture

William: While habituation to a particular script does have an important impact, there is a much larger mechanism of pattern recognition that the eye and brain use, and this has still bigger impact on how we process and see words and letters.

The presence of physical conditions for pattern recognition seems to me a prerequisite for pattern recognition. It’s interesting that in the past one could read about these things in publications like Visible Language and now you find references to how the brain works on Typophile. Even my students talk about researchers like Stanislas Dehaene.

If we focus for a moment on the Latin script, there is no proof in any form at all, nor is it likely that legibility researches took place prior to the cutting of punches in the early days of typography. Jenson, Griffo, nor any of their Renaissance prototypers seem to have investigated the physiological structure of the human visual system in relation to type. The fact that light falling on the retina excites photoreceptors was most probably completely unknown to the early punchcutters.

Later in the Renaissance more became known about the real functioning of the eye. Leonardo Da Vinci researched the subject and his idea that vision ‘is a result of the eye receiving rays of light’ was different from the generally accepted idea ‘that humans had vision because of tiny particles projected from the eye’[1]. In 1604 Johannes Kepler ‘demonstrated the physics behind the optical workings of the eye as an aside of his astronomical work […] Supplements to Witelo, On the Optical part of Astronomy […]. For the first time, oculists had begun to accept the retina – and not the lens as it had been assumed since antiquity – as the organ of vision’[2].

But even after these researches, there is no evidence that the outcomes were taken into account by the punchcutters. Nor that they had any knowledge of ‘the larger mechanism of pattern recognition’.

1. Barbara O’Connor, Leonardo da Vinci (Minneapolis, 2003) p.51.
2. Saad Shaikh, Eyes On Ice & No Blind Mice (Bloomington / Central Milton Keynes, 2007) p.254.

Frida VI's picture

Dear Bendy,

Sorry that I explained it's unclear. In Thailand the people also used the script,which came from Cambodia before 13th Century and we adapted the script to be able to read/pronounce Thai language since the Thai and Khmer phonetics are not the same. For this reason, some alphabets are different although the overall appearance is quite similar. Thai people call this script "Khom Thai script" refer to Khom script (or sometimes called Khmer script) which use in Thai language before we developed our own script or "Lai Su Thai" in 13th Century.

This Khom Thai script was used for recording important events in our history. In Thai national archive, there have more than 100,000 ancient documents written in this script. However, in the present very few people are able to read the script and the public pay little attention to those documents so they are abandoned there without proper care. For this reason, The Thai national archive has urgent need for young staffs who are able to read the script to work with them.

My project focuses on redesigning this script to teach Thai new generation so the main focus is on Khom Thai script which are used in Thailand. Khom script in Cambodia is not the centre in the scope of my study. However, I have reviewed the history of Khom script used in both Cambodia and Thailand in my literature.

These typefaces I am working on are designed for Thai audiences that's why I have attempted to use Thai grid to design them. When I mentioned to Thai modern grid system, I didn't give details on the subject so I would like to explain more. Since the era of digital typefaces Thailand didn't have the standard proportion for font design so The Royal Institute of Thailand, a government organisation which has main responsibility in Thai language usage, appointed a committee to do a research on Thai type form in order to create the national standard proportion for digital typefaces. They launched a manual in 1997 to give specification about the structure of standard proportion of alphabets by using Thai modern grid system, which became the regulation for designing typefaces.

The reason why I attempted to use this specification for the Khom Thai script is because my hypothesis involves in testing the familiarity effect whether it could help people to read it better. Since modern Thai type form,especially typefaces used the Thai modern grid system to design, is familiar for Thai audiences, I am trying to make the script more understandable for those who have no prior knowledge in Khom script.

However, I intend to use this modern typeface to test against another typeface I am designing based on the original handwriting of ancient people to observe whether which one help people to read better.

The latter typeface will not use the Thai modern grid system to design, but the system in design will based on the analysis of handwriting I compiled from ancient documents.

Anyway, Thank you so much for your comments. When you warn me to be very cautious about modernising a script, I think you made the right point which I might overlook at first. I should take this advice under my consideration before moving forward. Thanks again.

William Berkson's picture

Frank: "nor is it likely that legibility researches took place prior to the cutting of punches in the early days of typography"

They don't have to have done scientific research; they just would have had to use their eyes sensitively to see what works for good readability and aesthetics. Scientific research is intended to explain why what works, works. But all people who do a lot of trial and error on writing (scribes) or type design learn by their eyes what works and not.

What I am saying is that these larger issues of how the mind and brain function are a bigger part of the story than the specific conventions of a script. And these larger, common features of perception and word recognition allow for variation from pen rules. So departure from pen rules—or, say, brush rules for Chinese—is much more possible than if the whole story were rules imposed by a particular writing tool.

I don't think 'writing tool dictatorship' is a correct way to understand either readability or aesthetics in type.

enne_son's picture

Frank, in your opinion are there perceptual processing reasons — reasons having to do with the structure and functioning of the reading system — why the things we learn from writing are important. The things we learn from writing (and what looking at writing that survived the test of time teaches us to see) are: rhythmic spacing, a consistent contrast scheme, and strategic construction. I don’t believe producing and adjusting to rhythmic spacing and a consistent contrast scheme are circumstantial niceties and primarily matters of habituation, like getting used to the formal grammar. The formal grammar has to do with the language of shapes the script uses, and the the structure of the space it occupies. For example the roman lower case occupies a space with three vertical zones. Strategic construction is construction that maximizes between-letter differences while staying within the stroke-grammar the script uses. So, do you think there might be perceptual processing reasons why the things we learn from writing are important.

Do your students find these reasons in Dehaene? (I assume you mean his 2009 book Reading in the Brain.)

What do your students take away from the writings of Stanislas Dehaene? Is what they take away an obstacle to what you try to inculcate?

Farida, my description above of things we learn from writing might address some of your questions about creating something new. On the question of violations of the scriptorial norms, I agree with Bill.

blokland's picture

Peter: I don’t believe producing and adjusting to rhythmic spacing and a consistent contrast scheme are circumstantial niceties and primarily matters of habituation, like getting used to the formal grammar.

I think that matters like harmony and rhythm are purely relative to a model, and that every model includes its own rules for forenamed matters. Please have a look at my assignments described on the KABK LetterStudio website.

Basically I address this topic also here, here and here.

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enne_son's picture

Thanks Frank, I will work my way through your links.

The point I was tring to make though, is that: if the rules of the model (I'm assuming you mean: script) as they apply to the shape of the stroke and how strokes combine, as well as the spacing, "harmony," and "rhythm" protocols intrinsic to the model, aren't implemented consistently across the script or in it’s use in type-setting contexts, there are perceptual processing consequences. These I would argue are in the realm of word-level gestalt-busting effects that disturb the passage of the visual information through the visual cortex. They disturb the passage of the visual information through the visual cortex, because they disturb the cohesive equilibrium of the shapes and shape-primitives in the whole gestalt.

blokland's picture

Peter: […] I’m assuming you mean: script […]

No, I really mean model. I explain this here.

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Frida VI's picture

Dear Peter,

Thank you for your advice. Now I have plenty idea to improve my project!

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