The Rise of Multiplatform types: my thesis (updated, with specimen)

blank's picture

The following are a few excerpts from a much longer presentation describing my senior thesis. I am posting it here because the designers who heard it at school were not type designers, and so were unable to provide much useful feedback. I apologize if the grammar is a little wonky, but this was written to be read aloud. If you’re interested and want to read the whole thing, get it here.

To start with, here’s the thesis statement
Good typography is an important part of effective visual communication. As identity programs and typography converged, new typefaces emerged that could be used in a wide variety of media, from fine print on labels to signage to printed pages to computer screens. I shall address these faces as multiplatform types. Multiplatform types offer organizations exceptionally readable typography that remains consistent across more media than ever before.

To Follow that, I’ll define the term multiplatform typeface in detail
Multiplatform typefaces generally include a variety of weights designed for use in different situations. The designs are often very similar for use in very small and very large media; as Erik Spiekermann has pointed out, this is because legibility-promoting features applicable to one extreme are often applicable to the other extreme. A book or text weight that leaves out some of these special features may also be designed, as they are not needed under more reader-friendly conditions. These various weights may be clearly named for their intended media, or it may be left to designers to make such decisions.

In signage words must often be read quickly, from a distance, and at angles, causing the brain to process words letter-by-letter. Thus multiplatform typefaces are highly legible, and characters are intentionally dissimilar, as opposed to the strikingly similar character designs of Univers and Helvetica. Counters and apertures are large, this is facilitated with large x-heights and short strokes that do not extend into the apertures. Special attention is given to the glyphs lowercase i, uppercase I, lowercase l and the lining figure 1 to prevent them from being mistaken for each other.

And the goal and form of the work (this is not a written thesis project)
My goal is to examine, via direct experience, the design of multi-platform typefaces, and use the results to present their value to my audience. This will be done by presenting the history of the typefaces as well as examining design elements of the typefaces that enhance legibility and readability. The information presented will be used to explain why a multiplatform typeface is more appropriate for corporate identity systems than older superfamilies such as Helvetica, Univers, and Frutiger.

I will design a new multiplatform typeface and present it in a series of specimens designed as a brochure targeting businesspeople rather than the graphic designers that type specimens often target. The typeface will be produced in four weights; light, medium, semibold and bold. Because of the limited time available, complete fonts will not be developed—the character set will be limited to a Latin alphabet for the English language only, along with basic punctuation and lining figures. Only light and bold weights will be drawn, and I will leverage interpolation software to produce the regular and medium weights.

My typeface will be presented as part of the graphic design senior thesis exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. I plan to present my typeface in a specimen designed as a brochure targeting businesspeople rather than graphic designers.(We are required to not target designers with our thesis work) This brochure shall be given away at a trade-show style booth designed using the typeface in a variety of sizes. If possible, the booth shall sit in front of a large horizontal banner featuring the typeface.

specimen.6.pdf327.83 KB
blank's picture

To keep things cleaner, here’s my followup post to the big one.

First, I realize that trying to do a four-weight face in a short timespan is stupid and likely to fail or go horribly wrong. And even moreso as an undergrad project at school with no type designers on staff. But sanity and moderation are not my strong points. To be frank: I expect this typeface will likely come out looking light eight miles of cow shit, and that really doesn’t bother me. This is a learning experience.

Second, I’m really interested in workflow and interpolation/blending. Right now, I see three options:

1: Draw light and bold, blend them to get regular, blend regular and bold to be get semibold.
2: Teach myself multiple master next to the pool while I’m vacationing in Mexico.
3: Buy superpolator and teach myself that while I’m by the pool in Mexico.

Anyway, suggestions are welcome!

Nick Shinn's picture

According to your criteria, Cheltenham was the first multi-platform typeface:

1. Developed concurrently for foundry and machine composition
2. Drawn with microdetailed serif structure (s-curve bracket) to provide visual interest at display size--an early Benton-pantograph drawn face, and...
3. At text size, sturdy construction held up on emasculating coated stock, and in crude process (halftone) knockouts and surprints of the era, and poorly registered multi-color printing, while fine details nonetheless looked smart, and...
4. On uncoated stock, small x-height provided elegant proportions.
5. Large family for all occasions.
6. Short descenders because focus of character recognition is on upper half of lower case letters (your "highly legible").
7. Signature characters are "intentionally dissimilar" -- spurred A and G, quirky g.

So your origin-theory "as identity programs and typography converged" doesn't hold up -- a case of recency.
Favoring technological determinism, I would say that media convergence in the late 19th century prompted Cheltenham's multi-platformism, and that relationship is probably a general principle, occurring most noticably in times of rapid technological change when a new media assimilates older media.

blank's picture

Thanks need—that’s the kind of informed—and unflinching—feedback I’m looking for.

I admit to recency and technological determinism, but feel it is important. While Cheltenham is a large family with clearly distinguishable letterforms, it was—at least as far as I know—developed for metal setting on paper. There is a big difference between that and, say, FF Info, which was designed to work in small sizes and large, backlit signs. In the days of Cheltenham a signpainter could certainly have been hired to paint it onto a signboard, but that’s hardly the same thing. I probably need to state this very directly and up front.

russellm's picture


James Arboghast's picture

You're planning to make a linear type (so-called sans serif) or seriffed (non-linear) creature? Reference to Helvetica, Univers and Frutiger suggests a general absence of serifs.

Would a heavy or extra-bold weight allow more pronounced demonstration of the multi-platform approach? Heavy linears fit extreme display use like magazine and brochure mastheads, signage etc. That would involve more work, and if it were me I would skip the poolside scene in Mexico, work like a dog and get the thing made, then go south when the ink is dry.

j a m e s

Ricardo Cordoba's picture

Hey, James,

Your thesis proposal sounds interesting. I have my doubts about the appropriateness of the term "multi-platform" -- when I read it, the first thing that came to mind was OpenType fonts, which work on more than one computer platform (i.e., Macintosh and Windows)... It might sound confusing to your classmates and profs, too. Maybe someone here can propose a more accurate term, one that will not cause confusion. You are talking about very versatile typefaces that work well in diverse mediums.

As to the problem of developing a typeface in such a short timespan, perhaps you could limit the work even more -- i.e., to just a few key characters, ones that would be characteristic in any typeface... H, R, O, A, etc. Or enough to spell out HAMBURGERFONTIVS, HANDGLOVES or (insert your own testword here).

One more... I don't know if I would call Helvetica a superfamily... perhaps Helvetica Neue fits that bill.

blank's picture

@James: Skipping the trip to Mexico, is unfortunately, not an option. I’m going because my significant other works 60+ hour weeks at a law firm and needs the break more than I do.

@Ricardo: To clarify, I picked the term multiplatform because my professor doesn’t like the term ”information type“ that already tends to be used for this genre. Multimedia would be a better term, but that one is taken, too. Anyway, I have no qualms about picking a better term, but I have had a hard time finding one that does not already refer to something else. Versatile types might be better, but I’m not sure it’s specific enough for non-designers to understand. But then again, it would be less confusing.

And one thing to keep in mind about the time is that I don’t really know what I’m doing, so I’ll save a lot of time not working on all the little things that experienced type designers slave away at. I can worry about making the font good in the time after graduation.

James Arboghast's picture


Also try: "multiple"

Making all 26 letters for upper and lower case is essential, in my experience, because you're designing a team that has to work together in almost every concievable combination, and the design of one glyph often influences or determines the design of other glyphs. Often.

j a m e s

James Arboghast's picture

James, re: Mexico. Understood. Same situation crops up for me all the time, with wifey travelling a lot for her work.

Don't sweat the small stuff.

j a m e s

James Arboghast's picture

multi-role (or multirole)

There's also the question of an italic. A truly capable multi-role type system needs a contrast font for effective text use. Possibly you could mention italics in the printed materials but not show them, and make the italic font post grad.

j a m e s

dan_reynolds's picture

I would look at a bit at the Compatil typeface; this brief has already been attempted by typeface designes and foundries. The Compatil family was also initially released without Italics. First came just uprights, then obliques, then italics, over a period of years. Note also that Compatil's first brochures were all targeted at business people and not designers. Maybe you can learn some things to do and also maybe not do by looking at this typeface. I know every senior wants to re-invent the wheel, but some work has been done on your wheel already ;-) Good luck with the project! Really, I mean it!

If you have between now and May, that is enough time to finish a prototype. Just make sure you show your sketches to right people! It doesn't mean jack that the Corcoran has no type people. You have the Internet. But all feedback isn't equal; you need to send it to people who can give you exact feedback that is helpful. Also, DC is rather type poor as far as Northeastern cities go, but Terry Biddle and Chris Lozos are there, which is a good foundation to make it stronger. I'd get them in a as local advisors to your thesis. Or something.

ralf h.'s picture

That's interesting! I will work on almost the same thesis next year for my diploma at the Bauhaus Universtity Weimar.
The difference is, that I will focus on problems today's multiplatform families haven't solved.
Let's stay in touch!


blank's picture

Possibly you could mention italics…

That’s something I will need to address, because people keep asking about it. It amazes me how many people, even designers, assume that an italic just involves slanting the letters and drawing a few new lowercase letter.

Thanks for the information about Compatil, Dan. I’ll try and track down some of those brochures—can you recommend anyone at Linotype who might be able to help if nobody here in DC has them in a collection?

If you have between now and May, that is enough time to finish a prototype.

If only! I have until March! Fortunately I have a light class load, my boss is a former grad and very understanding, and being undergrad work, it doesn’t have to be perfect.

Your work sounds very interesting, Ralf. If you need help with research, I’ll be happy to pass along my bibliography or talk about anything:

Anyway, my coffee is kicking in, so it’s time to sit down and draw some more letters!

Ricardo Cordoba's picture


I like that one -- thanks for the list, James. Multiple-purpose sounds good to me, too.

Making all 26 letters for upper and lower case is essential, in my experience...

Yeah... good point, James. Shame on me for suggesting a shortcut! :-)

pugnax's picture

Just chiming in on the "multiplatform" thing since I'm not particularly qualified to speak on any of this. I too was initially confused by the term "multiplatform" until I started reading your thesis statement. Shortly into it I thought, "Oh, he means multi-purpose or multi-use." Good to see others seem to agree with that analysis. I personally feel that "multi-purpose" will cause the least confusion, since it seems to be the most descriptive, concise, and accurate term for what you are describing.

James Arboghast's picture

Shame on me for suggesting a shortcut!

Not at all Ricardo. You had the best intentions. I like you a lot.

Mutipurpose is good, yes it fits. The military use "multi-role" when describing fighter planes. James, you could nail it by being more specific. How about "Multi-role information typeface system". To be conventional you could replace "system" with "family", and if your prof really hates "information" leave that word out.

j a m e s

dan_reynolds's picture

James, I sent to an e-mail about some contacts offline.

William Berkson's picture

I am quite skeptical about the idea of multi-purpose type. If you can design it one one purpose and it works very well, that's great. And then if people can find another use for it, that all the better. But I would think that having two briefs for the typeface might be like trying to chase two rabbits at the same time :)

On Compatil, the attempt seems to be to have many related typefaces to meet different needs, which is a different thing than what you seem to have in mind. Also you might be interested in some negative reviews of Compatil on typophile: Jean-Francois Porchez pours acid on it in this thread, with Erik Spiekermann chiming in. And here Yves Peters adds his thumbs down.

blank's picture

But I would think that having two briefs for the typeface might be like trying to chase two rabbits at the same time

That’s where families come in. There’s also an inherent versatility in some features of type. Spiekermann brings that up in his essay about FF Info, noting that some of the features intended to make it more legible at large signs (eg signage) also work at extremely small sizes.

William Berkson's picture

>There’s also an inherent versatility in some features of type.

I wouldn't rely on that too much. A similar point was made recently when David Berlow noted that Clearview, which has proved highly legible for road signs at a distance, has agate proportions--the proportions of the tiniest type for newspapers. True enough, but how many publications actually use FF Info for tiny type? Also I would think that you would want to adapt Clearview for an actual use as agate type. I don't know, maybe James M has already done it, but it's another brief.

Optical sizing is in generally a matter not only of weight, but also width, contrast (for a serif at least), and spacing. So I think trying to take on different optical sizes or different purposes in one thesis may be too ambitious, as they are likely to require significantly different solutions.

dezcom's picture


I don't know if you still plan on designing a family. I would limit it to just a few test glyphs. perhaps just Hamburgefontstiv or even just "andos". You have no idea how much work you are talking about! Better yet, just focus on analysis of existing families since there are no type designers at the Corcoran to help you or even understand your pain. Focus on comparing a true multi-usage family and one that is not to show the differences. Please limit your scope before you get overwhelmed and save yourself the depression. Keep us all updated with drafts!


Nick Shinn's picture

You're misusing the word "platform".
A multi-platform type is one that works on Mac and PC.

blank's picture

I’m finally getting around to posting an update. I’ve been working away on this project for months, and it’s gone relatively well. I did have to scale back my absurdly ambitious plans to a single weight, presented in an eight page specimen, but that was still a hell of a lot of work. My thesis idea eventually derailed into a murk as I wasn’t being critical enough of my own work or what I was reading; the relationship between corporate identity and typographic versatility is tenuous at best and I was a moron for not catching that about five months ago. But in the long run it was a great personal journey, with a lot of learning.

As for the type design, it went well after some early stumbling, mostly with help from a new faculty member at the Corcoran. And of course I owe thanks to Mexico’s awesome coffee growers, who have fueled many afternoons and weekends of work. You can the design at it’s present state, in a specimen I working on, attached above. Spacing/kerning are still a little wonky, especially in the caps, but a few more passes will clean that up ;)

And of course, thanks to Nick Shinn who, back at Typecon, convinced me to go beyond just drawing a grotesque.

William Berkson's picture

Nice varied shapes, but kept harmonious. Good work!

blank's picture

Thanks William. I’ll make sure to post about the opening nite reception for you and all the other area typophiles.

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