Where to put the Ss serifs in a slab?

nina's picture

Hi all,

Another obscure detail question from me. I started wondering about the various design possibilities of S/s in slab serif faces.

While looking at my samples, I got the impression that the more geometrical / constructed slabs, as well as those based on neoclassical lettershapes (e.g., Rockwell, Glypha, Memphis, or Serifa) tend to have the serifs on the outside, which connects to the treatment of Cc and G.

On the other hand, the more "dynamic" slabs I looked at (most notably, Caecilia and TheSerif), which tend to have less 'curvy' Ss, have the serifs on the inside of the curve, which also happens in the G and Cc and even connects to a little serif-like terminal on the hook of the a. (I like that.)

Then there are those with serifs on both sides of the curve, such as Grover.

Plus, I've also found some special s designs such as Archer with the little ball terminals, or even this asymmetric one in Kofi.

So, any opinion on which way is 'better' (any differences re. readability, openness of shapes, problems when making bold weights) – well I guess in the end, it is a matter of preference and most of all, of fitting into the general "curvature" of the typeface?

Also, does my original assumption hold true that certain Ss serif designs are inherently connected to certain styles of letterforms, and one should not, for instance, attempt to make 'inside' serifs on a geometric slab (by opening up the curves a tad to fit them in – ok, that would make the face a lot less geometric)?

Or is it totally OK to design the s either way, judging by 'eye' in terms of it working / fitting into the alphabet? (Either way of course making sure the correspondence to Cc and G, and if applicable, a, is there.)

Thanks for any pointers and/or opinions. I hope this wasn't too confused. :)

Nick Shinn's picture

...one should not, for instance, attempt to make ’inside’ serifs on a geometric slab...?

Why not try out your idea and see if you can make it work?

nina's picture

Thanks, Nick, I have actually started working on it. The thing is, I don't really trust my eye yet in these kinds of decisions; and I am also somewhat wary of violating all kinds of unwritten laws (which makes type design feel like a mine field, albeit a very inviting one).
So, yes, I will post a sketch here – probably in a couple of days, once I get it to look decent enough. (:

hrant's picture

Like in your "N", the "outside" serifs (which can also be seen as double-sided serifs) in slab designs are in a way vestigial: it took time for people to get over the traditional serif scheme. As such, fonts with outside serifs are more old-fashioned or quaint - at least I think so.

In terms of readability, that's an interesting question - I haven't thought about it. I would say that the impact is small (which is not to say it should be totally ignored - this is after all Detail Land) and it comes down to the balance of distraction (outsides are more distracting) versus differentiation (outsides are more distinctive).

One thing that might come into play here is what I mentioned in your "N" thread too: scanning versus reading smoothly. For the former, quaint caps are better, while for the latter you want the caps to blend in more.

> I am also somewhat wary of violating all kinds of unwritten laws

Few of those can be seen as Laws - most of them are conventions.
So in this minefield, the mines move around. :->

hhp

Nick Shinn's picture

I am also somewhat wary of violating all kinds of unwritten laws

It has long been said, learn the rules and then break them, but that's crap.
If you are starting out, why rush to work in established grooves? You will become habituated to convention, a young fogey.

hrant's picture

I agree.
Make your own rules, then check out what others
have decided, but then -crucially- adapt as needed.
Without this last part you remain merely an artist.

hhp

nina's picture

"If you are starting out, why rush to work in established grooves?"

Well, where do I draw the line? (Sorry, no bad pun intended.) Conventions are not just boring, they are also what people out there are used to, & what they can read. I am not particularly interested in making wacky display fonts that nobody can read, or that do not seem to make sense; so I do have an interest in first getting an idea of what the different ways to go are, & then make up my mind which one I choose, and why, and how I modify it for my needs.
Come to think of it, I am, in general, not somebody to "just do" & think later. My colleague is a bit like that. We're very different. I need to thoroughly wrap my brain around the problem at hand & possible solutions first before I can get visual.
But I am actually drawing "s"s right now. :)

nina's picture

Some first sketches of the slab in question, along with a lengthy and happy ramble, are here.

hrant's picture

I'm not fan of the Nike slogan either. Do think for yourself,
deeply. But actually trying things is part of thinking too.

hhp

Nick Shinn's picture

I am not particularly interested in making wacky display fonts...

Without setting your typeface in paragraphs at text size, that's exactly what you're doing.

nina's picture

OK, that was probably unclear. What I meant with wacky display fonts is the type of stuff most often found on freefont sites, experimental fonts that ignore all conventions, are built off of "funny ideas" and are often very hard to read. I'm not saying those aren't interesting in their own right, but not my goal here; I want to have some sort of understanding of conventions and, yes, traditions as a base to build on (which doesn't preclude the possibly of bending and/or breaking them).

dan_reynolds's picture

I think that what Nick means is that you need to work a bit quicker, more digitally. Your sketches look nice, but you are showing us your output too early. Quickly make vector outlines of a few of your letters in FontLab, generate the incomplete font, and start setting pages of dummy text in InDesign (or whatever text-setting applications you prefer). InDesign is just as important a tool to text typeface design as FontLab. Once you see your letters in text, your eye will tell you what is right and what is not. If you still have questions—and you will—post PDFs of these test sheets here.

Quincunx's picture

Personally, and I've heard more type designers say this, I wouldn't go to digital too quickly. Drawing with a pencil can be much quicker to sketch out a few ideas, it's more natural and spontaneous. You're also not restrained by the béziers yet. Once you're getting a pretty good idea what most of the lettershapes are going to look like, then it's time to start making them digitally.

But hey, that's what I think. ;)

dan_reynolds's picture

Sketching and drawing are good! But type design isn't a linear process that goes: step one – draw on paper, step two – draw on screen, step three – space, step four – finish.

Rather, you can sketch on paper, make a digital test of your ideas, test in text, make print outs, draw on the print outs, take some letters in another direction via sketching on paper, correct outlines and spacing, etc. Repeat for a long time, and then you'll get there ;-)

A lot of the questions that are being asked here are going to be answered best via trial and error. The best way to test a text face is in text.

nina's picture

Interesting. I am too kind of wary about going digital too quickly but the back-and-forth process you describe, Dan, sounds quite interesting.
FWIW, in this case, I wasn't so much wanting to "show my output" in terms of getting any sort of definitive feedback; I thought of it more in terms of a blog entry showing the progress of the project, & maybe getting some input on how to proceed (which is exactly what has been happening – thanks!). Maybe I should do it on my own blog instead – I am aware it's way too early for any kind of serious criticism about the individual shapes.

dan_reynolds's picture

I don't mean to criticize your working pattern, NIna. My initial comment came about because I was trying to expound upon what I think that Nick might have been getting at. In the end, you should do what you feel most comfortable with. On the other hand, I don't think that you have anything to fear in terms of working too quickly or jumping into the wrong medium at the wrong time.

Your professors are no doubt giving you their own hints, and at the end of the day, you'll need to listen to whatever they are telling you, too, of course ;-)

dezcom's picture

Frustration is your friend! Embrace it, joust with it, toy with it. The battles you have within yourself to learn to "see" so that you can trust your eyes are the most rewarding teachers you will ever have! That is not to say that you should approach your design like a Jackson Pollack painting. Type design is a combination of both sides of your brain--intellect and intuition interacting sometimes as one and sometimes in opposition. Don't rush into "the rules" before you take the opportunity to look at the design problem unarmed and without prejudice. There is plenty of time to be confined in the box of tradition and to be held by the welcoming arms of historic authority. Crawl, then take your baby steps and cruise along holding on as best you can. This period will teach you more than any pile of rules. After you muddle about a bit, learning rules of the past will have greater meaning without thwarting you. You only have one chance to be naive, don't throw it away. You will have a lifetime afterwards to learn and debate the value of rules.

ChrisL

hrant's picture

Concerning when to move from pencil to digital*, it depends on a few things, including the nature of the design, and the nature of the designer!

* Assuming you don't do it all digital, like some experts do do.

> Without setting your typeface in paragraphs
> at text size, that’s exactly what you’re doing.

1) It's probably still early.
2) There's more to wackiness than bad spacing! :-)

> type design isn’t a linear process

Very true, it's highly iterative, but there are still phases (even though they can mingle a bit). For example there comes a point where most people no longer sketch.

> The best way to test a text face is in text.

She hasn't decided that it's a text face.

hhp

Nick Shinn's picture

Right Dan, that's exactly my point.
The feedback loop that involves Quark/InDesign is what puts digital type design a quantum level beyond the 20th century process. Although interestingly, I suspect it's more akin to earlier methods involving punchcutting.

Scale changes everything, and -- especially for a beginner -- you can't know how a design will work until you read it.
And then you have to ask yourself, on observing a bit of spottiness, is that caused by the character shape, the stroke weights, the joint treatment, the font weight, or the sidebearings? Does it effect only certain character combinations? These polyvariant relationships are fundamental, and must be held in the head as what constitutes the general essence of the face, against which all detail decisions are made. They are only apparent in text. Now of course, you can examine other faces and deduce what works in them, and those with experience can tell you what principles they use (the conventions), but then you don't fully apprehend technique with your own visual intelligence, or develop the quality of personal style, unless you discover it yourself through trial and error.

dan_reynolds's picture

>She hasn’t decided that it’s a text face.

This is part of her graduate coursework in Zürich. I'm assuming that they don't have the option to do display faces there (?)

nina's picture

Wow. Leave the computer for a couple hours and this is what happens :)

I don’t mean to criticize your working pattern

No worries, Dan! I had a rather bad day at work so forgive me if I came across grumpy or something. It's highly interesting to read about this kind of "workflow" input (plus thanks for your "voice" in this, as I really didn't quite understand what Nick was saying).

Frustration is your friend! Embrace it, joust with it, toy with it. The battles you have within yourself to learn to “see” so that you can trust your eyes are the most rewarding teachers you will ever have!

:-) Thanks, Chris. I'm already feeling progress in questioning vs. trusting my eyes. Even my hand, actually; I haven't been doing any sketching for years prior to this and my stroke had gotten very rusty. Now very slowly, the feeling for curves is starting to creep back in, which is great.

Type design is a combination of both sides of your brain—intellect and intuition interacting sometimes as one and sometimes in opposition. Don’t rush into “the rules” before you take the opportunity to look at the design problem unarmed and without prejudice.

Spot on :-). I know I tend to be a bit on the brainy side of things. I mean that side. On the other hand, this combination has always been one of the major features of type design I've supposed to be quite enticing. So I'm definitely trying to be open. :)

Scale changes everything, and — especially for a beginner — you can’t know how a design will work until you read it.

:-) A couple of weeks ago in the course, one of the students rushed into the room, very excited, and exclaimed that everybody should run out and scale their stuff down on the photocopying machine; indeed it was quite illuminating just how different the letters looked at a small size, and how totally different features came into focus, and different problems and questions could be observed. So, yes, I am beginning to see what scale does, and I'm sure that actually seeing the letters in combination and in a text would reveal a lot more. On the other hand, I now have something like ten letters, at least five of which I'm very sure don't work at all yet, so I don't see this as a moment where I'd need to see it in text just yet – there'd probably be too many distracting errors in it anyway for me to judge the shapes themselves (what you said, Nick).
Besides, I'm not exactly a FontLab pro yet, so the quick back-and-forth between analog & digital won't exactly be quick for me ;-).

On the other hand, in the process of trying to decide just what this face is going to be, it would certainly be illuminating to just try and set it as text, & see if I can judge if that could work. I just think that needs a tad more time.

>She hasn’t decided that it’s a text face.
This is part of her graduate coursework in Zürich. I’m assuming that they don’t have the option to do display faces there (?)

Actually, there is no restriction on what kinds of faces we do. There are folks doing geometric / conceptual stuff, modernized blackletters, somewhat modernized Jugendstil stuff … in short, I see lots of designs there that look even less likely than mine to become text faces.

The only thing they told us was that at the end of the course, they expect us to present a font (not even necessarily multiple weights) with all letters, numbers, and punctuation (I assume they also want Latin-1 Extended type special characters, although I can't remember they explicitly mentioned that). We don't even have to hand in the font files themselves, but just do a poster presentation & hand in a documentation.

Bear in mind this is a part time course and we're all working 40 to about 120 percent on the side, so the requirements must be quite a bit lower than in Reading or Den Haag.

k.l.'s picture

I thought of it more in terms of a blog entry showing the progress of the project [...] Maybe I should do it on my own blog instead

Yes. Posting to a forum means that you expect an answer.  :)

Regarding Nick's and Dan's remarks about analog vs digital, the medium per se is not the issue. The problem is that it is not clear how exact your sketches right in the first post here were supposed to be, especially "Ernestine" and "Ernostige". If you had tried digitizing it, i.e. translating from one medium into another, you would have been forced to be more precise about some details. And as said, you could have printed and looked at at different sizes. So you might have found out by yourself that something went wrong, and what went wrong.
Just one example: In the "n", the shoulder touches the left stem at a relatively high point, and the top extremum of the shoulder is too much to the left.* It looks like you tried to treat the shoulder as symmetric as possible. But the result is that for one, the top left serif and the high touch point create a pretty dark spot, moreover, the entire letter seems to lean toward the left side, counter to reading direction. To "look right" however, this would require some adjustment. [* This peculiarity is present in the sanserif too, yet there are no serifs to emphasize it.]
Now the situation is not that different with the "s". The top and bottom curves are pretty flat. There's simply no space left for outward serifs. If you add them, you get the same strange black spots as in the "n". Just make another sketch and try. To be able to add outward serifs, you would need to turn the curve ends inwards, make them thinner, so that there is some more space which serifs could fill. Actually, the two top samples you present in your first post above show pretty well what is going on, and what needs to be done to make outward serifs possible. The issue is not one of geometrical, constructed, neoclassical, dynamic, etc but simply: How did the designer dealt with details.
So even in your few sketches it is pretty obvious that -- which seems to be your experiment (combining both this thread and your blog entry) -- you cannot simply add some serifs here and there but need to alter lettershapes too to accomodate for the serifs. Not only with "s" but also with more "trivial" letters like the "n".

nina's picture

Yes. Posting to a forum means that you expect an answer. :)

Well regarding the post with the sketches – I expected there'd be more of a perceived difference between a forum post and a blog entry here. I wrote that the way I'd write it on my other blog (except that one is in German), and wouldn't have if it felt like "posting to a forum". So if forum and blog posts, respectively, are pretty much regarded as interchangeable I'll have to change my posting form.

If anything, I was really just quite excited about the new direction this project is taking, happy about having a few crooked letters on my sheet of paper, & wanting to get back and show I'm actually doing something apart from asking about N joins and S serifs and such. ;-)

The problem is that it is not clear how exact your sketches right in the first post here were supposed to be, especially “Ernestine” and “Ernostige”. If you had tried digitizing it, i.e. translating from one medium into another, you would have been forced to be more precise about some details.

Like I said in the blog entry, they're raw sketches. They're actually the first sketches I have with serifs. The need to get more clear on the details is obvious to me, but at this point in time, I'd still prefer to work on it on paper; a process in which I'm still very much at the beginning.
I find it's easier for me to keep a feeling for the overall shape on paper, whereas on the computer, I tend to fizzle around with details & lose touch with the overall scope. Also, I feel working on paper actually forces me to think more & work more carefully.

Just one example: In the “n”, the shoulder touches the left stem at a relatively high point, and the top extremum of the shoulder is too much to the left.

Thanks for pointing that out; I did think the join was too high, which is actually a feature of the sansserif I left in there for now to see how it works. I then kind of felt it didn't, and making the join lower was on my list for things to try next. I'm still very much at the beginning of the process, and I'm quite happy when I actually see one of the things that don't work. (Also, figuring that it wouldn't be possible to just "stick serifs on the sans" is exactly what makes this interesting to me from a type design studying perspective.)

Oh, and about the S: I actually tried those two variants. I think I even made (or at least, I wanted to make) the curves even flatter than they were in the sans, to make the serifs fit better. I tried the other variant too, with the outward serifs, but didn't like the curvy shapes it demanded.

kentlew's picture

An intermediate approach to evaluating initial design directions -- intermediate between drawings and beziers, with respect to the valid advice about seeing letters in context and at different sizes -- is to simply scan your sketches, duplicate letters and compose multiple test words in Photoshop, and make copies reduced to various sizes.

This is akin to "old-skool" techniques used in the 20th century (by such as Gill and Dwiggins, for instance), but much easier now with scanners and PShop. It bypasses the FontLab learning curve for now, if that is an issue. You can easily sketch out alternative approaches to your s-serif question and put the alternates side-by-side in the context of your other characters in real words.

I used this approach for a while before I became completely comfortable in the digital realm. Evaluating ideas in this way led me to ditch several early designs that lacked real promise ;-)

-- K.

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