By Lucas Sharp on September 03, 2014
Tagged: typewriter, bespoke, identity, zazzle, custom, logotype, branding, virgo
In April of 2013 we was approached by Zazzle to draw a new logotype. Over the course of the next year the project evolved into a full package of typographic identity including a logo, icon, and a 14-style family of custom typefaces.
Zazzle started as a maker of custom, on-demand products. It went live in 2005 to let people design their own retail goods using user-generated content or content from brands like Disney in original ways. Today, Zazzle is opening up its platform of manufacturing and design tools for anyone in the world to combine products, designs, and ideas to make novel stuff together.
At the time I was brought on, the typography was not the only thing getting a thorough renovation at Zazzle. The online retailer’s website had just undergone a major renovation, the company had moved into their new headquarters in a big shiny office building in Redwood City, and evidence of their success was visible throughout. Touring the new headquarters, one had the palpable sense of Zazzle’s arrival as a major player in the online retail scene.
With every facet of the business getting renovated there was the double impetus to rebrand: every other aspect of the company was getting an update, and no one wanted the old brand crowning all this beautiful new stuff (building, website, etc.), so we got to work. At that point in the development of their typographic identity, Zazzle was using Tobias Frere-Jones’ Archer for the bulk of their market facing material. They were somewhat attached to it and the idea was to create a logotype that would function well with it, something in the genre of the monolinear slab or Egyptian serif. The founders were eager to implement the new brand so timing was a factor. I was happy they had a stylistic genre in mind, if only to limit the scope of my exploration within a manageable range.
In our various briefings and discussions about Zazzle’s vision for their new brand, a phrase kept coming up over and over: “hand-made.” As a purveyor of consumer customized merchandise, the founders and creative team envisioned a brand with a sleek but handcrafted aesthetic---something that looked relevant to internet and technology culture but with a human touch.
Original Icon in grey, followed by some icon design iterations
One of the first and most basic problems I was confronted with was how to make all those Zs look good. We knew that whatever the solution, a single Z would serve as the emblem for the entire business, and it had to pop. As the most uncommon letter in the english language, a logotype with three Zs in it is quite a novelty.
a few logotype design iterations
Early on I experimented with the kind of subtle rounding and beveling that gave our second retail type family Malleable a feeling of hot metal and physical production. We imbued the letters with subtle details suggesting the effects of non-digital production methods.
I like to think of letters as physical objects with physical forces being exerted on them. The Zazzle logo is wet. The wetness gives its straight intersections and strokes a smooth but constructed feel, while its soft stroke terminals bead up into plump “monkey tails.”
The Zazzle Headquarters in Redwood City, post re-brand
Our next task was providing consultation to help determine the suite of typefaces Zazzle would use in conjunction with the logotype and icon. While Archer is by all accounts a beautiful and utilitarian typeface (my personal favorite from the extensive and popular HFJ library) our thinking was that a typeface as ubiquitous as Archer in the corporate and editorial landscape would not be suitable for a brand aimed at projecting a feeling of handmade originality and craftsmanship. Fonts like Archer and Gotham are everywhere. You cannot turn on the television, walk outside in a commercial neighborhood, or flip through a catalogue without being confronted with them. They have achieved this level of total market saturation for a reason--- they are beautiful, utilitarian, well-marketed, and inoffensively bland. As such, they have become a trusted part of the corporate American aesthetic.
Every choice that is made in defining the aesthetics of a brand reflects a worldview and a philosophy. Of all the infinite possibilities the entity chooses a certain path. The end result is inevitably made up of some designed and some circumstantial aspects---the point is that it all tells a story. The popular cultural mythology about Silicon Valley has been readily distilled into an archetype: the revolutionary innovator who boldly challenges established ways of thinking and harnesses new technology to change the world. How can we use the tools at our disposal to tell that story? What would an appropriate accompanying aesthetic to this mythical hero be? Would Steve Jobs use Gotham? “DIY” and the Maker Movement in general are strongly relevant to the Zazzle brand, and with it the belief that the establishment is outdated and its accompanying aesthetics are dusty and homogenous.
We decided not to use Archer.
Our first list of possible Archer alternatives included some of our favorite releases of the last few years. We started with Shift, (a style referenced in the logotype itself) Jeremy Mickel’s insanely beautiful Slab serif inspired by 19th century slabs with a monolinear typewriter feel in the lighter weights. We also included: Artur Schmal’s Parry, Henrik Kubel’s Typewriter, Joshua Darden’s Jubilat, and Christian Schwartz’s Stag. We really wanted to use Kris Sowersbury’s typewriter inspired opus Pitch, but the monospacing was not versatile enough for our purposes.
For one reason or another, every one of these possibilities was eventually ruled out. Some slabs like Stag and Jubilat were a bit too masculine and not really suited to text settings. Shift with its long wedge serifs was a bit too extreme in some places to work in all the contexts we needed it to. At this point Henrik had not released italics for Typewriter and three weights of roman wasn’t going to cut if for their needs. Besides that they were also not fans of Typewriter’s rounded stroke terminals. Parry was the closest we got to choosing an existing typeface for the Zazzle brand, but it was eventually ruled out as well. Parry’s beautiful wonkiness, slight contrast, and typographic compensations were a bit too pronounced. I worked directly with Jeremy Britton, the Director of Design & Strategy. He shared my passion for innovative typography and the story I wanted to tell with it. I had suggested the idea of a custom typeface to him at the outset, and with each rejected alternative the prospect became more and more appealing to everyone involved. We knew what we wanted, but what we wanted didn’t exist yet. We decided to design Zazzle a custom typeface starting with three styles: a book, italic, and a bold. I wanted to make a monolinear slab serif that was versatile, genderless and friendly. It needed to work in display as well as subheader and limited text settings---on the page and on the screen. Typewriter inspired typefaces were in the zeitgeist of the design world at that time. 2012 had seen a flurry of releases in that vein like Kris Sowersbury’s Pitch, Henrik Kubel’s Typewriter, Ondrej Jób’s Remi and Bernau/Carvalho’s Atlas. All this amazing work got me super excited about this style, so I decided to do my own research. One day on a stint in San Francisco I was in Berkley combing through California Typewriters’ collection of restored machines when I found a few Olympia type style samples that rocked my world. The almost perfectly round bowls and open arches of the Italic lowercase were reminiscent of constructions and proportions I had been experimenting with in my own work*
Olympia Pica 12 alphabet --- 10 pitch design
Olympia Italic Elite No.89 alphabet --- 11 pitch design
A Royal Futura typewriter, nice lowercase “g” proportions
A Remington 12 Cesare Verona
Archer is a great typeface. It is actually one of my favorite typefaces. I think a major key to its success is that it is based on Verlag, a modernist sans-serif with geometric tendencies and proportions well suited to incorporating the ball terminals and slab serifs.
Verlag’s open and balanced construction made it a perfect skeleton for Archer to fill out. I was very conscience of the skeletal forms throughout the process of designing what would eventually become Zazzle’s custom typeface: Virgo. We wanted the letter widths to hold a strong relation to one another without the stringent requirement of monospacing.
Virgo skeleton experimentation
The more I make type, the more I value the systematic relationship the glyphs have to each other over the individual forms themselves. I’ve learned to focus on the negative space. The seemingly endless permutations of glyph combinations require you to think about this space in an abstract and systematic way. As the late great Massimo Vingelli once said "Typography is really white, you know, it’s not even black. It is the space between the blacks that really makes it." The artwork is easy, it’s getting that artwork to fit together right that is the challenge. Another very important attribute of this rhythm between negative and positive space is the relationship of letter widths. Monospacing is by it’s very nature weird looking; there is a reason a W is drawn wider than an I.
The four diagonal strokes that make up the W will by definition take up more room than the single stroke of the I. But at the same time they are both equal members of the same alphabetical system. On the continuum of fixed width to proportional width letterforms, the aim of Virgo was to inhabit that perfectly harmonious sweet spot somewhere in the middle; incorporating aspects of both typewriter monospaced typefaces and modernist proportional width styles. I began experimenting with different width systems:
LEFT: Fixed-Width, CENTER: Balanced width (the sweet spot), RIGHT: proportional width.
The beauty of the Egyptian serif, and the reason this style dominates the genre of monospaced typefaces is this serif’s ability to reach out and inhabit horizontal space. Instead of utilizing this ability of extending slab serifs to cheat the widths of the letters for the purpose of evening out a monospaced typeface, Virgo utilizes this ability to give it a balanced and even system of letter widths. I was eager to incorporate some of those wonderful forms that made me fall in love with the typewriter vernacular. The book weight and accompanying italic came first.
Virgo Book & Virgo Book Italic
I imbued Virgo with a surface treatment in keeping with the theme of the logo: subtle details suggesting the effects of non-digital production methods. Virgo’s diagonal bracketing on the intersections of strokes and serifs is a direct reference to Kris Sowersbury’s Pitch. Virgo’s brackets are less pronounced than Pitch’s and are part of a system of oddly sloped slabs, brackets, ball terminals and ink traps. Subtle construction devices like these are most commonly used to give digital letterforms an “inky” effect, with the intention of injecting the rigid perfectionism of vector geometry with attributes of the printed page. Virgo’s detailing is less about the ink and more about the metal. The skeleton of Virgo is rigid and clean for the most part. It is the serifs and transitions that subtly bulge, cut, smooth and sharpen.
LEFT: Archer Book, CENTER: Pitch Medium, RIGHT: Virgo Book.
Most of these devices were aesthetic treatments, but some served a structural purpose. Inktraps were utilized to chisel out intersections where too much form welled up and created textural unevenness.
A concept paramount to Virgo’s genesis was the combination of this unorthodox micro detailing with an overall textural evenness and legibility. My goal was a correct balancing of these two attributes. The result would be a typeface whose subtle detailing came to the forefront in display settings and faded into an even textured paragraph of text.
The bold was a really fun weight to draw. In order to fill out properly, a bit of contrast and a lot of weight compensation had to be introduced, but the feeling of monolinearity was still maintained throughout.
For the figures and currency I decided to make tabular (monospaced) the default style for the aforementioned aesthetic reasons as well as for utility in Zazzle’s intended uses.
Virgo is not the most feature heavy typeface I have ever made (no one really utilizes open type features much anyway.) But I did include a stylistic set for simpler “a” and “g” forms
The original impetus for expanding the first 3 weights of Virgo into what eventually became a 14 font family came from my desire to draw hairline styles. The bracketing in Virgo is meant to create a textural evenness with its ball terminals. This effect is most evident in the hairlines, where the skeleton of the face is so thin that these details really come to the foreground. The brackets and ball terminals harmonize beautifully at this weight, peppering the word-shape like stars in a constellation diagram.
Virgo Hairline & Hairline Italic
With these 5 masters in place it just made sense to build out the bold italic and with it all the interpolated instances (thins, lights, mediums, semi-bolds)
Final Virgo Family.
This complete typographic suite for the Zazzle brand is by far our biggest client project to date. Its not often you find a non-editorial organization that places the kind of value on quality typography that the founders and creative team at Zazzle do.
Big thanks to the Beaver family, Jeremy Britton, and all the awesome people at Zazzle --- working with you guys was a real privilege.
*Compare skeleton proportions with Sharp Sans Light Italic
Our Typeface Ogg took home a win for team Pagan & Sharp this year at the 2014 Type Directors Club Type Design Competition. The TDC writes: ‘There was a total of only 24 entries selected by the jury from nearly 200 submitted from 29 countries. These winners will will be included in the Annual of the Type Directors Club, Typography 35 and also included in 7 exhibitions touring cities in the United States, Canada, England, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Russia, Spain, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam.’
Lucas Sharp - Untitled, 2013. Acrylic ink on plywood pannel 60" x 43.5" (152.4 cm x 110.49 cm).
We are very pleased to announce we will be giving a talk at the Apple store on 14th street this coming Wednesday, April 3rd @7pm
"Join the founders of the Brooklyn-based design studio for a discussion on organic doodling, brand identity design, and typography."
I've been doodling since forever. By the time I was in middle school my doodling had evolved into a kind of weird calligraphic psychedelia, incorporating images and text into a texture of swirling form. Doing classwork, I always filled up the margins of my worksheets with this stuff. It was in this context of filling up whatever space was available like a colony of bacteria that my doodling began to resemble the work it has led to today
Flash forward 11 years- my doodling is getting more and more refined on the worksheets of the classes I didn't really care for at Parsons COUGH globalissues COUGH I'm getting more and more into typography and lettering, and I have the idea that instead of filling up the margins of stupid class worksheets I could use my doodle powers to texturally fill the contour lines of simple type. For the first piece I drafted the type by hand then traced over the composition in swirls. The type read "GO BIG OR GO HOME" in simple, grotesque capitals.
For my most recent batch of pieces in this style, instead of drafting the type by hand I used my previous drawing as a prototype for a set of capitals I composed in Fontlab.
The act of producing this type of work is blissful tedium for me, and I often much prefer the act to the finished result. I finished this around midnight sunday night, preparing for my week as a guest blogger on the the Friends of Type blog.
I will be posting there all week so come check me out. While your there dig through the Friend's endless backlog of awesomeness. It's quite a rewarding experience.
Other possible titles for this blog post were: "Kerning the Hard Way", "3rd Degree Kerns All Over my Body", and "That Time I Almost Committed Seppuku" The spacing of Sharp Sans was a hard fought battle that bloodied both sides. It was a brutal couple months, but it got me to where I needed to be. Looking back, I truly understand what Matthew Carter meant when he said "I'd take a well spaced font over a well drawn font any day."
I'm writing this blog post to both chronicle my struggle and warn future designers not to make the same mistakes I made, at least the unnecessary ones. I started the kerning process with enthusiasm and confidence, completely unsuspecting of the trials and tribulations before me. I had just completed all the artwork for the most ambitious superfamily I had ever created, secured a new publisher for it- one of the best in the business, Village- and was determined to achieve the most even and beautiful spacing I had ever done to date.
First, a little background information for those of you who have never kerned a font: Kerning groups are groups of glyphs that share an identical side that streamline the kerning process so you dont have to kern the same shape twice- IE the group "H_left" would have the glyphs HBDEFIKLM...ect. because they all have the same stem shape on the left side. Pair lists are just what they sound like, a thorough list of every single glyph combination (a-a, a-b, a-c, ect.) Typeface designers organize their pair lists by case and glyph category. Some example pair lists: Uppercase-Uppercase, Uppercase-Lowercase, Lowercase-Punctuation, ect.
My first mistake, which was a monumental one, was the nieve but well meaning thought "I am going to kern the SHIT out of this family." I set up my kerning groups and prepared the most thorough mass of pair lists I had done to date. I had 10 masters in the Sharp Sans superfamily, and for every one of those masters I kerned 16-19 pair lists which ended up being about 15,000 - 20,000 kerning pairs per master. The lower (non-pink) section of this kerning checklist shows just how much time was wasted with this nieve and idealistic idea that more kerning is better.
In a perfect world it might be" better" to have the Lowercase-Capitals kerned and even the SmallCapps-Capitals. If for nothing else than for Irish last names: "The font has Lowercase-Capitals kerned? The McFinley's will be so happy!"
What I discovered the hard way, and what anyone who has kerned a lot of fonts will tell you, is that good kerning is the art of doing more with less. If you have more than 3000 or so kerning pairs in a font, alot of applications will simply reject it and a kerning OTF feature of it usually wont even compile in Fontlab. You can imagine my surprise upon learning this after a month straight of kerning. All the kerning, a month of my life, would have to be scrapped. Oh-well, you always do it better the second time.
So instead of more is better, think of kerning as a game of skillful resource application. Utilizing kern groups skillfully is imperative, but over utilization can mess you up if you are constantly having to create exceptions (a kern that overrides the applicable groups) So using a straightforward set of kern groups, you have about 2000 max kerning pairs to make your spacing as fool-proof as possible. Use them wisely!