On February the 14th, Velvetyne Type Foundry was invited to give a type design workshop at the Fig. Festival in Liège, Belgium. The goal of the workshop was to learn the basics of type design on the computer, specially vector tracing, spacing and kerning. Thanks for the organizers and for the participants who valliantly tackled such technical matters without even flinching!
For the tracing part of the workshop, a new typeface was created. It’s called Brassia (like Brussels, Brasseurs and a botanical genus of orchids), and it’s now available for everyone. You can now download it, modify it and use it freely in your personal and commercial projects. If you use it, please mention Velvetyne Type Foundry and its author (Ariel Martín Pérez) somewhere in the credits. Cheers!
At the end of 2016, I was really inspired by Elmer Stefan’s project of reviving Victorian typefaces under the guise of The Pyte Foundry. I wanted to create a typeface that was intentionally expressive and ornamental, with a kind of flair that I felt was missing from the open-source type scene.
Based on this premises, my initial concept was to draw letter shapes with a very large serif area, as large as possible, which then I could “carve” in order to create a myriad of decorative effects.
Early tests - “carved” letters (gruyerè A, hollow I and almost unreadable M).
With this idea in mind, I started doing some pencil sketches of these kind of letters. Their serifs were so large, that they created concave counter-forms between the letters that were oval-shaped, or egg-shaped sometimes. The openings on the letters would be very narrow (as for the letter E) and, sometimes, they would overlap themselves in a weird way (this idea was later abandoned). This produced a visual aspect for the capitals not unlike bubbles in dark ink spreading through the page, or at least that’s how I saw it.
Some of the earliest sketches of what would later become Ouroboros - I hadn’t sorted the serif positions yet. Look at those bell-bottoms!
Based on these sketches, I started to trace some letters on the computer. When I had a doubt about how a particular letter would be constructed, I would use Benguiat as a reference, so Ouroboros is relatively influenced by it.
Correcting by hand some of the early digital designs.
Because I based my design solely on vertical and horizontal anchors, drawing some of the letters, like the Z and the X, proved to be quite a challenge. It was necessary to strike a delicate balance to keep the strokes consistent with those of the other letters, and at the same time keeping the impression of a diagonal stroke.
Some early versions of the X and the Z vs their final forms - they’ve come a long way.
In addition to letters like the H (which were rather square, with a strong vertical axis), there were some others like the S and the J which were quite asymmetrical and curved in a sensuous way. The spline of the S is quite narrow compared to the rest of the strokes, and its shape mimics the gesture of someone pressing a paint brush on a support while applying a circular motion. This is a deliberate reference to art nouveau letters, which were often produced with brushes, rather than with pens. Some other details, like some of the accents, also recall brush strokes.
By that time of the design, the name I had in mind was “Circus Maximus” (I saw it as a tongue-in-cheek nod to Momus’ debut album rather than to classic Rome). My initial intentions were to create an extended style of the typeface so it could be used to compose circus posters, with letters of different widths. But with some letter shapes, like the O, this approach didn’t work so well.
Preliminary extended versions of Ouroboros that didn’t make the cut.
The problem was that 1) the name “Circus Maximus” was already taken by an existing font and specially 2) the typeface didn’t feel so circus-like after all. But one day, I came upon the name “Ouroboros” and all the pieces of the puzzle fell in place. The name wasn’t taken by any existing font, it conveyed the magic and fantasy feeling that I wanted to express, and most important of all, the O shape that I had drawn looked like an actual Ouroboros! So, it was perfect for this project.
Ouroboro’s infamous “O” vs the creature as depicted in the Codex Parisinus graecus 2327, a copy of an early medieval manuscript. The circle was complete.
During online conversations with Sébastian Hayez, who was an early fan of the typeface, the will of creating lowercase characters slowly started to take shape.
Ouroboros’ lowercase letters take some cues from ornamental typefaces such as Deberny & Peignot Les Modernes [here seen on the “Les Locomotives” title] [later released as DeVinne Ornamental by Stephenson Blake around 1900, today owned by Linotype], which can be commonly found on antique French postcards.
As for the numerals, my main inspiration [and a massive, ongoing obsession during the last months] were vintage number signs found all around Paris.
Hunting for numbers, day and night.
Some crude sketches for the numerals
The relationship between Art Nouveau letter shapes and magical themes was a strong one [Check out Manuel Orazi’s Calendrier Magique over at Gallica.fr if you have the time], and the Ouroboros is also an important symbol for alchemy, so the next logical step was the development of magical and alchemical symbols. The challenge here was keeping the same calligraphic feel and mood of the letters on symbols that 1) were radically different at times and specially 2) were so complex that the same stroke width [present on the rest of the letters] could not be maintained.
“A Table of Mediaeval Alchemical Symbols” from Basil Valentine’s The Last Will and Testament [c.1670] [detail]. Alchemical symbols were originally drawn on manuscripts [even if metal-cast versions of some symbols exist] and their representation varied wildly between authors. Contrary to the letters of the latin alphabet, there’s no general guide about how to draw them [and specially where their baselines should be placed exactly!], so the ones you see in Ouroboros are my personal interpretation.
Some of Ouroboros symbols compared to a capital A. As alchemical symbols come from very varied sources and authors, it was difficult to keep a homogeneous look. For the smallest circle shapes of the symbols, the contrast of the stroke disappears, as it happens when one tries to draw a very small circle with ink, instead of a large one.
After a preliminary online publication of the font on October 10th 2018 up at Font Library, the people over at Velvetyne told me that they were really interested in releasing it (we know each other for some years now actually). The date of the 31st October was proposed (just in time for Halloween). Between these two dates, I went a little bit crazy improving the kerning, fine-tuning the design of some characters and adding new symbols, accents and stylistic sets. 130 ligatures were implemented, as well as positional variants, which allowed the text to become a bit more compact, specially for texts set in all-caps. As for the resulting font, you can check it yourself by downloading it.
See you later, alligators!
When we released our latest typeface, Trickster, at the end of 2017, we also hosted a poster exhibition showing creations from 14 designers, who designed beautiful applications for the font. The event took place at La Générale, a place collectively managed by an association. As its website puts it, La Générale “is a laboratory made for creation — cultural, artistic, political or social.” This former electrical substation in the heart of Paris was the right place to show our exhibit. We designed posters, asked friends and personal heroes to do the same, and we ended up with 14 fantastic propositions of how to use Trickster — a typeface that looks barely legible at a first glance but that resulted being perfectly functional for designers.
We hung up the posters, created a medieval mood for the event (the flyer, the food, the name) and invited our fellow type and graphic designers, or any regular John who wanted to discover Trickster, to come by and say hello.
If you missed the exhibit, don’t be sad, because the party continues: you’ll be happy to read a few words that the author of Trickster —Jean-Baptiste Morizot— wrote about it to explain its influences, the origin and the reasons of this animal. You can discover some pictures of the event in the corresponding blog post too.
The making of Trickster
Trickster is a libre font I released at the end of 2017. When the Velvetyne crew and I released the typeface, I called it “a smooth blend of Merovingian writing, blackletter influences and contemporary shapes”. It’s a smart way to say I don’t know how to label it properly. The design being quite unusual (call it weird or ugly if you want, but at least it’s not your usual Helv), I thought it could be interesting to write about its development and what lies behind its design decisions.
At the beginning
Trickster was born from one of the sporadic frenetic pen and paper doodling periods that I have (between two periods where I make all my essays on the screen). Among the many letters I drew, there was this radical and unusual a. I liked it so much I drew it again and again until I switched to the computer and then I designed the glyph directly with Bezier curves.
This letter was a challenge: how to derive an entire typeface from this atypical letterform? Was it even possible? At that time I perused a lot into a kind of medieval calligraphy called Luxeuil writing (or Merovingian writing). Merovingian writing is quite illegible now because of its many ligatures, forgotten letters constructions, and the use of a writing tool that allowed to go back from the bottom to the top of the letter shapes and which caused very dark stems (you don’t do that usually in calligraphy).
Guessing that the Luxeuil writing I was looking at so fondly may have impacted my design, I loosely used some of its shapes and tried to mix them with the a. So my first sketches looked like that:
The g came from the Merovingian construction, like the o, while the square-like m and n were influenced by the a. The open head of the g, with the descending end of the loop came from the writing tool and from the need of the calligrapher to stop his/her gesture when writing. I suppose it could be also be linked to the need of exhausting the ink on the paper in order to avoid stains when lifting the pen to start writing the next letter. So even if it was a calligraphic feature with a justified reason, I couldn’t help but seeing a drop of blood flowing (we’ll talk about it later). The typeface had a Blackletter feeling, so I shifted promptly towards a bolder weight. Letter shapes followed the hand’s movements, so I redesigned m and n in a more classical way. The p, n, m had now a really calligraphic voice (yes, the dot on the i is a mess, and curves are generally wrong).
The stems were broken like in some Blackletters models, but I suppose that Infini — a font I’m really fond of — influenced me too. It’s a feature you could think was outdated until recently, but Infini made such a good use of it, that it showed us that it was still relevant today. So I jumped on the train.
I liked the way it looked, so I dug my ideas deeper: I made the weight even bolder and quietly started designing the remaining lowercase and capital letters.
Even bolder. It finally has the right weight.
Disclaimer: I’m not a tag addict; I don’t know anything about it (or very little, thanks to my fellow colleague Elliott). But I work in a neighborhood where tags bloom on every corner shop. I can’t tell much about this or that tag, crew or style, but I like their gestures, I like how they flow — so I unintentionally started merging some of the stylistic elements of the street in my design. They’re obvious in those several versions of the f.
Eventually the second one was kept (and a modified version of the third as alternate).
This f was quite a challenge because it had a lot of white space on its right, and in the same time it blackened the word when kerned to correct this issue. I had to find the right balance.
And it needed some ligature substitutions to work properly. Even a i+f+i solution:
Other letters received this kind of street look medication, mostly in alternate shapes; like this creamy/burger s.
The X and x, the alternate k, the s, etc., could be classified according to the same design decisions: gesture, gesture, from the past and from the streets.
K I S S
So tags were a good inspiration, but the typeface needed to work its medieval-ish look (a half-serious, half-pop culture medieval look). So I started making the uppercase letters this way:
I was unsure about it: they were fun, but those very calligraphic, lined Blackletter capitals felt too cliché. So I started to doubt about them and trying a more simple design approach (thanks Jérémy for your input on this topic). I kept the structure, but cleaned the design (see the A). I added spikes to ornate the stems a little bit, and I used my tag trick to make them bouncing (upper diagonal of the K). The O and Q are a good mix of this calligraphic/tag/simplification solution. Even the P, X, V, U letters try to retain and spread the gesture in a half-calligraphic, half-contemporary way. To me, the S; with its curvy loopy movements has a really street-like structure. The M has a fun design, looking like the signature of a comic book super-villain.
This helped me to better understand what Trickster wanted to be: a blackletter for the 21th century. So I started to simplify and to clean the lowercase too, but without loosing the warmth and the softness of the calligraphic gesture.
The a is a good example: it looses its inner upstroke, which simplifies the shape, and which also brings a more contemporary voice to it (the inner counter is quite graphically expressive). But, if you look closely, you’ll see that the lower upstroke that ties the bowl to the stem keeps a calligraphic style (and so does the attack of the n, m and the p). At the same time, letters like the c could be seen as oversimplified compared to letters like the p. The c is indeed very geometric-looking (notice the wide empty counter) but the human gesture can still be seen, so the words are allowed to flow when all the letters are combined together.
Drip, drip, drip
I’ve already told you about the Merovingian g. I liked its dripping open head, so I repeated that feature on some other letters, like the r. (The f kind of relates to it, even if it’s more similar to graffiti and was influenced by a medieval weapon.) The r rises above the x-height because that’s the way that Merovingians wrote it, so in result it adds rhythm to the text. It’s an interesting shape, but it kind of overlaps every other sign in order to avoid white gaps in the text. Therefore, it creates black spots when merging with stems on its right side. You could rage on about it, but to my eyes this creates original patterns, so I kept it this way.
Still, these terminals didn’t feel as they were dripping as much as I wanted, so I made their alternate versions go berserk.
They’re just 5 letters (or even less if you don’t use the alternate s), but they can change meaningfully the look of any logo or text set with Trickster.
In addition to this bloody stylistic set, I incorporated some fancy stuff, like a long tailed y that can go beyond letters the letters on its left but only if they don’t have descenders. And a swash e. And many other alternate letters. Take a look to the OpenType features of Trickster, you’ll find things to spice up your design.
Figures were another struggle for me, similar to the one with capitals letters. I made several attempts at them with useless ornamentation and oddities. But I wasn’t convinced yet.
Following the design of the uppercase, I chose a sharper approach. See how the 2 makes a loop that creates a geometric shape. The 6 and 9 combine a style without contrast and contrasted elements. When I found the right formula for them, they were easy to draw. Then I adapted them into old style figures.
The punctuation was a fun thing to do as well. I started with a diamond-shaped dot, then I derived the comma from it and it started working immediately. The ? followed the style of the 2. Finally, the hyphen is more like a frenetic gesture that almost resembles a scratch — and that fills the space quite well.
For the quote signs I didn’t reuse the comma as it was, but I increased their curvature and I also changed their upper extremes to make them rounder (which integrate in a better way with the rest of the words in the sentence).
Finally, the more decorative stuff like &, ¶, % was easy to do =)
End of the journey
If I need to summarise: Trickster is a Blackletter for the world of tomorrow. But to promote it today, we made a poster exhibition showing creations from 14 designers who played with it. The event took place at La Générale, a place collectively managed by an association. La Générale “is a laboratory made for creation — cultural, artistic, political or social.” This former electric substation was the right place to show our exhibit. We hang the posters, created a medieval mood for the event (the flyer, the food, the name) and invited all the designers and curious people that want to see Trickster
I designed one poster, and mused on my own font to create an original lettering. Since Trickster is a libre font, you can do it too.
One of the sketches for my poster.
Thanks for reading.