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THE PRACTICAL TYPEFACE creator & origins characteristics comparisons bibliography


2 | CREATOR AND ORIGINS

THE CREATOR Erik Spiekermann, born in 1947, calls himself an information architect. He is equally comfortable and prolific as a writer, graphic and typeface designer, but type is always at the epicenter of this communication dynamo. Even as a child, Spiekermann was drawn to the typographic arts. “I had a little printing press and taught myself to set type when I was twelve,” he recalls. “Years later, when I went to university to study art history, I made a living as a letterpress printer and hot metal typesetter.” When it comes to the design of typefaces, Spiekermann sees himself as more of a problem solver than an artist. His process for beginning a new typeface is simple and straightforward. “Identify a problem — like space saving, bad paper, low resolution, on-screen use — then find typefaces that almost work but could be improved,” he explains. “Study them. Note the approaches and failings. Sleep on it, then start sketching without looking at anything else.”1

ORIGINS OF THE TYPEFACE In 1984, the German State Post Office, the Budespost, was persuaded by Erik Spiekermann of MetaDesign to commission a new, exclusive font for use on all of the Budespost’s printed material. The aim of the project, which began in 1985, was to develop a face that was easy to read in small sizes, available in several weights, unmistakable as an identity, and technologically up-to-date. Although the font was digitized, tested, and approved in the summer of 1985, the project was canceled. The Bundespost returned to using one of its many previous typefaces, Helvetica, assuming that digital type would not catch on. In 1989, after design software made creating new fonts more efficient, MetaDesign refined the Bundespost typeface for its own exclusive use, renaming it Meta. Initially, Meta was just used for in-house projects, but soon MetaDesign began to use it in mail-order catalogs for FontShop, a digital type foundry, cofounded by Erik Spiekermann. FontShop encouraged the parent company to license the face. Released as FF Meta, it has become one of the most successful typefaces available from FontFont, a subsidiary of FontShop.2


CREATOR AND ORIGINS | 3

meta was designed to be legible at the size of a postage stamp.


4 | CHARACTERISTICS

TYPEFACE CHARACTERISTICS In Meta and its offsprings, strokes have slightly varying width (the creator’s goal was that in small sizes, thinner strokes should not “drop out” but, on the contrary, become undistinguishable from the thicker ones) and, in compensation for the missing serifs, vigorously bent-off tips of vertical strokes in letters. We have here an example showing how far can we go in “humanizing” sans serifs and borrowing serif-specific features, while remaining within the sans serif paradigm.

m m serif

bent-off tips

varied stroke width

san serif typeface (meta book roman)

serif typeface (baskerville regular)


CHARACTERISTICS | 5

outer oval shape

rounded-rectangle counter

Meta’s construction is based on contrast between outer and inner (counter) shapes. These are rounded-off rectangles, while the outer shapes are ovals, creating not only contrast between horizontal and vertical strokes, but also one between outer and inner shapes. Contrast and rhythm (as provided by the oblique terminals and pseudo-serifs at the beginnings and endings of letters) are more important for continuous reading than explicit letterforms.


6 | CHARACTERISTICS

we read mainly along the top of the x-height, so characters must be strongest in this area.

explicit We need to precisely distinguish one letter from another only when we are looking for detailed information, as in telephone books or instructional material. In books and even magazines, we tend to quickly glance over whole groups of letters, even words, as we read what we expect to read. Meta’s design was based on well-known facts about legibility and recognition. We know that when we read, our eyes scan along the top of the x-height, so making the shapes along that line more explicit would help that process. The oblique pseudo-serifs lead the eye into the letter as well as from one to the other. To work for both tasks, Meta has very explicit lettershapes to facilitate recognition of individual characters in small sizes (like the curvy end on the bottom of the ‘l’), while the design makes long-distance reading just as comfortable as a ‘proper’ serif face.

lI lI

helvetica neue

meta book roman

whereas the lowercase “L” and capital “I” are identical in helvetica neue, meta’s “L” has a helpful distinguishing curved tail.


CHARACTERISTICS | 7

E G S J KMQR Z Wg y 1

1

1

3

2

1

4

5

9

7

6

1

6

8

10

1

7

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

angled finial extended baseline no spur no loop single junction oblique stems junction rests on baseline wavy tail curved leg open bowl offset junction

11


8 | COMPARISONS

COMPARISONS Overall, Meta is a more condensed face than Helvetica, and it has only a slightly lower x-height. Both Meta and Helvetica have thin shoulders. While the dots of Meta letterforms and punctuation are rounded, Helvetica has square dots.

helvetica neue

meta book roman futura medium

;?!

dot

angled terminal

;?!

;?!


COMPARISONS | 9

meta book roman

counter opening

helvetica neue

futura medium

As a humanist sans serif typeface, Meta strives in all ways to maximize legibility. In addition to the varied stroke weights, the open counters enhance readability. The counter opening of Meta’s “e” twice as wide as those of Helvetica or Futura.


10 | COMPARISONS

meta book roman

helvetica neue

futura medium

meta book roman

Meta is a relatively condensed sans serif typeface.

helvetica neue

Meta is a relatively condensed sans serif typeface.

futura medium

Meta is a relatively condensed sans serif typeface.


COMPARISONS | 11

futura medium (theoretical)

helvetica neue (regularized)

meta book roman (practical)

practical practical practical

Here’s a truly enlightening comparison: Note how the two approaches to a “purely utilitarian” font design, differing only by the fact that one was rather theoretic and the other driven by practical needs, resulted in two fonts as different as Futura and Meta. The nuanced construction of the Meta typefaces sets it apart from Helvetica’s regularized structure, creating the face’s appealing personality.3


12 | BIBLIOGRAPHY

References 1

Fonts.com, Available at http://www.fontscom/ AboutFonts/DesignerProfiles/ErikSpiekermann.htm, Accessed November 1, 2005

2

Leland M. Hill. Revival of the Fittest: Digital Versions of Classic Typefaces (New York: RC Publications), 142-143.

3

Ibid., 145.

Bibliography Sweet, Fay. MetaDesign: Design from the Word Up. New York: Watson-Guptil Publications, 1999. (A&A: VNC999.6.G4M48 1999 and Vault) Spiekermann, Erik and Ginger, E.M. Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works. USA: Hayden, 1993. (Vault) Revival of the Fittest: Digital Versions of Classic Typefaces/Essays by Carolyn Annand...[et al.]; edited by Philip B. Meggs and Roy McKelvey, New York: RC Publications, c2000. (A&A: Z250 .R45 2000) www.fontfont.com www.fonts.com www.katranpress.com www.linotype.com www.typography.com www.url.de/pdf/FontFont_Focus_Meta.pdf www.webreference.com/dlab/9802/sansserif.html

Colophon Designed by Laura Javier in the fall of 2009 for Typography I in the Communication Design program at Washington University in St. Louis. Typefaces used include Univers 47 Light Condensed at 8/9.6 pt and 7/8.4 pt, and Meta Book Capitals at 6/8 pt. Printed with the Communication Design students’ famously dependable, much-loved IKON CPP 500.



Meta Typeface Book