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#69 • I Taped The Serif

Type friends! Kate Mooney wrote a charming article for the New York Times about the em dash — as well
Coffee Table Typography
#69 • I Taped The Serif
By Coffee Table Typography • Issue #69 • View online
Type friends!
Kate Mooney wrote a charming article for the New York Times about the em dash — as well as other fancy dashes — and how they’re making a hipster comeback. Unmissable.
Erik Kwakkel, as per usual, has shared a beautiful specimen of a medieval book decoration pattern that’s quite simply begging to be contemplated. What could be just a simple, interesting-on-its-own drop caps initial letter, has turned into a complex decorative painting which fills the letter O by hand. Here’s a full page shot, and bear in mind that it’s less than 15cm in dimension.
On a similar medieval note, here’s a reminder of what book margins should really be all about: writing on them. There’s a handwritten music sheet on the margins of this copy of Aurora, and it’s a thing of beauty.
Rafael Serra, a type designer from Portugal, has been creating wonderful typographic logos for brands and companies which are worth a closer look.
It’s been a while since I have talked about variable fonts. If you thought I had forgotten about them, that’s definitely not the case, and they’re still being explored as a gateway to wildly creative projects which go beyond just text. Typearture shared this amazing GIF of a font file with 3 axis for a bunny; its ears, and a magical hat. Fonts, guys. I know.
In preparation for this issue, I’ve also stumbled upon a little research into the history of the Didot typeface, which goes back to the 18th century and whose history could have become a blockbuster today. Worth a read. Lastly, TDC.org have published an amazing interview with type designer Flavia Zimbardi.
From a café in Stockholm, this time, wishing you well until the next issue, type friends.
—Ricardo

○ A Guide to Recognising Font Styles
Matej Latin, once again, writes a very comprehensive and easy to follow typographical guide for us, this time on how to recognise font styles just by glancing at a typeface. For brevity’s sake, I won’t cover every single style in this brief summary, so a full article read is really encouraged for you.
Why should you care about font styles? Well, turns out there are more font styles than just sans-serif and serif. It’s trickier, of course, as font styles really are about the nuances of the little details of each character.
In a nutshell, most typefaces can be classified in the following. For serif styles, we have:
  • Old Style
  • Transitional
  • Neoclassical
  • Slab
And for sans-serifed typefaces, we have:
  • Grotesque
  • Neo-Grotesque
  • Geometric
  • Humanist
  • Neo-Humanist
Okay, so that’s a lot. Matej guides us through the process of distinguishing them, so here’s a couple of examples.
Old Style
The first old-style typefaces appeared in the 15th century and it was the most fundamental change in style because they moved away from the blackletter style which was first introduced by Johannes Gutenberg and his movable type printing machine. Better tools and mostly improved skills of the punch-cutters allowed the birth of this more refined style.
A famous example of Old Style is one of our favourites, Garamond.
The contrast of strokes is low (1) and the hairlines are heavier than what we would see in high-contrast typefaces. Head serifs are angled (2), serifs are bracketed (3), the axis of curved strokes shifts to the left (4), and the x-height is relatively small. These styles are still very common in books as they’re traditional and evoke feelings of warmth and familiarity. Garamond, Caslon and Bembo are typical examples of this style.
Neo-classical / Didone Style
This style first appeared in France (again) in the 18th century. The first typeface of this style was designed by Firmin Didot, hence the name. After that, Giambattista Bodoni took over and produced typefaces that defined this style. He drew inspiration from Baskerville’s work but took it to the extremes.
The well beloved Bodoni
The well beloved Bodoni
The contrast between thick and thin strokes is abrupt and dramatic (1), stroke terminals are “ball” shapes (2), the axis of curved strokes is vertical (3), and there’s little or no bracketing for serifs (4). Bodoni, by the before mentioned Giambattista Bodoni, is the most famous typeface of this style.
I took the liberty of getting Garamond and Didot next to each other. Notice the difference in serifs:
And finally, let’s have a look at a sans-serif classification. Perhaps one of the most popular styles today in terms of typeface offering is the Humanist style. Matej again:
“This is a sans-serif style that takes inspiration from the traditional letterforms, mostly the serif font styles and even calligraphy. The earliest humanist typefaces were designed at the beginning of the 20th century, Johnston in 1916 and Gill Sans in 1928. Edward Johnston (who designed the Johnston typeface) was a calligrapher and drew inspiration in classic letterforms, including the Roman capital letters.”
Gill Sans is maybe of the most popular examples:
The original article has many examples for all the classifications we’ve seen above, so make sure you take a closer look. If you need a tl;dr, Matej has also provided a handy PDF guide as a cheat sheet to recognise these styles.
○ Tokyo Subway's Duct-Tape Typographer
This has been one of my personal favourite articles typography-related from the last few months. This is the story of a humble security guard, Sato, whose (non-official) mission is to guide commuters through his well crafted usage of duct tape for subway signage. With a few rolls of duct tape and a craft knife, he has elevated the humble worksite sign to an art form.
‘Shinjuku Station was my first post, and it was under construction at the time, so I had to guide passengers using a megaphone. But there were so many people. Guiding them all with just my voice was impossible. Most of the people couldn’t even hear me. So I decided to make some signs to guide people that would really stand out.’
Perhaps the most interesting thing, besides Japanese typography being beautifully designed with nothing but duct tape, is the fact Mr. Sato has no formal graphic design training (before working as security guard, he was a bank teller and worked in a cafeteria). Nevertheless, he has a masterful eye for form and colour. His exceptional letterforms are not only elegant and unique but, more importantly, very easy to read. Commuters thank him, without realising it. And that’s the mark of good invisible design.
Examples of Shuetsu Sato’s distinctive typographic style
Examples of Shuetsu Sato’s distinctive typographic style
Sato san’s work has not gone unnoticed. His lettering is highly regarded by designers and curators—it even has a name: ‘Shuetsu Sans’ (修悦体). He occasionally gives packed-out demonstrations and, a few years ago, he published an instructional book that shows how anyone can make their own duct tape signage.
Sato san’s works are an embodiment of the best qualities of design. They are honest, simple responses to a need and, at the same time, they are expressive and delightful. It goes to show that design, at its essence, reflects an approach to life. What we see in these humble, thoughtful and playful signs is Shuetsu Sato himself.
Large Airport signage "taped" by Sato
Large Airport signage "taped" by Sato
You can read the original article, written by Chris Gaul, for more information and photos of Sato’s work.
○ How Language Changes Our Perception
Typography, characters, words, fonts, language. Which is why I’m including this very interesting article on language and perception, originally by Fast Company, about one of my personal favourite topics ever: linguistic relativity.
Does an English speaker perceive reality differently from say, a Swahili speaker? Does language shape our thoughts and change the way we think? Betty Birner, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at Illinois University, states that factors like culture, traditions, habits, and language shape the way we talk, how we talk about them, and even the way we think and remember things.
Just how much, however, can be challenging to determine. Consider:
In Russian, there are multiple words for differing shades of blue. Would having a word for light blue and another for dark blue lead Russian speakers to think of the two as different colors? Possibly. Birner says that this could be compared to red and pink in English, which are considered two different colors even though pink is merely a light shade of red.
Also:
The Pirahã people of the Amazonas, Brazil, do not keep track of exact quantities with their language.
And quite possibly my favourite example of all, which I personally keep annoying friends with, is:
“The language called Guugu Yimithirr spoken in a remote community in Australia doesn’t have terms like “left” and “right.” Instead, words like “north,” “south,” “east,” and “west” are used to describe locations and directions. So if you ask where something is, the answer might be that it’s to the southwest of X, which requires speakers to have spectacular spatial orientation. Because of the vocabulary, English speakers might organize things left to right, whereas a speaker of Guugu Yimithirr might orient them in a mirrored position.”
Studies have shown that people who speak languages with gender markings might categorise non-gender items, say a table or a chair, based on its gender markings. This may differ the way English speakers would categorise items, which is typically by shape or size.
The way we talk and communicate eventually lead to the ways within our culture. For instance, English speakers get to the point in speech quicker than say, a Chinese speaker would, says Birner. In English, someone might say “I want you to come to my house for dinner,” then give the reasons why we need to have dinner together. The Chinese speaker might give all the background information and build up to the punchline. The idea here is that the speaker can say what they want after they’ve explained why they want it.
The article also touches on those of us speaking a second and even third languages, explaining how these brains can be more efficient at putting information up together.
Every human language reflects the values of the place and culture where it originated and philosophers and linguists have long debated how this effects and shapes the mentality of the persons who speak those different languages. If you’d like some visual examples and more information, there are a few interesting videos on Youtube which do a good job at explaining the basic theories of linguistic relativity.
Keep reading the original article if this got you curious.
○ Guideline for Letterspacing Type
A quick and interesting primer on letter-spacing (the lost art of), by John D. Jameson, which mostly applies to web designers, but the visual principles can be applied with just any text editor out there.
Very few people, designers included, adjust letter spacing in their designs. Letter spacing refers to the spacing between each character, which can be either individually adjusted or defined as a whole (tighter vs. more e x p a n d e d spacing). There are a few situations where adjusting letter spacing can move a good typographical design to an amazing typographical experience. John guides us through a few cases.
Capital letters
It’s almost always a good idea to increase letter spacing with uppercase type. Default spacing between uppercase letters is designed to be the minimum necessary, so you’ll usually want to add a little more breathing room between the characters.
Notice the  increased letter spacing on the title and abbreviations
Notice the increased letter spacing on the title and abbreviations
Large, uppercase titles usually require one of two things: either less letter spacing (if the letters aren’t too tall) or increasing it wildly, as to create a distinct, readable, clear visual hierarchy in your document.
Font size
The relationship between font size and letter spacing is pretty straightforward: as size increases, letter spacing decreases, and as size decreases, letter spacing increases. John expands the idea:
In more practical terms, here’s what that relationship looks like:
1. Large text (e.g., titles and headings) should have decreased letterspacing.
2. Body text should have default tracking, or stick very close to default letterspacing.
3. Very small text should have increased letterspacing.
The bottom date has a +0.05em letter spacing
The bottom date has a +0.05em letter spacing
Font weight
For the web, font weight isn’t just confined to “Regular” or “Bold”; quite often, typefaces come in different weights of boldness (medium bold, extra bold, and so on). Like with font size, the relationship between font weight and letter spacing follows a simple pattern: as weight increases, letter spacing decreases, and as weight decreases, letter spacing increases.
There’s a couple more tips on how to adjust letter spacing in the original article, so do take a look. As a plus, if you’re looking to improve your kerning skills (kerning refers to adjusting the space between characters individually, not as a whole), here’s some good information to begin with.
Typeface Du Jour ✍️
○ Oldschool Grotesk by Kilotype
I forget how I came across Oldschool Grotesk, by Kilotype, but it was love at first sight. A classic, curvy and quirky sans-serif, it comes with a whole bunch of styles that turn this typeface into a beautiful, functional workhorse. It was designed by William Montrose.
It inherits some of the distinct, and often most compelling aspects of early British Grotesques and architectural letterings from that period. Peeling away the top layers of apparent quirkiness and eccentric detail, you will find yourself glaring at the roots of Modernism and early attempts of the industrial period in search for structure and clarity.
It’s remarkable how well it looks in its thinner variations, too. Grab it directly from Kilotype.
On the Coffee Scene ☕️
Coffee Roasts from Light to Dark - Coffee Crossroads
Patreon Supporters 🥰
As always, a massive thank you to every single one of you supporting this newsletter on Patreon. You make this newsletter going! Thank you to Rik Ward, Aceler Chua, Rachel Baker, Volmer Soares, Rafael Conde, Aleksandra Runowska, Chen Jing, Clay Gardner, David J. Ross, J.R., Gonçalo Morais, Jacqueline Jensen, Joël, Menges Design, Pedro Almeida, Qi Xi, Richard Littauer, Tzu Ching and Vitória Neves.
Did you enjoy this issue?
Coffee Table Typography

A love for words, letters, language—and coffee.
A digest of curated resources, articles and knowledge sharing about the beauty of typography; in design, on the web, or books.
You will read these over your morning cup of coffee, while the aromas of freshly ground beans are still in the air, quickly realising that words are beautiful and that you might need that second cup after all.

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With 💙 from Montreal, Canada