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#80 • Slabs and Vectors

Coffee Table Typography
#80 • Slabs and Vectors
By Coffee Table Typography • Issue #80 • View online
Type friends!
One of my favourite projects to emerge in recent months is Tupigrafia; a collection of photographs displaying the typography embedded in our every day pencils, from all around the world. Think about that for a hot second: for years, we’ve been neglecting the gorgeous, iconic, and very often long-lasting typographic details directly on the most basic tool used to create typographic details: the pencil.
I’ve also recently stumbled upon PimpMyType, a newsletter and Youtube channel solely dedicated to typography. Oliver has already made a whole bunch of interesting videos, the latest being a gentle introduction on how to combine typefaces. Don’t miss it.
Beasts of England have also published a series of reimagined book covers, using their own typefaces, one of my favourite design exercises in the world. While you’re there, don’t miss this outrageously intricate stamp they’ve designed, either.
Present&Correct have stumbled upon gorgeous old concert tickets from the early 60’s in Germany. I’d love to reproduce these on the Web with CSS, one day.
In typefaces’ news, the new Lava update by Typotheque is a very interesting read. The inclusion of variable optical spacing and the tweaking to be more friendly towards East Asian languages make it an even more interesting appeal, and a fantastic example of how sometimes, a typeface can have it all: versatility, distinction, the ability to work in multiple sizes, and internationalization. Go and check it out.

Help! Is This Arabic?
Here’s a great single page made by Rami Ismail to bookmark for future use: how to properly identify and work with Arabic text. After all, some 28% of the world’s population speak it, and we can’t afford to mess this up.
Say your project’s deadline is coming up, and you need to handle Arabic text on the project. You can’t read a single letter of Arabic, so you can’t tell whether you’re doing it right. This will give you a number of easy pointers to avoid embarrassing yourself and your project to almost 2 billion people. I’ve learned a lot too in this quick explainer, so let’s go over it together:
  1. Arabic script is aligned to the right. Interface flows from the right. If your Arabic is aligned to the left, your text is wrong.
2. Arabic script generally has a clear and visible baseline, connecting the letters. If you cannot find a baseline, your text is wrong.
3. The letter combination ال should be common. The combination ل​​​‌ا cannot occur in Arabic script, as those characters should be connected.
Perhaps one of the most interesting takeaways for us, non-Arabic speakers, is that there is more than one Arabic-script language. For example, Farsi (Egyptians speak primarily an Egyptian Dialect or Arabic), or Modern Standard Arabic in Afghanistan (Afghans speak Dari, an Afghan Persian language). Just like the latin alphabet, we can write different languages with the Arabic alphabet, too.
For a bigger crash course, Rami also gave an 18 minute talk on this very same topic at XOXO, and you can watch that talk.
Early Chinese Vector Fonts
What a treat of an article by Fontstand. Thomas Mullaney writes about how Chinese vector fonts predates the computer revolution by several decades, and shows us how this amazing feat happened throughout time.
First off, Chinese computer fonts take up a lot of memory. Unlike Latin alphabetic bitmaps, which can get away with using a 5-by-7 grid—for a total of just 35 bits of memory per symbol—Chinese bitmaps require at least a 16-by-16 grid—or 256 bits per character. Not to mention the huge amount of characters usually found in any Chinese set — ASCII doesn’t even come close. Adding all of this up, it’s easy to see how a single font exceeded the amount of available memory available in personal computers in the early 1990s.
Draft bitmap of characters from the Sinotype III Chinese font.
Draft bitmap of characters from the Sinotype III Chinese font.
Confronted with this problem, most computer manufacturers and software developers settled on a compromise solution: to include only a limited number of Chinese characters in memory, with priority given to what are often referred to as “common usage characters.” Containing anywhere from a few thousand characters, to perhaps as many as ten thousand, this solution basically gave up on the idea of creating a font containing the entire Chinese lexicon.  
So very early on in Chinese computing, a new standard began to emerge: vector fonts.
With vector fonts, Chinese characters are digitally rendered, not with a grid of pixels, but with a series of straight-line segments. Rather than storing static pixel data in memory, these skeletal characters are stored as a set of mathematical, x-y coordinates, which the computer then connects dynamically using its native graphics processing capacities. This approach, early advocates argued, would enable Chinese computers to achieve what their Western counterparts already enjoyed: access to one’s entire language, not just a small portion thereof. More than that, it would help achieve what might be termed “digital equality”: a level playing field in which computers would be able to handle any writing system as easily as any other. 
Most interestingly, the timeline for these vector fonts research isn’t what you would expect: it started in the 1960s, way before the revolution of commercial vector graphics as we know it today.
Here’s an example below, using a connect the dots set of instructions for a Chinese character:
Connect the dot style instructions on a matrix
Connect the dot style instructions on a matrix
The result was staggering:
When compared to a conventional 16-by-16 bitmap raster, the differences in memory were sizable: 256 bits (or 32 bytes) to store this character in bitmap, versus just 192 bits (24 bytes) using the “connect-the-dot” system. What is more, a conventional 16-by-16 grid would likely be incapable of rendering this particular character, given the number of strokes needed to produce it.
There were drawbacks too, of course. It was computationally expensive to render these instructions visually back then. They were also typically harsher on the eyes too, as curvatures had necessarily to be represented by a straight diagonal line.
There is so much more to unpack about these early vector fonts, on what has easily been one of my favourite articles this year. Don’t miss it at Fontstand.
A Brief History of Slab Serif
On one of their recent newsletters, The League Of Movable Type shared an old article about the origins of Slab Serifs that I found remarkably interesting. Where did these Slab/Egyptian styled fonts came from? From I Love Typography, here’s a quick introduction.
Despite their common name as Egyptian Serifs, Slabs have nothing to do with Egyptian Hieroglyph Slab Serifs: this isn’t really a thing. However, it being the early 1800s, all-things-Egyptian was in everyone’s lips.
What makes a slab serif?
According to Zoe Scott-Smith, here’s a visual definition:
[Their] characteristic horizontal serif that adorns most characters – a typographic element that protrudes from the letters. The structure of each character also remains a consistent thickness, this differs from the serif fonts which have a structure that transitions between thick and thin. All Slab-serifs share these qualities
The term Egyptian was adopted by French and German foundries, where it became Egyptienne. A lighter style of slab serif with a single width of strokes was called ‘engravers face’ since it resembled the monoline structure of metal engravings. The term ‘slab-serif’ itself is relatively recent, possibly twentieth-century.
Like the industrial revolution, the Slab Serif was born in Britain, and was inspired by a new wave of advertising, and those beefy letter forms that could be found on just about every billboard, pamphlet, and poster of the day. Until this time, type was designed to serve one purpose—it was designed for long stretches of texts, for books. But with mechanization, and major innovations in printing technology (e.g. the Steam Press, 1814), advertisers in particular were looking for a type that stood out from crowd; a type that shouted, look at me! Thus was born the the display face—type for use at large sizes, for short bursts of copy.
In a way, Slabs were the original Display typefaces.
Those posters were a riot of big type, often a half-dozen different styles on a single page. If the Didones are a lissome Audrey Hepburn, then the Slab Serifs are those guys one sees all too often on construction sites around the globe — trousers half-way down their posteriors. What I’m getting at is that the early Slab Serifs weren’t discreet. They were designed to be noticed.
Half a century later, a different sub-set of Slabs emerged, known as the Claredons. These consisted of slightly less extravagant Fat Face Types, making them more suitable for text with reduced serifs and a better x-height for readability in small sizes.
Typewolf shared the top ten most popular slab serif fonts, which you can take a look at, and here’s the original article.
Typeface Du Jour ✍️
Spitzkant, by Julien Fincker, is an elegant typeface for both display and text that is “is characterized by strong contrasts. Pointed, sharp serifs and edges contrast with round and fine forms, making it very individual and expressive. This makes it particularly suitable for branding, editorial, packaging and advertising.”
A true workhorse too, at 20 weights and over 850 glyphs per style, it supports over 200+ latin based languages and includes an extended currency symbol set. Choose where to buy it at Julien Fincker.
On the Coffee Scene ☕️
Arabica Coffee Prices Decline on Easing Concerns of Brazil Frost - Bloomberg
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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