The Story of a Rubenesque Typeface

Written by Christian Knutsson, on January 28, 2012. This is a story of making a typeface, written in a “stream of consciousness” style. I’m pleased with the result and wanted to share some of the decision making, process and push for a great tv-show. Download and preview the typeface LH RUBENESQUE. If you have any questions, comments or—much appreciated—critique just tweet me @lufthamn.

It all began with a web design layout, I wanted a fat and solid typeface for a headline. It needed to be heavy and slightly condensed. I couldn’t find anything and ended up changing the layout slightly and using LH Grotesk in all-caps instead. It worked but I couldn’t get the vision of the solid shape out of my head.

So I started doing the ‘A’, because I had a clear idea of it in my head. I wanted a plump and fat feeling so I rounded the corners slightly. Working more with the B I increased the radius of the roundness and liked it. I usually start with the lowercase glyphs because I see those as the base of a style for a typeface, but I was worried that starting with the lowercase would get me stuck since I my initial idea was more of a display type. After I have been doodling or testing some shapes—or as in this case just had an idea of a basic shape—I start from ‘a’ and go to ‘z’ in a very quick pace, in Illustrator (since this is my quickest sketching tool). Exploring as I go, going back doing small changes, but trying to get through as much as possible for it’s not until I see everything (at least 10–15 glyphs) together in some words that I start to see what can be “heightened” or if something is working (or not working).

"I wanted a fat and solid typeface for a headline. It needed to be heavy and slightly condensed."

"I decided that there would be no hard edges, in every intersection, edge and corner I created a small bend or a rounded corner instead."

So I went through A–Z in uppercase, my initial idea was something in the line of the beautiful Antique Olive but not as extended. You can clearly see the inspiration in my “C”. As this started with a web design I wanted this to work as a headline on the web, I added more contrast between horizontal and vertical shapes and zoomed out to test it in every step. It became clear that the style I wanted wasn’t going to work in smaller sizes on a screen (or print for that matter), but I continued. At this point I just wanted to get this vision out of my head so I could start designing something else.

Having all of the uppercase letters I dragged together some words on the canvas and directly saw some anomalies that was easy to take care of. It felt too stiff and I wasn’t pleased, but I could sense that there was something in the style. I wanted a compact feeling and that idea had made the typeface too hard. I decided that there would be no hard edges, in every intersection, edge and corner I created a small bend or a rounded corner instead. The roundness of the outside should be consistent all over the shapes. This made it feel much more special and I was heading in the right direction. But it still had too much system or geometric feel to it. So instead of looking at the collection of letters I refocused my attention to one glyph at a time. Since I had worked on the single sketches of each letter quickly, then zoomed out and looked at words and the entire picture, and felt that the basics were ok I could now work on a single letter at a time and find the right dynamic feel of the stems and contours for each glyph individually.

Evolution of E

Evolution of the letter E. 1) Basic shape. 2) Added more roundness in the inner corners. 3) Exploration in adding more plumpness and character, but I wanted a more legible result. 4) Final design, small tweaks to lines for a roundness overall.

I had named the file “LH Fatty”, with no final name in mind. When I work at home I usually listen to music but I was all listened out on my playlists and had no energy of looking for new music so I had some tv-shows running in the background (mixed with NFL Network, Go Giants!). Since I am a huge Gilmore Girls fan and the dialog in that show keeps me both company and happy I put on the last few episodes of season 4. At a dinner in episode 19 of that season a serendipitous conversation took place:

lorelai: “So, what’s for desert?”
emily: “We are not having desert.”
rory: “We’re not?”
emily: “I’m on a diet.”
richard: “Americans are extremely fat.”
lorelai: “'think they prefer rubenesque.”

So at last, a title of a design piece of mine will be inspired by Gilmore Girls, I hope there are more to come. This also made my happy since the name had the letter ‘Q’ in it and I was very pleased with the tail of the uppercase ’Q’. (Always show off your favorite glyphs in the name of the typeface).

When I had all the uppercase letters and some other glyphs I actually felt that this could be a proper typeface. So I started preparing the elements for transfer over to Fontlab Studio. I worked kind of rough in Illustrator then use the much more refined tools of Fontlab Studio to clean, fix and sometimes restyle certain shapes.

"Since I am a huge Gilmore Girls fan and the dialog in that show keeps me both company and happy I put on the last few episodes of season 4."

First pass of the uppercase

First pass of all the uppercase letters.

But I was faced with the question of making lowercase letters. Hmm. Making them could take a very long time since they are complex and I really enjoyed the momentum I had. And my initial vision didn’t include any lowercase letters. But I’m tired of making “uppercase only, display typefaces”, that’s a small step up from just a hand-drawn illustration and since I want to get better and better at actually designing typefaces not illustrating and I want any typeface that I design to be useable in many different ways I started with the lowercase letters.

It took some time, and a lot of reshaping, adding and retracting weight and finding the balance of the shapes. I started with ‘b’, first focusing on the thickness of the stem and then the circular line and getting that inner space right. When that is set you have a lot of the other letters directly; a, d, h, p, q and some indirectly like; m, n, o, u and g. On the first round I passed on ‘s’ and ‘g’ since they are the hardest for me and I wanted to get the others out. Finally when you have all the others the ‘s’ and the ‘g’ comes more naturally, and most of the stylistic part are already established. I love the double story lowercase ‘g’, but I thought that added too much complexity to an otherwise straight forward style (Yes it works fine in Gill Sans, but I’m no Eric Gill).

I like spending time on the diacritics and since I’m swedish I usually put and extra touch on the diaeresis and the ring to get the å, ä, ö and Å, Ä, Ö just perfect. For the plump-ness to be apparent here as well I made the acute ad grave accents more solid and with a heavy straight body.

"But I’m tired of making 'uppercase only, display typefaces'"

Early typeface specimen

Early typeface specimen.

Now that I had almost all of the glyphs I continued to write sentences and random words to try everything out in a semi-real context. Almost immediately I found small anomalies that were easy to fix. But I had a bigger problem, the weight of the lowercase didn’t play well with the uppercase, I had to spend more time massaging the lowercase to be more bulky, plump and heavy to be a better match with the uppercase.

All through this process I had been working with the width of the glyphs and the distance between them, I wanted a tight feeling to add to the rubenesque style of the typeface. And since I had a pretty straight and bulky style I could get a good basic balance without relaying on kerning pairs.

Time to export the typeface as a file and test it in InDesign. Depending on the style of the typeface I try different things but I have a template design in InDesign that I use to test the flow of the typeface in body text. It’s the best way to see what more can be approved and polished. I only try my typeface in English and Swedish, but since each language is different and uses the letters in slightly different ways I should add some other texts to my template for testing. I use an excerpt of Alice in Wonderland for the english and from Doktor Glas for the swedish, but when I do a typeface with a certain style it’s an interesting design challenge to find a specific text excerpt that represent that style.

"But I had a bigger problem, the weight of the lowercase didn’t play well with the uppercase, I had to spend more time massaging the lowercase to be more bulky, plump and heavy to be a better match with the uppercase."

Some of my favorite glyphs

Some of my favorite glyphs.

"it’s an interesting design challenge to find a specific text excerpt that represent that style."

After studying the text template for a while and doing small updates on the typeface design I generate a new font and use Font Squirell’s @font-face generator to create the necessary webfont versions. This also gives me a html-preview of the webfont version which works as another way of finding things to tweaked and polish.

So this is where I am at right now, presenting LH Rubenesque, released under SIL Open Font License as all of my current typefaces. As always it needs more work and I will continue polishing it after this upload. Another family is born and now I can enjoy designing other weights and italics. If you have any questions, comments or—much appreciated—critique just tweet me @lufthamn.

Download and preview LH Rubenesque