Behind the Typedia Logo Design
by John Langdon
This is the deep story of the creation of the Typedia logotype. I had met Jason Santa Maria through our mutual friend and design colleague, Dan Mall. Dan had told me that Jason (at the time, aided by Khoi Vinh) was putting together a major compendium of typographic matter for a website under the name of “Typedia.”
To begin, here are some excerpts from Jason’s first e-mail message to me on the subject of Typedia:
We need a strong logo, and I love my fellow Philadelphians. Luckily you are exceptionally good with logos and also with living in Philadelphia. So you were the natural choice.
First, some background…
The site is called “Typedia”. Basically, Typedia will be an always-growing, community-based website for the categorization of typefaces. It will be populated by its community of users (since it’s truly a gigantic task), but will be regulated by its editors, a group of trusted type aficionados and enthusiasts (this will eventually be a large group of people). By categorizing fonts based on a standardized set of criteria (which Mark is formulating), we will allow users to add font listing to the site. […] This is where it becomes powerful: because each font will have this associated criteria attached to it, we can put every font into context with one another by comparing and grouping that information. In short, you would be able to find fonts based on information about them (besides just their name) and also be able to find related fonts based on that same information. Over time, this could become a massive resource for font research, inspiration, and learning. The site will be run like a “Wiki”. […] Hence, the community-based aspect.
Khoi and I have been discussing direction for the logo. We feel it’s important for the logo to be representative of typography. not necessarily “all fonts” (like some awful ransom note or something), but more the essence of centuries of typography. Because of that, custom type work will probably suit us best since we don’t want to use any particular existing font.
At first I thought that there was little helpful direction in that briefing. So I started where I always start: writing the word in a number of different configurations—caps, lower case, mixtures—exploring shape relationships. But soon I realized that I was taking some helpful ideas from Jason’s description. I agreed with this point:
We feel it’s important for the logo to be representative of typography. not necessarily “all fonts” (like some awful ransom note or something), but more the essence of centuries of typography. Because of that, custom type work will probably suit us best since we don’t want to use any particular existing font.
I had designed a logo 25 or so years ago for Armstrong Typography, and rather than use any particular typeface, the appeal of which might be affected by trends in type selection, I had created a formal script that couldn’t be set in type, but did bespeak quality and excellence and a sensitivity regarding letterforms. Although I love using type in graphic design projects, in logo design, I’m never completely satisfied with any font as it exists. Quality in type design requires that many potentially distinctive details be distilled out of the letterforms, in order to allow for harmonious text in thousands of combinations with other letters, in innumerable situations, unforeseeable by the type designer. By contrast, the letters in a logotype can be designed to fit the specific relationships of the letters surrounding it, and a logo must exhibit some degree of distinctiveness in order to do its job well.
Based on this comment…
I don’t think anything will ever be neutral enough, so he may as well go the whole way, you know? Like, he can use fancy typographic elements, ligatures and so forth…
…I not only felt free to explore some typographic excesses, but felt they might really be called for in representing a site that celebrated the visual joys and aesthetic pleasures that can be derived from the infinite opportunities that type offers.
So, really, he can be as arcane and typo-geeky as he wants.
Here are (reduced images of) my actual pages of open-ended, open-minded, non-judgmental exploration.
These pages will give a glimpse into a couple of aspects of my creative design process. Page 1a is a half an 8.5” x 11” sheet that I pulled out of the recycling bag; 1b and 1c are both sides of a junk mail envelope that must have been immediately below that half sheet in the bag. Although I don’t feel terribly intimidated by the empty page—and often do my exploratory sketches in a sketch book or on pages of my layout pad—I do believe doing the early sketching on crappy paper reduces the pressure to put something good on the page right away. This is, of course, graphic design’s version of the advertising industry’s venerated cocktail napkin.
I work in all four directions on any given page. I’m not entirely certain how this habit got started, but I think it’s because turning to a new (blank!) page interrupts the flow of the sketching process—each new scribble being a direct reaction to all the previous attempts. It has the added benefit of allowing me to inadvertently see the letters and words from unorthodox vantage points, often revealing unanticipated graphic relationships.
Here, culled from those pages, are the sketches I sent to Jason and Khoi, presented in a more organized fashion, and numbered so that we can discuss them more easily.
And here are the notes I sent along with the sketches:
- Ornate: thick and thin, elegant, extravagant, Ed Benguiat, Tom Carnase, Tony diSpigna; could be a good bit more attractive than this sketch indicates, I think
- Little marks, slugs
- Like 2, Little marks, slugs
- I love this, but it’s probably too close to the fabulous T that the NYT Magazine has been using…
- Monoweight, slightly heavier than what you see here
- Like 5, Monoweight, slightly heavier than what you see here
- The history of type in one word… IMHO, predictable and boring
- Monoweight, about the weight you see here
- Monoweight, about the weight you see here. I would shorten the descenders a little
- An attempt at a contemporary blackletter… Boooring
- Monoweight, about the weight you see here
- Monoweight, a little heavier that what you see here. Probably comparable to #8.
8 and 11 are my faves
Khoi and Jason responded:
The direction that Khoi and I feel comes closest to where we want to take this is #1. But with that said, #1 isn’t quite it. As Khoi remarked, “It’s in the right neighborhood, but it’s not the right house”. We love the elegance and refined connotation of it, but at the same time we feel like legibility might be an issue, and we miss having a more consistent baseline. It probably could be less ornate and a bit more reserved.
We don’t want to tie your hands, so we will try to sum up the feeling we want from the logo:
Something that feels like a summation of type history. Should feel refined and knowledge-filled, and classic. Perhaps something rough and time- worn, but distinguished.
I actually really like the idea of time-worn, but still around. Like a distinguished gentleman… a look that shows its years, but is still badass. Like Clint Eastwood eight years ago.
I thought that was great feedback. It narrowed the field, confirmed a number of my instincts, and made me feel like we were all of a similar mind—a feeling that this would work out really well. Their thought that number 1 was closest told me that we wanted to communicate our enthusiasm for letterforms—an exuberant, joyful typography.
Feedback to Revision
It should be “something that feels like a summation of type history,” and yet not the obvious step-by-step metamorphosis through the seven letters. That suggested two things to me. The first was that the Gutenberg Blackletter was appropriate, but not as a pervasive thorough approach to the whole word. That very first typeface from over five hundred years ago had been quickly supplanted as Italian printers brought the classic Roman letters to the new field of type design. Wouldn’t it be appropriate, then, to have an initial cap T that paid homage to Gutenberg, but then quickly shifted to the evolution of Roman typestyles? This could be a fairly non-jarring shift, as initial caps are inherently a different animal from lower case letters, and often appear in the history of type use as intentionally decorative and distinct. My second thought was that in the history of type design the classical period is best represented by the typestyles of Giambattista Bodoni and Firmin Didot. Although thousands of typefaces have been created since the 18th century, we still refer to their fonts as “modern.” The many newer serif styles still fall into the classical categories: Humanist, Old Style, Transitional, and Modern. By choosing a style based on Bodoni and Didot, I would be referring, by implication, to all the historical developments that led up to their development.
The words “refined, knowledge-filled, and classic” seemed to support the “modern” style perfectly. I rejected “rough and time-worn” as being too close to the recently trendy looks of scratched and eroded wood type and other grunge-y “deconstructed” styles. Classic typestyles have stood the test of time with most of their time-worn letters going back into the lead-melting vat. “Distinguished”? How much more distinguished and gentlemanly than Bodoni and Didot can you get? Okay, I had to let “badass” go.
Logo, Version One
I wrote back:
Thanks for the feedback. Your input must have been inspirational, as I love what I’ve done with it.
With the new logo I’ve attached, I’ve kept some of the exuberance and elegance of #1, but given it a strong baseline, and made it much more readable. It is more reserved than #1 was, by virtue of its strong baseline and verticals, but it retains its sense of enthusiasm. I think that enthusiasm, and those flourishes say “we’ll go anywhere typographic. We love it all.”
Although you did not include Bodoni/Didot in your list of aesthetic inspirations, I think they’re certainly classic, and high points in the history of type aesthetics. Rough… No. But refined and distinguished, yes. I really can’t think of a typographic look that commands so much respect. And the (contemporary) Blackletter cap T is of course, a nod to Herr Gutenberg.
Thanks for the very helpful feedback. I’m loving this one. Hope you do too.
WOW. We are both very very very happy. This is exactly where we wanted to go with this.
I love the hint of the blackletter T. I am really stunned at how you meshed so many styles together. We realize this is a sketch, so we will keep the comments minor (and some of this stuff you may have planned to refine in the final version anyway):
Of all the letters, the “T” seems the least comfortable. It’s not as fluid as the “E” and the “A” and it seems like it should be the most fluid of them all. It seems to have a conflict between round, sweeping sensibility and a vertical, formal quality.
Which isn’t to say we dislike the “T”, we love the blackletter quality of it and don’t want to lose that, we just want to see it become a bit more complimentary. If it means losing the blackletter feel to do it, then I suggest we maintain the blackletter feel.
Also, the logo will likely be much smaller on the website, so we need to make sure those Hairline Serifs read well.
Like I said, very minor commentary, don’t kill yourself over it. This is so beautiful. Great work John!
— Jason and Khoi
Why aren’t all clients like this? Well, because not all clients are deeply in love with typography. But a combination of enthusiastic compliments and some very on-target and helpful specific critiques can’t be beat. They’re making me look good, here!
As per my normal process, I enlarged that last pretty tight sketch a couple hundred percent and traced over it, making very precise measurements and refining curves like crazy with a #4 (extra hard) Ticonderoga pencil.
The cap T was the trickiest letter to draw. Comparing it to a traditional Gothic Blackletter cap T shows that heavy vertical much farther from the curved bowl in my version than in this Cloister Black example. I’ve moved it out closer to the center of the curved stroke in order to allow the curve to spiral around and intersect the vertical in a nice oblique and uncomplicated way that relates it to the flourishes of the P, E, and A. You can see that I’ve also “modernized’ the curved bowl by forcing its weighted area all the way to one side, as Bodoni and Didot did with their “Roman” letterforms. All I can tell you is that it was difficult to get that interior vertical stroke to not look terribly awkward (I hope you agree that I succeeded!).
The Blackletter T has been modernized and customized a good bit, and the rest of the letters don’t really look a whole lot like letters you could find in a Bodoni or Didot font showing either. The characteristics that tie them to that Modern group of typestyles are:
- The extreme contrast between thick and thin strokes, and the very abrupt transitions from one to the other.
- The “unbracketed” serifs (if you’re unfamiliar with that term, check out the shelves you’ve got hanging from those metal strips on your wall, or the ones in your fridge—those things holding them up are brackets. Most serifs have ‘em; Bodoni and Didot don’t.)
If you’re familiar with Bodoni and Didot, you’ll also be able to see my many departures from those faces. The very slight flares at the ends of the thin flourishes, for example, are a personal favorite detail of mine. Without them, the end of a thin stroke seems arbitrary to me, like, “well, guess it may as well end here…”. I prefer to say, “This is exactly where I want the stroke to end”—to make the last bit of ink (or toner, or whatever) to be like a punch line or dessert—kind of a little tiny celebration at the end of something joyful.
I’ve also got some vertical stems without serifs at all. This is where we stop making the comparison to Bodoni and Didot, and start talking about consistency and harmony in the design of a logotype. As I indicated earlier, the design of a logotype has quite different criteria than the design of a typeface. In a typeface, each letter has to look completely comfortable with any of the other 51 letters on either side of it. In a logotype, each letter has to look right next to only the two letters it’s between. So the design of that letter can be based entirely on those two relationships. Type design is strongly characterized by establishing and following rules. Logotype design is often all about breaking rules.
Serifs on the tops of the P and D would have negatively affected their relationships to the Y and the E, and in the case of the YP combination, kerning would be made more difficult as well. A right-pointing serif on the top of the A’s vertical might have worked, but I like the unencumbered purity of the relationship of the vertical to the encircling flourish. (Is that Freudian?) In addition, there’s a nice rhythm, reading from left to right, of serifed, and non-serifed strokes and letters. That rhythm is secondary to, and supportive of, the rhythm created by the alternating spiral flourishes.
The upper right serif of the Y is bracketed, as Giambattista also did with the ends of light strokes, apparently feeling that the light stroke needed the additional structure to support the serif. I’ve got a completely bracketed serif at the top of the E—not so different from what Bodoni would have done, I suppose, but really necessary here as, without it, the E would be the only letter lacking both a horizontal and a vertical stroke. I maximized that serif to give it as strong a relationship as possible to the vertical of the D next to it.
So far, all my work has been done with yellow pencils with erasers on the tops. It’s only when I have the final pencil drawing done as accurately as I’m able to, that I move to the computer. I scan that drawing and execute the finished art in Adobe Illustrator. One more note, though, about the final pencil drawing. When it was done, I noticed that the cap T didn’t tuck in with the Y as nicely as it had in the previous sketch. The T had been such a pain to get right, that I decided to deal with that little problem in Illustrator.
Version Three—The Final
I sent Khoi and Jason these two versions. Their comments:
The larger T is definitely the one!
This is really beautiful John. Khoi and I both love it. We have two minor revisions if you have time. I’ve attached a screenshot to help explain:
- The areas where the bowl (?) of the T go from curved to straight are very stiff, especially when compared to a similar spot on another letter like the A. It might be nice to smooth those out a bit. Although, this may destroy the effect you were going for with the pseudo-blackletter. Feel free to discuss.
- I think one of the points on the inside of the bottom P is off. Compare to the P on top. I only noticed this when I shrank it down smaller (btw, the logo reduces INCREDIBLY).
I really am beside myself with appreciation and admiration, John.
I’ve immodestly included their enthusiastic endorsements so you wouldn’t think they were just a couple of crabby professional nit-pickers. The thing is, they were right. Since we weren’t in the same room with pointy things to indicate what we were referring to, it took several e-mail messages back and forth for me to zero in on what they meant, but ultimately I saw it.
John, I think you’ve nailed it!
We are very satisfied. Are you happy with the logo?
Very. It’s very rewarding to work for people who are so appreciative of what I do and as critical about the details as I am.
About the author: Award-winning logo designer and ambigram originator John Langdon is the creator and author of Wordplay. He created the ambigrams in Dan Brown’s bestseller, Angels & Demons, and his paintings of words have appeared in several galleries and art museum exhibitions. Numerous samples of his work can be seen at www.johnlangdon.net.
Article and imagery © Copyright John Langdon
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