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French Canon: Where Hath All My Balls Gone?

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The Fell Types were revived and digitized in 2000.
but some differences are notable.
Two characters that still bear De Walpergen’s flamboyant ball terminals are the italic cap ‘Q’ and the italic ‘&’.
The original cap ‘T’ had extravagantly curled ball terminals on either end of the crossbar, whereas the default ‘T’ in the web version is dry and conventional.
Though French Canon for web has lost a few of its more exuberant details, it is more flexible in terms of scale.
Don’t worry, the family still contains its original inconsistencies of axis.
(especially the lowercase ‘a’)
“Technical imperfection is undoubtedly part of the character of ‘Fell’ in print. The pieces of type differ in height to an extent that horrifies a type-founder and tries the patience of a machine manager; their faces are not horizontal, many are not struck at the correct angle with the vertical. By employing modern techniques it would be possible to put these things right, but so far nobody dares propose it; too much of the evident difference between Fell and other types would be lost.”

Harry Carter,
Oxford University Press,
New York, 1968.

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The Fell Types, a font family that includes French Canon, were named after John Fell, who collected type for the University of Oxford in the 1660s. During this time, the type used in England was predominantly Dutch so, in addition to importing type, Fell sought to develop something original. Famously, he believed that, “[in] philosophy, philology, classical texts and Christian documents: the knowledge and the criticism lived on printed pages” (Marini). The Fell Types were created when Fell created his own workhouse and hired Peter De Walpergen (not surprisingly, a Dutchman) to be his type-founder.

The web version of De Walpergen’s cut still bears his original crudities — mainly inconsistencies in height and axis — that were later responsible for what Harry Carter touted as “unmistakable Oxford flavour.” The texture of its longform is unique and most either hate it or love it. Counters and apertures vary greatly (tiny in the two story ‘g’ but spacious in the ‘v’ and the ‘d’), which makes the type seem either to stumble or dance, depending on your persuasion. Regardless, whether the typeface appears vulgar or rich, it can be agreed that French Canon tends to make an awkward first impression. And this is perhaps why it deserves a bit of attention.

In a design world controlled largely by cursor and Bézier, the demands on type are far different than what they used to be. Rather than carving punches, type designers create perfect curves with the click of a mouse or a bit of code. Type is malleable. It might stand taller than a man or hover in the space of a few pixels, and these are all demands that did not exist in the age of punch and matrix.

Igino Marini breathed life into French Canon’s onscreen existence. He designed it in accordance with most web type revivals—a process that involves the repurposing of a static character (cut and molded to exist at a very specific size) into something utterly elastic and somewhat intangible. Not only that, the character is then optimized to adhere to a grid of pixels.

For the sake of both utility and form, several changes were made to the digital version of French Canon. One instance involves removal of the aforementioned ball terminals on the default italic capital ‘T’ which, when scaled down, dissolve into a pixel blotch. But besides this, Marini’s web version still feels hand-cut, which is noticeable in the dramatized outline of the italic ampersand.

Other irregularities were preserved as well. The typeface appears most conventional when set in regular uppercase — at least then axes are consistent in grade. Regular miniscule, however, begins showing signs of abnormality. One look at the two-story ‘a’ and you wonder if De Walpergen was having a laugh. Its spine, angled several degrees more to the right, makes it appear to be cocking it’s hip. And if regular seems a bit campy, the italic becomes comical, especially in uppercase. The skew of characters like ‘A’, ‘V’ and ‘W’ will have you asking, “Who ate a slice of pizza from my text block?”

The numbers also bear mentioning, for though they are congruent with the original cut, they come off as strange. Numerals 1-9 are lively and calligraphic, the zero however, is the only character in the entire set with no contrast. My first thought was to check for syntax errors. My second was simply, “WHY??” This geometric sore-thumb actually aligns itself with a classic tradition in oldstyle figures. Similar zeroes, also found in both Garamond and Caslon, were used to differentiate the zero from the miniscule ‘o’. These strange zeroes now exist on web as an homage to metal type. While readers can easily use context to discern a number from a letter, distributors of metal type did not have this luxury—thus, we are left with an anorexic cheerio.

The details go on and on, but we have reached the bottom line—French Canon wibbles and it wobbles. So why use it?

When confronted with web font databases like Typekit, users are often left with a feeling similar to the kind that occurs in supermarkets. The choices are overwhelming. Psychologist Barry Schwartz (“The Paradox of Choice”) refers to this as paralysis. There is no denying that choosing type is fun, but this sort of fun disintegrates three hours later when it’s gotten dark and nothing has been designed.

Ultimately, French Canon gets attention of this article because it soothes this paralysis. On a shelf of many typefaces, it stands out just enough—a pleasant departure from the usual horde of perfect serifs. While it comes off as funky, its flaws are consistent with the face’s historical engraving. Not only that, it stands out; its impurities give it character, validated by its history. If Futura was meant to aesthetically mimic modernist ideology, French Canon is perhaps a mimesis of ‘the handmade’—it is calligraphic and the curves of each character are humanistic and hand-cut.

Despite all its curiosities, the face has utility. French Canon reads well in longform, and its italics make for lively display. It can be used in place of many other ubiquitous serifs, and its capricious characteristics—while considered sloppy by some—make it utterly memorable.


Futura was Lucky

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Letters of Credit

French Curves will not be required. Palaeotypographist furiously crank a giant, iron, Rube-Goldberg-esque contraption.



typeface was a product of a Bauhaus philosophy, aimed at a pure functionality. Although this approach was misguided, as it abandoned formal function for philosophical form, it is this philosophy that explains why there is so little ornamentation in Futura. Futura’s geometric nature opposes W. A. Dwiggins’ principle of “wittingly irregular”, arguing that irregularity in form will help with legibility. High reaching ascenders and an infamous question mark.

❡ In 1922 the first geometric sans-serif was crafted by German professor Jakob Erbar. In 1927 Paul Renner improved on Erbar Grotesk and created Futura. With little to no contrast, strokes of even weight and formes that follow basic geometry, Futura became the first successful geometric grotesque typeface.

❡ Since then Futura has been the host of hundreds of iconic brands, including Absolut vodka, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, and Volkswagen. IKEA, arguably the most prolific user of Futura, abandoned the font for Verdana in 2010. This change was a catalyst for many designers to rethink their own approach to a brand’s online appearance.

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Rethinking the role of type on the web is what this b[log] is all about. As the printed letter transitions into pixel based lettering, the evolution will be archived here. In doing so, l3tt3r will stand as a specimen of sorts of the collaborations made possible by type, frontend and backend developers.
Articles will be concerned with webfonts and the differences/possibilities that their new formats allow. This includes randomized lettering, new approaches to dingbats, revivals, new and lost attributes as well as themed discussions on www trends in type design.
The key here is that we will write about web fonts for web users, so that everyone can know why things are as they are and what, as a designer, the possibilities for them can be. With this in mind we will of course proceed with our first article on Futura PT.

The one thing Futura teaches us is that with all the theory and practice that goes into type doctrine, in the end you simply have to produce something that someone else wants. Geometric sans serifs ignored all the historical tried and true methods of type design for a form that aesthetically mimicked a philosophical agenda, and yet it is still being used today. As all good type theories remind us, they are but theories.

For a geometric sans serif Futura has an interesting history, which I would argue lead to its ultimate success. Futura coupled historical technique and contemporary inovations, yet it was the historic techniques that lead to its refined form. In many aspects Futura was the first sans serif to defy sans convention. At the time sans serifs were built as serif fonts that had their serifs removed, as is the case of Akzidenz Grotesk. There was some sense of what a sans serif ought to look like, but this “sense” was likely the source for the majority of distaste held against sans serif typefaces (The term Grotesque wasn’t chosen by accident).

Drawing from classical roman forms, Paul Renner constructed a new type of typeface, combining classic proportions with modernist values, creating a sans serif form that was unique to only sans serifs. Although this produced an uneven color in the text, Futura’s longevity reminds us that modern proportions are but another theory.

In the case above, we are looking at ParaType’s cut of Futura. Available in all 22 weights, on both MyFonts and Typekit, Futura PT offers a extensive and adjusted family for websites looking for Bauhaus, retro-futurist feel. A little known but clear change in Futura’s digital translation was the removal of lowercase (oldstyle) numerals, a much missed historical feature. Until Futura’s first drawing, lowercase numerals had not been seen in sans serif typefaces. Gill Sans never even had lowercase numerals until the 1990s, when they were added by Monotype. What makes this even more frustrating is that they seem to have been later phased out, as there is none on any digital Futura’s that I have spotted. If anything these lowercase numerals should solidify the classical approach that Paul Renner took to constructing his Futura.

Please bring them back.

Another distint change is the infamous question mark. In the lighter versions of Futura PT you can see the original question mark, but in the bolder version the question mark is a more traditional form. It seems this choice was made inorder to preserve the volume in the counters.

As for the classification of Futura, many would argue Futura was influenced by the philosophy of the Bauhaus movement and constructivism. I would however propose that in our age we can better classify it. There are clear futurist inspirations, as is evident in letters that are geometric but attempt to find new forms1, as well as a deep layer of functionalism that is seen on Futura’s reliance of the classical form. I would consider this a nod to rationalism. With all the layers of inspiration and philosophical/functional values I find it difficult to say why Futura was so successful. However it is clear Futura found the momentum it needed, and has instilled a dated but appropriate aura of the then popular Bauhaus movement till this day.