Iota is a geometric sans. There are already a lot of geometric sans in the world. A lot. Yet, type designers continue to make new ones. Why? I have no idea, but my guess is type designers continue to make them because graphic designers continue to use them because type designers continue to make them… This cycle has gone on for almost 100 years and it’s not slowing down. I’ve watched this cycle closely for over 20 years and vowed to never join it by making a geometric sans for my own little type foundry. I mean, I don’t have anything against geometric sans, type designers making new ones or graphic designers using them. I just have a natural inclination to avoid crowds. I mean, I’ve even drawn a few geometric sans for clients and it was a perfectly pleasant experience. But, it just wasn’t something I wanted to do for my foundry. So, why did I make I make a typeface that is Very Much A Geometric Sans And Nothing Else™? Well. I made it because I didn’t want to make it.
You see, I deeply fear becoming too comfortable in my design process. I worry that comfort will lead to complacency and complacency will lead to laziness and laziness will lead to the thing that I fear most: not learning new things. I love the process of making things and I hate doing the same thing the same way more than once. Consequently, I try to approach every project differently and I try to introduce challenges that will be difficult to overcome. On top of that, I have a voice in my head constantly asking, “Why does the thing that you are making need to exist?” I feel obligated to answer this question before I send something out into the world.
Several years ago I doodled a bunch of ideas for typefaces. I was writing little notes next to the sketches explaining what challenges I’d face and why I’d make the typeface. Page after page, sketchbook after sketchbook. It started to become a comfortable process and, UH OH, my fear of complacency kicked in. I started wondering what I could do differently and I returned to my persistent “Why does this need to exist?” rule. What if I made something that didn’t need to exist? What would that be? A geometric sans. How would I go about designing that? Well, my usual process is to start by drawing with only the vaguest idea and then allow the full idea to slowly reveal itself. Where could I start that locked me into an idea and gave me very little room to chase my whims? Start the project with a detailed description of the end result. Is there a model for this kind of thing that makes me deeply uncomfortable? Yes. It’s called a “marketing plan.” Every fiber of my being was appalled by this, so I had to do it. I pretended that I was a middle-manager in the Type Supply Marketing Department explaining to me, the designer, exactly what to draw. Here is that brief from way back in early-2016:
It should have a tiny bit of personality, but not so much that it feels new and different. We want to be able to say it is “New and Different” in marketing copy. But, it shouldn’t be so aesthetically new and different that it makes customers question what it could be used for.
It should have a moderately large x-height so that it works really well at small sizes. We can explain this as “workhorse” and “multi-function.” Variations for use at different sizes may look better, but we don’t want to waste marketing resources on explaining optical sizes. Yeah, the big x-height is going to look kind of goofy when used in big headlines. But, our studies have shown that the vast majority of designers are going to set the headline in all caps, so it’s a manageable risk. Besides, “workhorse” sounds great in copy.
Ascenders and descenders should be conservative. This can be explained as “efficient” and “space saving”. This will also make sample headlines in the goodie bag brochure look great.
It should feel slightly old, but not so much that it can be labeled “retro” or a “revival.” We don’t want to pay a licensing fee for this and we don’t want it to be typecast. We can say that it “harkens to past models” or that it’s “timeless” or something like that. Just remember that “slightly old” means familiarity and familiarity means comfort and comfort means sales.
It should, ultimately, be pretty bland. Weight progressions shouldn’t require morphological changes. Letter shapes should be predictable. We’ll explain this as “recognizable letter shapes for comfortable reading.”
When faced with deciding between interesting and boring, always go with boring.
This was such a stupid idea. I opened up RoboFont with nary a pencil sketch or bit of reference material in sight and this is what went down in my head:
Alright, I’ll start with the lowercase because it’s the place with the most personality and I want to make sure that is under control. I know where I’m starting: the o. It’s going to be a circle. It has to be a circle.
On to the n. The upper right corner needs to follow the o so that leaves the part where the stem and arch meet. I can go sharp or smooth. Sharp is more visually interesting. I’m going with smooth.
On to the l. I know the relationship between the x-height and ascender, so I just need to make a line. Oh, hey, I now know what a bunch of the letters look like.
On to the b. The only decision I need to make is how the bowl connects to the stem in the lower left. Does it mirror the upper connection or do I try to sneak in a reference to calligraphy by making it more flat with a sharp connection? I’m going mirror because the calligraphic option will be too interesting. Done. Oh, hey, I can make the q by rotating the b and adjusting the descender to match the brief. Oh, hey, I got even more stuff done with that decision.
Oh no, how am I going to terminate curved strokes? I can bring them all the way to a horizontal line. No, that will cause weight problems in the s later. I can shear them vertically. Hm, maybe. I can make them end perpendicular to the movement of the strokes. No, that won’t give the uppercase a boring texture. Hm, looks like my only choice is flat, but what if I made it slightly off vertical for just that smidge of personality? Done.
What kind of dot do I want on the i and j? Square is boring. Round is more interesting, but it’s really small and infrequent. I’ll spend some of my “only slightly interesting” budget here. Round.
What am I missing? Oh yeah, diagonals. That’s easy. I’ll start with the v. It’s just take an i and an i, delete the dots and angle the lines so that the intersection has about the same color as the intersection in the n. Now I’ve got even more done.
Okay, now all of the logic is out of the way and I get to make some exciting decisions using my design instincts. Uh… I have to go with a two story a because a single story will be too retro. So, what does the middle of the a look like? What does the middle of the k look like? What does the middle of the x look like? Also, why are almost all of the letters with diagonal strokes at the end of the alphabet!?
Now I just have to do the impossible and draw an s that looks geometric and is smooth and has the right width. I need to take some deep breaths and remember the mantra of designing a geometric sans: every geometric sans s looks horrible if you stare at it for too long.
So, yeah, the lowercase is done. On to the uppercase. Well, do I want the widths to look mechanically even or do I want them to look like the Trajan Column? There is no wrong answer because both will look fine. (flips coin) Weird. The coin landed standing on its edge. I guess I’m doing a bit of both. That means that the M should have angled legs and, uh, I can have a bit of fun with the tail on the Q.
And, with that, 90% of the design decisions in Iota were done. This probably took me about an hour or two. I put the result into some proofs and something unexpected happened: I liked it. I thought this would just be an experiment with working in a different way and I’d hate the result. But, I kind of wanted to release this through my foundry. So, I worked on it over the next few months. I added a heavy weight, which was mainly just one decision: How do I handle the weight balance where the arch and stem meet in the n? I also experimented with different ways to add a little bit of texture when the typeface was used at small sizes. I found that if I added some slight flares in the lighter half of the weights I could make it a bit easier on the eye without reducing the impact of the heavier half of the weights.
But, most of the time, like 99.9% of the time, was spent meticulously smoothing curves and balancing stroke weights. There’s virtually nothing interesting in geometric sans other than precise drawing. The slightest imperfections SCREAM at the reader. There are no serifs or contrast to distract the viewer. It’s just the human eye looking at some boring lines. It has to be very clean. So, I moved a lot of bezier points a tiny bit over and over and over. I finished the drawing in mid-2016. Everything but the kerning and production was done. Then… I decided that I shouldn’t release it. I didn’t have a reason other than “I just don’t, I don’t know.” I sat on it for five years. No, really. Here’s proof: I posted all of the the finished ampersands on Instagram on July 29, 2016.
I ended up using this in my own design work. I gave it a name. I added italics. I even kerned it. I started to get used to it being around. Then, I decided, You know what? I should just release this thing. I made a quick image and posted it on social media so that I couldn’t change my mind. I released it three days later.
So, why does this need to exist? It doesn’t and maybe that’s okay. I had fun drawing it and I like using it. I learned that maybe those are good enough reasons to make a typeface every now and then.
The day after I released Iota that middle-manager from the Type Supply Marketing Department send me a note:
This is exactly what I envisioned.
I hate that guy.