New from Old: The Why & How of Reviving a Typeface

by Toshi Omagari

Typeface revival: the art of taking a classic and modernizing it for the digital era. Similar to the remastering of movie classics, where light, color, sound and lost scenes are digitally restored, classic typefaces are often remastered for the purpose of making them more relevant for today.

But what does that mean exactly? Let’s say a typeface was designed in the 1920s or ’30s in a time when brands and advertisers connected with consumers through ads, magazines, books, billboards and signage. Communication and advertising were driven by print. Most typefaces back then were crafted to work beautifully in print and within the parameters of mechanical typesetting. What happens when a brand wants that classic look and feel, but in a contemporary digital environment? If there is enough demand, a typeface designer will often work to modernize the typeface to work in a digital environment—working to preserve all of the characteristics of the original face. So just how does this process work?

First, I will set up how these projects came to me and then get into some detail later about the process of working to revive the typeface to be more relevant in the modern era.

As a typeface designer, the process of reviving typefaces is a familiar one for me. I have designed a number of significant type reinventions in recent years including 2013’s Metro Nova®, and this year’s Neue Haas Unica™ release. Each of these projects requires extensive research and consideration, but inspiration can come from different places. In the case of Metro Nova, the starting point was William Addison Dwiggins’ Metro typeface—although not the version most people are familiar with.

Metro Nova came about through a request from director Doug Wilson for the Linotype film. The Metro typeface most people know is actually the second version, Metro No. 2®, which became more popular than Dwiggins’ first design. Doug wanted the original Metro No. 1®, which hadn’t been digitized.

Metro Nova | Image from Monotype

Metro Nova in use. Image from Monotype.

Paste-up of Metro letters. Undated but probably Spring 1929. Image from Linotype.

Paste-up of Metro letters. Undated but probably Spring 1929. Image from Linotype.

Metro No. 1 looks very different. You can see the differences in the characters, the a, e and g, they’re more reminiscent of Gill Sans. The original form is so much more interesting. Dwiggins’ classic was given a new lease on life and recreated as a modern family. Metro was a “duplexed” typeface, whereby a pair of styles, such as roman and italic, was drawn with matching individual character widths. Dwiggins’ design took this into consideration. However, an interesting challenge was removing the duplexing restrictions while still maintaining the character of the design. I eventually stopped drawing letters based on the earlier shapes and began to refine proportions to what I considered right and hoped Dwiggins would have done, if he had been given the opportunity.

Neue Haas Unica was also a revival born of demand, although on a different scale. The original Unica®, designed by Team ‘77, was an attempt to create the ultimate sans-serif, a hybrid of Helvetica®, Univers® and Akzidenz Grotesk®. After its release in 1980, it earned almost mythical status in the type community as it was lost among legal disputes, and was never made available as a full, digital typeface. As far as I was concerned, bringing it back was necessary because Monotype was asked for Unica all the time. For me, it was a question of why doesn’t it exist? I felt I had to do it because I wanted to make one of the most revered typefaces applicable for modern use.


Neue Haas Unica

The process of reinventing type

With reference materials in hand, reviving a typeface can be a fairly straightforward process. The original drawings are scanned and then digitized. For me, this involves making lots of small changes rather than anything radical.

I try to keep the feel of it. Not necessarily the drawing itself; the feel of the typeface and the capturing of the typeface is more important than the outline. Sometimes things might look really different if you just look at the outline. It’s more authentic if you look at the typeface in text overall.

While additional changes might be made to address factors like consistency across weights, working with older drawings can also bring to light more unusual detail that’s no longer needed in digital typefaces. The original Unica was created for phototypesetting, which meant its characters were designed with small ‘points’ that overcompensate for optical rounding effects, making the character look as intended. Changes like these are a necessary part of the digitization process, but can occasionally involve the designer having to make personal decisions.

I try to stay faithful to the original, what the designer would have done today. Some people actively put themselves in the original. I try not to do it, but it sneaks in no matter how hard you try to avoid it. It inevitably becomes yours in part. Personality is not something you try to express, it’s something you can’t avoid.

With that in mind, does working on a typeface as revered as Unica place a larger sense of responsibility on my shoulders? It was a huge responsibility and a challenge, but I don’t really change the way I approach any typeface. I maybe draw a little more carefully.

Reasons to survive

For other type revivals, it can be a case of personal discovery or a happy accident. The vast Monotype and Linotype archives have no shortage of materials and act as a place for specific research or a place to be surprised. However, not every typeface should be revived.

Almost every typeface has something that didn’t survive into digital. In the 80s and 90s, when companies started digitizing typefaces, the character sets were much smaller and excluded unimportant characters like swashing letters, sometimes even whole fonts.

Instead, my decision to revive a typeface can be based on a variety of reasons. When I find something new to me I’ll tend to think, “That’s interesting, but is it good? Does it have a place today?” Sometimes I find things that aren’t quite right, they aren’t what the designer intended or the original material wasn’t as good as it could be.

For those that work with type, a modern-day revival also brings a host of practical benefits and new options. Newer technology means that inconsistencies brought about by limitations in older type production methods can be fixed without losing any of a typeface’s idiosyncrasies. There’s scope for useful new additions: Neue Haas Unica brings multi-language support, while others may be reinvented to better exist in the new digital world.

When reviving a typeface, I almost always add more weights. Type families don’t always grow in a consistent way; they can be a tangled mess. With older typefaces, a bold italic might have been created for a client, when a bold doesn’t exist. More weights bring more options for people, as well as a more consistent system of weight and style that has more worth in a visual language.

Sometimes they’re just overdue. For instance, whenever people see the original drawings of the Gill display weights, that’s what they ask for. My question is: “Why haven’t we done these before?” These weights have been waiting a very long time to be digitized. To anyone who sees the typefaces, it’s obvious.

Toshi Omagari – Type Designer, Monotype

Toshi has developed a varied portfolio of fonts in Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, and Mongolian scripts. He became a typeface designer after studying at the Musashino Art University in Tokyo and the University of Reading in England – but his passion for type goes way back. With over two dozen typeface families to his claim (the most recent, prior to Neue Haas Unica, being the Type Directors Club award winning Metro® Nova family), Omagari has proved himself, at a young age, to be a prolific and proficient typeface designer.

S3398Get an inside look at 52 different typefaces with The Just Type Weekly Engagement Calendar 2016, and admire their notable features and characteristics, variations, and design history. Each spread in this weekly planner features a different font, and celebrates the diversity, power of expression, and artistry of each.