A Close Look at Retina, Frere-Jones Type’s New Release

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How long does it take to design a typeface? Days? Months? Years? How about decades. Frere-Jones Type‘s latest release, Retina, took over twenty years, making it older than some MP3s you might have in iTunes. Or older than some of your CDs—if you still have those.

But is the Retina typeface classical? Rock and roll? Easy listening? In typographic terms, it’s classified as a low-contrast sans serif, even if its origins date back to the 1990s when grunge was in full swing. That said, Retina is far from grunge, and came about thanks to a tireless amount of research, inquiry, and analysis.

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Tobias Frere-Jones began the process of seeing, analyzing, and making typography years ago, and the Retina typeface is the culmination of that work. “Its roots go back to 1990 or 1991, while I was still a student at RISD, and wanting to learn about typeface design and technique.” Years later he’s still learning, and still creating typefaces.

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Seeing and Making Typography, the Early Years

Early in his education at RISD, there was no real type design program according to Frere-Jones, who said he was left to working on his own. “I did take a stone carving class from John Hegnauer, and a hand lettering class from Inge Druckrey.” Books provided him with additional background on typography. He cited DB Updike’s Printing Types: Their History, Forms & Use and Walter Tracy’s Letters of Credit as instrumental tools in furthering his typographic education.

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Early experiments by Frere-Jones in form, function, recognition, and cognition.

Early experiments by Frere-Jones in form, function, recognition, and cognition.

That education and self-directed research helped Frere-Jones stage experiments in legibility, form recognition, and cognition, with the exercises being largely for his own purposes. In one experiment there are 11 shapes, but there appear to be 26, with some shapes having multiple uses. These early studies were all happening in parallel with Emigre, and Frere-Jones admits to having read the “Do You Read Me” issue at least 20 times.

Frere-Jones graduated from RISD in 1992 and worked at Font Bureau. Unforgiving issues related to space, paper, and ink on paper, as well as how Apple’s system fonts were hinted, had been part of the work done at Font Bureau. It all informed his ongoing experimental work that he did “off-hours at home.”

Seeing Retina Beneath the Surface

Retina addresses a challenge that Frere-Jones established for himself years ago: “How much information do we need to interpret letters at the tiniest sizes?” Frere-Jones found an answer by taking the one thing that is unique to each letter, and “blowing that up as big as possible.” The research he began in college continued into the 21st century thanks to two commissions from PBS’s art21, as well as the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). Frere-Jones recognized how things working on screen (art21) and things working in print (WSJ) had a lot in common, especially when it came to image and typographic fidelity and precision.

Open’s Scott Stowell documents some of the early work that lead to Retina in Stowell’s book Design for People. Stowell and Frere-Jones recall designs done for the art21 wordmark, including examining letterforms on a television—all pre-high-definition. Because of those low-resolution displays, a typeface with less detail, more open counters, and gaps in joints would render better—especially at smaller sizes and on coarse video displays.

Work on the WSJ had a similar challenge when it came to resolution, albeit a printed resolution. Ink traps left space at intersections or joints so the ink would fill in the negative space instead of overflowing and turning into a blobby mass. In the WSJ work, as well as in Retina, there’s a delicate dance between form and function. Positive and negative space not only has to work for the medium or the media but it also has to look purposeful.

All results were based on what had happened on press during the WSJ design process years ago. “Each one of these intersections has a notch cut in.” Trap depth and size were “derived from the angle.” The ink traps have to cooperate with the letter, “rather than look like something imposed after the design.”

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Retina’s MicroPlus styles came first, and were intended for newspaper and television, two domains that have low resolution—and had especially low resolution in the 1990s and 2000s compared to today. On their site, the MicroPlus styles are described as having “deep-cut notches” that are intended to “absorb ink in print and further reinforce the gesture of each shape, on screens as well as paper.”

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When discussing Retina during a phone interview, Frere-Jones spoke about two other typefaces: Adrian Frutiger’s OCR B (1968) and Matthew Carter’s Bell Centennial (1978). Each one solved a unique problem. Frere-Jones characterized some of OCR B’s glyphs as having “unambiguous” shapes designed so “a 1960s-era computer could tell the difference between a D and an O or a comma and period.” And then there’s Bell Centennial, with its ink traps, but Frere-Jones prefers to use the term notches to be “agnostic about the medium.”

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Retina solves problems that existed in the past as well as those that exist in the present, and problems that will likely exist in the future. It is its own typeface with its own unique qualities. The capital D for example, is asymmetric from left to right. The 3 and 5 have shapes pushed far away, for functionality’s sake, to prevent being mistaken for other glyphs. Frere-Jones noticed a similar handling of forms when it came to numbers on lottery tickets: numerals are built for anti-counterfeiting. “The similarity to lottery ticket numbers is tangential really, and something I noticed long after the design was established.”

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Retina has 7 weights and 3 widths, and is intended to be a true workhorse, no matter where you use it: publications, packaging, websites, identities, mobile apps, and more. It has OpenType features such as cap punctuation, tabular figures, fractions, and auxiliary figures. Wondering about Welsh, Wolof, Serbian, or French? Consult the full list of languages yourself—and it is a full list.

The Maestro, Making and Teaching

In addition to designing typography, Frere-Jones also teaches it. He joined the faculty of the Yale University School of Art in 1996 and usually teaches one class per term in the autumn. Presently, Frere-Jones is “taking a break” and his new senior designer Nina Stössinger is teaching the class. Taking time off from teaching allowed Frere-Jones to focus on Retina and prepare the typeface for release.

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When it comes to teaching and his own learning process, the work, and the end results, Frere-Jones is a big believer in studying everything about the project as it happens and after it’s completed. “I take notes of what I can observe consciously. Other insights can take years to form, and appear when prompted by a new challenge. Some of the most useful connections and perspectives have come out while talking to students, where I need to refine what I know before delivering it to someone else.” He sees learning outcomes evolving from design, usage, user expectations, workflow, and technology, to name a few. “You should at least get some kind of lesson out of this.”

When asked about the two sans serif fonts he’s released—last year’s Mallory and this year’s Retina—and his thoughts on doing a serif, Frere-Jones shared a surprise about his next family, that “will indeed have serifs. It will be Exchange, the other design I made for the WSJ, for their running text.” When it debuts, chances are that like Retina, Frere-Jones’s Exchange will be a symphony of form and function.

Retina: designed by Tobias Frere-Jones, with contributions by Graham Bradley, Nina Stössinger, Tim Ripper, Dave Foster, Octavio Pardo, Ksenya Samarskaya and Colin Ford.


Love typography? Want to see more fonts? Check out the latest issue of Print, which includes a cadre of experts who selected the best typefaces of 2016.

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An online exclusive to the issue at PrintMag.com includes seven honorable mentions.

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