Typodermic’s Raymond Larabie Talks Type, Technology & Science Fiction

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Raymond Larabie, known for creating ubiquitous futuristic and sci-fi fonts, has been involved with type since he “was about five years old” and was using type at that early age as well. His experience with typography, especially when it came to the hands-on-use of Letraset, helped him understand how typefaces looked, and how typography worked. By the mid-1980s he edited fonts and made his own fonts on his first computer, doing everything on a TRS-80 in bitmap. He eventually graduated to the Commodore Amiga.

Neuropol was created in 1997 and was used for the logo for the Torino Olympics in 2006. It’s been updated and expanded a lot over the years and also comes in a more buttoned up X style. The truncated arms were inspired by a malfunctioning vectorbeam screen on an old Tempest arcade machine.

Larabie earned a Classical Animation Diploma at Sheridan College in Oakville, and went on to work as an art director in the video game business working on games for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and Super NES (SNES), as well as the Playstation and Playstation 2. During that time, he maintained his love for type and type design, and made free fonts, releasing them on the Ray Larabie Freeware Typeface of the Week website. This soon became Larabie Fonts. In 2001, he started a commercial font venture, and quit his job two years later to work on fonts full-time.

Influenced by Letraset at age five, Larabie says his own Letraset sheets got “used up decades ago,” in the mid-1980s. “I wonder if younger readers realize that fonts were once something that you’d buy and they would get used up. These are replacement copies of catalogs because I wore the originals to shreds. I don’t know why I was so obsessed with this stuff as a kid.” Photo by Raymond Larabie


Inspired by the Pinto Flare typeface, Larabie created his own groovy version called Pricedown. You might also recognize it from Grand Theft Auto‘s wordmark. “I worked for Rockstar at the time but they weren’t aware that they were using a font which was created by one of their employees before the company existed.”

Larabie moved to Japan in 2008, where he operates Typodermic Fonts. Larabie provided a behind the scenes look at his design process for HOW readers, and answered questions about his work and his influences.


How Raymond Works

Step 1



“When starting a new typeface, my first step is to draw a few heavy sample characters to establish dimensions and sidebearings.”

Step 2


“Once I’ve got a few sample characters for the heaviest weight, I add a weight axis and design a light version of those characters. This way I can test interpolation, alter the x-height, sidebearings and width, then note the scale percentages—afterwards, I delete the light test characters. I’m using a uniform line width since this will be an interpolation target which will be thrown away later. I usually use an interpolation of between 10 to 20% of the heaviest weight as my extra-light so it retains some of flavor of the heavy weight.”

Step 3



“One by one, I add completed heavy characters, making sure each one harmonizes with the existing characters. I don’t draw them in alphabetical order but I try not to leave the hard letters like a and e for last. The interplay between f,r,t,z is particularly difficult so they should be drawn all at the same time to make sure they work together. There’s no separate spacing phase—I’m adjusting and thoroughly testing the spacing for each character as I go.”

Step 4



“Next I create composite accented characters and finish the rest of the character set. I use a set of reduced height accents for the capital letters and more generous ones for the lowercase.”

Step 5


“After lots of testing and minor adjustments, I’ll create kerning classes and create all the kerning pairs. It’s important to spend a lot of time setting up the kerning classes. Not only does it make the kerning process much faster but it reduces the possibility of error and omission.”

Step 6


“Now it’s time to create the light interpolation weight. I’ll use the notes I made earlier to make everything narrower, decrease the x-height and pad the sidebearings. I’ll also create a quick, disposable outline version to use as a guide in the background.”

Step 7



“Next I’ll complete all the light characters. I need to adjust the sidebearings on thin characters like lowercase L, I, 1 etc. The accents no longer line up so they all need adjustment. The kerning will need to be done all over again. Some pairs won’t need adjusting but they’ll all need to be checked.”

Step 8



“Next, I experiment with the interpolation and make adjustments to refine the middle weights—it’s a bit like pulling strings. You can see how I need to cut away a piece of the Q so the tail goes through only on the lighter weights. This stage can involve a lot of manual cleanup and vector surgery. Now I decide which weights I’m going to export. Then I fill in the style names, do some autohinting, more testing, more adjustments and I’m done.”


Q&A with Raymond

Q. What inspired you to create your own type design foundry?

I like to call it a font company. Foundry makes it sound like I work with molten metal.

What’s behind the name? What does Typodermic mean, and why did you go with that name?

During the indie font gold rush near the turn of the millennium, font puns were in short supply so I jumped at that one as soon as I thought of it. I used it as a font name first and later a company name. “For font junkies” is my slogan but I thought of that much later.

What software do you use for finalizing, editing, and producing the font files, and why do you use it?

I use FontLab Studio because it’s been the dominant type design tool in Windows for almost two decades. On a Mac there are several other viable options but in Windows, if you want to create interpolated typefaces, it’s the only way to go.

What prior font software did you use, before the tools you currently use?

I used Fontographer but then stopped using it because it hadn’t been updated for close to a decade. I miss the vector drawing in that one but without interpolation, it’s a no-go.

When you started out as a type designer, who or what motivated you to get into type design, and why?

It was the emergence of type design tools. I was making fonts as soon as I got my first computer, a TRS-80 in the early 80s. But there was only so much you could do with those old bitmap editors. The urge was still there but dormant until I got my hands on Fontographer in 1996.

Larabie calls Conthrax “a techno typeface that’s designed to hide in the background” and he strived to make it look technological without being loud and flashy.

Larabie calls Conthrax “a techno typeface that’s designed to hide in the background” and he strived to make it look technological without being loud and flashy.

The average person who looks at your type catalog might see a strong science fiction influence. How has sci-fi shaped your typographic tastes, and the type designs you make?

When I started in the late 1990s that category was underserved. You’d see that style in logo designs but not much as typefaces. I think now, techno is considered a legitimate category but not long ago, that style of type was passed off as Microgramma or Bank Gothic clones. I do love sci-fi and video games and that’s definitely an influence. The choice of going square is often an attempt to make type that harmonizes with our environment. We live in a high-tech, rectilinear world. When I started seeing my techno fonts used on consumer electronics, it guided me more towards those sorts of projects.

Typography has a prominent place in many science fiction comic books, films, and cartoons. What movies or comic books get the typography right, in your opinion, and why?

Sci-fi type like in Robocop (1988), Star Trek the Next Generation (STNG), or Demolition Man were amped up versions of popular type styles in the times they were made. The STNG typeface feels like a late 1980s software company logo—perfect for the times. Sci-fi type often fails when it regurgitates old sci-fi ideas. We’ve seen decades of the Blade Runner line gap trick. It was a stark vision of the future in 1982 but maybe we should be extrapolating the visuals of today to develop new visions of the future.

Something that constantly annoys me is the use of Bank Gothic to imply “futuristic.” Bank Gothic was designed in 1930 and was based on a popular sign painting style from around 1900. It was the kind of thing you’d see on rail cars, gravestones, stock certificates etc. When I see it, it looks very old-fashioned to me so it’s a bit like seeing a Model-T Ford in a sci-fi future. Famous movie examples: Moon, Terra Nova, Edge of Tomorrow, Battlestar Galactica, Hunger Games, Falling Skies, Jumper and several Stargates. I think Bank Gothic is often chosen because it’s a square font that a lot of people already have on their computer. It’s not a bad font by any means but it’s very American, circa 1900 to me.

 

When it comes to your process, do you begin working directly on paper during the initial design phases, or do you go right to the computer, and what benefit does that method of working provide?

I usually don’t use paper at all. I jot down notes as I’m working such as sidebearing numbers and accent offsets. I feel like the design of each glyph should be as open as possible so they can be formed by their neighbors. If I decide what glyphs are going to look like ahead of time, I can paint myself into a corner. A far more useful visual aid is to keep a reference photo on my desktop wallpaper or pinned to my cork board—usually not of anything typographical but more of a thematic image. For one job, I needed to create a tough, military looking typeface so I pinned a picture of a Humvee to my board. To me, that’s more useful than sketching out the alphabet. Even if I don’t use visual reference, there’s some kind of doctrine I can use to help me make decisions. Otherwise, I tend to smooth the edges down until the typeface has no character.

You offer a lot of free fonts, as well as fonts that cost money. Why so many fonts for free?

It’s promotional. Those free font sites get so much traffic. I’ve had over 60 million downloads from DaFont alone. The free fonts can lead to sales of web, app and eBook licenses or other weights like heavy or ultra-light.

What are your best-selling paid fonts?

Korataki is a techno font commissioned for the Mass Effect game series that’s always done really well. Meloriac is mixed case, extremely bold geometric sans which has been a steady seller. Conthrax is a more recent success. It’s a squarish, soft, ultramodern deliberately sedate.

What are your most frequently downloaded free fonts?

Coolvetica. It’s downloaded almost twice as much as the next one down the list. Then there’s Steelfish. That was a bit of a dud until I spruced it up a few years ago. I’ve been constantly going over the old ones and freshening them up or rebuilding from scratch. Then Budmo, Neuropol and Pricedown.

The Budmo typeface, influenced by marquee signs.

What type designers, foundries, or visual culture do you look at for inspiration these days, and why do you look at that work?

I spend a lot of time on Pinterest. I try to avoid looking at design blogs, or anything tagged as typography. I feel like it’s a bit like visual dieting. It’s not just what I look at, it’s what I don’t look at. And more than ever, as a species, we’re all feeding from the same visual trough. An example of a recent tangent was diving deep into the world of reel-to-reel tape decks and obsolete audio cassette formats, strange auto-reverse mechanisms. If you don’t swerve, you’ll end up making the same typeface someone else already made.

In addition to offering your fonts through your own site, they can be found at fonts.com as well as Fontspring and other sites. What advice would you have for the budding type designer, who wants to get their fonts picked up by those distributors?

When you’re developing your typeface, you should try to imagine the kind of customer that’s going to purchase it. Give it some kind of reason to exist. It’s not enough to make an attractive or interesting typeface. It’s fine if you want to get experimental but those sites aren’t the place for that sort of thing. They’re like department stores rather than galleries. For example, if you’re making a font that looks like neon lights, you can look at what’s available and think about the kind of customer who might need one. What kind of projects would they use it for? Is there something missing in the current selection of neon light fonts?

Korataki was commissioned by Bioware for the Mass Effect game series.

Some of your influences, such as the TRS-80 and 1980s pop culture, are also found in Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One, which Steven Spielberg has made into a feature film. You’ve got such a deep catalog of future-forward and sci-fi fonts. Leading up to Ready Player One’s release, if we see a 1980s renaissance—and especially one with sci-fi and gaming influences from that era—what new creations can we expect to see from Typodermic Fonts?

I think the console games of the 1980s and 1990s have been well fetishized—the aesthetic is well known. Younger generations have developed a visual style based on that type of look but it’s based on a relatively narrow view on games in the 1980s. There’s an aspect of gaming that’s been largely ignored and is in danger of being lost forever: microcomputers. While some people were playing Atari and Nintendo in the living room, the rest of us were at desks, patiently waiting for games to load from cassettes. Those types of games haven’t been popular with collectors and they’re often ignored. Cassettes and floppy disks fail—manuals and packaging get thrown in the trash. Some of the Japanese microcomputers like MSX, NEC PC Series, X-1, FM-7 had specific technical limitations that created their own unique visual style. A lot of the console game franchises we know and love started off on these systems before people played them on their living room game consoles. Many microcomputer games that were released in this era will never be recovered. A few years ago I made Rukyltronic which was a tribute to 1980s UK microcomputers like Beeb and the Speccy. That’s the kind of thing I’ve got my eye out for and it’ll inevitably make its way into my upcoming typeface releases.

Where do you see type design heading in the future?

Typography has a fashion cycle so you’ll see the same kinds of typefaces come and go. But when they cycle back each time, new ideas will be applied and they’ll required upgrading as user expectations keep getting higher. Things like optical scaling which will compensate for the environment. What makes a typeface perform better in small print on a smartwatch is different from what works best on a billboard and it’s not just the weight. In the 1990s, a basic character set with a few accents and stock mathematical symbols was the norm. Typefaces rarely came with more than regular, bold and italics. Now we expect a weight range, more language coverage, cohesive symbols and OpenType features galore. Also, new font technology will allow us to finally produce convincing handwriting. I think some of the innovations required to make Arabic writing work properly will provide us with some interesting tools. Once type designers have access to these tools, who knows what we’ll come up with?

Edited from a series of online and email interviews. Captions for Neuropol, as well as Toxigenesis type design process provided by Raymond Larabie. Check out Typodermic Fonts online and follow Larabie on Twitter and Instagram.


 

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