The design of Aspect
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1. Chalk rendering of Aspect, May 2003, Christchurch, New Zealand, Artist unknown

Fonts can include thousands of characters allowing the user to set many languages, access alternate letter shapes and fine tune the detail of advanced typography.

Fonts are now intelligent. Aspect was designed to test and push this advancement in typographic technology offered by the OpenType format. Started in 2001, Aspect was a commission for the new Christchurch Art Gallery in New Zealand. The brief offered full creative freedom, which is usually more of an Achilles’ heel than a benefit. Having said that, the freedom given allowed for the concept of a typeface being ‘a tool to design with’ to be explored more fully. Initial thoughts leaned toward the idea of an italic script because, using this model, letter shapes could be more easily extended in exotic ways [fig 2].

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2. A detail from La Operina, Ludovico degli Arrighi, 1522

The idea of a calligraphic script didn’t have the stature (or restraint) required for the range of intended uses for the art gallery. The shapes had to be made more formal. The task was to remove the elements that gave a letter shape its italic feel. First to go was its inclined appearance [fig 3]. We accept that an italic appears at an angle however, there are historic examples of upright italics. There are other things that contribute to and influence our perception of what an italic is, such as a modulated line. This is the natural result of using a pen at an angle to create the stroke. Historically, the design of a pen nib would allow for thick and thins, the invention of the ball point pen removed this, resulting in a consistent line. It seemed logical to remove this variation and at the same time perhaps bring a more modern feel to the letters’ structure. So the stems of the letters were made monoline [fig 4].

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3. Sketchbook showing early ideas for the lowercase

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4. Early digital trial showing a more condensed proportion

Italic letters flow, often made in a single pen stroke that can join together as a ‘running hand’. This action also makes them naturally more condensed in appearance. The fact that they are the result of being written is fundamental to them being considered italic instead of sloped. Removing this structure would kill the idea of italic. Instead of eradicating all movement in a letter’s construction, it was rationalised. For instance, the in-stroke of a lowercase n was made into a serif and the out-stroke was formalised into a curl [figs 5, 6, 7]. Finally, the character set was divided into groups of letters – some that maintained the italic structure, some that had modified elements of italic, and some that had no italic traces at all [fig 8]. The resulting lowercase balances roman and italic, it’s a hybrid.

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5. Flat serif at the start of a stroke

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6. Stroke curves out to reflect a more written structure

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7. Branching arches flow from the stem

Once the core lowercase had been arrived at, it could be extended and enhanced with alternate characters and calligraphic details such as swashes and flourishes. Jan van Krimpen’s Cancelleresca bastarda is a fantastic design that balances the exuberance and freedom of swashes with the formality of typography [fig 9]. This level of balance was also required in Aspect but then expanded further with complex ligatures. The mannered repetition of elements, together with the restrictions imposed by their method of production, impart a formal quality that strengthens the whole. Granted, some may never be used, but you never know where a typeface is going to end up! A few alternates and flourishes were incorporated into the capitals, but not to the extent of the lowercase. It is the lowercase that carries the spirit of the Aspect.

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8. Lowercase grouped into sections; top are letters that are cursive in origin, middle are letters that have cursive elements, and bottom are letters that have no cursive elements

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9. The lowercase, swashes and ligatures of Jan van Krimpen’s Cancelleresca bastarda, 1934

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10. Development corrections

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11. Development corrections

The many unusual and unique shapes all add to its distinctive appearance. Yet, Aspect can still be used in a more traditional manner by setting text with only the standard characters and basic ‘unadorned’ ligatures. Customisation of a word might be limited to the considered use of a single special character such as an alternate or swash, or the word could take on the flamboyance of an elaborately ligatured swash [fig 13]. Originally released in 3 weights, several years later Aspect was expanded with an ExtraBold and Heavy.

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12. Development corrections

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13. Standard text and text with swashes applied

Further reading

Atkins, Kathryn A. Masters of the italic letter, Allen Lane the Penguin Press, 1988

Benson, John Howard. The first writing book: Arrighi’s Operina, Yale University Press, 1955

Dreyfus, John. The work of Jan van Krimpen, Sylvan Press, 1952

Harvard, Stephen. An italic copybook: The Cataneo manuscript, Taplinger Publishing Co., 1981

Heal, Ambrose. The English writing-masters and their copy-books 1570–1800, Cambridge University Press, 1931

Van Krimpen, Jan. On designing and devising type, The Typophiles, 1957