The design of Redisturbed
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1. Various suggested new letters for the ‘sh’ sound from 1568 to 1793, shown in the Monotype Recorder, 1962

Attempts to change our alphabet have been made continually from as far back as the mid-16th century.

Many of these early experiments are based on the idea that 26 letters are inadequate to serve the complexities of the English language. So additional letters were often invented or borrowed from different scripts to augment the alphabet [figs 1, 2, 3, 6]. Other ideas suggested the simplification of the alphabet to a single set of letters for both capital and lowercase [figs 4, 5]. Both routes however, instead of improving the alphabet, generally complicated it.

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2. Specimen words by William Thornton, 1793, shown in the Monotype Recorder, 1962

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3. New letters by Thomas Spence, 1775, shown in the Monotype Recorder, 1962

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4. The bizaare National Roman created by Reginald Piggot, 1962

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5. The National Roman idea applied to different type styles

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6. Page spread from a children’s story book set in Pitman’s Augmented Alphabet and taught to hundreds of school children in 1961

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7. Alphabet 26 by Bradbury Thompson, 1950

In 1991 I came across Bradbury Thompson’s Alphabet 26 [fig 7]. His first critical look at the alphabet was in 1944 and over the following years he presented different experiments culminating with Alphabet 26 in 1950. Thompson’s solution involved a less stylistic approach. The idea was to use only one symbol for each letter by combining the most distinct letters from both the capital and lowercase sets. As this approach rested on using existing letter shapes, there was no need to introduce new designs, so the reader had no new symbols to learn. Ten years later the plan was revisited and four lowercase letters (a, e, m, n) were specially designed to harmonise with the other letters in the set [fig 8, 9].

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8. Top is Alphabet 26 in 1950
Bottom is Alphabet 26 reworked in 1960

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9. Detail of Alphabet 26 clearly showing a problem with ‘in’ combination, 1960

There are a few problems with the Alphabet 26 model. Some words suffer from their letter combinations, especially the use of the lowercase n following the capital I. Here the result is the appearance of a badly printed m [fig 9]. Anomalies such as this and the lack of ascenders and descenders hinder the flow and readability of the text. This prompted me to attempt the design of a unicase alphabet and in 1993 Disturbance was released by FontShop International as part of their FontFont collection [fig 11]. Core to its design is the inclusion of ascenders and descenders which add vertical movement knitting the text block together and reducing the overall impression of reading small capitals.

Part of the design process for Disturbance was to adopt only 26 letters in my handwriting [fig 10]. By doing this I discovered which letters came easily and which ones made natural ligatures. A couple of hybrid letters were designed (the g and q) which had to be strongly rooted in recognisable and accepted shapes. In essence each is a blend between capital and lowercase. When developing Disturbance I noticed that one major element missing from Alphabet 26 was an italic. Did Thompson consider this and if so would it have been a sloped or cursive style? A cursive approach was selected for Disturbance where the visually different letters compliment the roman to the advantage of typographic rhythm.

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10. A sketchbook page from 1991 showing the notes written using the 26 letters of Disturbance

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11. The introduction of ffDisturbance by FontShop International in FontZine 5, 1993

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12. Notes on an early version of the new design

Over time I became less satisfied with the original Disturbance and saw an opportunity to revisit the idea in 2000. However, other projects got in the way, and then again in 2003. Finally in 2009 time was put aside to start a redesign. The idea needed to be taken a lot further in order to justify the project and the time spent on it. Two principal aims for the new design, now named Redisturbed, were identified. One was to push the idea of a unicase alphabet further and treat it as a conventional text type. Adding all the characters, typographic elements and details expected today. The other was that the new version should set continuous text as evenly and as readably as possible, within the constraints of it being a unicase design. My thinking here was that if all aspects of legibility, readability and functionality of the letter shapes were addressed, then the only potential difficulty would be the unfamiliar collection of letters. Arguably this is less of a concern today as the idea of unicase has been around for quite a long time. To some people it is perhaps, no longer ‘radical’.

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13. The original ffDisturbance shown above a stage development of the new design

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14. Sketches for the new swash letters of Redisturbed

New weights were added to Redisturbed, together with an extended character set covering Central European languages, full number sets, fractions, a–z superiors and a set of swashes. In addition to the standard Redisturbed types, other fonts have been designed with adjustments for use at various sizes. These optical versions were made to address the functionality of the type when seen large or small — to reduce any legibility issues and improve readability at small sizes, and enhance the elegance of the letters at large sizes.

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15. A page spread from the Redisturbed sample, 2010

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16. The ExtraLarge fonts are more finely detailed

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17. The Small fonts are made more robust

Further reading

Ahrens, Tim. Size-specific adjustments to type designs, Mark Batty Publisher, 2008

Bigelow, Charles, and Day, Donald. ‘digital typography’, Scientific American, volume 249, number 2, August, 1983

Broos, Kees, and Quay, David. Wim Crouwel alphabets, Bis Publishers, 2003

Burke, Christopher. Active literature, Jan Tschichold and new typography, Hyphen Press, 2007

Denman, Frank. The shaping of our alphabet, Alfred A. Knopf, 1955

Droste, Magdalena. Bauhaus 1919–1933, Benedikt Taschen, 1990

‘Easing the adventure into literacy’, Monotype Recorder, volume 42, number 3, 1962–3

Jubert, Roxane. ‘Alphabet atypiques: vers une classification’, Typografische Monatsblätter, number 5, 1997

Jury, David. About face: reviving the rules of typography, Rotovision, 2002

Lupton, Ellen, and Abbott Miller, J. The ABCs of [circle, square, triangle]: The Bauhaus and Design Theory, Thames and Hudson, 1993

Piggott, Reginald. ‘National roman’, Alphabet, The Kynoch Press, 1964

Thompson, Bradbury. The art of graphic design, Yale University Press, 1988

    —. Westvaco Inspirations 145, West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company, 1944

    —. Westvaco Inspirations 180, West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company, 1950

    —. Westvaco Inspirations 213, West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company, 1960

Tracy, Walter. The typographic scene, Gordon Fraser, 1988

Tschichold, Jan. The new typography: a handbook for modern designers, translated by Ruari McLean, University of California Press, 1995

‘Wim Crouwel’s adventures into experimental worlds’, Idea 323, Seibundo Shinkosha Publishing, 2007

‘Works of Jan Tschichold 1902–74’, Idea 321, Seibundo Shinkosha Publishing, 2007