Winter 2005

Sense of place

Three new typefaces for local institutions draw on Sheffield’s cultural and typographic history

The use of custom type as corporate identity, rather than as a tool in a kit of parts for an identity has gathered momentum over the past decade. A progression from identities for cultural centres (see Eye no. 19 vol. 5, pp.70-77) to cities as centres of culture has led to a more recent generation of fonts for city identities in their own right.

The idea of a relationship between city and letterform is nothing new. Before typefaces became readily available commodities, lettering was a locally based craft skill, as suggested by the distinctive carved or painted street names of Bath, Lisbon, Rome or Venice. Even the industrial process of iron-founding allowed for distinct regional variations between such everyday items. As recently as 50 years ago, most urban areas of market town size and larger had their own foundry. Such cultural and historical connections can also be identified between typefaces and places, this relationship being a central consideration in Matt Soar’s recent feature on Excoffon’s Mistral (Eye no. 54 vol. 14, pp.50-57).

Recent projects may demonstrate an intentional rejection of such connections, but they can often provide a useful, if controversial, starting point for contemporary civic type-based projects [1]. One recent example of a project to embrace existing traditions was Gerard Unger’s Capitolium typeface for Rome, designed for the millennium year (see Eye no. 40 vol. 10, pp.15-16). The city of Sheffield in the north of England (the fourth largest city in the country) now provides another example with not one, but three new typefaces being commissioned by two institutional clients, the University of Sheffield and the City Council.

Stephenson, Blake
Given the typographic riches associated with the city, it is hardly surprising that history should feature in these commissions. Until recently it was home to the Stephenson, Blake type foundry, one of the oldest, more characterful and less stuffy of the British type founders.

Although they had a London sales office for much of the twentieth century, their Head Office and manufacturing operations remained in Upper Allen Street, Sheffield. Type founding continued there until only recently. The origins of the company lie in the early nineteenth-century foundry of Blake, Garnett & Co. who, in 1818, bought out the type foundry of William Caslon IV, one of the leading foundries in London and moved the stock to Sheffield. John Stephenson was a founding partner and the firm assumed its better known name in 1841.

The company had a reputation for unrivalled quality. However the ethos which had shaped it almost became its downfall, in the first half of the twentieth century, as the machine composition equipment of Linotype and Monotype took away the business of setting continuous text for newspapers and books. Printers then needed founders’ type because it met the demands of typographic fashion and display advertising rather than for its quality. Good advice, however, saw them able to capitalise upon their strengths and resources. From 1850 the company took over or absorbed virtually all of Britain’s smaller foundries so that by 1959 its stock had become the principal representative of the country’s most productive and diverse period of type design.

Making intelligent use of this unique typographic resource was common to both the recent type commissions in the search for an identity which would not easily wear out and which respects and pays homage to local history. Neither plays with easy pastiche or tries to grab attention; rather they show great attention to detail and continue the city’s proud heritage in type design.

The University of Sheffield
The first of the featured Sheffield type design projects grew out of a new visual identity commissioned by the University of Sheffield on the occasion of its centenary. In the face of growing competition among universities for student recruitment and taking into serious consideration the effectiveness of their existing communication tools, the University had, by Spring 2003, established a newly integrated Department of Marketing & Communications and identified a need for a sustainable visual identity strategy. The new post of Design Manager was created and Rob Hurst (originally from the city) was appointed to explore that remit. In addition to a unified approach to the presentation of the University across a range of media, one of the more interesting considerations of the identity strategy was the potential for creating a resource for use by staff and students. Could a new identity even signal an end to badly set academic essays in Arial and Times New Roman?

To put these ideas into practice was far from straightforward. An identity audit quickly helped Hurst better appreciate the scale and complexity of the problem: with more than 100 departments and seven faculties, the University is probably the city’s second largest producer of printed matter after the council. Hurst recognised that others within the higher education sector probably had experience of similar situations and spoke informally to peers from other universities, along with representatives from leading creative agencies responsible for the rebranding of educational organisations.

However, the more Hurst looked into the past heritage of the University – why it was established and what it aimed to support – the clearer it became to him that input into this major project should come from local companies [2]. Convinced by initial meetings that local creative design companies were more than capable of helping the University with its identity, Hurst set about writing a brief. At first a dozen firms were involved; this was later narrowed to four: The Designers Republic, Dust, Iris and Westhill Communications.

At the same time, Hurst looked into the supply of fonts for use within an identity. An existing font would need licensing, but for how many? A few select users for work related to marketing, or all staff (more than 6000), or perhaps all students (more than 25,000)? With so many unknowns and potentially spiralling associated licensing costs, Hurst looked to the option of a bespoke font (or fonts), which, far from being prohibitive in cost terms, would, it seemed, actually serve the University’s specific needs more appropriately, and be better value long-term.

The particular direction Hurst took in the development of the bespoke fonts resulted from a chance meeting on a visit to Bramall Lane, home of Sheffield United. Already aware of Stephenson, Blake from discussions with others, this meeting drew his attention to a possible connection between the type founders and the University. Further research reveals that when the University was founded, Sir Henry Stephenson was one of the financial sponsors. So it seemed only fitting that their archive should provide the models for the new fonts, named early on: Stephenson (serif) and Blake (sans).

Selection of the historical typeface models was overseen by the late Justin Howes, curator at the Type Museum in London. The Type Museum has been home to much of the Stephenson, Blake type founding archive since 1996, and Howes was still assessing its extent and content [3]. His brief from Hurst was to find a font or fonts representative of Stephenson, Blake in 1905, yet able to work well within a contemporary design context and still be relevant to the celebration of the centenary of the University in 2005, and into the future. Aware of the flexibility offered by a balanced type palette combining both a serif and a sans font, Howes selected Modern no. 17 and Grotesque no. 6 as appropriate models.

The thoroughness of Howes’s research left no doubt as to the Sheffield provenance of each type. Most of the punches for Modern no. 17 were cut for Stephenson, Blake between 1868 and 1871 by a W. Oliver who had been cutting punches for the company since 1857. Howes even discovered that he was considered to be a “valuable, yet irresponsible and unreliable workman” [4]. The punches for Grotesque no. 6 were cut a little later at Sheffield, between 1880 and 1882, and by an, as of yet, unidentified punch cutter.

Practicality as well as provenance influenced the selection of these particular fonts. They were going to be used together, so technical and visual compatibility were important. Pairing took into consideration optical cap height, x-height, overall colour on the page and, more especially in terms of choosing a sans model, the sense of openness characteristic of the serif face.

Then began the process of working with these historical models in terms of creating fonts for use now. Howes recommended Dave Farey and Richard Dawson of HouseStyle Graphics for the redrawing and digitisation work. With limited funds and a degree of uncertainty about how far the identity project would eventually be taken, work began with only a basic range of variants: regular, regular italic and bold for both the serif and the sans.

Howes had identified a particular “sharpness” and “edge definition” in the original cutting of the Stephenson, Blake fonts, a feature that Farey and Dawson were keen to retain. The fonts, though, are not accurate historical revivals, nor were they ever intended to be. The original Modern no. 17 – although more even in contrast than its more famous relation Modern no. 20 – was still felt to be too light and delicate to suit both text and display sizes. Something more robust was needed and so the serif font has moved to something closer in spirit to an ionic (a lighter version of the popular nineteenth-century clarendons).

The problem of adequate reference material for the originals also contributed to a spirit of interpretation rather than replication. For Modern no. 17, there was no metal type, only specimens of small sizes in their catalogues. In addition, the type was originated from punches hand-cut at every size, not pantographed from one pattern. Farey and Dawson’s work therefore necessitated invention, as distortions from the enlargement process were negotiated and characters cross-referenced between the original type sizes.

The grotesque presented still further difficulties, because there was no reference for an original italic. Again, Justin Howes’s expertise was to prove invaluable, and a variety of additional source material was located with his help, not least Grotesque no. 8.

The new fonts, together with other revised logo elements, including a reworked University crest (also by HouseStyle), comprise the basic design kit at the heart of the new identity. The Designers Republic were the first of the four shortlisted agencies to have been selected to explore the potential of the fonts when they designed the opening wave of University publications including the new prospectus. Thought is already being given to the next wave, and a broader application of the new identity to include uniforms, vehicle livery and signs.

Connect Sheffield
In 2003, the London-based Atelier Works were commissioned as graphic and cartographic designers for Sheffield Council’s wayfinding project Connect Sheffield. Their work was to embrace pedestrian signing, on-street mapping and the supportive mapping the council would also need for print and on the Web. As work progressed and they started assessing which fonts would be capable of being used for print and signs (and therefore at a wide range of sizes) it became apparent that a new font would both solve those problems and give the signing project another dimension. Atelier partner Ian Chilvers, an Honorary Trustee of the Type Museum, took a keen interest in what the model for the type should be, and despite the client’s apparent ignorance of Stephenson, Blake, the idea of “Made in Sheffield” as a brief was born. As with the University project, Justin Howes was involved, and Chilvers spent a considerable amount of time with him, looking through the Type Museum’s archives. Together they determined a list of types originating from the Sheffield company’s own drawing and design office rather than faces inherited from foundries they absorbed. Varied in style and purpose, a shortlist of possible models was identified before Granby Light Condensed was chosen. Although Elsner + Flake market digital versions of Granby, the Light Condensed variant is not among them, so type designer Jeremy Tankard was approached to advise further. He felt that a strict revival of the face would not be ideal for their purposes (and would involve copyright clearance in any case) and that a font “in the spirit” of Granby would offer the advantage of being exactly tailored to their needs as well as suggesting the sense of identity they had in mind.

Granby first appeared in 1930 at a time when Stephenson, Blake held the metal patterns for London Underground’s Johnston wood letter, and a few years after Gill Sans and the geometric sans serifs Futura, Erbar and Kabel. It was obviously designed to cash in on the market for these new styles, which were quite different from the much earlier grotesques which made up such an important part of the company’s stock.

Atelier partner John Powner was responsible for drawing up the exact specification for the font, discussing its details with Tankard, and for testing prototype fonts until the final versions were agreed. The choice of a condensed typeface had several advantages, economy of space being chief among them, but Tankard found that Granby’s condensed was too condensed. His initial sketches show a weight somewhere between the light and “regular” weights of the references as well as deciding what to retain and what to enhance. The most obvious departures from the Granby model are the “a,” which he gave a tail to, and the “Q,” whose tail follows the American gothics of the early twentieth century. Other differences include an angled top to the “l” to create a visual difference from the “I.” The numerals and other sorts which make up the character set show less reliance on Granby and have a certain ad hoc variation of weight which harks back to the nineteenth-century grotesques. Particular care was also taken over many of the details. Both counters and the junctions between curves and stems are far more open than any of the original references.

The font developed quickly, with far fewer sketchbook pages than for many of his fonts, and it was drawn in FontLab as a Multiple Master font with Extra Light and Heavy weights at the extremes. These enabled Atelier to test various permutations before choosing the three particular versions for use by the client. On the signing system itself, Light will be used for the reversed-out text, where the light halation will make it appear the same as the Regular, which is used for all dark grey text. The Bold is reserved for emphasis. All three weights are used within the wayfinding system which incorporates “heads-up” maps and photography to aid orientation. It is expected to appear on Sheffield’s streets in Spring next year.

The font was originally designed for the client as a bespoke typeface with exclusivity for two years, after which the rights for more general release reverted back to the designer. The project has taken longer to realise than anticipated and Sheffield Sans will be marketed by Tankard – with a different name – from March 2006. In that OpenType version it will have small cap variants and an added italic, as well as a Central European character set.

1. Among those who argue against this is the Dutch information designer Paul Mijksenaar. He maintains that the obsession with typeface choice in wayfinding schemes detracts from the real issues of such work, and only benefits type designers.

2. Hurst found particular inspiration in maintaining local connections in the development of the new identity in an original poster promoting the founding of the University, which stated an early intention that, “The University will help the local industries.”

3. Material acquired in 1996 included punches, matrices, paintings, unique type specimen books, business records and papers stretching back to the sixteenth century and was funded by the National Heritage Memorial Fund. Cataloguing and conservation of this material is being undertaken with the aid of a grant from The Pilgrim Trust. In 2004, with funding from the Friends of the Type Museum, the University of Sheffield and match funding from the Prism Fund, nineteen of the original iron safes and wooden cabinets which housed the punches and matrices were also acquired and brought to London.

4. Quoted in an email from Justin Howes to Robert Hurst and David Farey, 9 September 2004.

Phil Baines, designer, tutor of typography, Central St Martins, London

First published in Eye no. 58 vol. 15 2005

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