GDMFA 2015

The process of Theo Superfamily

By Iris Sprague

Concept and Ideation:

For as long as I can remember, I have had a strange infatuation with typefaces. Typefaces are subtle, yet riddled with intricate and beautiful details undetected by most designers. We are living in the golden age of type design. Amazing type foundries and type designers are creating beautiful revivals and interpretations of typefaces, and I wanted to be one of them.

Graduate students in the design program at MICA must pursue a thesis project in their final year. I wanted to pursue type design for my project, but I had to confront the reality of a million typefaces in the world already. How could I make my typeface distinctive, useful, and relevant?

Display typefaces come and go with the times. They never last long because the are often created quickly in response to current trends. But if I could create a solid, classic body text, my typeface could stick around for generations to come. That was how the inspiration for my typeface, Theo Superfamily, was born.

Before I could think of what kind of typeface I should draw, I needed to figure out what would differentiate Theo. I was doing research on superfamilies and came to the realization that most superfamilies consisted of a Humanist-based sans and complementary serif. Only upon stumbling upon the Typotheque type library did I notice more conceptually driven type families; the Karloff type system was one that struck me the most. Karloff represented what would happen if one designed the ugliest typeface, an Italian, and the most beautiful typeface, a Didone, and then combined them to create a new neutral typeface.

The results were stupendous. I learned that superfamilies did not have to consist of the same type classification across their characteristics. This influenced my thinking about Theo. What would differentiate Theo would be a systematic approach to four completely different typeface classifications. I would base all members of the superfamily on an underlying skeleton.

The Why:

My college design professor introduced me to lettering and typography. It was a transformative year for me. I became sensitive to design, and I was especially enamored with beautiful typefaces that complemented editorial design. I realized that typefaces could have a huge impact on the aesthetics of the page and on the experience of the viewer. In graduate school, we learned that a typeface designer often responded to a particular problem when designing a new typeface. I knew from experience that designers often struggled to pair typefaces in layouts. Theo’s great purpose, then, would be to help designers pair typefaces for editorial use. I wanted Theo to be a typographic system that consisted of four different typefaces based off the evolution of the classification of type. There would be a friendly sans, a more serious grotesk, an elegant serif, and an experimental Italian. The variation in type classifications would give the designer an array of different uses and perspectives. The superfamily could even be a one-stop shop for a designer.

About Theo Superfamily

Theo Superfamily, a typographic system that consists of four different typefaces, is based off the evolution of the classification of type. I created a system based on an underlying skeleton in order to bridge these four different styles together within the superfamily.

The humanist sans is a sans serif, meaning without serifs, that is inspired by handwriting. This means that the stress, the thinnest part of the letter, is slightly oblique, and the letterforms themselves are based off the broad-nib pen. The grotesk sans is more mechanical-looking. The shape that the letter creates cannot be drawn by a pen. Grotesks have proportions that are more square. The Text is a serif based on handwriting and is distinguishable by its traditional characteristics. Theo Italian is a reverse-stress typeface; everything you expect to see thick is thin, and thin is thick. Theo in general is meant to be legible in columns of text such as those in books and periodicals. Italian typefaces by nature are incredibly hard to read and barely legible. So I made sure Theo Italian is legible even at 9 points.

The structure of the typeface reflects the purpose of the typeface; Theo was designed with the intent of using it for publications. Theo is narrow in width to save on ink for print publications and has a high x-height for easier legibility. They share the same height, so all styles are perfect for pairing with each other. Theo can be used for a variety of content. Theo Grotesk and Theo Text are the workhorses of the group; they are more neutral in nature. Theo Humanist Sans has a friendly personality as a text face due to its calligraphic influence and its bouncy texture. Theo Italian (especially Theo Extra Bold) is the display face and creates high drama in a title or as a call-out in publications.

Each typeface carries its own style because each classification has its own rules and guidelines. As Tal Leming, one of my advisors and a type designer, once told me, “It’s similar to comparing a refrigerator to an oven. Both are kitchen appliances, but they are built differently.”

In regards to Theo’s main skeleton, I could not just build the same exact forms for each style and tweak them slightly. The Humanist Sans, which is the base skeleton, sets the pace for the family. Theo Grotesk differentiates itself because it is a European style Grotesk, and they generally get wider as they get bolder. Because of the thick to thin ratio in the Text, the stems had to be enlarged to match the tonality of the rest. They are designed to work with each other in bodies of text because the similarity in tonality does not make their differences in the style jarring. Theo Super Family comes in a set of three, but as in all good typography, it is recommended to use two at a time.

Theo Sans

Theo Humanist Sans is the skeleton and leader of the whole family. In the developmental stages of Theo, Theo sans was the foundation for the family in terms of the shared x-height, descender, ascender, and cap height. It has sweet and elegant letterforms with fun, sheared terminals. The Theo Family was built for comfortable, smooth reading; Theo Sans exemplifies this effortlessly from small text sizes to large display use.

A Humanist sans serif has characteristics that were missing in the other three models, which was fun and neutrality. The sheared terminals add an elegant texture on the page that the Grotesk doesn’t offer. Theo sans is best used for headlines and text.

Theo Humanist Sans was my first exploration in the Theo family and was influenced by Metro Office by W.A. Dwiggins and Whitney by (what was) Hoefler & Fere-Jones. I wanted to have a humanist sans in the family due to the research that I did earlier in the semester, showing that most superfamilies are based off of a Humanist sans and serif. I kept Theo’s superfamily model similar to the “standard” superfamily model in that way.

Theo Text

Theo Text is the gem of the family; it has a personality ideal for setting magazines, books, and/or other large bodies of text. Theo Text is edgy with its sharp ink traps and blunt edges; Its semi-rounded terminals give it a balanced texture for easy reading and a modern twist to a classic typeface. The ink traps become more apparent and give Theo more texture in the italics. These attributes make Theo Text good for text at small sizes and an interesting headline text. Its old style characters have classic charm, while modern structure give it contemporary feel. Ideal point sizes range from 7 points and higher Theo Text Bold is best for headlines.

Theo Text is based off of the Fleischmann model, which I chose because of its calligraphic influences and modern italics. Theo Sans is the skeleton, and I wanted the serif to have calligraphic attributes as well. I found that Theo Text offers ample opportunity for subtle quirkiness while being great for body text. Theo Text pairs well with its calligraphic-influenced Theo Grotesk.

Theo Grotesk

Theo Grotesk is a reliable, humble powerhouse for the superfamily and is a symbol of neutrality. Unlike most grotesks, Theo Grotesk has distinguishably sharp junctions to separate it from other Grotesks and give the typeface its own personality. The numbers are distinctive at large sizes due to their W. A. Dwiggin’s Metro Office inspiration. Theo Grotesk is based off of the European grotesque model, Theo gets wider as it gets bolder so it has more presence. Theo Grotesk can be used in a wide variety of text. It is best for contemporary magazines, books, posters, and larger bodies of text.

Theo Grotesk was the third edition to the Theo Superfamily and was chosen due to its neutrality. When reading large bodies of text, they should be invisible on the page, and that is exactly what Theo Grotesk was meant to do.

Theo Italian

Theo Italian is the fun, experimental headliner of the family. After creating Theo Humanist Sans, Theo Grotesk, and Theo Text, I knew I needed a display face to add more life to the family. Ever since seeing Karloff Negative, the reverse street typeface from Typotheque, I wanted to make a revere stress for myself. In doing research on what types of reverse contrast that are already out there I read “Backasswords” a PDF compilation of Italian typefaces by David Jonathon Ross and noticed that not many were sans serif. Henry Caslon’s original Caslon Italian typeface is one of the first models for the reveres stress typeface and I can see that many beautiful digital interpretations have evolved from there. So to differentiate Theo Italian, I made it a sans serif that had humanist influences. I still kept some notable attributes of an Italian typeface such as the thinning of the ends but I also made them flare out a bit in a similar fashion to Theo Humanist Sans.

Another distinguishing factor in Theo Italian is that is legible even in small point sizes. I wanted to see how far I can push Theo Italian’s legibility while still being a display face. I created a new system that balances out the thicks in each typeface. There is usually 2 sets of thicks with the exception of the lowercase “g” and for the letters that did not have a horizontal stroke on the baseline and cap height they had a thicker center to appear balanced next to the letters that did. Theo Italian is great for headlines, call outs, and if you are feeling experimental even for small passages of text.


The typefaces are made through a software called Robofont, the weights are generated with another software called Superpolater, and then they are kerned in a software called Metrics Machine. For the exhibition, I shared the space with Shiva Nallaperumal. We produced print and digital specimens and a variety of fonts in use. Theo Superfamily will continue to grow even after thesis is over. I will create Headline versions and more display versions for Theo to make it the ultimate editorial font. I want to create a sense of relief for my audience. Pairing typefaces can be very difficult, and I want Theo to be a one-stop shop for designers so that they can focus on making beautiful layouts. After graduation, I will finish the typeface, italics, and kerning, and I will sell the Theo Superfamily to a foundry. I look forward to seeing Theo in use in the world.

Rope Type Foundry

By Shiva Nallaperumal

A type foundry is a company that makes and sells fonts. Some foundries are collectives, and others are one-person shows. The term *foundry* originated during the time when type was cast and cut in metal for use in letterpress and linotype machines. The digital revolution enabled a single person to produce and sell fonts through the internet, but the term *foundry* has stuck with us. Metal has been replaced by Bezier curves on vector font-editing programs. Type foundries are interesting entities in the design world. They cater to designers and typographers. A type foundry’s clients are designers working for *their* clients. But the audience who will read and enjoy the typefaces used in books and periodicals will likely have no idea about the work that went into creating the typeface. Because they market directly to designers, type foundries enjoy a design-savvy customer base.

Type design interests me. It has a long and rich history that is well documented and celebrated. It has its own design heroes, innovations, and forms of critique. It is practically unknown to the general public, which is not surprising. However, type design is also relatively unknown to many graphic designers. I enjoy telling people what I do for a living just to see the perplexed expressions and hear them ask, “Someone actually does that?” Type design combines the problem-solving aspect of graphic design and the craftsmanship of punch-cutting. If graphic designers are carpenters, then type designers are the ones making their tools: A better tool ensures a better product.

As a graduate student in the MFA Graphic Design at MICA, I became interested in exploring type design. I created five typefaces, each in response to a unique challenge. Some challenges were personal, like designing a typeface for my own identity, and others were more historic, like designing a type system inspired by the Dadaist movement. But I went further. I created a type foundry, albeit a fictional one. The idea to create a type foundry to tie these unique projects together appealed to me because it gave my work an identity and context.

I wanted my type foundry to have its own identity. The identity of a foundry can be expressed in its work. A foundry would allow me to explore marketing as well: the style of specimens, the tone of voice, the design of the visual identity, and so on. I wanted my thesis project to create a base for my own future practice, and this seemed like a perfect way to do that. In the months leading up to the exhibition, I researched the way type foundries functioned, controlled their image, and published their work. I looked at the following type foundries and took notes:

1. Typotheque:

Typotheque is my favorite foundry. Headed by Peter Bilak, it has been in the forefront of design innovation. It has bridged the conceptual side of design and the craft side of type. Typotheque has earned a reputation for being Avant Garde for work that is innovative but not polarizing. With every release, they have managed to push the boundaries of how people interact with type. They have designed a variety of groundbreaking typefaces, from ___ fonts that _____ to text fonts that defy all convention. Each release is accompanied by an in-depth essay of the backstory explaining the thinking and process behind the new typeface. The typefaces are not promoted purely on the basis of their visual quirks; they are also promoted for the stories behind them and the problems they solve. Typotheque has been extremely selective over the years. The typefaces they have released all fall under their quality and conceptual banner, even though they cover all sorts of visual styles. Typotheque is distinguished by their starkly simple visual language, very stripped-down marketing, and focus on the work itself. Their typefaces have often been challenging tools for designers, and only the most astute graphic designers have fully used their fonts to their real potential. Much of their work has paved the way for many future interpretations.

2. Commercial Type:

CT present themselves as the problem solvers. Almost all their typefaces began life as custom typefaces, tailored to solve specific problems but also have the appeal for mass use. CT was formed by Christian Schwartz and Paul Barnes at the height of their distinguished careers as already hugely successful independent designers. Their partnership began with the massive type family designed for the Gaurdian and other publications. They have consistently produced high quality text fonts with high precision and attention to detail. Their work is less avant grade and experimental like Typotheque but at the forefront of usable, beautiful and contemporary aesthetic. Their identity is more carefully designed than the former, with a specific color palette, strict stylesheets for specimens and tone of voice that is both technical and interesting.

3. Hoefler and Co. (formerly Hoefler & Frere Jones) H&Co.:

Hoefler and Co. have an interesting model. They are seen as the commercial juggernauts of the field having contributed to the typographic landscape extensively and there are no fonts on their catalogue that have seen mediocre use. They have a quintessentially american aesthetic often designing the landmark typefaces in different historical contexts. Their typefaces have a technical God like quality and present themselves that way. They often design two versions of every type style: Geometric (Gotham, the more humanist one and Verlag the more art deco one), Ionic (Sentinal, the clarendon and Ziggeraut, the display one), Humanist sans (Whitney, the frutiger-like one and Ideal Sans, which is in the handcrafted style of Hermann Zapf) and so on. This model has helped them cover almost every possible typographic tool a designer may need. They have refrained from producing very experimental or futuristic typefaces, sticking to traditional models but produce the most well designed fonts in any of those models. Their typefaces are at once familiar and new at the same time, solidifying their commercial success.

4. Font Bureau:

FB could be understood as a combination of both H&Co. and CT (Tobias Frere Jones and Christian Schwartz started their careers here) and has seen wide commercial use with timeless typefaces but have also produced many now forgotten typefaces for a specific time period. As a foundry their identity is quite confusing because of their extremely large catalogue having covered the silly to the sophisticated. They’ve innovated in many early and contemporary design models from newspaper printing in the ’90s to web fonts of today. As a world view, they have refrained from being constrained to one style or outlook.

After I studied these foundries, I wondered how Rope foundry might fit in among them. What would our tone of voice be? (I am writing “our” at this stage because Iris Sprague, a fellow grad student, had joined forces with me; her typeface Theo was one of the typefaces of Rope.) What would connect our typefaces? What visual language would our brand and specimens follow? To answer these questions, I needed to define the identity of our foundry. In a broad sense, Rope would be defined by the typefaces we have made, and our typefaces would in turn be defined by what interests us.

As a designer, I have always been inspired by the projects that required me to solve problems rather than the ones that required me to make something simply look great. We were clear from the beginning that we would showcase the story behind the typefaces as much as the typefaces themselves. The designers who have influenced me were true to their craft. They were honest and produced new and original work that genuinely contributed to the ongoing history of typography. (They were not the kind of designer who cranked out a derivative typeface to chase a trend.) I appreciate values in typefaces beyond the fact that they are well drawn. Typefaces like FF Beowolf, Irma, Greta, Antique Olive, and others that I truly admire were born out of a need to create work that could be truly useful, timeless, and original.

A designer’s creativity and personal convictions can breathe new life into the most familiar models, as shown by Tobias Frere-Jones and Kris Sowersby. In addition, Peter Bilak and Nikolai Djurek represented to me the new wave, designing typefaces that have an almost never-before-seen quality. I was very interested in these processes of looking back at the past, forward into future, and within oneself for ideas, challenges, and solutions. Typeface design also falls into the ethic of designer as author, with a high level of personal freedom for designers to explore their own ideas even in the context of client-commissioned work. For example, Christian Schwartz realized his dream of redesigning Roger Excoffon’s Antique Olive when he was commissioned to design a new type family for Fast Company magazine. Fast Company did not explicitly commission him to redesign Antique Olive; that was Christian Schwartz’ prerogative. We decided the mission of our foundry would be: to design typefaces that were contemporary in aesthetic and technical quality, historically relevant, and charged with personal individuality. The question of commercial viability went without saying.

Rope Type Foundry

With all my work I have always been obsessed with the idea of the NEW. My favorite typefaces, like I mentioned before appear to have come out of nowhere though history and tradition were strong influences on their conception. I wanted to bring this originality and personal conviction to the identity, image and collateral of the foundry. I chose the name Rope as the I wanted the foundry to ‘tie’ individuality, history and the future to form an entity that produces products of value. I refrained from using one of our typefaces for the identity and created the logotype anew. I was inspired by the idea of typefaces being quint and silent when seen small but show off their elegance and little details when seen large. This idea led to the design of the logotype which does just that: It appears to be any other pixelated font when seen in small sizes but when zoomed it it shows the complex rope like quality that make up the letters. With the logo done, the larger identity system was allowed to grow. I stripped the colors down to three basic ones: Black, a signature off Red and off white. As we are representing monochromatic typefaces, i kept the identity predominantly monochromatic, except for the red that defines the foundry as a whole. The visual language for the publication and website follows this but in a less stripped down manner. I have been very influenced in my work by my favorite graphic designer Abbott Miller all my life. He started his practice with Ellen during the pivotal time in graphic design when modernism was fading away and a new breed of postmodern designers were beginning to make their mark. The Cranbrook school empowered design students with the works of Michael Focault and Jacques Derrida which they used to question existing models of design as a field and practice and began to experiment boldly with the way information is communicated. Not being influenced by the surface level postmodernity, Abbott Miller approached his work with a very original and personal outlook. He brought a sense of visual eclecticism to the pages of the books and publications he designed where text and image interacted in a surprising yet accessible manner. While designers like David Carson and Stephan Sagmeister approached work from a very subjective point of view that bordered on self indulgence, Miller’s work was always joyful, understandable and at the same time new and challenging. This visual eclecticism inspired me to follow the model for Rope. I looked at visual elements as one, trying not to be visually constrained by a grid or formal “This is how it should be done” ethic. The specimen follows a dynamic approach to type and image, with certain standardized visual elements anchoring each spread to the other and all the spreads to one idea. Every page was designed to be a surprise yet be able to relate to every other page. We followed the same approach for the website. The manicule or the “Printer’s Hand” a now unused glyph in the typographic palette as a strong visual element to connect the various spreads and webpages together. We followed a strict stylesheet for every aspect of the brand image, like tone of voice, our designer bios, photographs, in use examples, colors and layout to solidify the brand.

In conclusion, we tried to bring Rope Type Foundry as close to a real foundry as possible. The brand identity was meant to be an umbrella under which the various types could have a context.