11 months ago

The Beauty of Typographic Fonts

Peter Biľak on the process of designing his newly released Karloff typeface, demonstrating just how closely related beauty and ugliness are. Karloff explores the idea of irreconcilable differences — how two extremes could be combined into a coherent whole.

“Thats how it all starts – whats more about it?

In 2010 I was invited to a design conference in Copenhagen to speak on the subject of conceptual type. The organisers were interested in examples of typefaces whose principal design feature was not related to aesthetic considerations or legibility, but rather some underlying non-typographical idea. In my address I argued that there is no such thing as conceptual type, since type design is a discipline defined by its ability to execute an outcome; the process that transforms the pure idea into a functional font is a critical part of the discipline. Having rejected the topic of the conference, I nevertheless went on to speculate on what a true example of a conceptual typeface might be like.

Let’s go into detail.

At the time I was also interested in the idea of irreconcilable differences and how two extremes could be combined into a coherent whole. As an example, I looked for the most beautiful typeface in the history of typography — as well as the ugliest one — and for a way to meld them.

“Ok, so that sounds cool – The Beauty

While any choice representing beauty is bound to be very personal and subjective, many agree that the high-contrast typefaces created by Giambattista Bodoni and the Didot clan are some of the most beautiful in existence.


Bodoni was one of the most widely-admired printers of his time and considered amongst the finest in the history of the craft. Thomas Curson Hansard wrote in 1825 that Bodoni’s types had “that beautiful and perfect appearance, which we find it difficult and highly expensive to equal.”¹ In his Manuale Tipografico of 1818, Bodoni laid down the four principles of type design “from which all beauty would seem to proceed”, namely: regularity, clarity, good taste, and charm.

His close competitors in France were the Didots. Not only did François-Ambroise Didot invent many of the machines used in printing, but his foundry endeavoured to render the types more beautifully than his rivals Baskerville and (later) Bodoni. Some considered Didot’s works the most beautiful types that had ever been used in France (up to that period),² though others found them delicate but lifeless.

The Ugliness

I have to admit that dealing with ugliness was a lot more interesting than revisiting the beauty contests of the classicist printers. The search for ugliness triggers a certain primal, voyeuristic curiosity, and from the designer’s perspective there is simply a lot more space to explore. Capturing beauty has always been considered the primary responsibility of the traditional artist, and even now it is rare to find examples of skilled and deliberate ugliness in type design, (although examples of inexperience and naïveté abound).

The eccentric ‘Italian’ from the middle of the Industrial Revolution was a clear choice. This reversed-contrast typeface was designed to deliberately attract readers’ attention by defying their expectations. Strokes that were thick in classical models were thin, and vice versa — a dirty trick to create freakish letterforms that stood out in the increasingly saturated world of commercial messages.


the result of this project, connects the high contrast Modern type of Bodoni and Didot with the monstrous Italians. The difference between the attractive and repulsive forms lies in a single design parameter, the contrast between the thick and the thin.

I asked Pieter van Rosmalen for help, and both of us worked on both versions. While at the beginning I looked at the Didot from Imprimerie Nationale as a reference, Pieter departed from this model and made the project more personal.

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