Creating type in three dimensions

In the e-book era, physical manifestations of type may be destined for the museum cabinet, but enthusiasts from across the globe still relish the challenges of crafting type in three dimensions. Anna Richardson gets to grips with what’s on offer

When designer Jeanette Abbink describes a bygone world of type – Gutenberg and the centuries that followed – it’s all about the tangible. ‘Type was something physical,’ she says. ‘Chunks of metal, objects with heft and dimensionality that you could throw like a rock.’

But then ‘cool photo-typography gradually took the place of hot metal’, she goes on, and type as an object receded further into the past when digital typesetting took over in the 1980s.

Now, with the growing popularity of e-books, type has become even more ephemeral and less substantial. ‘Type is set on one screen and read on another. It no longer exists in three dimensions, and barely exists in two,’ says Abbink, founder of Rational Beauty. ‘It has become up to artists, illustrators and typographers to make up for this insubstantiality in our written language and make the letters of the alphabet physical again.’

When redesigning the American Craft Council’s not-for-profit magazine in 2007, Abbink, with senior designer Emily CM Anderson, decided to develop handmade type as part of its identity, creating 3D headlines for features. ‘The type is memorable and helps give the magazine an artisanal quality,’ she explains. ‘”Making” is a big part of the craft story and we wanted our type to help tell that narrative.’

Different treatments are in most cases based on the magazine’s house font, the serif DTL Fleischmann (‘a modern typeface with roots in historical letterforms’), even though a serif makes them hard to translate. ‘The serif has more curves, with delicate features and more contrast,’ explains Abbink. ‘[But] it helps give the typography a strong focus which makes the identity of the magazine tighter.’ The process can be time-consuming, and there are budgetary constraints, but Abbink tries to use a handmade font in every other issue, linking the lettering to the artist or subject being profiled. The April/May 2009 issue, for example, uses letters created out of polymer clay, the material that jeweller Gabriel Craig works with. Other materials and processes used include rapid prototyping, sugar decoration and wood.

Dutch ‘typo-graphic’ designer Janno Hahn also likes to get his hands dirty once in a while, pursuing his love of type through different media. ‘Most graphic designers stay behind their computers and the safe world of paper and ink,’ he says. ‘But there are many more materials to use in a graphic environment, and most of the time they are more interesting, because they’re alive.’

Hahn has created handmade type from wood and rusted steel, a garland alphabet out of paper, and a sculptural typeface from triplex wood. When assembled correctly, the typeface Das Kapital forms a red letter ‘K’. It is ‘a true classless society where all letters are equal’, says Hahn. Of his love of lettering, he adds, ‘Type is something we can really relate to – whether it’s just a single letter, a word, a sentence or a text, we want to read and understand.’

Fellow Dutch designers Maarten Dullemeijer, Rob Stolte and Jeroen Breen of Autobahn are also a bit in love with handmade type. The trio have pursued a number of autonomous experiments, such as the Fresh Fonts series, in which they used ketchup, toothpaste and hair gel to create new letterforms based on Helvetica. For the cover of Dutch art book Verkenners, they used the Din typeface to write the title with miniature trees and grass on someone’s back, and they recently created their first film-based font, ‘Von A nach Z’, for the 33pt Symposium in Dortmund.

‘We are not your typical font designers, just tweaking curves and designing at micro levels,’ says Breen. ‘We love to use our hands and encounter the unforeseen in our designs. When you use toothpaste and grass mats things are bound to go wrong at some point, so you can’t control results like you do on a computer – and that’s what we find interesting and fun to do.’

Estonian brothers Vladimir and Maksim Loginov of Hand Made Fonts have taken that approach to new levels. They had produced handmade type for clients for a while, before turning the resulting letterings into a bank of fonts, for everyone to use.

Their font library now includes more than 150 types, with some of the handmade ones using materials such as ice, body hair and caviar. The duo’s favourite is the red, hand-knitted font, courtesy of their mother. ‘She did the whole alphabet in two days. We couldn’t have made anything like that in a hundred years,’ says Maksim.

It’s this hands-on approach that provides such pleasure, say designers, and consumers seem to appreciate it too. ‘It gives the language some heft and gravitas, thick with texture that helps facilitate their understanding of craft on some level,’ says Abbink. ‘It’s a different way to look at language. It’s storytelling.’

With applications in magazines and ads, and handmade type appearing on walls, football fields and even as letter-shaped kites in the sky (from Andrew Byrom), 3D type seems to be everywhere, and definitely worth getting your hands on. •

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