Since it was tentatively announced on Erik Spiekermann’s Spiekerblog in February, the prospect of a serif counterpart to FF Meta – the most influential sans of the digital revolution – sent out a ripple of trepidation through the (typo)graphic design community. Last week it was finally confirmed in the FontShop News e-mailing: FF Meta Serif is available in all its OpenType goodness. By the way, I do hope you subscribed to those e-mailings, because that is where you can find out about new typeface releases and new foundries added to the FontShop catalogue. And don’t forget to read The FontFeed as well. I consider Unzipped to be complementary to both FontShop News and The FontFeed, so I won’t be retreading stuff that has been written about there. If you don’t read those, you’re missing out!
Erik Spiekermann Waiting for Meta Serif The first thing that crossed my mind when I saw FF Meta Serif announced was ‘Why now and not ten years ago?’ Erik Spiekermann had made several attempts to design the serif companion to FF Meta throughout the nineties. Yet he never got across the hurdle of making it just like the sans, albeit with serifs on. In Erik’s own words: ‘I kept sketching it, but it sucked.’ Then of course there were all the other type families he created, like FF Info, ITC Officina Display, FF Meta Headline, FF Unit …
An early sketch from the first, aborted attempt in 2001. Erik had been talking to Christian Schwartz about Meta Serif for a few years. They met at the end of the previous millennium, when Christian went to Berlin to work at MetaDesign, straight out of college. Erik directed his work on a couple of projects, but he wasn’t around all that much. Their collaboration started in earnest around 2002, when Christian moved to New York after leaving The Font Bureau, Inc, with Unit and MetaHeadline. (A little anecdote: at first Erik and Christian thought that Unit could be a headline face for Deutsche Bahn. They made just a bold weight to suggest it for the advertising department in 2001/2002. It turned out a bit like Meta and Bundespost. When the client didn’t want it, they took it for the studio, which was United Designers at the time.) ‘Christian Schwartz has as much talent as Jonathan (Hoefler) and Tobias (Frere-Jones), as much historical knowledge as older designers and is technically pretty turned-on. He has an output more prolific than most of us – his body of work is tremendous, ranging from novel headline faces to hard-working text families and corporate type he has developed with me and other clients.’ Yet it was precisely their work together on corporate type that delayed Meta Serif even longer. First they did Bosch Sans and Serif for Robert Bosch GmbH, then the DB Type family for Deutsche Bahn AG which won them a gold medal from the German Design Council in early 2007. Like Erik says: ‘Work is always in the way of projects.’
Christian Schwartz Close collaboration Regarding his collaboration with Christian, Erik told me they have been working like this for years. The development of a type family consists of roughly three stages. Initially Erik may make sketches or send rough files, but sometimes they just sit together and look at other stuff to say ‘a bit like this, and a little like that, but not quite like that. Let’s look at the Scottish stuff and mix in some of the Fuller Benton approach…’ Then Christian thrashes out a word or two and Erik comments or sketches details or alternatives.
Many options for the ball terminal, tested on the ‘a’, at the very early stage. Drawn by Christian while discussing the face with Erik in Lisbon. This version of the face turned out to be too light overall, with overly delicate serifs. At that point Christian produces a complete base font which serves as a basis for evaluation. A number of parameters are decided on, like contrast, widths, weight, x-height, special features, significant characters, things like terminals, counters. Erik and Christian look at the range of weights, then perhaps sketch out the extremes. When they’re satisfied with the results, Christian designs both of those extremes or perhaps even three, depending on the range. Different sample settings are compared and more details are settled. All this is done with just a basic character set, without kerning, but with pretty good fitting.
Extreme weights of Meta Serif version 4, compared to the original Meta. Once the weights are satisfactory and Erik and Christian have decided on things like figures and all the other stuff besides the basic letters, Christian draws the extremes with a full character set before interpolating. That may involve Erik van Blokland’s Superpolator or writing Python scripts. Christian has sometimes had other designers like Tal Leming or Christian Acker help him finish large character sets, go over the interpolated weights, add accents, help with kerning.
Meta Serif with old numerals…
… and with new numerals. To Erik this division of labour makes perfect sense and hails back from the day when type production was a collaborative effort by necessity: ‘Type design involves a lot of different disciplines, from sketching to production, and when you’re making hundreds of weights and versions, four or more eyes see more than two and a lot of the boring work gets shared.’
‘We enjoy our online discussions and e-mail exchanges, and the finished product doesn’t suffer from that sort of blindness that comes from being too close to your own creation.’ Erik’s role is largely that of the art director. ‘I try and give a brief and I comment on the results, but I hardly touch anything myself. Because Christian and the others are so much quicker than me it would be a waste of my time to draw actual outlines. But I generally know what I want – or what the client wants – and I can sell it.’
Tackling Meta Serif As he realized that his own efforts to design Meta Serif didn’t amount to anything, Erik felt he needed a second opinion and some distance. This was where Christian came in. Erik explains: ‘The original Meta owes a lot of its idiosyncrasies to the fact that the first versions never really got finished by today’s standards, they were cobbled together over time and the expansion of the family then involved many other designers. That is probably just as well because perfection can be dangerous and make a face slick and impersonal. My own sketches for Meta Serif never got anywhere and it took Christian to take a step back and design a serif companion that is more than an extrapolation.’ Once they had made up their minds about which way the design should go, the development of the Meta Serif family ‘only’ took two years. At some point Unit Slab – currently in progress – entered the equation, as they used that typeface to define how slabby and straight Meta Serif should get. More on Unit Slab soon. ;)
Kris Sowersby A third designer came on board to help with Meta Serif. In an e-mail to Erik Spiekermann late September 2006, Christian announced: ‘I've finally found a brilliant young designer to work with – the incredibly talented Kris Sowersby in New Zealand’. I asked Christian how he had stumbled upon Kris, as he was relatively unknown. ‘By clicking a banner he had designed for typographi.ca several years ago. I bookmarked his site because he seemed to be an uncommonly talented young designer with enormous potential – which, luckily for all of us, he has been living up to, both in his own work like National, and his work with me and Erik.’
An early sketch by Kris, which was much closer to the right weight, although it was decided from here on that the contrast needed to be a bit higher and the serifs should indeed be bracketed. By then Christian and Kris had already spent a bit of time throwing ideas around for Meta Serif. ‘Kris was involved much earlier than my previous collaborators had even been, in that he had input on the first round of sketches. He and I threw very rough sketches back and forth on the italic for several days, and the final product was really a 50/50 combination of our respective ideas.’ Kris was more inclined to turn Meta Serif into a slab – a pretty literal take – basically Meta with ever so slightly trapezoidal serifs tacked on. Christian’s sketch took it firmly into Antiqua territory (‘Antiqua’ being the common German name for serif faces, as opposed to ‘Grotesk’ which means sans serif) by increasing the contrast and adding bracketed serifs. Christian tried to keep as many of the salient features intact as he could, yet his design was definite departure from Meta. The slab was closer to what Erik and Christian had discussed in the past, but Christian’s grand plan (and the underlying reason why he thought Meta Serif should be an Antiqua) was to draw Unit Slab as well, and let that one be a real Egyptian. That way they would end up with a serif and slab that could be used together and be compatible with both FF Meta and FF Unit.
Redrawing from the ground up After discussing the project at ATypI Lisbon, Meta Serif was redrawn from the ground up. It was starting to look like a credible, sturdy news face, and had the warmth and seriousness of The Economist text face, so it could work well for magazines or corporate design too. This made Erik think about eventually adding a specific magazine set of dingbats, bullets, arrows and symbols. Christian suggested they should also make sure to have some 5-pointed stars, cap-height boxes and bullets, and some simple triangular arrows pointing in all four directions, for newspaper customers.
Options for the italic lowercase. The spurs on a, b, g and q were the first and best idea. By January 2007 it was decided to add more weights to the planned Book and Bold. They were already hesitating about a Medium or Semibold for captions, sidebars, subheads. Christian explains: ‘European newspapers always want this weight, and magazine designers can use it for text that reverses out of a picture. And the Medium was really easy to make using Erik van Blokland’s Superpolator, which even interpolates the kerning.’ Christian and Kris also proposed a Black weight, which Erik thought wouldn’t work. Nevertheless they persevered and Kris drew the Black from the ground up. This caught Christian completely by surprise: ‘I got up one morning intending to sketch out a few characters in the Black for Kris, only to find he’d already drawn the entire upper and lowercase while I was sleeping.’ By playing up more the increased contrast they succeeded in proving Erik wrong – it did end up working.
Some corrections on the outlines of an early version of the Black Italic; comments from Christian to Kris. When it finally came to filling out all those glyph slots and finalizing the fonts, Kris did everything from finishing character sets to interpolating weights to drawing extra characters to trying out alternate shapes to kerning thousands of pairs. Regarding drawing the numerous alternate shapes and additional ligatures Christian reassured Erik: ‘No problem. Kris seems to enjoy drawing silly ligatures. His Feijoa family gives Mrs Eaves a run for its money.’
Not even the tiniest details go unchecked: fine-tuning the position of the accents. Family matters One major concern was that – although Meta Serif was more of a departure from the original Meta than initially intended – the typefaces still needed to work perfectly well together. Erik and Christian deliberately didn’t want to make Meta Serif as stylish and novel as Meta was when it was first designed in 1985. It was supposed to be an ordinary, legible typeface for all purposes. They never intended each single character to be the exact seriffed equivalent of its sans original.
Making Meta Serif 100% compatible with Meta meant that they could be alternated in the same line and they would work together without having to adjust the size or the tracking of either one of them. Users often have to mix sans and serif faces in one document, like an annual report where the text would be set in a serif face while the number section would be a sans. Or a sans is used for captions, subheads, listings etc. as a contrast to a more traditional serif text face. This helps navigation, adds interest and makes typographic hierarchies obvious.
Erik explains his position in this matter: ‘I have always liked to add a sans headline to serif text, but doing that in the same paragraph or even line was only possible with either a lot of adjustments or within one of the mega-families. Some of those – like Rotis – are simply clones of each other with bits removed or stuck on, providing noise instead of contrast. The whole Meta system is supposed to solve separate typographic problems while keeping a family resemblance. This is not a family of identical triplets (there is also MetaHeadline), but sisters and brothers or even nieces and nephews.
Character set of FF Meta Serif Book In the end Christian is pretty excited about how this family came together: ‘I think it transcends being just a companion serif face for Meta.’ Erik is satisfied with the end result. ‘Meta Serif feels like Meta, and they look good together. That was our brief and I think we have achieved that. Which doesn’t mean that certain characters couldn’t look different or may even be improved. I have learned that there comes a time when things are best left alone. After many years at trying to get it right, I now look forward to actually using Meta Serif. Only that will determine whether we did well.’
FF Meta Serif is a full OpenType family in Book, Medium, Bold and Black, plus their italics and small caps, with oldstyle, lining and tabular figures.
Sorry, i don't like nor Meta neither serif counterpart :( It is always seems to me like condensed type, so Meta looks very bad as headline font, but it also uncomfortable for regular reading :( I think it just a "fashion" of computer era type and it fashion bacame very popular last time :)
I regret i haven't seen real examles of usage all of metas together.
21.11.2007 - 20.16.49
Posted by btr
At last a voice of dissent! :D Of course, there are others that don't really like FF Meta and/or FF Meta Serif as you can read in the Typophile thread and on Jean François Porchez' blog. FF Meta looking bad as a headline is exactly why Erik designed the new FF Meta Headline, so that's been taken care of. ;) And for real examples of usage -- well, you'll have to wait a little as it's just been released. I'm sure we'll see some examples soon enough.
21.11.2007 - 21.39.43
Posted by Yves Peters a.k.a. Unzipper
Yves! I forget to say: what a great article!!! Thank you!
21.11.2007 - 23.29.22
Posted by btr
Great article - thank you! I'd love to hear the rationale for the broken 'y' in Meta - it's just one of those details that bugs the heck out of me, although I'm sure there's a good reason for it being drawn that way...?
26.11.2007 - 15.21.00
Posted by Martin Kuplens-Ewart
Unzipper, are there any hi-res copies of the image TQE1XRJA.jpg (It feels like Meta to me) about on the web? It's a great example of the (It all fits so seamlessly! / Not enough distinction) paradox.
27.11.2007 - 12.11.56
Posted by Barney
-- I'd love to hear the rationale for the broken 'y' in Meta -- I will ask Erik, but he has been extremely busy lately, so I don't know when he'll have time to reply.
27.11.2007 - 12.52.38
Posted by Yves Peters a.k.a. Unzipper
@ Barney -- The white type on grey background images are part of a multi-page hi-res PDF. I will ask the designers if it is available to the general public.
27.11.2007 - 12.54.52
Posted by Yves Peters a.k.a. Unzipper
Small but important remark: The FF Meta OpenType Pro version and the FF Meta Serif OpenType Pro version are not equal. They contain different language sets. The FF Meta OTF Pro has also - besides CE, Latin 3, Baltic and Turkish- Cyrillic and Greek, the FF Meta Serif OTF Pro contains only CE, Latin 3, Baltic and Turkish.
27.11.2007 - 17.32.30
Posted by Allison
Thanks for this Yves, its gives good answers to my wonderings about the deliberated design choice for something more clean, straight, efficient, effective. Meta Serif will be perfect for forms, probably less for fancy stuff like we have see set in Meta "Sans". But we can understood Meta Serif as a follow up of the evolution of the designer mind about what make a good typeface. Cleaned Officina version published few months ago, prove this evolution I presume.
Scherzo from my friend Albert Boton, designed roughly 20 years ago or more belong to the Meta Serif category of workhorse Serif typefaces: http://www.linotype.com/158401/scherzo-family.html
I just realized too, via the Typophile thread that I'm not alone wondering about Meta Serif.
The step in Meta Serif's "y" is not noticeable at smaller sizes (remember it's designed as a face for continuous text); and at larger sizes, I think it's one of those design features that lends some character to the face, without being a distraction. Of course I'm not in a position to answer your question about the rationale for the design of that particular glyph, but it does marry well with the "y" in the sans. Does such a minor feature of a single character demand a 'rationale', I wonder?
For those who really dislike the "y", perhaps they could rewrite their copy to exclude words containing that letter ;) Or perhaps Spiekermann and Co. will release an alternative version called "Meta Serif-y". ;)
30.11.2007 - 21.13.21
Posted by johno
Oops - lost track of this thread! @johno If I ever needed the y at a nice and big size I'd probably just close the gap - no need for a custom release just for me :D I imagine that the left stroke would have had to curve into the right if they were to be more cleanly joined - perhaps insufficiently consistent with the shape of the lowercase 'v'. O magnum misterium, or something like that.
16.01.2008 - 20.55.24
Posted by Martin Kuplens-Ewart
I like this
25.08.2008 - 17.44.13
Posted by pascal
Yup, now that's more like it. ;)
25.08.2008 - 21.02.44
Posted by Yves Peters a.k.a. Unzipper
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