Image | Digitalvision CD-ROM PHV244 ‘Summer Fun’ Once in a while we get identification requests for license plate typefaces on the Type Identification Board. I noticed there’s a recurring misunderstanding regarding those. Contrary to what some people believe the characters on the plates have nothing in common with ‘regular’ fonts in the sense that they would be available in digital format to use on your computer. They have been specifically made – custom designed as it were – for the plate-making machines that produce the license plates. So they are not based on fonts designed for conventional typesetting.
Image | PhotoAlto CD-ROM ATCD049 Business and Tradition in Asia Yet those letters and numbers often exert a certain appeal – they certainly have intrigued me personally since I noticed those wondrous new shapes on the German license plates halfway the nineties. There’s something about their mechanical aesthetic: the characters that are stamped into the metal, resulting in those typical rounded corners; the shapes that are defined by technical requirements rather than by aesthetic considerations. Also the need for differentiation to avoid confusion between similar characters usually leads to somewhat awkward, and in some cases downright bizarre character shapes.
There are type designers that have been inspired by those specific shapes to create some peculiar typefaces. Those range from almost literal translations to freestyle interpretations. What’s interesting about these fonts is that the source alphabets are by definition incomplete – the character set is limited to the capitals and numerals – leaving a considerable amount of freedom to the type designer when completing and expanding the character set.
The very first license plate font that caught my attention was the Emigre face Platelet by Conor Mangat, a loose interpretation of the California license plates. The design retains the monospace quality of the original alphabet, which is not only a technical requirement but also ensures that a fixed number of characters can be fitted onto a plate with maximum legibility at a distance.
A distinctive trait of Platelet is the capitals that are of the same height as the x-height, thus allowing for unicase setting. This opens up numerous options for creative type composition and playful combinations.The oldstyle numerals generously extend above and below the x-height, making them another very recognizable feature of the typeface.
Platelet’s design includes some peculiar character shapes that address the reduced legibility of geometric designs, and offers some clever solutions to the problems inherent to monospaced designs. As every character must fit in the same width, the lowercase ‘m’ and ‘w’ need to be condensed quite a bit. To avoid that the three stems create a density problem, the middle stems have been shortened. Conversely, instead of adding the traditional extended serifs to the lowercase ‘i’ and ‘l’, a large curved lead-out stroke helps fill their width.
Other characters of note are a very beautiful lowercase ‘g’ and ‘k’, and a cute rounded uppercase ‘A’ and ‘E’. However the most striking design solutions are to be found in the ‘b’ and ‘B’. The lowercase ‘b’ incorporates the uppercase form, dramatically increasing its recognition factor, and the uppercase ‘B’ shows a hint of an ascender.
Platelet comes in three monospaced weights – Thin, Regular and Heavy. It’s one of the very first licenses I purchased at the beginning of my career. I have been using it quite often in my work and can highly recommend it.
A typeface that somewhat echoes the general feel of Platelet is Tobias Frere-Jones’ Garage Gothic for The Font Bureau, Inc., which was derived from numbered tickets given at city parking garages. When designing the font Tobias retained the irregular contours and rough alignments found on the lettering, but disciplined and restrained them. This very condensed family also comes in three weights: a statuesque Regular, a Bold and a deliciously fat Black.
Christian Schwartz went a step further with the Font Bureau typeface Pennsylvania – named after the American state on which license plates its design is based. He expanded the original alphabet into a full fledged eight-font family in Regular and Bold weights with matching Italics and small caps for every variation.
Just like in Platelet, Christian retained the monospace quality of the original alphabet. However he approached the source material quite faithfully and in a more conventional way, adding a lowercase and punctuation but leaving the original shapes of the capitals intact. The erratic serifs found in those capitals were mirrored in the lowercase to even out its texture. Christian’s interpretation makes for a versatile typeface that is equally suited for text setting as it is for display use.
Although the actual shapes of the characters are refined and typographically sound, the overall impression is one of industrial design and factory strength. One gets the impression that the rather condensed characters rise like buildings in the city skyline. The type family includes lining figures in the regular weights and oldstyle numerals with the small caps.
Pennsylvania comes in two weights – Regular and Bold – with matching italics and small caps for every variant, adding up to eight fonts.
The most striking license plate alphabet is of course the German one which I mentioned in the introduction, masterfully digitized by Martin Fredrikson as FTN Sauerkrauto for the Swedish Fountain foundry. Here the monospace aspect was abandoned and the typeface turned into a proportional design.
Sometime around 1998 German tourists with snazzy new cars began to appear in Martin’s hometown Malmö, which is quite close to Denmark and Germany. From the onset he was mesmerized by the assymetrical characters on the license plates, which looked macho and weird. The FE-Schrift is the result of the collaboration between psychologists, a number plate manufacturer and a type designer, who set out to make it virtually impossible to counterfeit plates by changing letterforms or numerals (for example ‘F’ into ‘E’, or ‘3’ into '8’).
Martin photographed all the plates he could spot, scanned them in and started to design Sauerkrauto. Since the license plates have uppercase only, he simply designed his own lowercase. Later on he added a font with alternative lowercase character shapes (single storey ‘a’ and double storey ‘g’ amongst others) as well as a small cap font.
Martin Fredrikson is not the only one to have digitized the FE alphabet. Stephan Müller and Hansjakob Fehr released their own version through the Swiss Lineto foundry. I must say their FE Mittelschrift and FE Engschrift compare unfavourably to FTN Sauerkrauto, as the lowercase they came up with is a lot less successful than Martin’s. You get the impression they tried too hard and designed weird character shapes just for the sake of weirdness. As the original design of the capitals with its straight lines and rounded corners and its large rounded ink traps and gaps is weird enough as it is, there really is no need to overemphasize this.
Previously released at Chank, FTN Sauerkrauto was augmented with a Small Caps and an Alternative font, and re-issued by Fountain. I think its peculiar shapes have been very well adapted into a striking display face, and I must say I like the results a lot.
If you like FTN Sauerkrauto but are looking for something a little more restrained, have a look at the underrated but simply gorgeous squarish sans serif family FF Hydra, which comes in three variations – the condensed original version FF Hydra, the less condensed FF Hydra Extended and the generous FF Hydra Text. I can guarantee you will be pleasantly surprised.