Conversations' Karen Bartlett talks type with the designers of Nokia's new font
LONDON – Bruno Maag is the angry man of type. He hates Helvetica: “It’s vanilla ice cream,” horrendous, poorly crafted and American. A recent billboard for a chocolate bar made him lose the will to live: “This person should stop design and become a gardener, then he couldn’t inflict such terrible crimes on mankind.”
Maag is a hot metal man, starting his career as an apprentice typesetter back in Switzerland when newspaper offices were noisy, design involved putting pencil to paper and there was the smell of a hot press. Now his studio in Brixton, South London is a silent white temple to type where designers sit hunched over their computer screens with zen like concentration.
Working on type, day in and day out, can make you pedantic, and intolerant of imperfection:
“If you are really into type …well, we all suffer from a slight mental illness. Every single stroke has to be perfect.”
More about Nokia Pure:
Nokia Pure Text is a user interface (UI) font family consisting of Light, Regular, and Bold weights, featuring a fully hinted Dalton Maag Standard character set.
A set of distinct Display weights, derived from the Text design, with tighter spacing and small changes in contrast, were needed for titling and other larger-sized branding.
But maybe that is the kind of man you want to design your typeface. “To get it right you need to be a master craftsman,” Maag says. “You need to be a designer to know how color flows, where the stresses are. People appreciate the beauty of simple shapes. You can create something which is beautiful, but also highly functional.”
The last ten months
For the last ten months the team at Dalton Maag have been redesigning the Nokia font, creating a new font face versatile enough for all digital media. The result is Nokia Pure, a font which reflects the Finnish tradition of simplicity and clarity, but can also support scripts as diverse as Cyrillic and Devanagari. The font also had to be fully hinted to give the best screen view on a handset.
How much of the old font did Maag incorporate in the new design?
“Actually we completely scrapped the old Nokia font,” he says. “We didn’t take it into consideration at all. Its a good font but I think it had outlived its purpose and it was difficult to work with because it was so strong and expressive. It had too much personality. The desire was to have a bit of a bland font, a font that functions.”
Designing a font starts with setting the four control keys, H-O and N-O. Maag despairs of young designers who rush in, bursting with enthusiasm, and start designing willy nilly with other letters – only to discover a fundamental error that leads them back to the drawing board. “Start with an e or an f and it’s never going to work,” Maag says. “The four control characters define 70% of the process. They give you the proportions. Once you’re happy with those you can add a few more characters and maybe start working with a group of eight letters. For a long time you will go backwards and forwards between those characters. After that you can design everything in between.”
Each font starts with some sketches on a piece of paper, and then moves quickly onto ‘fontlab’ software, before undergoing a long and complicated technical process to make sure it can be used on all computer systems. Hinting is the final, and longest, part of the process as the font pixels for each character are lined up on a grid to get rid of that ragged look letters sometimes have when you see them on a small screen.
The first phase of Nokia Pure will support languages using the Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, Arabic, and Hebrew alphabets, as well as the Devanagari and Thai scripts.
Amelie Bonet has a pile of cracked and dusty books in Hindi and Bengali beside her in the Dalton Maag studio. Most of them come from research trips to India – and she seems to be as much a font-archaeologist, as a designer. Building hundreds of conjuncts and the adjuncts is the most painstaking task, especially if you don’t speak the language. “The stress and the axis is a different way around. If we get it wrong it will look very odd to a native reader.” She traces a series of letters, “Devanagari is blocky, but Bengali is spiky and rounded. Unlike the latin alphabet, there’s not much literature about these typefaces so we are trying to normalize something that is very fluid.”
The challenge of Arabic
Across the desk veteran designer Ron Carpenter is working on the Arabic alphabet, and an Urdu version. Like Amelie Bonet he often refers to native speakers to make sure that the font looks right and is easy to read. The Arabic font is in the ‘Kufi’ style more commonly seen on signs and billboards, rather than the cursive classic style that you might see in newspapers. “There’s a demand for convention in Arabic type, but the consultant who has helped us design this takes a more forward thinking view,” Carpenter says. Unlike the latin alphabet, the width of the characters conveys meaning, so a lot of work has to be corrected by hand.
A large sheet showing the Arabic alphabet is completed with hundreds of Koranic markers. A pair of annotated brackets signify a quote or reference to the Koran, and a series of characters grouped together spells out the salutation – Peace be upon him.
Nokia Pure has been specifically designed to accommodate the Koran in Arabic, and the Torah in Hebrew, reflecting the fact that in many parts of the world mobile devices have become an important religious resource.
Now with the first phase of the project near completion, Bruno Maag is looking ahead to the next set of languages. He has started working on Armenian. “Not many people speak it,” he says dryly.
The result of all their efforts, Nokia Pure, is a humanist sans face font – without serifs but with different weights and thickness on the strokes. Maag points out the small details that make the font unique:
“The K just comes in at the stem. And look at the M – the two diagonals don’t go all the way to the baseline. Tiny little elements distinguish this font,” Maag says. He compares the line of two letters that only he might notice: “The strange stress in the curve of the e and the c. It doesn’t feel like its a nice flowing curve, there’s a stress pulling you towards the bottom left. Those tiny little details make this font different.”
Then he sits back, satisfied: “Its not trying to scream, its not trying to be something that it isn’t. That makes it so perfect. It looks good, its simple, it reads well – it does the job.”