Originality in Typeface design

hashimpm's picture

How much of originality is there in type design?
Many typefaces are either revivals or are inspired by one or more predecessors.
Are there any original typefaces at all?

Your opinions and observations would be helpful to me for a paper I am writing.
Any link to nay previous thread would also be of help.

Thanks in advance.

dezcom's picture

You have to define "original" in some measurable way. There is so much grey area there that you are likely to be measuring opinion rather than fact. Revivals are easy since they claim to be copies. "Inspired by" gets a bit stickier but they still at least knowingly point towards a source. There are also many unconscious or subconscious designs which have probably been influenced by prior work without intending to. Then there is the "Great Minds Think Alike" theory which postulates that if one person can logically arrive at a certain solution, the odds are a like-minded soul somewhere else has already done so. There certainly are plenty of type designers who look at a lot of type and study historic examples in their training. There are a sizable number of fonts that you might deem as original "enough" if you just accept the designer has at least attempted to make his own design. The truth is, nobody is trying to reinvent the alphabet yet they must stay close enough to what has been done to be acceptable in the marketplace.
Also, being original is not always the same as being good. The first example of say Curlz may be said to be original but perhaps not universally thought of as "good design".

hashimpm's picture

You are right, originality is a subjective matter and there is only a certain extent to which you can claim to be original, the alphabet remaining the same.
However, isn't there any type design that is truly path-breaking or not built on past models? Can we define that safely as originality?
To my eyes, script fonts (Mistral for instance) seem to have more 'originality', each script being as unique as the person writing it.
Is there a first slab-serif, they being very innovative in their times?
Being the first to squarely address the issue of on-screen readability isn't Verdana original?

froo's picture

Alphabet not built on past models sounds oxymoronic.
But in other hand, alphabet is an evolutionary domain with all these genetic algorythms that check all possible directions. Some of the movements create new local maximas* of the function, so probably it's possible to foresee a future trend sometime, and go there.
But it's not originality - it's evolutionary adjustment. Originality is creating a different species (mutation?).

*) Let's say it was Bodoni on a local top of some function. As there couldn't be anything "better" there, you have something "worse" a bit downhill - Walbaum. When to add a bit of different DNA, another hill grows in neighbourhood - with Akzidenz Grotesk climbing up, Helvetica on the top, and Arial in the next valley (not to be continued, incest danger).

For me, originality is asking delicate questions of things we have got used to. It is looking for a hole in the whole, undermining doubtfull aspects that seem sure in glory of tradition. Probably slab-serif was a kind of such act.
Script fonts pretend to be highly original, but damn, what's less original than a font based on someone's handwritting? Probably FF Pitu has some level of originality on this field...

dezcom's picture

I certainly don't think a handwriting font is the least bit original. By definition, it is a copy of handwriting. Like everything, some are good and some are bad. There are so many handwriting fonts made today that they just seem to melt into a stew.

I also don't think the idea of putting slab serifs on a type is very original. What can be original is to do it very well right off the bat and have it work for its audience.
Personally, I don't see much value in chasing that dog around the tree. People end up recategorizing and arguing over minutia and no purpose is served. It would make much more sense for you to design an original font yourself. After a few hundred hours of work, you will have discovered how difficult it is to reinvent the wheel in such a way that it still rolls perfectly the same as the others but you somehow know it is different than the rest.

Nick Shinn's picture

There is originality in concept.
And originality in execution (style, residing as much in the hand as the eye).
With some overlap.

Not averse to beating my own drum, a couple of original concepts:
Panoptica: unicase + monowidth

Bodoni Egyptian: Bodoni, slabbified, without the high contrast.
I wouldn't say that applying an anachronistic genre is a completely original idea. Legacy, for instance, is "Jenson Sans", and Chapparal is a "slabbed-up Antiqua".
Nonetheless, I do feel that Bodoni Egyptian is a reasonably original idea, not least because I didn't get the idea from those two faces, but by observing that the serifs of digital Berthold Bodoni (very much a text face) looked like slab serifs at display size.

BeauW's picture

I would say that there is as much originality in type design as there is in music composition.
You wouldn't say a song is not original because it uses the same eight notes as an older song...

The face I'm working on now is kind of Deco/display and I think, quite original.
When I have a question about proportion, or what should be thick or thin- I open up a Garamond.
My work is nothing like Garamond, not even inspired by, but you could say there is an influence.

Alex Kaczun's picture

Why is everyone so obsessed with originality anyway?

The creation of a thing is always evolving.

Nature is not static. Always evolving.

Stop focusing on "if something is similar to something else".

Is it better? Let the consumer decide.

This obsession with originality is only a recent thing in our society.

Allowing lawyers and a few to monopolize ideas and products for personal profit and gain.

Let the ideas flow. We are all influenced by what has preceded.

Every little change counts and everything is original no matter how slight.

Every persons perspective adds and influences the future.

Whether it be art or type design. Something does not have to be completely original to have merit or value.

And yes, every once in a while, there comes along a completely unique perspective and idea that changes everything.

But, then again, the collective little things can add up to the same.

Our society has the right to be served well and, at best, it means that we can serve by making small, but innovative steps in the right direction :)

Sanchit Sawaria's picture

Totally Agree with you Alex.

People force originality and often land up with such radical outcomes,

which in the end don't seem to work out.

My teacher often tells us, "The man who invented the wheel had the last original thought".

Frode Bo Helland's picture

Come one guys. We need to push the limits as well!

Nick Shinn's picture

Why is everyone so obsessed with originality anyway?

Because how we make a living is constantly evolving, and intellectual property is at the heart of it.

Alex Kaczun's picture


Obviously I'm not talking about copying other individuals type designs. That's a completely other issue that is indeed a very sensitive subject.

I'm just so tired about this one, or that one, pointing out how similar a font is to this or that.

As long as the information was not reversed engineered, or stolen, what's the big deal that a new font shares some characteristics with another font (or fonts). We have all been influenced but the designs of others. We have all taken, bits and pieces of other peoples ideas (or designs) and incorporated or blended, melded, them into our own work, in one form or another.

There is no denying that!

If you want, I would be happy to list hundreds, thousands of fonts (in the last 20 years) and show where the creative influence came from. But that would be a big project in itself, and I do not have the time for such things.

But, who cares anyway. Again I repeat... as long as something is not completely plagiarized what is the harm.

Nobody is taking our livelihood away from us. We all keep banging out fonts, left and right.

Why? Because we all enjoy what we are doing. And, I hope that our efforts inspire and influence others, to follow in our footsteps, and continue this noble effort to create and evolve type design, wherever it may take us.

Nick Shinn's picture

Obviously I'm not talking about copying other individuals type designs.

Neither am I.
What's interesting is the way that originality (and ergo plagiarism) is redefined and revalued by technological change.
People want to know what's ethical, because we're in terra incongita and it's not immediately apparent.
Witness the impact of @fontface.

The "nothing is original" argument needs to be aggressively countered, because it devalues any amount of originality, and the economic status of content creators.

dezcom's picture

@Nick: "The "nothing is original" argument needs to be aggressively countered"

Which is why my first post started with "You have to define "original" in some measurable way."

Alex Kaczun's picture

I disagree Nick.

I think that we are ALL too much obsessed by what is original work.

My premise is that everything has some form of merit and originality in the "attempt" process.

Sometimes we succeed more, sometimes less.

It does not devalue the overall process or the result or effort.

Collectively it all matters, and the world is a better place for it.

The original post was "...Are there any original typefaces at all?...".

And, I say "yes", everything that gets accepted and published is original and contributes to the whole in some form or way.

"Originality" is not redefined by technological change.

We ALL know when something is not right or wrong.

Some of us need to be reminded from time-to-time to play nice.

But, we all understand the consequences of our actions.

Do you still disagree?

And if you still do, then it must be for other reasons then what I'm talking about.

The "Holy Grail" of originality should not hold back others from trying to improve on a thing.

We can ALL make things better, and improve and build on the ideas of the past.

If I did not feel that way, I wouldn't even try to design a new font.

Everyone would does use "Helvetica" and "Times". Oh yes, and "Comic Sans" :)

Alex Kaczun's picture


Anything that involves the "thought process" is considered "original".

Electronic manipulation of data is NOT original.

But, if someone sees something and is moved and inspired to improve on the concept or idea, and puts his creative thought process into the mix, then that's originality!

We are ALL original works of art. Nature made us that way!

Nick Shinn's picture

"Originality" is not redefined by technological change.

Digitization has made the master and the copy identical.
If that's not a redefinition of originality, what is?

Alex Kaczun's picture

@ Nick

We seem to be going, back-and-forth, talking about two different things.

We all realize that digitization and technology has made it easier to copy information in many different forms.

In the past, someone could scan or make a copy of your letter forms, with tracing paper overlays, and adjust the shapes with pencil in hand to alter the shapes and create new letter forms or derivatives of your work. Someone else with more skill could simply look at what you have done, and quickly sketch new ideas on paper or go direct to digital form and render a design similar to yours, with enough variations to render the work an original.

Today, someone can open your font outlines in FontLab and peek at your kerning data, or analyze your outlines, or take bits and pieces of your digital data, and construct a relatively new font design.

Someone in the near future, with "atom manipulating" technology will be able to reproduce the "Mona Lisa" painting, molecule by molecule, undistinguishable from the original. Or, he/she may add a mustache and convert the charismatic smile to a frown and call it "Mona Lisa ala Pop Art".

Can any of us really stop any of this technology from coming to pass, or stop anyone from using this technology as I've described.

I think not. Society will have to adopt to all these technological changes. But, human beings will continue to do what they do best. Create and improve on the things of the past. Every one of us tinkers, experiments and regurgitates their experiences in their own unique way. Sometimes, if we tinker well, we make an improvement.

Ford engineers, peek under the hood of foreign car manufactures and adopt or improve on the technology to make a better or more competitive American automobile. I could give you hundreds of other such examples.

None of this stops the creative process or hinders originality in any way or form. In fact, we are going through an originality explosion and revolution exponentially. New ideas and products are coming to be, faster and faster then ever before.

The same is true of type design and the explosion of new font designs and ideas that we have witnessed in the last 20 years.

This is all great stuff! Embrace it.

Technology is just a tool to enable us all to experiment and create new products. And better font products. Faster than ever before.

"Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore. We must be over the rainbow!" :)

Té Rowan's picture

Many people think that the value of intellectual property lies in the money you can extract from others. No wonder IP looks so cheap.

Originality is not just coming up with new things. It's also coming up with new ways of combining old things.

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