New old style
text typeface.


Just because it's old-fashioned doesn't mean it has to be boring. I did a deep dive into the origins of text typefaces while keeping contemporary typographers in mind. Old Toby is an ongoing project to serve my type design education: the result is a clear and friendly old style typeface that makes long passages of text come to life in over 30 languages.

Solo Project

Skills

Type Design
Art Direction
Print Production
Copywriting

Tools

GlyphsApp
Photoshop
InDesign
Letterpress

Timeline

9 months

Problem?

I have been fascinated with letters since I was a child. The more that I learned about typography, the greater my desire to draw letters. The catch: my college offered no type design classes.

Solution.

Harnessing my interdisciplinary undergraduate training to develop my own curriculum, I spent a year developing a text typeface as a means to learn the fundamentals of type design.

Inception

Nicolas Jenson cut the first roman typeface in 1470, taking Venice by storm. They signified a quantum leap in printed communication. Since then, roman type remains virtually unchanged from the blueprint of Jenson's romans.

Whether the continued use of romans is due to their inherent legibility or familiarity is up for debate. Nevertheless, those early Venetian letters are the cradle of typographic civilization. They still look incredibly elegant, over half a millenium later.

Does old style type have to look old?

Don't get me wrong. I love old style type.

Upon first glance, it's stately and sophisticated. Look closer and its intricacies take on new meaning: the delicate harmony of the strokes, the gentle curves, the old-world flourish. However, in spite of my admiration, I found that I would sometimes shy away from using old style faces in my typography.

When I thought about it, I realized that my hesitation was because old style type looks…well, old. I would often reach for Garamond or Caslon, only to turn away because they are too complex, too frilly, too delicate. Their sophistication and historical connotations carry the risk of being unrelatable.

This is one of the great 'chicken-and-egg' questions of the type world: is a typeface's true identity the metal letter or its printed impression? Inspired by Riccardo Olocco's doctorate research
on early Venetian type, I chose to reproduce the darker texture of the printed page.

Instead of a strict revival, I opted for a loose interpretation. Old Toby is based on the rhythm and texture of Jenson's 'Eusebius' romans; modified for my skill level and to fashion an original combination of elements.

Features

Old Toby is best enjoyed in a comfy chair, preferably with a cat on your lap. Although he has many charming details, Toby exists to let the story unfold before your eyes.

To do so, Toby strikes a balance between softness and clarity. Overall, the letters are heavier than average (especially the thin strokes) to reproduce the color of a well-inked page. Junctions are rounded to give a warm impression—without creating any congested intersections.

Unlike many old style types, Old Toby is straightforward: curves are kept to a minimum to aid with on-screen rendering. Open counterspaces, simple letterforms, and distinct word images maintain legibility, while ligatures create a seamless texture.

Low x-height

Translation-based

Low contrast

Asymmetrical serifs

Open counters

Beaked terminals

Proudfeet

Toby's defining feature is the set of slabby, asymmetrical foot serifs: the heel (left serif) tapers off more sharply than the toe (right serif), accentuating the lower case's marching rhythm.

Although they look ungainly at first glance, many incunabula fonts bear such foot serifs. A carryover from the construction of humanist calligraphy, they were often exaggerated by the inconsistencies of the then-nascent printing technology. These chunky, anthropomorphic serifs fit Old Toby's adventurous spirit, giving the otherwise plain lower case flair and momentum.

Milestones

The process of developing Old Toby was peppered with watershed moments, where I gained valuable insights about myself and the nuances of type design. A few letters stand out as markers of specific discoveries along the way.

n

a

f

o

Old Toby would be nothing with out the letter 'n.' This humble glyph is the template for contrast and spacing across the entire alphabet. The 'n' is also where Toby's signature asymmetrical foot serifs took shape.

The lower case 'f' is one of my favorite letters to design—it looks like it defies gravity. It has so many nooks & crannies that make it the ideal testing ground for different features: contrast, terminals, serifs, and crossbars.

The happiest accident in the entire project.
A few months in, it became clear that the original lobed terminal wasn't working. I took the leg of the 'n,' made a few tweaks, and was delighted with how much clearer the letter looked in text.

I struggled with the 'o' for what felt like an eternity. It looked bad: egg-shaped, pear-shaped...everything except o-shaped. It took me 6 months until I had the tools and training to balance the weight, axis, and contours.

The name

The name ‘Old Toby’ presented itself early on as a tongue-in-cheek synopsis of my goal: to create a practical, old style text typeface. It's also a nice, chummy sort of name: Toby is the pal you reminisce with about days gone by.

When I began the design, I was re-reading The Lord of the Rings. In the prologue of the Fellowship, Tolkien describes the customs of the Shire, and spends an entire chapter expounding on the Hobbits’ affinity for 'pipe-weed,' especially a favorite strain called 'Old Toby.'

While at first this seemed odd, I came to realize that this lowly plant symbolizes the halflings’ appreciation for the good things in life, a philosophy that is evident in the carefully-considered sound of every word that Tolkien put to paper (one imagines the author muttering the name “Celeborn” thoughtfully around the stem of his perennial pipe).

Designing type is quite similar: no detail goes untouched. Tolkien often used the word ‘grey’ to describe anything lofty or mystical, a sensibility akin to the typographic ideal of even grayness.

Old Toby set the stage for the Fellowship’s journey—as well as my own. This project led me to discover more about type than I thought possible; it introduced me to mentors around the world who astonished me with their generosity & insight.

The Quest

In the absence of type design curriculum at my college, I was prompted to make my learning into my own hands. Fortuitously, the COVID-19 lockdown happened at the same time and as a result, type design schools that had previously offered only in-person instruction opened their doors to students from around the world. My network of mentors spanned the globe: from Melbourne to Amsterdam, New York, and Portland.

Not only was I able to tap into an unprecedented array of new resources, but I was also stuck at home with loads of extra time on my hands: the ideal setup to work on a long, tedious project.

Every journey begins at home. My foray into type design would have turned out differently if not for my typography professor, Jill Vartenigian. Her enthusiasm for incunabula opened my eyes to this fascinating chapter of typographic history.

The first type designer I met, Juliet Shen, is also responsible, in part, for the direction of this project. From the beginning, she encouraged my interest in workhorse typefaces and gave me invaluable critique along the way. Through Juliet, I discovered TypeThursday Seattle, whose members gave me much-needed support and encouragement.

After some dabbling, Old Toby began to form during the OSNS Type Intensive in September of 2020, under the tutelage of Veronica Grow and Dan Milne. From there, I reached out to professional type designers for feedback. I was stunned by how patient and helpful everyone was who volunteered to spend their free time coaching a novice in such an intricate subject.

Troy Leinster, in particular, was instrumental to bringing this first version of Old Toby to completion. It took two months of one-on-one critique as part of his Typemasters tutoring program to refine my work into a presentable state.

Progress

Old Toby evolved from a timid set of lower case letters in September 2020 to a full-fledged typeface in May 2021.


Looking back, my favorite stage of development was v. 14, from December, 2020. That was when the typeface's tone started to click: the 'a' took shape and the entire alphabet responded to it.

The most experimental phase was v. 7. A few weeks in, I gave myself the license to explore freely. I discarded many of the features from that iteration, but a few (such as the beaked terminals) showed up later on.

Toby's biggest growth spurt was in the final two months, when the typeface exploded from 233 to 500 glyphs and came to include a slew of diacritics and OpenType features.

Features

Old Toby is best enjoyed in a comfy chair, preferably with a cat on your lap. Although he has many charming details, Toby exists to let the story unfold before your eyes.

To do so, Toby strikes a balance between softness and clarity. Overall, the letters are heavier than average (especially the thin strokes) to reproduce the color of a well-inked page. Junctions are rounded to give a warm impression—without creating any congested intersections.

Unlike many old style types, Old Toby is straightforward: curves are kept to a minimum to aid with on-screen rendering. Open counterspaces, simple letterforms, and distinct word images maintain legibility, while ligatures create a seamless texture.

Accessibility

Old Toby was made with the needs of typographers and readers in mind. Its robust and clear letterforms took shape around the following characteristics: refined and relevant tone; legibility at small sizes; and ease of setting longform text.

Old style typefaces are lauded for their legibility, but they are not without their shortcomings. Small counters on lower case letters like 'a' and 'e' can cause eye strain; 'c' and 'e' can look confusingly similar. To make matters worse, brittle thin strokes blow out at small sizes and on dark backgrounds.

For legibility's sake, I sought to establish a consistent tone while maintaining unique letter shapes. Old Toby's counterspaces are as large as they can be while honoring the old style idiom and the lower-contrast letters hold up well when set small.

Consisting of 500 glyphs, Old Toby supports over 30 languages. Although English uses few diacritics (accent marks), they are fundamental to most Latin-based writing systems; diereses and ogoneks are as important to Old Toby’s mission as any letter of the alphabet.

Ëë

Albanian

Ŀŀ

Catalan

Ȳȳ

Cornish

Ćć

Croatian

Ůů

Czech

Æ

Danish

íj́

Dutch

Kk

Euskara

Õõ

Estonian

Đð

Faroese

Ää

Finnish

Ââ

French

Éé

Gaelic

ẞß

German

Őő

Hungarian

Þþ

Icelandic

Àà

Italian

Ģģ

Latvian

Ęę

Lithuanian

Ħħ

Maltese

Øø

Norwegian

Ǫǫ

Old Norse

Łł

Polish

Çç

Portuguese

Ăă

Romanian

Ŧŧ

Sámi

Ďď

Slovak

Žž

Slovenian

Ññ

Spanish

Åå

Swedish

İı

Turkish

Ŷŷ

Welsh

Lessons

The first revelation was the importance of spacing. In my lessons with Dan Milne, he emphasized designing the negative space as much as the letters; a lesson that stuck with me and became clearer as I went along. I was very thankful that I learned good spacing hygiene when the project ballooned in the final quarter.

On a similar note, I learned how much I love to create kerning pairs: making strategic adjustments to spacing that make the entire text shimmer. I also found out first-hand what a headache it is to make up for spacing issues with kerning.

Sometimes the simplest letters are the hardest to draw. The letter 'c,' for example, gave me grief from beginning to end. I found it excruciating to negotiate the transition of the spine's flowing curve into the tail's sheared terminal.

Now what?

I created Old Toby to attend to my needs, first and foremost. Therefore, Toby MK2 will remain in progress until I have accomplished my remaining learning objectives: designing
small caps, super/subscript, fractions, and optical sizes.

Although I may edit a few details here and there, I do not wish to belabor this project—I am eager to move onto the next one. I have a host of ideas waiting for their turn and completing other projects will only serve to reinforce and expand on the lessons from this first round.

That being said, I would like to see Old Toby Cyrillic!