A Monotype Hidden Gem

Alisal

Credit: Top Drawer London

When you’ve been making and collecting type for over 100 years like we have, you accumulate a lot of typefaces. So each month we’re digging deep into our extensive collection to bring beautiful but buried typefaces back to the surface and give you fresh new options for your designs. This month, let us introduce you to Alisal with help from our friend and designer Anthony Noel.

For me, what makes Matthew Carter’s Alisal such a finely crafted, top-order book typeface is that, like many of its class intended for long form text settings, it rewards the close attention to detail that professional typographers relish.

This is a compact and focussed three font family of two weights (regular and bold) and a companion italic, drawn and refined by Carter over the course of two decades. But a typeface with as much character as Alisal should never be thought of as just a book face.

Beneath its functional modesty is an assertive and distinctive calligraphic character, with an ancestry that can trace its lineage right back to the first fine Roman book faces cut during the Italian Renaissance.

Style and genre

Those first Roman typefaces established a model for the ideal book typeface that, with only minor variations, remains the prevailing standard today. Carter drew heavily on that legacy for Alisal. “What really gave birth to it was my interest in the early history of Roman type,” explains Carter. “How Roman type is really a hybrid between the lowercase (which has manuscript origins) and the capitals (which have inscriptional origins)… In my view, the early Roman types changed from looking like scribe’s letters to looking like printer’s letters very quickly. So I was interested in this transition from calligraphy to printing type.”

Let’s examine the lowercase ‘g’, shown here nice and big. Those early type cutters (still familiar to us, having given their names to typefaces like Jenson and Garamond) based their letterforms on the writing style of the Renaissance humanist authors who used broad-nibbed pens held at a slight angle to the page. The modulating effect of the stroke as it sweeps from wide to narrow and back again around the shape of the letter is called the stress. In Alisal, the narrowest sections fall to the left off the vertical, echoing the angled position of the pen as it would have moved had a real hand formed its shapes.

However, this fidelity to a historical style and technique doesn’t result in something that feels like an antique revival, but is rather Carter’s adept and typically original blend of the classic and the contemporary. Short descenders; a carefully balanced contrast between the thick and thin parts of the stroke; and sturdy, crisply-jointed serifs combine with the fluid calligraphy of the stroke to bring the modern together with the old. This is most obvious when we inspect the characters at unnaturally large sizes, but the final effect is a harmonious and handsome, if somewhat dark in color, block of text.

“I’m hopeless with a pen” says Carter, “but I did draw this face to be deliberately calligraphic, and [the glyphs] really do look as though they have pen-written origins… So it’s an odd kind of typeface. It is a Roman and italic, but at the same time it’s a little bit of a script face. There aren’t many typefaces for which this is true… and I think that’s what appealed to me–to try to do something in a rather underpopulated category of typefaces.”

26 years in the making

Carter began the drawings for what would eventually become Alisal in 1979, well before he was given a specific commission to contribute a prestige family to Agfa Monotype’s growing Creative Alliance library in 1995. In fact, the work had started so long prior to the commission that Carter said that he felt as if he was doing a historical revival of one of his own typefaces. The development of the design even spanned several changes to Carter’s own working processes. Alisal started out as pencil renderings, with the final forms realized as screen fonts much later.

“This was entirely off my own bat,” says Carter. “There was no client for it. It was a speculative project, which is probably why it got set aside a couple of times.”

“I have some photoprints dated from 1979/1980, which were the first explorations of this idea,” he continues. “In those days, the only way I had for looking at samples at actual size was to have my drawings reduced photographically—have several prints made, cut them up and paste up the characters to make a few lines of text out of the samples, and then have that re-photographed down to type size. This was while I was at Linotype. To get a photocomp trial font made at Linotype was a quite an elaborate business, so I didn’t bother the factory with making a trial font until I was reasonably happy with it myself. Hence these pasteups, which are rather crude but do give you a first look before you go to the trouble of manufacturing a photocomp font.

“In 1981 I got involved in the startup of Bitstream, where I worked for 10 years. During that time I didn’t get to work on Alisal very much. I was involved in all kinds of management, and I did very little type design. It was digitized, but wasn’t made in to a production face. It wasn’t until Cherie Cone and I left Bitstream at the end of the 90s and started our own company that the idea of making this into a real typeface came up. By that time of course, it was the 90s, the Mac existed, there were type design programs like Fontographer (which I’ve used since the early days), and so I digitized my drawings again as a postscript font, and that was the data that got sent to Agfa in 95. It took a long period of gestation to get a final production font.”

“I was interested in this transition from calligraphy to printing type.”
- Matthew Carter

Beauty in the details

As typographers, we can’t help but get the magnifying glass out to examine the fine details and distinctions that set one typeface design apart from another, and there’s no doubt that Alisal has plenty to offer anyone with an eye for detail.

To begin with, Alisal has strikingly crisp wedge serifs that get subtly narrower towards the right hand end. This is unusual for an oldstyle face, where we would normally expect the serifs to be bracketed to the stem with more of a curve, and reveals the hand-drafted rather than conventionally calligraphic origin of the design.

That concept is carried through in other places too. Look at where horizontal crossbars meet vertical or angled stems, at the right hand end the stroke narrows significantly and sharply. Having said that, the central arm of the capital F gets *wider* towards the right hand end, in a kind of counterpoint to the one on top. Defying an established pattern like this shows how important fine detail is to making a typeface seem like a human product, making the whole feel warmer and more tactile.

Finally, you have to wonder if the expression “crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s” was invented to describe Carter’s approach to his work. The position of the dot (also called a tittle) over the lowercase i and j might seem like an insignificant detail, but it’s angled to match the slope of the serif beneath it, making it wonderfully harmonious—not an easy thing to get right!

Pairings

Designers and typesetters nowadays are accustomed to functional text face families that offer a wealth of weights, styles and even widths as standard, but Alisal is of a different era. It being a small family dedicated to a particular purpose might be out of step with current expectations—but today’s wealth of choice is very much a fashion of our times, enabled by widely available font creation software that automates much of the work required to build large families by interpolating weights from a handful of basic master designs.

While Carter himself was instrumental in the development of that technology (called multiple master fonts), back then the expectation that a text family needed much more than two or three weights and an italic just wasn’t very common.

For a modern typographer, to choose Alisal might at first feel a touch restrictive. But sometimes too much choice can be paralysing, and the downside to the convenience of extended families is an occasional risk of bland, unimaginative typography. Instead, think of choosing Alisal as a Zen-like exercise in making do with less in order to achieve a higher state of typographic perfection–not unlike a simple lunchtime salad. Alisal is your base ingredient, and with its strong and incisive calligraphic character it’s like a richly flavored, robustly textured leaf that just needs a light dressing and some shredded, crispy veg to add depth and contrast.

A well-chosen sans serif family is what’s called for here to bring complementary nuance to your layouts.

Syntax Next LT Regular

Alisal Regular

The Hoard

Intriguing and curious. Unexpected materials, and the ordinary, adorn the almost-bare forms. Rusted and twisted metal emerges from candy-pop porcelain suggesting a handle.

Alisal Bold

The Hoard

Intriguing and curious. Unexpected materials, and the ordinary, adorn the almost-bare forms. Rusted and twisted metal emerges from candy-pop porcelain suggesting a handle. Neon twine encircles draped leather, forming a drum-like surface over a curved vessel.

An oven knob nestles into the aperture f a turned wooden pot. There is nothing extraneous in the combinations; these items have been seemingly destined to be collaged into their new form.

Burlingame Pro Regular

Mundo Sans Pro Regular

Intriguing and curious

Unexpected materials

Alisal Regular

Credit: Studio Oink

Syntax® Next

Linotype’s Syntax® Next is a good companion sans serif face for Alisal. Its formal model also has its origins in the structures of humanist lettering. There’s no discernible stroke contrast though, which will make for a nice counterpoint to Alisal’s rich stroke modulation. It bears more objective metrical comparison in its x-height and length of its ascenders and descenders, even if it’s slightly wider. Other important shared characteristics include its two-storey lowercase ‘a’ and ‘g’.

Burlingame

Like Alisal, Burlingame has a clearly defined stroke contrast and sharp incisions where stroke curves join uprights, making it also feel much more modern in character. There are also plenty of weights to choose from, giving you lots of options when it comes to building out your title and heading hierarchy.

Mundo Sans

Mundo Sans is another humanist sans, meaning it shares some aesthetic, conceptual qualities with Alisal. Likewise, its generous choice of weights gives designers a range of choices for complementary headings, including a fine Extra Light which would suit large settings for chapter title pages.

“We live in a time of typographic plurality… And I think people should be more adventurous and daring in their typeface choices.”
- Matthew Carter

Usage tips

While Alisal is first and foremost a book face, its dark color makes it rather heavy for page after page of continuous reading. Rather, I’d recommend it as part of a broader type and design palette for layouts of mixed content types with multiple hierarchies of text and headlines. Allow for generous line height and nice wide margins to avoid too dense blocks of text. Text books, art catalogues, prestigious company brochures or anything that balances text and image with plenty of space to play with will be well served by Alisal.

But don’t let these recommendations or Alisal’s strength in long form text constrain you—let’s explore where else Alisal might find itself at home:

  • A few words set large in Alisal Italic on a theatrical poster would bring literary prestige to a stage production’s marketing.
  • Alisal Bold could sit quite comfortably on a set of labels for a range of rustic, artisanal chutneys.
  • A suite of business stationery has much the same formal requirements for simplicity and clarity as the internal pages of a book.
  • Alisal would obviously suit professional consultants or anyone linked to the literary trades, but why not consider it for a florist or a beautician, perhaps paired with an elegant yet simple and informal script like Bickley or Waza.

Wrapping up

While Alisal looks like a simple package intended for a particular purpose, I hope I’ve shown you that there’s a great deal going on beneath the surface, and that there are ways to wrangle unexpected and inspiring results out of seemingly unshowy raw material. Have fun and happy typesetting!

Matthew Carter’s Favorite Gems

“Should typographers use hidden gems rather than always going with whatever is fashionable or current? I think absolutely. We live in a time of typographic plurality. Essentially every typeface that has ever existed, more or less, is available today. And I think people should be more adventurous and daring in their choices, because there are an awful lot of typefaces that deserve to be unearthed and used."

Further reading

If you'd like to learn more about the history of Roman type, we recommend checking out The First Roman Fonts

Featured images

The photographs in this article feature the work of artist Aimee Bollu. Aimee is a collector, gatherer, and arranger of the things people have discarded and forgotten. She seeks out objects that have fallen out of use, brings them back to life, and infuses them with new value. Like Alisal, her work blends old with new and balances the hard with the soft. We’d like to thank Aimee for the use of these images.

About the author

Anthony Noel is a British graphic designer and design writer living in Berlin, Germany. He sees a lot of both new and old typefaces come across his desk as the producer of Rising Stars and Creative Characters, MyFonts’s popular twin email newsletters on new fonts and type designers.

Design Notes

We’ve set the body of this article in Alisal Regular and the headings in Syntax Next Light. For the body, the letter-spacing is 0.25px and the word-spacing is –2px. A big thank you to both @typegirl and Matthew Carter himself for their input on the typesetting refinements.