Terrance Weinzierl: Joanna Sans style and legacy

John Walters, of Eye magazine, interviews the design team behind the newly released Eric Gill Series typefaces. In this article get a behind the scenes look at the type design process from Terrance Weinzierl, who designed the Joanna® Sans Nova typeface, the only completely new family within the Eric Gill Series.

John Walters: Robin Nicholas and Dan Rhatigan often talk about the ‘problem-solving’ aspects of type design – how important was that in the genesis of Joanna Sans?

Terrance Weinzierl: At the concept origin in 2011 we were also working on our eText collection. Classic text faces that were tweaked for better screen or small text use (such as increased x-height, decreased stroke contrast, looser fitting, and hinting developments. Basically, optical sizes). So, I think that train of thought and art direction was parallel with the Joanna Sans project.

What was the impact of tablet/e-reader technology on your designs?

With Joanna Nova and Joanna Sans Nova being larger on the body than the original, the glyphs are literally larger, so you have more pixels to work with. Which, in turn, helps define letter shapes on a coarse pixel grid. Of course, the low stroke contrast of Joanna Sans helps soften the blow of e-Ink screens, as we’ve seen with the successful performance of PMN Caecilia® on many Kindle products. Joanna Sans was well under way by the time Barnes & Noble chose it for the Nook GlowLight product. So those screen adjustments were already in place, and I think it made the design suitable for e-Ink. After it was chosen for the Nook, I was racing to expand the family to cover Greek and Cyrillic scripts, conveniently while taking a two-week short course at the University of Reading with Gerry Leonidas. Opportunity had bumped into my preparation.

Is there a point in contemporary type design where you have to prioritize one kind of end-user over others?

A use-case can become a priority more than an end-user, I’d say. Some projects we do, like the eText specifically for screen use or small text, or the display fonts I made for Domino’s are good examples of targeted solutions. The Joannas were not as specifically designated. They are designed for a broader use, print and screen, a versatile middle-ground. I think it’s pretty common for a contemporary family to have middle weights (around Regular or Book) that function well for text, and have extremes like Thin or Black for headlines. The Joannas do just that. With Joanna Sans, I wanted to achieve that versatility found in masterpieces like Gill Sans®, Avenir® or Frutiger®.

What was the most challenging aspect of working on the Eric Gill series?

For me, it was difficult to design the family in three scripts (Latin, Greek and Cyrillic), but it was a great learning experience. Designing the extreme weights, like Thin and Black, was also challenging for their own reasons, optical adjustments and overall texture and color.

And what was the most fun?

Seeing my work in use, in the real world, is what gets me out of bed in the morning.

In An Essay on Typography, Eric Gill discusses the constraints of printing for ‘pleasant reading’. How do you think Gill would have tackled the challenges of making type for the many different media (print, small/big screen, display, etc.) we use for reading today?

I think his ideas about Gill Sans being able to be used or reproduced by ‘average’ people are interesting. I think he would be surprised to see how low contrast type works well on screen, and is popular in print, even with the biggest architectural type you can imagine. In a way, the popularity of that style validates his ideas about a versatile type design. He would probably be enthusiastic about responsive web typography, too – tuning point sizes and leading for comfortable reading on a variety of measures (screen widths). We have powerful creation tools and distribution methods today (web font streaming, for example). Gill admired discipline and I think he would urge typographers and designers today to take their time with their type settings and decisions. It’s really just about craftsmanship.

Robert Harling, in his book The Letterforms and Type Designs of Eric Gill, is dismissive of the heavier fonts in the original Gill Sans family. Do you agree with those criticisms?

I like Harling’s book because it’s short and sweet with big visuals, including foldouts, a great desk reference. As Harling astutely points out, it’s interesting to see Gill Sans in context next to Johnston’s Underground™ type and Renner’s Futura®. He clearly favors Gill Sans over its peers like Erbar™. He goes on to describe how the Monotype staff draftsmen helped guide the design of Gill Sans to work better as a font, which I agree with. But, compelling to me, some of the original drawings for Gill Sans had sheared terminals, at an angle, exposing the humanist structure and broad-nib influence. This is one important detail I decided to include with Joanna Sans. In other words, Joanna Sans is like Gill Sans with less Futura and more Eric Gill. Harling is quick to throw the Gill ExtraBolds under the double-decker bus, as it were. That was another problem I addressed. What would the heaviest weights of Gill Sans look like, if you removed the cartoon flavor from it? Hence, Joanna Sans Black. But, my colleague Ben Jones took the serif Joanna Nova in the opposite direction, and kept the Black very playful.

Find out more about Joanna Sans Nova and buy the family