Type and lettering instructors frequently find students repeatedly creating letters that we deem “wrong.” We say stuff like, “Yeah, you can do it that way, but it would be WRONG!” Or more thoughtfully, “To heighten legibility, one must pay special attention to the shape and stroke modulation of conventional letterforms, and apply that structure to your own recipes. These traditional forms have developed over centuries, and there is no need to throw them out the window. An awareness and respect for history is a rewarding challenge for any student.”
Despite my long-winded pleas, we see the same sorts of forms over and over.
Although the aforementioned ugly ducklings pop up with startling frequency, there are countless others that appear time and time again. Another little bastard is this e.
I completely sympathize with the students for a number of reasons. It can be a huge drag to consult a type specimen or any reference while one is entering a flow state in their sketching. Additionally, you don’t know what you don’t know, so even the basic awareness of a flaw is perhaps too much to ask. Finally, when we see this logical system happening before us, one could easily surmise that the bottom right of e is approaching a vertical. We know verticals are thick, and so more mass is added to that last stroke.
Eames Century Modern
I have long admired this design drawn by Erik van Blokland and released by House Industries in 2010. It is a daring, useful, and beautiful representation of everything a digital typeface should be. In true House and Erik fashion, they have gone above and beyond, and then above and beyond that. A range of weights in roman and italic serve as the core members of the family. They are joined by two stencils, four additional sets of figures, and even more fonts for borders and ornaments. There are enough bells and whistles to warrant the 15 page user manual. These typographic accoutrements are not just novelties to distract, they are the icing on the cake of one of the most well-crafted slab serifs ever drawn.
For years I was unaware of Eames Century Modern’s e and c. This is often the case for things that just look right. They don’t warrant the critical inspection, because, well, why waste the time?
If I had to draw one of the bolder weights from memory I would have guessed the e looks like this.
But NOPE. Erik had cleverly deviated from tradition here, and increased the weight of the terminal for a more consistent coverage. Because this solution was something I was telling my students to avoid, I was curious to learn more. At the risk of pestering the dude, I sent an email.
James: In the lightest weight of Eames Century Modern, the e is executed as one would expect. But as the weight increases, the terminal begins to modulate in increasingly dramatic ways. Is this the way it was drawn in the earliest versions of the design?
Erik: Yes. I wanted the black weight to be really dense and that stroke just needed to do its job. That work happened around July 2007. It was a sketch designspace with a bunch of masters—widths, contrasts, weights, but with a very small character set. The Black was drawn after the Bold, and it looks like the bottom stroke got its weight very quickly. There are more versions, but these seem to be the critical ones.
James: Are there other examples you can think of with and e or c modulating in this way? And, are there other moments in ECM where something that is usually thin, becomes thick or vice versa?
Erik: I’m sure there must be but I didn't look for historic references for those. ECM has three masters and the black master has considerably lower contrast. I don't see it as a special intervention on the bottom strokes. Look at the heavy serifs, the contrast in the o. Only some letters need sharper pinches here and there to remain functional. The crossbar in the 'e', the rotating cut in the balls, but also the stem connections in bdpq, mnu etc.
Revivals are an excellent way to begin an education in type design. That‘s why we started there as students in Type Media, and why we now echo that assignment as instructors at Type West. At some point however, we must realize that just because the historical precedent exists, it doesn’t mean it’s actually successful, or that we have to honor it. Only with a thorough critical analysis of individual shapes can we, and as Erik says, make a letter “do its job.”