A possible addition to the ever-going and ever-growing debates on contemporary typedesign, in 63 different flavors.

By João Doria

I’m tempted to place Grow in a historical dialogue with most system typefaces as early as Albers’ Kombinationsschrift or later, Univers, or, even later, Norm’s sign generator or Gustavo Ferreira’s Elementar. On the other hand I could be completely wrong, as the starting point could have been related to translating a certain sign painting style (like that of Job Wouters or others in the same vein). In which context was the Grow typeface generated, and which frames of reference were you considering?

One can say, perhaps, that Grow provides a modern translation of historical material. The idea for our typeface derived from a 70’s Letraset specimen, in which we discovered a tendency towards threedimesional typefaces that seemed very refreshing to us. Having had not too many contemporary display typefaces on our radar, we looked deeper into the possibilities this genre would have to offer. The multi-line constructions of Lance Wyman’s typeface for Mexico Olympics or the spatial effects apparent in Milton Glaser’s “Baby Fat” also served as our references.

Early sketches of Grow. (Amsterdam, 2011)

What do you see as human and what do you see as mechanical in Grow’s forms? Is there such a dialogue?  

Grow is a result of various dialogues: not only finding the right balance between drawing and construction, but also creating a typeface as a duo means a lot of facetime.

In our opinion, the great advantage of new software is not only that it can be employed to achieve a higher level of drawing perfection but that it enables us to apply various - even opposed - methodologies onto the conventional form of the alphabet. We try to go beyond reviving “old curves” using new software - an act that sometimes feels like a missed opportunity. We like the aspect that Grow is dealing with ideas of standardization and meticulous coordination, while keeping at the same time a level of expression and authorship, our own recognizable footstep.

I see that Grow A - presumably Grow’s skeleton - is extremely quirky whereas the more you combine it, the more stable and solid the result becomes while still providing lots of variation. When thinking about it, I realized that even before worrying about adjusting each character in relationship to another (b d p q, etc that method or another criteria), it seems like you had an amazing drawing challenge - to draw each individual letter’s different weights built from the skeleton itself. In that sense, Grow seems pose a different problem in the generative context - that of a different kind of variation than what we encounter when looking at interpolation and its very faithful scaling relationship according to a certain skeleton. What were the formal choices that you enjoyed the most, both as a type design problem but also as drawing?

The whole process of creating Grow involved a lot of zooming in and out. We were looking for a set of basic principles that would allow us to draw shapes exactly matching each other while still being distinguishable enough when displayed separately. After having arrived at a rough construction providing us with visually satisfying results for the fully combined look (ABCDEF) as well as for all single basic weights (A, B, C, D, E, F), we spent a great amount of time testing and defining the perfect grid and exact node positions.
As for Grow, we tried to merge attributes we find important in our work in general - like humor, playfulness, decisiveness or attention to details - with a pragmatic and developing process controlled by numbers. That cocktail consequently unveils many layers - some of which are perhaps contradicting to the conservative eye. Grow asks the user to make a choice, to switch perspective: the bouncing and more quirky inner shapes are equally needed as well as the more rigid and conventional ones - they benefit from each other.

Grow A isolated and in combination with C, E and F. 

The six basic shapes. (Exhibition view, Gutenberg Museum, 2013)

In many other cases an external piece of software is used to generate combinations, which adds complexity in the tool meets artwork discussion. Although Grow doesn’t have, it’s also a huge kit of parts to be combined by the user. It can therefore be read to some point in this generative context - your two cents for this discussion.

We have now software at hand that enables us to produce shapes more precise and specific then ever before. However, not everything that is possible has to be done – the question of the intention behind each new typeface remains. An outcome completely determined by numbers can be interesting. And yet – since we are humans, not machines, subjective choices made by the designer seem to us equally important.

So, even though Grow has been developed with up-to-date software, its shapes intentionally carry the trace of craft, the hand at work. This is less in a nostalgic sense but responding to contemporary conditions: a hand that spent a lot of time in front of the computer operating a mouse. In that way we would propose to look at the basic shapes A, B, C, D, E, F not as seamless parametrically scalable shapes but as a set of shapes that are defined separately, yet exist in relation to each other.

The intention remains.

Could you talk a bit about the technological aspects, and what determined the amount of versions?

Grow belongs to the special category of multi-layered typefaces - a species which poses challenges to current font formats and composition technologies.

The biggest challenge when producing multi-layered designs is to keep information synchronized between fonts. For layers to match, all glyph widths need to be the same and all outlines need to align with precision. Besides that, font info, character set, OpenType features and several other kinds of font data need to be exactly the same across all fonts. During the design process, these types of data are constantly changing, and it is very hard and time consuming to apply and keep track of everything manually.

This is where our friend Gustavo Ferreira and his custom made tools come in. Using Robofont’s layers functionality, individual glyphs can be edited in context, with all layers visible on top of each other. Using NodeBox, we can have an interactive preview of the layered source fonts, using colors and custom sample texts. Layers can be turned on/off to explore different possible combinations. Data which is common to all fonts in the family is stored separately, and can be inserted into all fonts at any time with help from batchprocessing tools. All font files in the family can be generated with the click of a button.

Grow supports the complete Latin Extended character set, a rather rare feature in the category of display fonts. 31,000 kerning pairs make sure your favorite glyph looks nice no matter what it stands next to.

The basic shapes differently combined.

This drawing relationship also communicates to me (especially in the ‘Pyramid Pack’) a concern about giving a spatial quality in the context of the screen or the printed page. Could you comment on that?

Initially, Grow should consist of three levels only (AB, CD, EF - two outlines forming a level), whose combinations would always result three-dimensionally. With Gustavo joining us, the idea of not only combining those three levels but rather all available outlines became technically feasible. Together, we embraced a fusion approach and followed the aim to generate all possible 63 combinations of A, B, C, D, E & F.

And yet, when using the 63 faces of Grow, every now and then those initial, spatial creations appear again. Thinking about how the typeface translate, back into a true three-dimensional shape we experimented with cream-layered cakes and played around with different liquid densities in order to make perfectly layered cocktails.
This rationality in Grow might connect it with “Univers” to some degree. However, Grow contains a surprise: if you only use the lighter levels, it starts to dance and create a dynamic rhythm - a feature Adrian Frutiger may not have agreed with completely.

The spatial “Pyramid Pack”.

A recent order of Grow leaving the shop.

Why describe Dinamo as a Swiss type design practice, if Fabian Harb (Swiss, and a graduate from Basel) is based in Berlin and Johannes Breyer (German and a graduate from Rietveld) is based in Amsterdam. Are your type design heroes mainly Swiss, therefore you’re standing on their shoulders? Or, do you see your practice corresponding to any specifically Swiss regional constraint?

At the time that we met, Johannes had started studying and worked in Zurich while Fabian was completing his studies in Basel. Both being shaped by a Swiss education we developed similar interests and started an exchange that is still based on many of these basic principles. Living in the Netherlands later on added to our education the same way that it reassured us about what we had already.

Though nowadays we spend our time between various places, a small town in Switzerland still seemed to provide the most reliable post address. In the long run, we also like the idea that the village of Heiden could effortlessly host our many guests for the celebration of Dinamo’s 10 year anniversary.

Listening to Gerard Unger singing the names of his favorite combinations. (Call For Type, Mainz, 2013)

Grow, as Dinamo’s initial release, can be read as a founding statement that signals that you’re willing to participate actively in a kind of type design practice that has drawing and programming intertwined, in a moment that seems to be calling for that (we’re now 4 years after the publication of écal’s Typeface as a program, and somehow 15 years (or more - Beowulf is from 1989!) after we saw the first type generators done by graphic designers. What should we expect from Dinamo’s future releases?

We primarily see ourselves as graphic designers and regard typefaces as tools, something to apply our ideas onto. We mostly design them according to the needs of a specific project.

Under the label Dinamo we want to unify aspects of typeface design that in combination seem worth publishing: originality in shape and a high standard in production. Only designs that fulfill both criteria qualify for the journey into distribution.

Founding Dinamo opened up a set of stimulating questions that relate not only to type but the general position we see ourselves in. It seems like a good step in order to take responsibility and to enable the public to draw the connection between the work and the intentions behind it.

Grow cyrillic. (coming fall 2013)