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Making It

A 3-D Alphabet Illustrates The History Of Typography

To highlight a university's prototyping prowess, the London studio Johnson Banks designed a 3-D alphabet showcasing a century's worth of typefaces.

  • <p>Designed in 1896, Akzidenz is a part of the family of early sans serifs called grotesques. For this design, the weight was condensed and "fratalized," turning a grotesque into a thing of beauty.</p>
  • <p>Giambattista Bodoni modeled his typeface on Baskerville, by John Baskerville, the difference being that Bodoni’s thick strokes are fatter and its thin strokes are skinnier.</p>
  • <p>Type design DIN (the acronym of Deutsches Institut fur Normung) 1451 became the standard German typeface across areas such as engineering, technology, and traffic signs.</p>
  • <p>A typeface typically used to engrave metals, especially silver and gold.</p>
  • <p>Fraktur is inextricably linked to Germany’s prewar history. Possibly the world’s most controversial typeface, it was banned by the Nazis in 1941. Postwar adoption of sans serifs effectively killed it off as the nation’s style of choice.</p>
  • <p>This is the famous lowercase "g" from Eric Gil’s 1933 typeface. He is quoted as saying, "A pair of spectacles is rather like a 'g’; I will a 'g’ rather like a pair of spectacles."</p>
  • <p>Also known as Underground, this type was designed for London Transport by Edward Johnston in 1916.</p>
  • <p>The 1927 Kabel was named such in honor of the newly completed transatlantic telephone cable.</p>
  • <p>Herb Lubalin based this font on Avant Garde. It filled a need for a slab serfic alphabet for the emerging phototypesetting industry.</p>
  • <p>Designed in 2002, many of the characters in this grid-based typeface give the impression of being 3-D. This adaptation imagines what its three-dimensional shape could have been.</p>
  • <p>This typeface was designed expressly for small print in The Wall Street Journal. At large sizes, it seems to have notches in the letterforms, which are there to compensate for the way blobs of ink tend to blur in small type.</p>
  • <p>This was a 1989 adaptation of the famous Roman capitals inscribed on the base of Trajan’s Column in Rome. The column can be climbed via an internal spiral staircase.</p>
  • <p>Since its introduction in 1957, this typeface has become nearly universal.</p>
  • <p>Introduced at the turn of the millennium, Xheighter is a tall, condensed sans serif that becomes even taller and more condensed when stacked on top of itself.</p>
  • 01 /14 | A is for Akzidenz Grotesk

    Designed in 1896, Akzidenz is a part of the family of early sans serifs called grotesques. For this design, the weight was condensed and "fratalized," turning a grotesque into a thing of beauty.

  • 02 /14

    Giambattista Bodoni modeled his typeface on Baskerville, by John Baskerville, the difference being that Bodoni’s thick strokes are fatter and its thin strokes are skinnier.

  • 03 /14

    Type design DIN (the acronym of Deutsches Institut fur Normung) 1451 became the standard German typeface across areas such as engineering, technology, and traffic signs.

  • 04 /14

    A typeface typically used to engrave metals, especially silver and gold.

  • 05 /14

    Fraktur is inextricably linked to Germany’s prewar history. Possibly the world’s most controversial typeface, it was banned by the Nazis in 1941. Postwar adoption of sans serifs effectively killed it off as the nation’s style of choice.

  • 06 /14 | G is for Gill Sans

    This is the famous lowercase "g" from Eric Gil’s 1933 typeface. He is quoted as saying, "A pair of spectacles is rather like a 'g’; I will a 'g’ rather like a pair of spectacles."

  • 07 /14 | J is for Johnston

    Also known as Underground, this type was designed for London Transport by Edward Johnston in 1916.

  • 08 /14 | K is for Kabel

    The 1927 Kabel was named such in honor of the newly completed transatlantic telephone cable.

  • 09 /14 | L is for Lubalin Graph

    Herb Lubalin based this font on Avant Garde. It filled a need for a slab serfic alphabet for the emerging phototypesetting industry.

  • 10 /14 | Q is for Quadrate

    Designed in 2002, many of the characters in this grid-based typeface give the impression of being 3-D. This adaptation imagines what its three-dimensional shape could have been.

  • 11 /14 | R is for Retina

    This typeface was designed expressly for small print in The Wall Street Journal. At large sizes, it seems to have notches in the letterforms, which are there to compensate for the way blobs of ink tend to blur in small type.

  • 12 /14 | T is for Trajan

    This was a 1989 adaptation of the famous Roman capitals inscribed on the base of Trajan’s Column in Rome. The column can be climbed via an internal spiral staircase.

  • 13 /14 | U is for Universe

    Since its introduction in 1957, this typeface has become nearly universal.

  • 14 /14 | X is for Xheighter

    Introduced at the turn of the millennium, Xheighter is a tall, condensed sans serif that becomes even taller and more condensed when stacked on top of itself.

Rapid prototyping has quickly become the darling technology of the design world for its ability to turn digital files into 3-D objects—cheaply and fast. But, says Michael Johnson, very few designers have thought to merge typography and 3-D printing. So when Ravensbourne, a university specializing in digital technology, approached his London-based studio, Johnson Banks, about developing a project to showcase the school’s in-house prototyping skills, Johnson cooked up a 3-D alphabet that would not only display the potential of a burgeoning technology but function as a visual lesson in the history of type.

The Arkitypo series spans from Akzidenz Grotesk, an early sans serif that Johnson transformed from grotesque to beautiful with a complex fractal structure, to Zig Zag, an Art Deco–style typeface that, in 3-D, becomes an interlocking puzzle. According to Johnson, some of the schemes worked straight away, while others fell apart and needed refining. In the end, the entire alphabet took six months of solid work to complete—a short time frame, considering that the project surveys more than a century of typographic design.

Check out the slides above for more details about each of the historical tidbits whizzing by in the video.

Photos by Andy Morgan

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