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Two Typefaces, Five Days: Inside A Fabulously Nerdy Type Marathon

As part of its first ever font marathon, Monotype tapped two rising stars to create wildly different fonts in just five days.

Monotype, one of the world’s largest type foundries, is used to churning out new fonts. Most of them take weeks, months, and even years to develop, but over the course of the past week, Monotype has been trying something different. As part of the company’s very first font marathon, Monotype tasked two of its most talented young type designers with designing two entirely new fonts in less than a week, from initial concept to sale on Monotype’s web store.

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The idea for a font marathon came from Nadine Chahine, the typeface designer behind Monotype’s recent Zapfino Arabic font (and a member of Fast Company‘s Most Creative People list). Over the winter, Chahine decided to shut herself off from friends and spent the weekend trying to design an entirely new typeface. “One thing I liked about it was that when you’re rushed for time, you tend to embrace very intuitive solutions,” Chahine tells me. “It pulls a design out of you that you normally might not have done.”


Inspired by Chahine’s experiment, Monotype allowed two of its rising stars, Toshi Omagari and Jim Ford, to explore typefaces they otherwise wouldn’t necessarily have had the time to design. Omagari and Ford each spent five days locked in a room in Monotype’s New York offices, working, eating, and sometimes even sleeping there. To make their deadlines, the two designers sometimes had to stay until 3 a.m.; Ford was so cramped for time that he even had to work on his typeface in the back of taxis to and from the office.

Cowhand 1

Two fonts emerged from the inaugural marathon. One is Cowhand, a font designed by Toshi Omagari. Omagari calls his font monowidth: no matter how many letters are in a word, his font will render the word exactly the same width, up to 20 letters long. That means in Cowhand, the word “the” renders just as long as “electroencephalogram.”

To make words readable no matter how many letters they have, Omagari had to design a font with very thick serifs, and very thin stems. (What’s more, he had to design 20 different variations of each letter.) Consequently, the font is almost Western in style: It would look good in an old Clint Eastwood movie. Omagari also envisions it being used on posters, menus, movie title screens, and more.

Esca 1

Jim Ford’s typeface, Esca, is almost the exact opposite of Omagari’s. For Esca, Ford wanted to design a typeface that was as condensed as possible, a veritable whisper of a font. What’s more, Ford, who has a background in hand-lettering, didn’t want his typeface to look artificial: He wanted it to have an almost calligraphic touch.

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“Esca evolved out of calligraphy and brush practice,” Ford tells me. “I made a mood board, and sort of blended a few different things to create it. It was challenging. In a typeface like this, the letter forms want to be very simple, so I had to work hard to maintain the calligraphic and brush characteristics in this ultra-condensed space.” The result is a typeface that looks tall, almost like an elegant fence. Ford sees Esca as being perfect for album covers. The next Passion Pit album, perhaps?

Cowhand

Both Esca and Cowhand are limited typefaces. They don’t support the full range of characters, italics, bolds, and all the other little niceties that make for a fully developed character set. They’ll work well if you need a font for posters, covers, menus, and so on, but they might fail you if you try to do more than that with them. The designers will probably update them and tweak them, but there’s no timeline for that yet.

Both Cowhand and Esca are available to purchase now through Monotype’s web store. Proceeds are going to Room to Read, a nonprofit organization for improving literacy and gender equality in education in the developing world. As for future font marathons? Monotype says you can consider them done.