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How A Micro-Font Designed For Stock Indexes Became A Classic

Retina, the tiny, ultra-readable font designed in 2000 for The Wall Street Journal, gets its first retail release.

As wearables shrink display sizes, type designers are responding with a growing array of typefaces that are meant to be legible at really small sizes. It’s a very old problem for type designer Tobias Frere-Jones.

In 2000, long before the first Apple Watch was even a gleam in Steve Jobs’s eye, Frere-Jones created Retina–a typeface designed especially to help The Wall Street Journal cram as many stock indexes into its pages as humanly possible while maintaining legibility. Now, Frere-Jones is releasing Retina as the second retail release of his new type foundry, Frere-Jones Type, following December’s release of Mallory.

It’s been nearly two decades since it was designed, yet Retina has enduring relevance in today’s world of tiny screens. The sans serif is optimized for ultimate legibility over any other concern. The smallest version of Retina, called MicroPlus, was designed first. It’s also visually the oddest version, distinguished by the strange notches that are sliced out of each letter, making it look lumpy. The Standard version, which was later commissioned by the Journal in 2005, loses the notches, creating a version of Retina that looks good in headlines and body copy.

The story behind Retina’s design goes back to 1990, when Frere-Jones was a student at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). At the time, RISD had no organized type design program. “I had to find my own way in understanding workflow and technique, and what we expect letters to do,” Frere-Jones tells me. So he began creating experimental typefaces, often based upon some absurd challenge that was meant to put impossible strain upon the letters. For example, a typeface where every letter is designed to overlap with the one next to it. By creating these typefaces, Frere-Jones was hoping to learn what, in his words, made each letter “uniquely itself, and not something else.”

In the late ’90s, Frere-Jones had an opportunity to dust off these early experiments when the Wall Street Journal came to him with a new commission. An upcoming redesign would shrink the physical size of the newspaper; at the same time, the Journal wanted to include even more stock listings per page. “The two parts of the brief effectively contradicted each other,” Frere-Jones remembered. “On the one hand, they wanted to put more content on the page; on the other, the page was shrinking. And it all needed to perform better than what they were currently using, Helvetica Condensed.”

When creating Retina, Frere-Jones started by identifying the “essential gesture” of each glyph and amping it up to 11. For example, with a capital “R,” the most unique element is the leg that juts out. “It’s the most ‘R’ part of the ‘R,'” explains Frere-Jones, saying that no other letter has anything like it. Likewise, the arm that crosses a capital “G” has nothing like it in the rest of the alphabet, and distinguishes it from an “O” or a “C.” In a capital “D,” there’s not as much to work with–it’s almost a “B” and almost an “O”–so it’s fundamental asymmetry becomes its most unique identifying design characteristic.

At the same time, Retina was also designed to take into account the vagary of newsprints. The odd notches in the MicroPlus version? Those are actually meant to serve as wells that can fill with excess ink during the printing process, without smudging the letter into something unreadable. It gives Retina an interesting dappled quality when viewed digitally, although the effect is nowhere near as visible when you’re squinting at it on a half-smudged stock page. It looks odd at large sizes, though, which is why Retina comes with a Standard version. “Retina MicroPlus looks like total chaos if you try to set it in a larger size,” admits Frere-Jones.

Another interesting characteristic of Retina’s design? Each character is the same width across multiple weights. This isn’t the same as a monospace font, in which each letter is exactly the same width. Rather, in Retina, a bold “M” will be the same width as a regular “M” or an italic “M,” within the same point size. “Given the sizes Retina MicroPlus was designed to be printed at, I had to make sure that each character was always the same width, no matter what the weight,” says Frere-Jones. “In The Wall Street Journal, if a line gets 1/64th of an inch longer because you change the weight, it could break the entire page.”

Since it debuted in The Wall Street Journal, Retina has been adopted by numerous other newspapers, which use Retina for stock listings, sports scores, classified ads, movie listings, and more. It’s also been inducted into the Museum of Modern Art’s collection. However, the new release by Frere-Jones Type marks the first time it can be purchased and downloaded online. As part of the release, Frere-Jones is also expanding Retina’s character set, allowing it to support over 200 languages, from Acehnese to Zuni.

The Frere-Jones Type Retina release is notable for another reason. Before Frere-Jones’s highly publicized split from Jonathan Hoefler, Retina used to be licensed out exclusively by Hoefler & Frere-Jones (now Hoefler & Co.). Frere-Jones wouldn’t directly acknowledge whether or not he had regained Retina as part of the terms of his out-of-court settlement with his erstwhile business partner, only acknowledging: “Frere-Jones Type now owns Retina.” Nonetheless, perhaps other former HF&J typefaces will soon find a home at Frere-Jones’s new type foundry.

[All Images: courtesy Tobias Frere-Jones. Retina designed by Tobias Frere-Jones. Contributions by Graham Bradley, Nina Stössinger, Tim Ripper, Dave Foster, Octavio Pardo, Ksenya Samarskaya and Colin Ford]

About the author

John Brownlee is a design writer who lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. You can email him at john.brownlee+fastco@gmail.com.



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