“I’ve been waiting for the first Comic Sans comparison,” says type designer Jonathan Hoefler dryly, when I mention how his new typeface family, Inkwell, all but begs for it. It’s hard not to draw parallels: Both fonts are handwriting-inspired, friendly looking, and designed to appear like they were drawn with ballpoint pens or Sharpie markers.
But the differences are just as instantly clear, too. “Comic Sans is shooting for ‘informal’ but hits ‘amateurish,'” Hoefler says. “I wanted Inkwell to be informal, but proficient.” Indeed, Inkwell’s “tiny universe of fonts” contains both serif and sans versions, plus four decorative fonts including a cursive-like script, a blueprint-inspired all-caps set, even a blackletter. (“Think less ‘death announcement,’ more ‘country club invitation.'” Hoefler says.)
But why design this typeface? Handwriting-inspired fonts are “immensely popular,” Hoefler says, “because they’re not institutional. They fill a hole that other typefaces don’t because they’re unmannered.” He even respects the ever-polarizing Comic Sans: “Designers don’t like it, but humans do.” Still, most handwriting-style typefaces come in just one weight and style, which Hoefler felt was too limiting, given how “infinitely expressive” real handwriting is.
“To render anything sophisticated you need typefaces with relationships,” he explains. “Italics have a syntactic value—without them you can’t communicate in English. Same for small caps and bold. But a single face doesn’t have those relationships for semantic emphasis. Inkwell brings the classical needs of a typographer to this genre.”
Hoefler began sketching Inkwell 12 years ago, and says that the serif face is an “idealized version” of his own block handwriting: “I don’t print with serifs, but if I were to write out an entire book, it might look like this.” The sans version is inspired by the handwriting of Jordan Bell, a “graphomaniac” designer at Hoefler & Co., “who’s always scribbling on something.” The blueprint-inspired Inkwell Open is based on the hand-lettering of Hoefler’s father, who worked as a set designer. And that charming blackletter? “It was like me trying to draw the Gothic alphabet with a ballpoint pen on a restaurant receipt,” Hoefler says.
In reality, Hoefler and Bell iterated Inkwell’s various letterforms by sketching on an iPad Pro—”the first digital thing I’ve worked with that feels like real pen and paper,” Hoefler says. He and Bell riffed out Inkwell’s basic gestures in an app called Notability. “It’s designed for marking up documents, not drawing,” Hoefler says. “But by virtue of being stripped-down, it reacts with the Apple Pencil in a very realistic way.”The result is a family of fonts that provides something similar to what Hoefler calls the “non-sanctioned feel” of a Comic Sans, but with a level of craftsmanship that Robert Bringhurst—legendary author of the The Elements of Typographic Style—praised as “so wonderfully subtle that it will stop you in your tracks and make you bow in admiration.” If only Inkwell had been available five years ago, when the Higgs boson was discovered—infamously, the scientists chose to unveil their achievement to the general public by explaining it in Comic Sans. Well, better late than never. So, the next time a Nobel-worthy discovery needs to be made public—or you just want to communicate with your coworkers without inviting ridicule—just remember that, thanks to Inkwell, you do have options.