Lost and found
(and lost again)

Exploring the first multi-style Hebrew typeface family

Lost
Hebrew was the language of the Israelite and Judean people for over 1,300 years when around 200 BCE, it died as an everyday language and was confined to religious use.1 This affected the Hebrew script heavily, since it only developed those attributes that were necessary to present specific religious texts. Therefore, Hebrew is lacking the typographic tools that would have evolved and developed from an ongoing secular use. Moreover, the Hebrew script was considered sacred. The scribes that were permitted to write manuscripts were concerned with preserving the letterform appearance, even at the expense of the ease and speed in which they could be read.2
Hebrew was reintroduced as a spoken language in the 1880s. Since then, it experienced an accelerated process of revival. The shift from the written form to movable type was a hastened and interrupted one and did not allow for refinement and distillation of the letterforms.

Setting type in the Hebrew script was and still is a frustrating experience. Not only there is a shortage in typefaces which sufficiently address specific Hebrew script issues, but the few that are available mostly consist of a single regular style, accompanied by a small number of weight variations. So, what is a Hebrew typesetter to do when trying to create differentiation within a text? I remember how pleased I was when I found a book published in 1905 in Minsk. In it I spotted one spread that seemed tailor-made to answer my question. The typesetter used different typefaces, different sizes, increased letter spacing and underlining. These were amongst the popular typographic solutions throughout the 20th century.


A spread from the book printed in 1905 in Minsk showing the various ways to handle word differentiation and emphasis without a typeface family: 1. Underlining a word. 2. A different typeface, in a different size. 3. Increased letter spacing.

As I carefully flipped through this old book, my thoughts took a less encouraging turn: is it possible that nothing has significantly changed in Hebrew type for over a century? Should it have changed considering the technological advancements surrounding us? Or perhaps in light of the history and the cultural contexts a change shouldn’t be expected at all?
Exploring contemporary Hebrew publications shows Hebrew typographers today use the same type-acrobatics that were used long ago in an attempt to make hierarchies clearer to their readers. Without the existence of comprehensive type families, one uses the available types and combines them, be it metal or digital.


Examples from contemporary Hebrew publications, using a similar approach to word differentiation and emphasis as the book from 1905 (Tel aviv museum of art​, 2008, 2011).

Found
It was during my MATD year in The University of Reading when I first saw this image. It was mind-blowing. I was rubbing my eyes and pinching my arms. I double checked and the caption defiantly said: “David Hebrew … a family of three variations and three weights.” And so my research began.

The original ink drawing of the David Hebrew typeface family ca. 1953 as printed in the book “The work of Ismar David” (Brandshaft, 2005. p66–67).

The David Hebrew typeface family was designed by the prolific calligrapher, artist, designer, architect and educator Ismar David. In 1932, David emigrated to Palestine from Germany.
With his knowledge of, and familiarity with, the richness of the Latin type, he conceived
the first Hebrew typeface family. The design process spread over two decades, during which Ismar David researched the origin of the Hebrew script and experimented in search of innovative letterforms.3

David carefully negotiated the tension between the old and the new, and created an accurate, well balanced typographic solution. He did so without forcing the features and characteristics
of the Latin script onto the Hebrew, but by applying a well informed design approach. Despite the limitations of the Hebrew script and the destitute conditions in Jerusalem, David completed his typeface family. It was partially cast for machine composition by the Intertype Corporation in 1954. Around that time, David relocated to New York where he pursued his creative career. (For more information and a visual analysis of the David Hebrew family, the dissertation is available for download on TypeCulture)


Ismar David in Palestine, ca. 1935. From the book “The work of Ismar David” (Brandshaft, 2005. p20).

 
Lost again

The regular style of David Hebrew
Meanwhile in Israel, the regular style and its weights gained great popularity, offering both high technical performance and relevant atmospheric values. In those days Israel was still in its early stages as a state and David Hebrew answered the demand for new Hebrew typefaces needed to support the increasing production of Hebrew documents. Unfortunately, over the years through phototypesetting and the development of digital type, the innovative features dissipated. The original outlines were distorted and deformed by various versions of the typeface and the popularity of the regular style slowly declined.

The italic style of David Hebrew
The italic style was rejected by the local typesetters soon after its release in 1954. Instead they demanded additional sizes and weights of the regular style.4 Typesetters preferred weight emphasis to stylistic differentiation and the use of the italic as a secondary style never became conventional in Hebrew typography.


Example from a contemporary Hebrew publication using a different typeface in a heavier weight to differentiate a name within the text (Israel museum, 2015).

The monolinear style of David Hebrew
The monolinear version was not produced along with its family members in 1954, the reason for it is unclear. Later in 1980, the typeface was issued in Israel by Transfertech which produced dry rub-down transfer sheets. It seems that this technique of production and the fact that the sheets were used to set text in large sizes only, allowed David to add new members to the family: styles for headlines. The new regular and the italic styles were published under the name David and David Italic, each in three weights. However, the headline monolinear style was rejected by Transfertech. According to them, this monolinear version was too “strange and unusual”, no one would be interested to buy it and use it.5

Afterthought
In 2012, the Monotype foundry released the David Hadash typeface family through an exclusive license with Ismar David’s estate. Helen Brandshaft, who had worked with Ismar David for many years, restored and redrew the typeface family with great acuity and accuracy. Now, the entire typeface family is available for digital typesetting, and for the first time, it includes the more calligraphic version of the monolinear style.

Although the regular style is recently regaining some of its popularity, (particularly amongst typography students in Israel), it is still rare to find the comprehensive type family in use. This raises many questions for Hebrew type designers, non with definitive answers. Should we aim for more use of secondary styles, similar to the Latin type setting? Should we accept the conventions as they are and try to innovate within their boundaries? Is it even possible to innovate when there seems to be no market for it? (For more on this “Vicious Cycle” watch Liron Lavi Turkenich’s talk from TYPO Labs 2017)

Throughout my research I keep being inspired by Ismar David’s design. While learning from his work process I find his achievements a unique case study that proves it is possible to innovate and improve the experience of reading Hebrew texts.
Considering David succeeded in doing so in times of social and political turmoil, with scarce resources and technology that is now perceived ancient, shouldn’t we (at least try to) do
likewise today?


A rare contemporary example of using the regular style for the main text, the cursive style for word differentiation and the bold weight for headlines (Fachhochschule Köln, 2001).

The Hebrew original ink drawing of the letter Alef, in regular, italic and monolinear the styles (Brandshaft, 2005. p66–67).

 

References
1 Fellman, Jack: (1973) Contributions to the sociology of language [csl]: the revival of classical tongue: Eliezer Ben Yehuda and the modern Hebrew language. De Gruyter Mouton, The Hague. P. 11

2 Tamari, Ittai: (1991) Decipherability, legibility and readability of modern Hebrew typefaces.
Morris, Robert A., André, Jacques (ed): Raster imaging and digital typography II. Cambridge University Press. P. 134

3 Brandshaft, Helen, Pankow, David (ed): (2005) The work of Ismar David. RIT Cary Graphic Arts press, New York

4 RIT Cary Graphic Arts Collection. The archive of Ismar David 1.6.pdf. p4. A letter from A. Cogan, the representative of the Intertype Corporation in Israel, reporting the very little use of the italic style and asking for more weights and sizes of the regular style

5 From a conversation with Sam Bleier, owner and CEO at Technomark Ltd. (Transfertech)

Alphabettes Variety Show: we’re back!

UPDATE! Couldn’t make it to the live variety show or just want to relive the whole thing? Here’s the recording (listen on the site or download):

mixlr.com/alphabettes/showreel/alphabettes-variety-show-at-typographics-2017/

Here are a few fun highlights, captured on twitter:

Thanks for listening!

❤️📻❤️📻❤️📻❤️📻❤️📻❤️📻❤️📻❤️📻❤️📻❤️📻❤️📻❤️📻❤️📻❤️

Continue reading

Typographic Potential of Variable Fonts

This article is based on the presentation What The Government Doesn’t Want You to Know About Variable Fonts delivered at ISType conference in Istanbul. It’s a summary of my personal thoughts on recent developments that might have an effect on responsive typography. It is also a collection of references to inspiring projects and experiments some of my colleagues have been doing. It touches on a few concepts I found necessary to explain but it shouldn’t be considered an in-depth report on those. Continue reading

Dear Alphabettes: How do you translate your header for various languages?

Dear Alphabettes,
How do you translate the Alphabettes header for various languages and writing systems?

 

When I was doing an Arabic header for the blog, I decided to use a Persian transliteration. This was fairly straightforward, except for two letters, the ‘S’ and the ‘T’. In Persian phonology, the /s/ phoneme can be represented with three letters (س – ص – ث) and the /t/ phoneme can be represented through two letters (ت – ط). I made the choice to stick to the most widely used form of each of these letters in different languages that use the Arabic script, namely the Sīn (س) and the Tā (ت). So for instance I could have used the Thā (ث) for /s/, but this letter often corresponds to /th/ in the Arabic language, so I avoided it. Also, Persian does not have grammatical gender and does not maintain a distinction that would make it necessary for me to add anything to the transliteration to make clear I was referring to a group of women—🙌—but I know that this is something Liron had to consider for her header…

xx
Sahar

Here is another case of great similarities between the Arabic and the Hebrew scripts! Apart from making the same decision about which letters wouldn’t look odd, just like Sahar did, I had another challenge. Unlike Persian or English, Hebrew uses grammatical genders. The word Alphabettes has to be female, so it would be ending on either ‘h’ (ה) in singular or ‘t’ (ת) in plural. So if Alphabettes were a group of women, they would be “Alphabetot“. Since there is no Hebrew word as such, but the ending is very Hebrewish, it looked odd. Luisa solved the problem when suggesting to decide if I should transliterate by thinking how I am describing Alphabettes to my friends in Israel. I am saying Alphabettes just as it sounds! So now the ending is “ס”, combining Hebrew letters and a Latin word.

xx
Liron

Do you also have a question about transliteration, the universe, or everything else? Tweet at us @alphabettes_org and if the answer doesn’t fit into a tweet, we may reply here.

Dear Alphabettes: How to deal with clients who think they know better?

Dear Alphabettes,
how should I best deal with a client who asks me to change the design of some letterforms and spacing against my advice?

 

This is a very good, important, and tricky question.

Sometimes clients think they know better than us, that they hired us not for our competence, skills and professionalism, but just to mechanically execute what they have in mind. There are three ways this can go:

In the best case scenario, we don’t really need this job, we can run away from these people and never spend another minute thinking of them and their silly ideas.

In most cases though, we can’t afford to do that. So we go into ‘it’s just a job, it pays rent and bills’ mode, and in a way, it also pays for our silence.

But we are designers, and all that we have is our reputation. Releasing something that we know is below our standards, will harm it. We may have no way to control clients and how they will promote the substandard work we did, or which absolutely pointless and meaningless detail will be proudly present as the cornerstone of the entire project, or keep them from using unfinished and unpolished versions of our files. We have no way to control how our designer colleagues and friends will react to it, or — on a larger scale — the opinion of the general public.

In the bearable version of this scenario, we may be able to remain anonymous, keep our work a secret and our reputation intact and move on to the next project.

In the worst case though, our name is credited everywhere and we will have to own our choices: no one forced us to take that job. So we’re trying to ride out this not so great situation, (because at some point people will forget, right?), and move on to the next project, hopefully it will be better than this one.

We’re not aware of a total-disaster end-of-the-world case where a brilliant designer’s career ended abruptly because of a single terrible project. (If it exists, let us know in the comments.) So maybe the hidden question here is: how to deal with ourselves when we have to work on such projects and with such clients? It is an extremely delicate and personal balance. How much can we point out before losing our clients, or our jobs? How much can we insist in trying to make them see what we see before giving up and smile and nod? Where is the line between us not doing our jobs and keeping our jobs? How much are we willing to compromise or sacrifice? How many of these projects are OK to accept before they become all we are working on? How much can we tolerate to be ashamed and embarrassed of our own work?

(Luckily not all jobs or clients are like this. Some are open to new ideas, some come with perspectives and points of view that enrich and improve our work, and make us proud of collaborating with or working for them.)

 

Do you also have a question about work ethics, the universe, or everything else? Tweet at us @alphabettes_org and if the answer doesn’t fit into a tweet, we may reply here.

Make Those Connections

This is the transcript of my talk at Typographics last June about the making of my typeface, Gautreaux, edited for clarity in this medium. You can watch me in all my nervous glory here, but I wanted to make the written version available for anyone who’d find that useful. Enjoy!

Hi! I’m Victoria and I’m a type designer. I have a learning story for you about a script typeface. I happen to really like hearing people tell their learning-to-do-things stories, which is convenient for me because mainly the only stories I have so far are learning-to-do-things stories, so I guess I’m just interesting like that. I came to fonts via script lettering, and so I’m really into coming up with projects that help me to understand their distinctions and overlap. This one is about exploring what it takes to make some lettering into a font, the things that work and the things that break, and whether you want to make a font that obscures the clues that it is in fact a font, or as I ended up doing, tackle hug those issues into a chokehold. I’m going to talk to you about this one script font, right here, I’m sure you guessed. I’m going to tell you how I started, what I set out to do, and then about all the details I’ve screwed up and then fixed. Okay, here we go. Continue reading