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):

Here are a few fun highlights, captured on twitter:

Thanks for listening!


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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…


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.


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.

Dear Alphabettes:
Who is a type master?

Dear Alphabettes,

Currently I am a graphic design student, and recently I was working on a group project highlighting a “type master” in history. Much to my surprise, there were no women on the list of “masters” to choose from. Our teacher said we could do our project on a woman type designer if we could find one who made substantial contributions to the world of type. After research, we chose Carol Twombly. When I asked my teacher if she would be added to the list for future classes, he said he doesn’t feel her contributions warrant the title “type master”. Is he right? If not, can you provide me with a poignant argument in favor of Twombly?


Hi, Alicia!

The first time I read your email, I had to close the tab and take some deep breaths. I don’t know why it struck a particular nerve – I’m newish here but I’m already pretty used to the work of highly accomplished women being underestimated, undervalued and dismissed. C’est la vie, am I right?

At Alphabettes, we made a quick list of women designers we think deserve to be called “type masters.” But you know what, Alicia? I hate that we felt the knee-jerk reaction do that. The issue, as I’m sure you know, is not that only white men do good work, it’s that people in positions of power consistently fail to see the problem in excluding the work of women and people of color from what they deem worthy. Hitting your teacher with a bunch of women designers (lists of whom are already out there tenfold) and good reasons to include them (same) isn’t going to change his mind. It is absolutely on him to reflect on why his list of who counts as a “master” skews so male and so white, and feel a duty to do better by those of his students who are not white men.

Adobe Caslon drawings by Carol Twombly, via Adobe

Your teacher has already seen your group’s presentation on Carol Twombly’s work. I could recall her accomplishments, but if he wasn’t asleep while you were talking (and for the entirety of his career as a designer or educator, tbh) he already knows she was more prolific and influential in only eleven years than most type designers hope to be.

By all means, discuss the structural inequalities that resulted in an all-male “type masters” list with your fellow students. Rally any other professors and professionals in your circles who see this as the belittlement of Twombly’s contributions that it is. But if that isn’t enough, who am I to convince your teacher? I’m a type designer with three years’ experience at a respected foundry. Important people in the industry admire my work and believe in my potential. Some of them are on his list of “type masters.” I bet you if I called them up, they would all vouch for Twombly’s mastery. I’m sorry I can’t give you something more inspiring or helpful or poignant to tell him, but if your teacher doesn’t already believe Carol Twombly is a type master, it won’t ever be enough to hear it from me. Wait, that’s actually kinda poignant.

All my best,

Do you also have a question about outstanding designers, 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:
Air Quote Gestures

Dear Alphabettes,
I always wondered why people go up and down twice when there is just one quote mark.

Dear Indra,

Air quotes are the visual equivalent of scare quotes, used to show doubt, question the validity of, or demonstrate irony in a written text. This 1989 Spy magazine article, “The Ironic Epidemic,” discusses the history of air quotes and their significance as a reflection of jaded, contemporary culture.

When Bob and Betty describe themselves in these ways, they raise the middle and forefinger of both hands, momentarily forming twitching bunny ears–air quotes, the quintessential contemporary gesture that says, We're not serious.

Read the full article. (Thanks for the tip, Quora.)

Beyond pop culture and casual conversation, air quotes are not beneath politicians, elected officials, or repulsive human beings who managed to become elected officials. The current White House press secretary-weasel utilized the double motion air quotes as a way to somehow justify the abhorrent use of scare quotes by a certain fearless leader.

A bevy of internet gifs guarantees that air quotes will weather the future of post-language communication, but this one is quite possibly my favorite:

I’ll see you in my “nightmares.”

I will answer your question by suggesting that although right and left quotations are singular characters, the gestural convention for moving one’s fingers up and down multiple times occurs because verbal language, unlike a written text (at least for the previous couple thousand years or so), exists in time. If a gesture, like air quotes, does not coincide with the duration of the word or phrase found within said air quotes, it does not conform as easily to speech patterns. So, here’s my guess, as originally hypothesized on Twitter: maybe the double motion visually signifies more than one word or a multisyllabic word within the quotation?

Let’s take the beloved SNL character, Matt Foley, as an example.

In this skit, Matt Foley uses the double “up + down” method of air quotes you refer to in your question. It’s hilarious because he’s aligned the movement of his air quotes with his over-emphasized speech pattern. The air quotes almost make his tragically desperate intonation sound even more tragically desperate.

Then there’s Dr. Evil’s generous use of air quotes.

At first, Dr. Evil employs single gesture air quotes for the word “laser.” But as the plan gets more absurd, he uses the double motion air quotes for “ozone layer.” It’s the slow lead up that makes the joke stick.

As you can see, Indra, the multi-gesture air quotes may have more to do with the need for hand gestures to synchronize with speech, rather than the actual typographic mark. Still, it’s so fun when written and spoken language meet like this. How might the air quote gesture change with local quotation mark conventions? And what about the victory/air quote emoji (✌️), which effectively turns a gesture back into a typographic symbol? Those are questions for another day.


Do you also have a question about quotation marks, 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:
webfont versus web font

Dear Caren,

Is it webfont or web font?

Thanks, Bianca


Dear Bianca,

As you pointed out to me recently, there’s a certain logic to web font:

Logically it should probably be web font, just like it is web developer. Besides, desktopfont would be unacceptable, so why isn’t webfont?

Fair, but maybe things like syllable count and simplicity come into play here. After all, common usage has closed up words like email, website, and ebook.

Chicago recommends minimal hyphenation, except in cases where confusion seems likely. Webfont presents no confusion. For A Book Apart, I’m currently editing a brief on, uh, webfonts; ABA’s house style guide recommends “web fonts,” but I’m lobbying hard for a change! The arc of usage bends toward simplicity. And anecdotally, people seem to prefer webfont. So anyway, yeah. I vote for webfonts. Besides, “I don’t think it will be long before people start calling what we call ‘webfonts’ fonts.1

¯\_( 🔠 )_/¯

Kind regards,

1. Nick Sherman, Typekit Roundtable at the White Rabbit Bar, NYC, April 20, 2011 (00:23:40)

Do you also have a question about webfonts, 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:
Slanting emoji

Dear Bianca,
Why do some emoji slant with the text when you italicize it while others do not?
Thanks, Indra

Dear Indra,

Why would you italicize emoji to begin with? To convey speed? To emphasise emotion? To not have them clash with text?

In any case, I think it’s down to OS and application you use. A quick test showed that faux italic emoji are generally available and I couldn’t find exceptions to the rule apart from Slack’s menu which gladly slants fire but not couches for no apparent reason.

As we all know faux styles happen because the chosen variation of a font is not (or not yet) available. In this case, there’s simply no italic version of your emoji (type)face. Instead of falling back onto a different font family in which this style exists (not that there is one), it pretends there is an italic by brute slanting the glyphs. The other option would be to just keep displaying the upright emoji.

Curiously, faux bold didn’t work in all my testing environments and resulted in very odd behaviour in some. Tells you a lot about faux bold algorithms.

I’m guessing it’s only a matter of time until we see the first true italic and bold emoji fonts. For better or for worse.

The future is bright.


Do you also have a question about font fallback issues, 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:
Good Arabic system fonts

Dear Sahar,
I have some stupid, noob Arabic questions. I’m trying to set a short text for Syrians. What style of Arabic do they usually use? Naskh? Or can everyone read all the different styles (not like in India)?
I’m looking for a typeface that goes reasonably well with a grotesque. From those that come with Mac OS X or other apps, which one would you recommend or do most Arabic readers regard the best?
Thanks, Indra

Hello Indra,
it’s not like with Indic scripts, so no worries there. All the different styles are readable to whoever knows the script. I try to avoid all those simplified looking styles. Adobe Arabic is my favourite go-to system font. It’s very clear and legible and seems to be equally liked by people from different regions.
Best, Sahar


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

Takeaways on Teaching Type

Left: The organizers! Dan Wong, Doug Clouse, Liz DeLuna, and Aaris Sherin, photo courtesy of Liz DeLuna; Right: The panelists! Juliette Cezzar, John Gambell, Amy Papaelias, Thomas Jockin, photo courtesy of Nina Stössinger

This past weekend, I had the pleasure to participate in Teaching Type: A Panel Conversation on Typography Education, organized by Design Incubation, and hosted at the Type Directors Club in New York. The event attracted a range of attendees: educators, typographers, type designers and even a few students and recent graduates. Armed with only the most comfortable of metal chairs, we set out on a 3-hour journey to explore best practices of typography curricula today.

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