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minimal (design for a compact font)

minimal is a (design for a) very small font, motivated by an exercise in ellen lupton's "thinking with type" asking the student to create a font that embraced the grid of pixels on a computer's screen. to see the text in use use the typesetter.

this is only a design: the letters are rendered as individual images; i have no idea how to actually create a real, usable font that can be installed on a computer.

basic grid

   
   
   
   

most letters are based on a 2x4 grid (left). only descenders use the bottom two pixels (the baseline is the dark line); the top two pixels are generally reserved for ascenders, but "c" and "z" both trespass into this region. this was necessary because the central four pixels (in white) have only 2^4 - 5 = 11 combinations with at least two dark pixels; two of those are ambiguous, since a vertical column on the left is identical to one on the right, and the remaining 10 are used by "a", "e", "i", "n", "o", "r", "s", "u", "v" and "x".

this grid was chosen as the smallest that would provide sufficient possibilities to define a usably complete (there are no capitals) font. but while the use of certain alternate characters (see below) meets this constraint, i finally allowed an extra pixel outside the grid show to give a more natural representation for "m" and "w".

originally the parentheses and brackets were only 3 pixels high; extending them to 4 made them easier to separate from the text.

full design (x8)

this includes the six alternate characters, which are divided into two sets. the first alternate set ("b", "d", "p", "q") completely fill the central four pixels. this gives a more "readable" design, especially when viewed at large scales, but loses some of the rhythm that is present at the lowest scale when using the standard characters.

since writing the above i have changed the "h" (which used to have the shape of the current "l") because people found it too difficult to read - this again edges towards the same "heaviness".

the other set of alternatve characters contains abstract/stylized versions of "m" and "w" which fit within the original 2x4 grid. these were inspired by crouwel's "new alphabet", but personally i feel that the extra pixel used in the standard characters gives a regularity that justifies breaking the (self-imposed) constraints.

note that while "0", "c" and "z" look particularly abstract in this magnified presentation, they appear more-or-less natural at the single pixel scale (see the typesetter).

conclusion

this was a surprisingly interesting exercise. despite the (anticipated) problems imposed by the constraints - the restricted number of combinations and lack of counters - i was suprised by both the range of possible designs ("c" and "z") and the freedom to impose a consistent style (a lightness coming largely from the diagonal elements seen, for example, when the two "b" characters are compared).

changes

9 jun 2006 - made parentheses and brackets deeper; changed "h" and "l"; changed "4" to unambiguate from "b"; angled the tail of ",", ";" and "j".