I believe there is a lot of value in working slow - distance and time are hugely beneficial when developing a design. The closer you are to an object the more literally you think about it. The details become very specific. Whereas, the more distant you become, the more abstractly you think. This is called construal theory.
Often, when we suffer from creative block in our design process it is due to being too close. We get stuck on the specific details of the opportunity or problem, rather than engaging in the ‘bigger picture’ abstract thinking we need to navigate toward a solution.
Distance can be multi-dimensional, spanning time, social and spatial measures. One of the most effective ways to get a fresh perspective on a design challenge is to distance yourself from it — which is why inspiration and break throughs often strike at unexpected times, (like when youre in the shower!) rather than when you’re mentally focussed on a task.
There are lots of traps to navigate when designing type one of the biggest hazards is our proximity (and familiarity) to the design. When we work quickly and/or closely with letterforms its difficult to engage that abstract thinking and therfore can be more difficult to innovate.
Frere-Jones Type's latest release benefits from distance and working slow. 17 years in design development, the first conceptual seeds for Retina were sprouted as experiments much earlier in 1991, when Tobias Frere-Jones was a student at RISD. He was inspired by Jon Wozencroft & Neville Brody’s revolutionary FUSE project, which intentionally set out to challenge contemporary ideas about "typographic and visual language in an age of ever changing communications technology and media." Tobias began to explore what made letterforms illegible, designing speculative typefaces that deliberately made the process reading difficult.
In this early experimentation Tobias questioned: “If the distinction between one character and its neighbors were no longer reliable, or if the identity of an individual letter were deliberately vague and could be confused with others, would our experience as readers be able to step in and resolve that ambiguity, or not?”
Fast forward to 1999 and Tobias is working as a professional type designer fielding commissions to design type for challenging reading environments including coarse resolution TV and fast production News Papers. His experimental student work informed the youngest versions of Retina's MicroPlus styles.
This early exploration into letterform recognition served him well. Tobias identified the geometry in each letterform that made that character most unique. “What I wanted to do with Retina was equip each letter with the best argument for why it should be interpreted as this shape and not some other shape,” Frere-Jones says. The result was a typeface that would preform with exceptional clarity in both digital and printed environments, while also making the task of reading much easier.
Retina MicroPlus uses exaggerated proportions and details to preserve the identity of each letter and word.
In 2000 Retina Microplus first appeared in the Wall Street Journal (used at 5.5 pt on its stock pages). Like Matthew Carters Bell Centennial which was also designed to be printed small on poor quality paper with high speed (smudgy) presses, the anatomy of Retina Microplus letterforms are notched with ink traps which remove detail from the structure of letterforms so that when the type is printed, and the ink spreads it collects in the ink trap area.
Ink traps also play a role in the digital realm. Tobias Frere-Jones explains “Even though the two environments are very different, they have similar kinds of hazards.” Wired notes: "The notches in Retina are a classic solution to a classic problem. In 1968, Rudi Bass—then head of graphics at CBS—replaced the network’s onscreen typeface News Gothic with CBS 36, a sans-serif font with ink trap-like notches meant not to catch bleeding ink but bleeding light on cathode ray tube-based screens." In Retina the notches catch light and ink but also cleverly reinforce the gesture of each shape, aiding recognition and legibility.
This week 17 years after the design development began and 25 years after his first experiments into archetypal legibility Frere-jones has expanded the family and released a retail license.
7 Weights, 3 Widths, 2 Sizes. Retina is a comprehensive family designed to cover any kind of use: publications, packaging, websites, identities, and more.
"For headlines and larger sizes of text, the Standard styles were developed with more conventional proportions and details, while preserving the earnest voice of the MicroPlus. A broader range of weights extends the family’s reach to an even wider range of media and applications." Retina MicroPlus preforms best in print below 9 pt; and on screen up to 16 pt (before the notches reveal themselves to the reader.)
Retina's MicroPlus weights also feature an atypical approach to copyfitting. Every letter from Extra Light to Bold occupies a constant character width. Allowing varied font weights without varied line length "an asset in tabular forms or screen interfaces."
The Retina family benefits from being a slow burn. The Museum of Modern Art has recognized Retina as a milestone in type design, and acquired it for its Architecture and Design Collection. "A special typeface, prestigious not simply because it is acclaimed, but because of the research and ingenuity for which Tobias Frere-Jones is known."
The innovative shapes and thinking have advanced over a number of years. Retina was designed to present a clear voice in any medium and now its available for us to license this versatile type family will serve any designer (and content!) well. Try, Buy and Learn more about Retina here.