Can you imagine transporting yourself through place and time to ancient Rome? Designers Tobias Frere-Jones and Nina Stössinger did precisely this when exhaustively researching their latest release.
Beautiful and harmonious, letter by letter, these elegantly proportioned capitals speak of quality and authority. Yet “For all their potency, Roman inscriptions are a limited reference point.”
These carefully constructed capitals offer few clues for building a modern typographic system. “They can’t even fill out a modern alphabet, letters like J and W—not to mention the entire lowercase—having been added later.”
This would turn out to be not just a design challenge, but a conceptual historical endeavour, like an archaeological dig.
Nina said, “We got away from actual historical precedent in favour of a back-projected, speculative, alternate history.” Rather than thinking of their design as the continuation of a two-thousand-year legacy of historical revival, they imagined themselves back at the source.
This is an experimental methodology, and rejects the mode of typical revivals from the era so I asked the renowned designers what insights the approach offered?
Tobias: The process was definitely not linear, more like an ongoing conversation (collaboration?) between the corners of the family: Light/Bold, Roman/Italic, Capitals/Lowercase. We had these major parts of the family in development at the same time because they were talking to each other.
Nina: Yeah, building this family was like solving a multi-dimensional puzzle, over a number of rounds. Figuring out how to make the heavier weights work, for instance, had a deep impact on the architecture of these shapes throughout the family; it called for reconfiguring the terminals and the way the contrast flows. That worked well in the lowercase and went on to pose some tricky puzzles elsewhere, like in the old-style figures.
Tobias had figured out that when adding weight, the overall contrast needed to drop rather than increase -- a pretty unconventional move, yet it's at the heart of this design that feels so classic. With the italic, we had to find our own way too. The energetic, sometimes flamboyant cursive constructions that would have been expected in historical Elzevir italics (French Elzevir faces being a main reference point Empirica started out from) were fun to draw, but we eventually had to admit that in Empirica's case, they distracted from the concept rather than adding to it. So we let that go and made a pretty stern sloped roman instead that hews closer to the overall atmosphere, only occasionally departing from the structures of the roman. I find working this way -- questioning assumptions and “default” answers and thinking deeply about what a specific design needs in order to be itself -- extremely satisfying.
I asked what techniques the designers used to get into the Roman frame of mind and begin speculating?
Nina notes, “Being familiar with the formal language of Roman inscriptional capitals, the challenge was extending that same language to the rest of the character set, in a way that wouldn't feel contrived. I remember Tobias saying we might try to draw the lowercase letters as though they were also caps, just slightly smaller and with different structures.
And that was a totally interesting thought experiment, trying to view these shapes through a different lens: How would a Roman stone carver, with those ideas about capital letters, approach these other forms? That suggested something about their architecture and detailing, about proportions, about curves that follow a “built” and stable, rather than a dynamic‚ “written” logic. It may have helped that both Tobias and I have some practical experience carving letters in stone.
Tobias and Nina are undoubtedly leaders in the field. Their expertise in classic tactile mediums such as letter cutting, deep understanding of the mechanics of letterforms and both the historical and technological milestones in type design all scaffold Empirica's quality. But I was also curious about how their previous experience with the Roman aesthetic informed Empirica's design.
Tobias had been keen to expand a Roman 1994 Martha Stewart wedding commission into something larger, “even if I didn't know how all of it would look or function. It was just a matter of finding enough time.” Working to avoid any trendiness, Frere-Jones reached back to Rome by way of Lyon—to the Roman Empire by way of the Second Empire—designing a new typeface inspired by Louis Perrin’s interpretations.
And a couple of years earlier Nina had produced a sketch, “titled Pacifica, which started in part from a different French Elzevir design that I had found in Tobias' collection of specimen books. But where Empirica uses this 19th-century French revival style as a conduit to a timeless, classical form, Pacifica stays more on the surface of that specific aesthetic, playing up the tension between high contrast and old-style shaping. So they are quite different designs, but that experience did help with a couple of decisions in Empirica -- most importantly, suggesting that a switch to sharp terminals could help achieve a bold style that steers well clear of the syrupiness we know and love (or not) from 1970s photo-type.”
Describing the search for Empirica’s new, more comprehensive form, Frere-Jones said, “It became a chain of conjectures. The lowercase is already something we fabricated, and then we tried to make an italic out of it, and a bold as well. It felt like cantilevering one educated guess off of another, and hopefully, we built it all soundly.”
Further cantilevered are numerals and a host of symbols, like accented characters for broad language support. “It gets kind of bonkers,” Frere-Jones said, “to imagine how the Romans would have rendered the symbols for the Turkish lira and Russian ruble.”
The “bonkers” thinking pays off in Empirica which expertly projects the grace and authority we associate with the era yet led the way to a striking, versatile and contemporary font family. Ranging from graceful to gutsy, Empirica offers a full palette for editorial, branding and identity projects.
The historical conjecture methodology is a remarkable way of approaching the expansion of an archival reference point. So while congratulating the duo on Empirica's exquisite outcome and process I asked how Tobias and Nina played to each-others strengths throughout the collaboration to reach such a successful and innovative design?
Nina: In the earlier design stages, there was a lot of back and forth with both of us drawing, trying out options, and exchanging ideas; once the overall direction was clear, I led the expansion of the character sets, frequently checking back with Tobias, with him jumping in occasionally to try out ideas that were harder to communicate in words.
I think type design really benefits from collaborative processes, from dialogue and editing and having more than one set of eyes on things; and Tobias and I work well together. He is very precise and analytical, has an incredible wealth of experience to draw from, and also has this encyclopedic knowledge of type history and relevant references -- so I felt sure that he had the big picture in mind, helping make sure each piece was tying into the overall concept.
Tobias: Nina can think logically and instinctively at the same time, which is one of the hardest feats in any kind of design. It means that I can talk out an idea with Nina, show her something half-done or somehow flawed and I know she'll see what the idea is (or what it's trying to be).
Empirica is designed by Tobias Frere-Jones and Nina Stössinger with contributions by Fred Shallcrass