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By David Cabianca


The Cardea family of typefaces is the outcome of my 2003–04 MA Typeface Design experience at the University of Reading. Unbeknownst to me, Gerry Leonidas sent a version to Emigre soon after I submitted my final work, and they graciously offered to add the typeface to the Emigre library. For a variety of reasons, it has taken 10 years to complete. Cardea was always intended to mix classical and modern characteristics—hence its name, which was taken from the Roman goddess of hinges and doorways whose significance was played out in rituals of delineating sacred space and fixing boundaries. Below is a brief account of the design process.


The study of typeface design at Reading is mainly self-directed, and since I had no previous formal study in the subject, I attempted to come to terms with the broad history of typeface design in as short a time as possible. Since my background is in architecture, one of the first things we were taught to do when first approaching a project is to visit the site. In this case, my site was the history of type. So I began my first week by drawing a taxonomy of 21 typeface designs whose selection was based on what appealed to me or what I thought were unique features. Among my drawings, I studied the serif terminal of the a, the top of the d and the bottom foot of the d. I drew the full letter r for both roman and italic variants of each typeface trying to determine what the limits of the field were so-to-speak (below).

This exercise provided me with an understanding of proportions, and lead me to seek out greater information about the construction of letters—a quest which brought me to the writings of Gerrit Noordzij and my own (embarrassingly awkward) studies in calligraphic construction (below). These studies would continue to inform my drawings for Cardea as I worked through the semester.

Design Intent

My original intent for Cardea was to design a text typeface for use in the fashion and culture industries, and specifically for editorial use on coated paper. I imagined a typeface that would “sparkle” on the page, with high contrast, luster and crisp edges. I wanted a type that had a muscular or sculptural feel much like the work of artists Arne Quinze or Mark di Suvero.

One main feature to achieve this sparkle was to use subtle curves and subtle angles. For example, the “feet” of Cardea's serifs are concave rather than flat.

To get the curvature just right took some testing. Straight-line construction suggests a rational approach, but too much curvature made the design appear “old-fashioned.” Noticeable curvature brought to mind an era of Arts and Crafts production, e.g. Goudy Old Style. So I ended up applying a very subtle curve, and this slight "irregularity" produced variances in the gray tone of the text and contributed to the visual sparkle that I sought (below, early version of Cardea).

Typeface "color" was also a concern. I wanted a typeface that recalled the richer color of letterpress printing. At the time, I felt that many contemporary typefaces were too “thin” or lacked substantial color on the page. An extreme example of differences in color can be illustrated by Adobe’s Monotype Bembo font, released in 1990, when compared with its letterpress version of 1929. Monotype Bembo was one of the first classic font designs to be digitized for PostScript use. During the digitization process, the original archived drawings for the font were followed too closely, and did not account for the added stem thickness of ink squash that occurs in letterpress printing. This flaw was corrected with the release of Monotype Bembo Book in 2005 (Below, from top to bottom: Manutius/Griffo, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, 1499; Manutius/Griffo, De Aetna, 1495-96; Monotype Bembo, hot metal, 1929; Monotype Bembo (Adobe), digital, 1990; Monotype Bembo Book, digital, 2005.)

In terms of proportions and relationships of stem thicknesses to height, my references included the rather stoic 2-line Double Pica Roman (or Gros Canon) of Henrik van den Keere (1575) and the playful and rather graceful Great Primer Roman of Johann Michael Fleischman (1739) (below).

Van den Keere’s design is both generous in its proportions and rich in its color, while Fleischman’s design provides a sense of tension and idiosyncrasy in its details.

When it came to the italics, the method by which the forms of Fleischman’s Great Primer Cursive bite into their adjoining stems would ultimately be very influential, as the alternating black-white-black color that is created contributes to the vibrancy of Fleischman’s typeface (below).

Design of the Italic

Italic typefaces are particularly intriguing for a designer. They tend to allow for greater expression and idiosyncrasies, in part because we do not use italics for extended reading. This is quite a different case from the first italics (cut by Francesco Griffo in 1501) which were considered an equal variant to the roman—entire books were initially printed in italics. But by 1530 the italic was emerging as a secondary variant to the roman and was used for emphasis rather than long passages of text.

Many modern italics follow a fairly gentle slope of 3 to 5 degrees. But I wanted the italics to be noticeable in the text, so Cardea’s uppercase is set at 12 degrees, while the lowercase is more extreme at a 15 degree slant. At the same time, while classical italics tend to be “lighter” in color and more narrow than their roman companion, e.g. Garamond MT Italic, I sought to follow the more modern proportions of an italic which is similar in width to its roman variant. Cardea’s italics are only slightly more condensed at a 97% horizontal compression of the roman. Together, these seemingly incongruent features are in keeping with Cardea’s balance between classical and modern traits.

My first attempt at designing the italic was not satisfying (above). The angle was too gentle and the letters were too “soft” or rounded and did not display the sculptural quality that I sought. It was not until a year later when I came across an essay on italic typeface design by A.F. Johnson which provided me with the solution to my problem. In “Italic: The Old Face,” Johnson divides italic designs into four categories, a) the Aldine (based upon the first italics cut by Francesco Griffo, an irregular design which mimics the idiosyncrasies of hand lettering), b) the Vicentino group (a chancery style named after calligrapher and publisher Ludovico Vicentino degli Arrighi), c) the companion to old-face roman (e.g. Caslon Italic), and d) the modern italic (e.g. Times Roman Italic).

The distinctions between the first two categories are not important for this discussion, but the traits of old-face and modern italics are significant because they are still found in typeface designs today. In the case of old-face italics, letters maintain a calligraphic in-stroke and out-stroke following the direction of pen movement (below).

But in the modern italic, which first made its appearance in the italics of Pierre Simon Fournier in 1742, the in-stroke has been replaced by the serif as it appears in the upright roman, while the calligraphic out-stroke is maintained (below).

The use of the “serifed in-stroke” rather than the softer curve of the calligraphic option provided me with the more robust sharpness I felt Cardea Italic was otherwise lacking (below).

Ideas in Parctice

While I started Cardea with a lot of conscious intentions, there were several serendipitous opportunities which would have a significant impact on the design. One such opportunity occurred in March of 2004 while I was still a student at Reading. I was asked to write a review of Fred Smeijers’ Type Now exhibit which was on view at London’s St. Bride Printing Library. Smeijers’ writings functioned as a counterpoint to Noordzij. While the latter believes that the construction of type should be grounded in calligraphy, Smeijers looks at typeface design from the perspective of punchcutting. The nature of using the same punch repeatedly to produce different letters would soon be of use in my own project.

At this point I was working on early drafts of what would become Cardea Italic, so my mind was preoccupied with the peculiarities of italic construction, and that we tend to recognize an italic by its construction, not by its slant. Included among the displayed artifacts in the Smeijers exhibit were two diagrams that he had completed as part of his calligraphic training when he was a student in Arnhem (below).

These assemblages combined numerous letters to illustrate how groups of forms were related as a kit of parts. Two weeks later, I was off to attend a symposium in Princeton NJ and while perusing through KLM’s airline magazine, I came across Martin Majoor’s Scala Italic in use. While sketching on the plane I subjected Scala’s forms to Smeijers’ diagram (below) and finally understood how to interpret my own forms.

Part of my conceptual blockage was due to an observation that while I was studying the construction of Fleischman’s Great Primer Cursive, the o does not follow the correct weight distribution (below).

I could not reconcile Fleischman’s o with the letters a b c d e p q u v. It now dawned upon me that I had to just set the o aside as an anomaly. I could use the right stroke of my v to create my other letters simply by rotating the stroke.

At Reading, I wrote my MA thesis paper on the teaching methods of Gerrit Noordzij who established the typeface design program at the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in The Hague. After contacting him, I made the trip to his home in May of 2004 for an interview. I also asked him if he would critique my typeface. Noordzij generously agreed and explained to me that although I was attempting to imbue certain calligraphic qualities in the typeface, my understanding of pen construction was incorrect in a number of places. He showed me his method of drawing the surface of a stroke using a pencil in order to quickly work out the weight distribution. This understanding would be of particular help when I began work on the black weights years later.

Still later, in the fall of 2004, I had the opportunity to have Jeff Keedy critique the typeface. Keedy had a very insightful observation which proved pivotal. Keedy noted that overall, the typeface presented “a reasonable unity. [But] I wish some of the other characters had as much flavor as the comma. For example, if you invert the comma, and use it as a start for the ‘ear’ of the g or r to give them more ‘bite.’” Keedy’s suggestion affected the terminals of the a c f g j r and s in the roman, and c f g j r s v w x y and z of the italic. Finally I had the full sculptural muscularity that I sought (below).

The last significant event which affected the overall look and feel of the typeface was the design of the black weights. In the summer of 2011 I had completed the regular and black weights to a degree which seemed satisfactory, and then interpolated the bold weights. I had concerns that the bold may have been closer to a semi-bold, and my presumption was confirmed once I received a response from Emigre: “The bold was not bold enough.” But this too, proved fortuitous. Reading instructor Gerard Unger had once described black weights as “a caricature of a font,” meaning the characteristics of a typeface will be amplified to a degree that they are immediately apparent (below). After increasing the weights of the black variants, I became aware of certain design characteristics that would benefit from greater emphasis in the regular weights.

Even after 10 years, there are aspects of Cardea that I would change. One of the most difficult challenges facing a designer is to let go and declare, “It’s finished!” But perhaps those ideas will inform my next typeface, and hopefully it won’t take 10 years to complete.


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