by Anmol AhujaNov 23, 2021
A world beyond the alphabet, where every point, curve, and junction of every individual letter harbours a world of possibilities and a sandbox for experimentation: what essentially constitutes language for a major part of the globe becomes ground for innovation. It is that inherent sense of experimentation, moulded through a set of systems and creative constraints, that underlines British designer and principal at Accept & Proceed, Nigel Cottier’s work here, materialised in the form of an ongoing enquiry in Letterform Variations. Didactic and direct in its naming, the book is a literal compendium, a compilation of Cottier's experiments with type design and the multiple conditions that give form to it. The 'variations' in the book are brought to life through visual transformations generated by a combination of machinic skill and a designer’s deft hand. While algorithmic functions including constraints, rules, grids, and modules compose the latter, the former comprises Cottier’s own designer-ly judgments about aesthetic quality, composition, balance and visual dynamics in the letters he creates. The results firmly plant themselves at the intersection of visual design, art, code, and utility in typeform.
Cottier constructs his book: a weighty 692 pages containing 19,840 letters, around a simple framework, taking from his childhood fascination for the formation of letters, and how he could do them differently. Stemming from his early inspirations, Cottier’s book and the modular systems within are placed as objects that design themselves, along with enabling a framework for the design of virtually countless others. The orderly arrangement also comes across in the arrangement of the book's chapters themselves, as Cottier’s experiments in type are distributed across three sections. Section A, christened as 'Letterform Variations 00', contains a series of alternative characters or stylistic sets for each basic Roman symbol: a-z, A-Z and 0-9. These are drawn using a primitive grid in the background, and are constructed to be strictly linear across the grid. This is where Cottier first gets to open his pandora’s box of the ‘variations’ in the book’s title, with each of the characters redone in 16 stylistic sets, using only the linear framework he proposes, through different permutations and combinations of an extensive join-the-dots exercise. What the rest of the book comprises is essentially a re-iteration of the same process, but by making adjustments to the style of the type, now making connections that transcend that linearity. This alone accounts for over a thousand symbols, only a glimpse of the possibilities ahead.
The second section of the book contains nine variations of the original 00 set. Named 01 through 09, these systems break the linear mould to replace the original line grid with more nuanced, geometric forms. As a result, one can see more flourish, more freedom in the fonts explored in Section B. With the curve incorporated through the superimposition of a rectangular grid with a smaller, circular one, the limitless possibilities begin to take shape and show face. The block-like stems and terminals in the original typography give way to a more graphically fluid creation. That may often be at the cost of legibility, but the interaction of the geometric components with the characters is particularly interesting to see in all their formative intersectionality. Named according to the variation they encompass, the styles are nicknamed IR Internal Round, DFO Dot Fettered Open, SFO Square Fettered Open, DM Dot Ma, DSFC Dot + Square Fettered Closed, DFCD Dot Fettered Closed Dot, SFCS Square Fettered Closed Square, DFCS Dot Fettered Closed Square, and SFCD Square Fettered Closed Dot.
Through the last section, Cottier segues into the possibilities in letterform variations that the book proposes and glimpses into. Called the 'Further Grids' section, the final segment of the book displays alternative potential grids for creation of such letterforms, with the sole intention of maximising possibilities.
As a deeper inquiry into the systems, processes and patterns behind Letterform Variations, STIR initiates an exclusive conversation with Nigel Cottier, principal designer at Accept & Proceed.
Anmol Ahuja (AA): Figuratively speaking, where (or how) did the first 'alphabet' in Letterform Variations begin and end? Tell us all about your creative process.
Nigel Cottier (NC): It all began when I was in school, sketching letters in the back of maths books, trying to find different ways of drawing a ‘K’ or a ‘G’ or an ‘R’. I only decided to formalise it a few years ago. We were working on a project for a client, where I was tasked with developing a type system that would have lots of alternate glyphs. The project was very different to my final type, but I used what I had learnt. I wanted to simplify it and create a simple grid structure that would allow for many different variant forms. I then took a break from it for a few years. Then, during the COVID lockdown, I was working at home and I would have these extra half hours here and there where I could develop it further, and then it just got bigger and bigger.
AA: While highly modular and seeking to develop a framework for letterform development, how much of the 'hand' was involved?
NC: I have been asked in the past what programming language I use, probably because a lot of my work appears to be processing. But in truth, a lot of it is done by hand, or at least by logic. The system generates the forms, It’s just a case of editing out elements to reveal the letterforms. Either disappointingly or admirably, I am not that big of a techie.
AA: At any point in the design development process, did you struggle with balancing an aesthetic quality with the utility of the font? Would you agree that the resultant forms in the book are more visual art than design?
NC: I agree, but it depends on how you look at it. I love the idea that you can create something by building a system and then pressing go, and whether the system creates beauty or ugliness, there is still beauty in the system. If you think of the utility of a font as a very readable, legible conveyor of information, then I think my alphabets struggle to fill that criteria. However, letters are also about expression. I like that the forms may inspire other designers in the creation of interesting letterforms, or grid based type systems. In that sense, the book itself has utility.
AA: Would you say that your work in Letterform Variations draws on a certain sense of history, like lithographs, symbols, and iconography in cave paintings, etc?
NC: No. Apart from representing the Roman alphabet, there is nothing historical in the book. I use the word primitive to describe the starting grid, but it’s primitive in the fact that it’s basic and needs no knowledge to understand its nuance.
AA: Did you feel like grid-based letterform development limited or constrained the development of more non-linear, curvilinear fonts? Does that allude to a personal style, or a preference for more geometric forms?
NC: The starting grid is very linear in form. I would say it was the simplest starting point in order to create varying forms using the same parts. There is a ‘Further Grids’ chapter in the book where I have used rounder forms within the grid.
AA: Did you experiment with colours in the creation of these forms?
NC: There is no colour in the book: when you reduce everything to black and white, it’s the most direct way of showing the forms and the system.
AA: What do you hope is the first or most profound reaction to your book from a reader/ design enthusiast?
NC: I would like to think the book highlights the possibilities of grid-based and system-based type generation to create new forms and new ways of creation. The Alphabet is a really interesting playground; it’s recognisable and accessible to all and as long as you can read that an ‘A’ is an ‘A’, people can connect to it. There are all these different ways of re-interpreting the alphabet. The alphabet is the canvas and how you process it is the medium.
AA: I see a highly iterative process in Letterform Variations, coupled with an algorithmic one. What’s next?
NC: Within this project, I have really enjoyed getting to grips with variable fonts. I really like using variable font technologies in unusual ways, outside the typical weight and width, so I’ll continue exploring that. And generally, just trying to create cool work using formulae, hidden systems and data as tools. So more of that.
Letterform Variations is a venture whose possibilities are just as exciting as the black masses occupying its white canvas. To me, it was immediately reminiscent of the understated Denis Villenueve sci-fi epic, Arrival, probing into the very fundamentals of language itself, and its temporal value. The formations of the letters Cottier has created were beacons of something immediately present in the past as well as assumed futuristic proportions.
To the uninitiated, the book serves as essentially a visual compendium of fonts, while letting the reader in on the complexity of processes behind it by virtue of the sheer number of outcomes it is able to produce, and the infinite more it alludes to. The book admirably skips any text descriptions and gives the reader, or viewer, an opportunity to fully immerse themselves in pages upon pages of letter formations. Through its three chapters and 10 styles of formation, the book reveals itself as a complex puzzle whose solution, and the beauty of its being, is only revealed upon complete immersion and surrender. You know you are there just as the letterforms begin to animate themselves, Their construction may be bound, dictated by grids and systems; Cottier’s ‘madness in method’, however, is anything but.