If you’re interested in type design, then this is the article for you. The Swiss type-design agency Dinamo has just released two new type-design tools along with a new typeface, Whyte. While each design has an individual purpose, they all share the commonality of celebrating the variable font.
Variable fonts surfaced in the mid-1990s during an ambitious revamp of the Macintosh graphics system. One variable font file contains all the weights, sizes and widths of a typeface meaning that users have access to a whole range of in-between fonts under the umbrella of one typeface. Though variable fonts went through a rise in popularity in the 90s, the early internet couldn’t support the font families the way it can today. With hyper-advancements in web development, studios like Dinamo are now able to experiment with variable fonts like never before, crafting new tools like the Dinamo Dark Room and the Dinamo Pipeline to fulfil their typographic curiosities.
The two new type tools come in the form of free and accessible websites. Created over the past year, Dinamo’s designers explain how the platforms act as a way to “test drive the truth of variable fonts” for the benefit of type designers and graphic designers alike. Uniquely, the Dark Room showcases all the different stages of a variable font (and everything in between), all in one interactive tool. Users can upload their own variable fonts onto the site using the Font Gauntlet and expose design flaws through testing its technical properties. Fundamentally, the Dinamo team have created a design tool which revolutionises the way we view and interact with variable fonts, which in turn, improves the quality of their design as a whole.
The Dark Room has even prompted the distinguished Dinamo creatives to reassess their own working methods of type design. Using the analytic type tools, the designers have created Whyte Variable, which transforms the old design limitation of ink traps into a modern solution in the form of a new variable font. By employing the Dark Room’s test driving tools, designers can evaluate the detailed anatomy of an alphabet as it ensures a quick yet proven way of uncovering a typeface’s weakness.
As an extension to the Dark Room, the Dinamo team has also created the Pipeline. The tool arose from the questions: “What is the best way to show variable fonts and how can we enjoy them?” It showcases the possibilities of variable fonts through an animated stream of Dinamo’s own impressive roster of typefaces, competently showcasing what’s possible within the design of variable fonts.
In addition to Dinamo’s impressive portfolio of retail typefaces including Galapagos, Ginto and Monument Grotesk, the type agency also creates custom typefaces for the likes of Nike and Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. Perhaps most famously, it rebranded Tumblr’s ubiquitous logo in August of last year. By solving design problems with custom type in both the commercial and cultural sectors, Dinamo are democratising type design for the wider community. No project of the studio’s is a better example of this than its two latest creations in which the studio provide free and convenient ways to test variable fonts, all in the name of good design.
In an interview with It’s Nice That, Dinamo’s designers delve further into the agency’s creative process. (And in the spirit of democratic design, the founders prefer to answer not with their own names but with the name of the studio as a whole, to emphasise the collaborative nature of the studio.)
It’s Nice That: What is your particular fascination with variable fonts?
Dinamo: A type designer mostly works within a static set of parameters and exports these into separate font files, and then hands them over to the graphic designer. The graphic designer makes her choice of a particular weight and sends it to the printer. The variable font format allows us to “storyboard” typefaces across a much bigger spectrum to exploit its narrative qualities. For instance, they allow us to evolve design identities over time with non-static, long-term projects.
INT: What main benefits will these two platforms offer the design community? More specifically, how will the Dinamo Dark Room change the way we view and design variable fonts?
Dinamo: We were not around when variable type had its first hype in the 1990s. With its revival over the past few years, the format felt entirely new to us. Intuitively we started to look for a way to playfully engage with its possibilities and digital projects seemed exciting immediately. Since there were no ways to effortlessly display or even test-drive our own variable font experiments, we started to build our own: Dinamo Dark Room, Dinamo Font Gauntlet, Dinamo Pipeline and a secret one more to come.
We describe the Dinamo Dark Room as “a virtual space to test drive internally developed tools or plugins to help or confuse the modern type designer”. The Dinamo Dark Room’s most prominent tool is the Font Gauntlet, which allows type designers to send their fonts through our Gauntlet to quickly uncover their weaknesses and unleash hidden potential. It was specifically built with variable fonts in mind, allowing for an animated preview of all their axes combined.
The Dinamo Pipeline isn’t really a useful tool, rather a RGB coloured shrine to exhibit variable projects that Dinamo members are working on. Imagine a “Netflix for Variable Fonts” where users can select a variable font, then stream it. It might serve the community only in the way that it will make them get off their lazy a$$es and work their variable fonts a ‘lil harder (-;
INT: In what ways are you using the Dark Room yourselves?
Dinamo: Here are three examples. Firstly, we recently packed a couple of static Grotesk typefaces we had designed previously into one variable font and played with it in the Font Gauntlet. The “axes sliders” allows us to fine-tune the amount of character that goes into each and every typeface hybrid. So we started breeding these new typefaces out of the typefaces we made previously – it felt like discovering a third tongue that you didn’t know you were already speaking!
Secondly, the Font Gauntlet allowed us to stumble upon, and eventually release, a “semi-mono, semi-proportional, semi-kerned” version of Monument Grotesk. After mixing versions of Monument Grotesk and Monument Grotesk Mono we created a new typeface that sits at 50 per cent of them both.
Thirdly, the biggest project the Font Gauntlet has inspired us to create so far is the typeface Whyte. Whyte began when we found a type sample from the early days of Grotesks. Since then, it’s grown into a flexible tool which connects two distinct, visual states through two font families. At one end of the spectrum we have Whyte Standard with smooth and sharp transitions. At the other end, Whyte Ink features graphic ink traps at its joints. While this distinction had only been necessary during the hot metal type era, to improve printing quality, the resurrected variable font technology inspired us to revive the idea, and control the ink traps. Additionally, Whyte Variable allows the viewer to seamlessly slide from one extreme to the other.
INT: How has the Dinamo Dark Room changed the way you design fonts? In particular, how did the design process of Whyte differ from other variable fonts pre-Dark Room?
Dinamo: First of all, seeing the weights seamlessly transform from one to another helps us understand the curves to fine-tune the overall tone of a typeface. Also, to see how the weight of a stroke shifts, or the way the characters gain speed when nearing the full italic angle, also alludes to this understanding of letterforms.
On a more exciting note, a “variable way of working” feels like an invitation to embrace the fluidity of an output. At an early stage, we can invest in a vocabulary of shape and find a way of making it accessible in a way that a static design process would not aspire to. Imagine flipping, moving, turning, rotating, mirroring the typefaces along the design space and capturing the odd moments in between. Engineered hybrid states, which are hard to imagine otherwise, can give way to surprising starting points with variable fonts.
INT: What are some of the specific frustrations within the design process that led you to the creation of the Dinamo Dark Room?
Dinamo: We attended a couple of type tech conferences and the enthusiasm, exchange and passion for the field is no doubt contagious. Frustratingly though, there is little proof as to how variable fonts can work within the context of real projects in an interesting way. Too little attention is being given to the gestural potential of variable typefaces, and too much excitement is shared over the possibility of reducing file size or adjusting the weight of a typeface according to the brightness of a hand-held screen.
INT: How have the advancements in web design changed the design of variable fonts?
Dinamo: On the web, all the information that is packed in a variable font can be controlled by anything from the position of your cursor to the weather in the Bahamas, or even the inflation curve of a foreign currency. A digital project using variable fonts can be responsive and interactive in this sense. The design can be a direct and flexible mirror of its underlying and changing content. This will hopefully lead to type designers and web developers collaborating on creating engaging web experiences.
INT: What are your thoughts on the relationship between type in print and type on the web? How does this changing relationship effect type designers like yourselves?
Dinamo: I wouldn’t say that we’re interested in the conventional boundaries of web and print. We’d say that we settle on the boundaries that are worth the struggle which can lead to something surprising. The way we consume type on screens seems ever-changing and so do the questions that need responding to. Personally, we use the screen in most parts of our lives – which is heaven and hell at the same time – so it feels quite natural to explore the possibilities within that.
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.