How this versatile award-winning type system was designed
The Centro Project started out as a small serif family of eight weights, but it grew to become one of the most versatile set of related superfamilies. The result is a series of three families, Centro serif, Centro sans and Centro slab for a total of 40 weights. Each font contains 1519 glyphs and supports simultaneously Latin, Greek and Cyrillic. It is recommended for magazines, newspapers, catalogs and corporate identities.
Centro Serif was the first to be designed. The project was initiated in 2005 with specific requirements in mind.
1. Design a contemporary typeface with square-like characteristics, which will be legible and perform very well at small sizes, but at the same time create a striking effect at large sizes. This would eliminate the need to modify the letters (optical compensation) and create an additional version for small sizes.
2. Balance out legibility with aesthetics in order to establish a distinct identity. Text typefaces have to obey certain rules so that they retain their natural (familiar) features which are particularly important when legibility and readability are of major concern. This, of course, leaves not much space to the designer for absolute originality. Eventually, distinctive identity would have to rely on a mix of differentiations mostly in the contrast, the stress of the letters, the serifs and the joints.
3. Perform equally well in Latin, Greek and Cyrillic (visual match). Often designers rely on outdated references for scripts other than Latin. This eventually creates a visual mismatch when mixed scripts are used in a modern document.
4. Incorporate special symbols for publications and packaging.
After setting the basic requirements of the new typeface, I went through the long process of deciding what the design aspects are going to be. It always helps to look back to what the masters of the trade have done. Some characteristics of Centro serif were modelled after W.A. Dwiggins’ experiments with type (fig.2).
The angular slanted serifs of Centro, in letters like ‘n’, ‘p’, ‘r’ etc. (fig.4), while they foster a distinct identity at display sizes, they tend to look like curves at small sizes. Other characteristics like the abrupt cut at the joints were influenced by Galfra (fig.3), a typeface designed in 1975 by Ladislas Mandel for the Italian phone directories.
These cuts add a certain flair to Centro serif (fig.4) especially at display sizes, but they are functional as well, since at small sizes, while they disappear into rounded curves, they compensate for over-inking.
Other characteristics (fig.4) include:
1. Letter ‘e’ with a slanting bar (reminiscent of Jenson’s types).
2. Wedge-shaped serifs (at x-height) which are not steep but almost horizontal, in order to foster an even appearance when reading body text.
3. Balance the effect of the strong angular serifs by introducing ‘tear-shaped’ ball terminals to letters like ‘c’, ‘f’ and ‘y’. The terminal of letter ‘r’ follows suit.
4. Triangular letters like ‘v’, ‘w’, ‘y’ with a pronounced stroke shape.
5. Larger than usual x-height to make it more legible at smaller sizes.
6. Stress not quite vertical but slightly inclined.
7. Robust, low contrast typeface. High contrast between the thin and thick strokes is often the reason text becomes difficult to read. (fig.5) shows a test page of an early discarded version. Contrast was later decreased and several letters replaced with alternate forms.
8. Stroke thickness. Several classic serif typefaces were examined and their proportions measured and averaged in order to decide on the proper stroke width for Centro serif. This process would insure getting as close as possible to what is normal color for regular weights, bold weights etc. Fine tuning is performed on-screen along with contrast adjustments.
9. Finally, capitals should become a bit heavier to compensate for the additional white in their shapes.
Having now a clear view of how Centro serif is going to look like, implementation begins.
First I start with a very rough sketch of as many lowercase letters and as many characteristics as I can fit on paper (fig.6). Then I create a more elaborate sketch for several but not all characters, starting with ‘a’, ‘n’ and ‘o’ (fig.7).
These are the three letters I always design first since they contain many of the characteristics I need as a guide for the design of other characters (fig.8). Contrast is not a matter of concern at this stage, as it will be adjusted on-screen at a later stage.
The pencil outlines are only used as a basis for digitisation (fig.9), whereas further adjustments and corrections as well as a large number of characters are drawn on-screen. In most cases I design first a regular weight.
During this process several alternate forms for each letter were tried before the final version (fig.10).
Of major concern, right from the beginning, is not only the shape of the characters but the rhythm of text as well. If letters are not properly spaced the text will be hard to read. First, the basic spacing (sidebearing adjustment) for capitals ‘H’ and ‘O’ as well as lowercase ‘n’ and ‘o’ is set. Then, for every new character created, the sidebearings are adjusted based on the similarities of its straight or round strokes to the letters used as reference. Further fine tuning takes place when the basic alphabet is finished (fig.11).
Throughout the implementation process numerous pages were printed to check the typeface under operational conditions while contrast was adjusted.
The design of Latin lowercase characters was followed by the design of Latin uppercase, numerals, punctuation marks and other special symbols in order to complete the basic Latin 1252 codepage. This was followed by the design of the Greek characters (fig.12).
Extended codepages like Central European as well as Greek Polytonic were taken over by designer George Lygas who also worked on initial drawings for Cyrillic. Proper positioning of accents was double-checked and adjusted (fig.13). Then, initial drawings for Cyrillic were sent back for further fine tuning.
Finally, every font in this series was completed with 270 copyright-free symbols, some of which have been proposed by several international organizations for packaging, public areas, environment, transportation, computers, fabric care (fig.14).These will prove to be quite useful and handy to designers involved with branding, packaging and products with international appeal.
Kerning is as important as the rest of the design process. This typeface series supports three major scripts like Latin, Greek and Cyrillic, so several thousands of kerning pairs were included (fig.15). The better the letterspacing the fewer kerning pairs needed.
Taking advantage of opentype programming, Centro serif was loaded with 21 advanced features, a procedure which takes place after everything has been tested thoroughly (fig.16).
This concludes the design of Centro serif regular. The long process of designing the other members of the family involves the creation of 3 to 4 extremes (depending on the number of weights per family) and interpolation. For Centro serif I only needed the black version. Interpolation does not translate into an automatic production of other weights. In most cases an exhaustive number of corrections and adjustments must be performed.
There’s only eight variations to Centro serif. The strong character of its serifs does not allow as many variations in weight and width as the sans or slab versions.
The Centro Pro series supports more than hundred languages and each font contains an enormous number of glyphs. This situation may easily get out of hand as some glyphs could be placed mistakenly in the wrong position. In order to overcome such problems, we devised a quality control method i.e. two sets of tables which we use to check the proper position of glyphs as well as the opentype features (fig.17).
The italic has much softer serifs than the roman, is less wide, a bit lighter and constructed with an Aldine touch. The implementation process follows the same steps as with the roman. Several rough pencil sketches in the beginning (fig.18),then a few more elaborate sketches for certain characters (fig.19) and (fig.20), followed by drawings on-screen.
The design of the other members of the family started out in a different way than I usually operate. For the case of the slab version, I did have on the side a few black slab characters, left from a previous unfinished custom project, but I wanted an ultra black version as well.
As this was my first attempt on such a heavy face, I was not sure this would turn out to be acceptable. So instead of starting the slab version with a regular weight, I decided to focus first on the ultra black version and design it almost independently. If it turned out well then I would continue with the rest. Otherwise, I would completely discard it. After several attempts I ended up with a satisfactory version, one that based on my visual observations was close enough to the original serif. A complete set of lowercase and uppercase characters were designed. Several versions for each letter were tested (fig.21).
Before I moved on to design the rest of the characters, I spend some time comparing the new slab with the serif version, correcting shapes, adjusting the x-height and counters so they come closer as part of related families. One important drawback I tried to overcome is the decreased legibility attributed to the heavy slab serifs. I created a somewhat ‘semi-slab’ version where certain serifs had to be dropped to increase inner white shapes. Take a look for instance at letter ‘h’ (fig.22) where the serif of the left leg was discarded whereas the slab on the right leg has been designed with a softer forward direction which establishes a smooth flow of text and connection to the next character.
The other extreme weights, like regular and extra thin, were designed on-screen using as reference the ultra black version as well as Centro serif, in order to keep close family ties.
When you compare Centro serif with Centro slab and later with Centro sans, it becomes apparent that they are not mechanical equivalents. They may have similar attributes and optical similarities but they are not identical in construction. Later I will elaborate on this further.
When the full character set is completed for the basic weights, the rest are created through interpolation as mentioned in a previous section.
The slab italic is not an oblique version of the roman. It is based on its serif cousin but is less elegant and more sturdy (fig.23). It has a smooth character with a slight influence from Noordzij’s more conservative Caecilia.
The construction of Centro sans was more or less straightforward. This is a Centro slab, sans the serifs. But not quite so. Several other major or minor adjustments had to be performed before this becomes a whole new family.
As mentioned earlier, the three different versions of the Centro series were not designed to be exact mechanical equivalents (fig.24). This decision does not follow any rule but it is rather quite objective. The individual nature of each one of the families as well as the diverse applications they may be used for, calls for a slightly different treatment. But it is mostly personal aesthetics which define these minor differences. Simply put, it just looked better this way and not the other way around.
It was fun designing Centro. Getting involved with such a project, gave me the chance to discover ideas from the past, implement a few of them and create an exciting new versatile series of related superfamilies which may be used in a variery of contemporary applications.
The roman letterforms, whilst discreet at small sizes, maintain a clean, sturdy and unique personality which motivates the reader. On the other hand, they attract attention at display sizes with their distinct sharp characteristics. Italics, on the other hand, are charming and exciting, clearly distinguished from the romans. Finally, Centro is extremely designer friendly, as it is loaded with a vast array of opentype features and numerous -hard to find- useful symbols for diverse design applications.