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Otl Aicher's and Gudrun Zapf von Hesse's secret love child

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Rotis is unfairly criticized. Although there are many things about it I would change, it nonetheless contains more of value than 95% of fonts out there. Most of all, its intent puts almost all the current Pretty font design to shame. I recommend reading Aicher's monumental book.

hhp

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Aicher's book Typographie is very good, but it's less about designing typefaces than his philosophical dialogues about communication and the influence of contemporary culture and environment on our ability to comprehend visual language. I haven't seen the reprints so I can't compare it to the original edition printed by Druckhaus Maack in Germany.

Otl Aicher was by no means a type designer and was best known for his graphic design, corporate brands and informational systems. As Hrant stated, Rotis was more about Aicher's intent. If he had collaborated more with Adrian Frutiger there may have been a more successful attempt with Rotis.

Personally I truly enjoyed my time working with Herr Aicher in bringing Rotis to the marketplace, though we had to heavily rework his font data to meet Agfa's quality standards. Yes, Rotis is not among my favorite typefaces, but neither will I bash it.

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The reprint is of surprisingly substandard quality. The pages are reproduced, not reset. Some of the type was blurry in some of the copies I saw. I recommend trying to track down a used copy of the first edition, if you can.

There are a number of things I do not understand about the book, but the chief among them is this: Aicher was not a fan of uppercase letters, as he deemed them to authoritarian. The book's text is in German and English; the columns sit side by side on the page. The German text does not use any capital letters—quite a statement in German, where capitals play an important role. However, the English translations DOES uses upper and lowercase letters. This I cannot understand. Are English-speaking people not as equally oppressed by the (albeit less frequent) use of capital letters? Did he just overlook this aspect of the book's production? I do not know.

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Indeed, what's so impressive and deserving of respect is
that Rotis was basically his first typeface. Let's all look
back at our own first efforts to grasp the implications...

Whether you look at it in terms of commercial success
or culture, Rotis is something to be studied seriously.

hhp

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Hrant: Rotis is something to be studied seriously

Most seriously, perhaps, one can ask 'Why doesn't this type design really work?' Of course, this is a question one can ask of many typefaces, but few so prominent as Rotis. It provides a good case study in the problems of producing letter shapes that are, individually, interesting, but which don't work together as a typeface.

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Dan -- The reprint is of surprisingly substandard quality.

If it is the one I remember having seen, it's indeed an outright dilettantish reprint. They must have scanned entire pages in grey, rather than scanning the text part in black/white ...

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John, if that's a good question (and it probably is) it leads to the converse: why does such-and-such font have -what is considered- harmony in all its glyphs? Is it because the designer truly understood readability, or is it because the designer understood how to mimic fonts that people simply don't complain about? In virtually every single case, it's sadly the latter. In fact in most cases the designer doesn't even give a hoot about understanding readability; he is content to celebrate and imitate. It makes him feel warm, and helps pay the bills. At least Aicher was not a performing monkey, a cultural hanger-on.

hhp

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I think you are talking about orthogonal topics here, because I don't believe that Aicher had a clue about readability or even much of a concern about it.

How a set of necessarily differentiated signs is made to create a unified visual whole is indeed an interesting question. [It is the theme of a lecture I am preparing; details later.] In those terms, the Rotis-inspired lettering in the floor of the great court at the British Museum is interesting, because a strategy (flaring the stems) has been employed to create greater visual unity between the disparate letter shapes. It almost works.

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Have you read Aicher's book?
We can argue whether he understood readability well (there is in fact reason to believe he didn't) but his dedication to improving readability while tossing out stagnant conventions is quite apparent, and to me highly commendable. The same cannot be said of the great majority of type designers, who are either too busy being artistes or too afraid to think.

hhp

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@Norbert: If he had collaborated more with Adrian Frutiger there may have been a more successful attempt with Rotis.

As if Rotis is not already successful as it is? Maybe you mean Rotis would have been more conventional, conformist and to your liking, more like other type designs? Maybe you mean something else. Don't let me put words into your mouth.

@John: Most seriously, perhaps, one can ask ’Why doesn’t this type design really work?’ Of course, this is a question one can ask of many typefaces, but few so prominent as Rotis. It provides a good case study in the problems of producing letter shapes that are, individually, interesting, but which don’t work together as a typeface.

I think Rotis "works" just fine. Its disparate forms work together as a typeface if you let go of some of your preconceptions about what makes a "good" type design.

==============================================

The widespread assumption that disparate letterforms are a bad thing or somehow undesirable in a type design may be due to the general flaw in Western thinking which tends to regard non-conformity and inconsistency, no matter how small, as inherently "bad" and undesirable.

Rotis' c and e are depart structurally from the face's o. Ho boye, what a liberty! How terrible, they say, those Rotis haters. I don't know much about Rotis' creation or history, or the man who designed it, but I think the differentiated c and e are the main features of Rotis that cause its detractors to dislike it so readily.

You see the problem? Rotis and its c and e are not the problem. One-eye black & white Western thinking is the problem. It's a typeface, not a flipping army you know. Don't take it personally, it's aimed at everybody who thinks Rotis doesn't work.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the Rotis design. Its differentiated c and e, once assimilated by the human mind, should result in enhanced readability. Nothing could make more sense to a guy like me who thrives on non-conformity.

@Hrant: . . . his dedication to improving readability while tossing out stagnant conventions is quite apparent, and to me highly commendable. The same cannot be said of the great majority of type designers, who are either too busy being artistes or too afraid to think.

Precisely. Convention is good for the sake of standards and having a mainstream, for better or worse. At the same time convention, or more accurately—conformity—is the enemy of typeface design.

In other words, Jenson and Griffo's roman type designs are very pretty because they follow the renaissance ideal of harmony in art & design. But how much grasp did those two men possess of readability theory? I think we can safely assume both Jenson and Griffo had a solid grasp of the need for a typeface to be readable since they were inventing Western Latin neo-classical type design & typography at a time when the so-named gothic style, complete with all its strengths and foibles, remained very strong, and neo-classicisim was relatively new.

Stylistic uniformity (artiste-ry) is one thing, and structural sophistication is something else.

We can ask the question then: is "visual unity" or a "unified visual whole" the be-all and end-all of typeface design, or should this kind of stylistic preoccupation be demoted, and should it be informed by the structural principles that make blackletter forms diverse?

Can Western type designers ever relinquish their preoccupation with stylistic unity? Fear of thinking holds us back.

I am not afraid to think. I am not afraid to die either. My only fear is coming to the end of the second life before my work is complete.

If it doesn't kill you, it's good for you.

j a m e s

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Well said.

And there is something else, which is going unsaid: many people
oppose Rotis essentially because it violates the pen. They strike it
down not because they have any evidence about divergence (or
anything else really) but because it ignores their pet religion.
They can't stand to look at it, so they cry: Heresy! They would
paint -and I do mean paint- a scarlet "A" on its proud chest.

hhp

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Funny I did not even think about single forms in Rotis before this talk. I always looked at it and enjoyed how it's accomplished. Maybe it is a little stiff, or "cold" for my taste, but this goes most for the Sans version. The SemiSans and the Serif are great, and lively.
Could you tell me precisely when the face was designed?

The widespread assumption that disparate letterforms are a bad thing or somehow undesirable in a type design may be due to the general flaw in Western thinking which tends to regard non-conformity and inconsistency, no matter how small, as inherently “bad” and undesirable.

I would say more "non-conformity". "Inconsistency" does not make a good element, unless it's provisional. Besides, I have the impression a part of Eastern thinking may have opposite flaws.

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Regarding c and e: these are a problem, more so in the semi serif and sans faces.
It's too easy to mistake c for e.
A combination of similar counter shape, and the suggestion of a horizontal bar which is made by the flat bottom of the terminal, create a "notan" that is similar for the two letters.

Now you may ask, why isn't this a problem in, say, Helvetica? The answer is that the counters of the two letters are quite different sizes in Helvetica.

The design of the Rotis "c" defines a "broken" counter, with a semi-circular top part that is similar to the enclosed counter in "e", and an open bottom half; whereas in Helvetica, the counter of "c" is one big oval, quite distinct from the two semicircular counters in "e"

Surely this is a design flaw in a text face?
And as this is a key characteristic of the face, isn't it fundamentally flawed?

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I agree with your general direction, but one has to always factor in real text in discussions of readability. How many word-pairs are there where one has a "c" and the other an "e" in a given spot? Almost zero. Compare that to the much greater "swappability" between "e" and "o", and one would start thinking that Helvetica's "e" is too close to its "o", and it would be better if it diverged towards the "c" instead (promoting at least some stylistic consistency).

hhp

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James, I don't find divergent shapes per se a problem: what bothers me about Rotis is that the shapes pull in all sorts of different directions and are out of proportion to each other. The problem with the Rotis c and e, in particular, is not that they are 'wrong' because the don't follow the shape of other bowled letters, but that they are massively wider and more open than any of the other letters, so much so that they appear out-of-scale, and have a pronounced visual thrust toward the upper-left while other letters have either a vertical or slight rightward lean.

The c and e also draw attention to themselves because they are, in fact, the only interesting shapes in the design: if you look at the Rotis types without the c and e present, you see that they are, in fact, rather dull and very conservative designs. Is introducing two eccentric but high-frequency shapes into an otherwise pedestrian typeface really a non-conformist or avant garde exercise, or is it a bit of typical graphic design sleight of hand, giving the appearance of greater novelty than is actually present? Compared to genuinely ground breaking work such as Evert Bloemsma's types, Rotis looks pretty thin in both conception and execution.

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How many word-pairs are there where one has a “c” and the other an “e” in a given spot?

True, but one should also consider that people might read words that aren't real, especially if they follow familiar lexical forms. For instance, "graphie" is not a word, but it looks and sounds like one; "-ie" is a reasonable word ending, and "graffy" does exist, as the ending of typography, for instance.

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