MCKL / Fort Condensed

Fort Condensed

One day in the fall of 2009, my new friend Arley-Rose Torsone came by my studio in Providence. She was interested in learning to make fonts and I had promised to show her the basics of FontLab. In that initial session, I showed her how to draw beziers and set sidebearings. I drew a few glyphs, and we talked about the qualities of the control characters: what should the shoulders of the n look like? How round should the O be? It didn’t occur to me at that moment that I would eventually expand this font into 48 styles — I was just having fun with a friend.

Slight changes to the weight, overshoot, terminals, and curves between first draft (grey) and the final release of Fort (gold)

Time passed, and as I started transitioning to full-time type design, I forced myself to only use my own fonts in my remaining graphic design projects. That meant that I needed a workhorse sans for day-to-day use, and so I started thinking about what that might look like. Like most graphic designers, I had used a lot of Gotham and Neutraface, as well as fonts from Village like National and Galaxie Polaris. I admired the utilitarian qualities of these fonts — hardworking and versatile with just the right amount of personality.

I realized that the sketch from 2009 functioned similarly to these fonts, but with a distinguishing design feature: squared corners instead of a geometric or strictly grotesk construction. In my early days of graphic design I used lots of DIN (it was the early aughts, after all), and that engineered sensibility found its way into aspects of this new font. But Fort was to be a hybrid, somewhere between DIN’s rigid construction and a grotesk’s more organic sensibility.

Normal Grotesque (Haas Foundry) and Heldustry (Alphabet Innovations)

The closest historical example to Fort that I’ve found is a 1970’s novelty called Heldustry, a mashup of Helvetica’s proportions with Eurostile’s squared curves. Other examples in the realm of squared grotesks are Permanent and Normal Grotesk. Permanent has Helvetica’s 90° terminals, and Normal Grotesk has angled terminals, but with distinct straight segments on the sides of the curves, something I consciously avoided in Fort.

I had recently finished Aero as a collaboration with Chester Jenkins, which had nine styles that dramatically swell from whisper thin to unbelievably black. I wanted to make a Thin weight for Fort as well, and something I always wish I’d done with Router was to make a heavier weight, but Router’s Bold was about as heavy as I could figure out how to draw at the time. With Fort I was able to draw a heavy Black and fairly light (10 unit) Thin.

Roman, slanted Roman (which distorts in the corners), and final redrawn Italic

The italics are subtly redrawn. Because of the squarish rounds in characters like a b d p q, I kept more points in the curves than I normally would. This caused some kinks in interpolation, but I wasn’t happy with the shapes otherwise. In the end you can’t really tell that they’ve been redrawn, but that’s the point — if they hadn’t been redrawn, they’d look wrong.

RISD MFA Painting book by Adam Lucas; Penn Design/Now: book by Pentagram

The first use of Fort was for an art book (including a special strike-out version) by Adam Lucas, then a grad-student at RISD. It was also used by Pentagram in a prospectus for UPenn Design. This was my first lesson in the benefit of having designers use my in-progress fonts, something that has always helped make them better. Through the process, I realized that the overshoot (the distance the curves go below the baseline and above the cap/x-height) was a little too aggressive in early drafts, and that the x-height needed to be larger in the bolder weights. I also added some typographic niceties like old style figures and alternate characters for the G K k a y.

I finally finished the fonts in the summer of 2012, shortly after joining Village as a full foundry member. A year or so later, I started getting requests for condensed styles, so I did some preliminary tests. I thought it would be pretty straightforward: just scale the fonts horizontally and compensate by adding weight. Early on, a type design mentor had told me that +/- 1 unit in a condensed font can make all the difference. I didn’t see how that was possible then, but it became clear as I started building the full family of alternate widths. Perhaps because the curves were already ‘squarish,’ I didn’t find it necessary to add straight segments to the sides of the curves, a common feature in condensed fonts.

First draft Fort Condensed Bold (grey) and final release (black)
Original widths used by AFAR (grey), with the middle width cut. The final release has a narrower X-Condensed width

I first ‘completed’ the new widths of Fort for AFAR magazine, but rethought the range of widths shortly after. I decided my Condensed wasn’t narrow enough to really differentiate from the regular width. I also redrew many of the characters, realizing that as a font gets more condensed, open forms like the C G S need to close up more, otherwise feeling too open. I cut the middle width and create a much narrower version and named that ‘X-Condensed’.

Spreads from AFAR magazine using Fort and Fort Condensed, by Elizabeth Olson

AFAR wanted italics for all the styles, and I debated whether to draw italics for the new XCondensed weight. Almost on a dare from a type-designer friend, I knuckled through it and drew the italics for all the widths. It would have felt unbalanced not to, and in the end, I’m glad I made them. I think narrow italics can be useful, and are a worthwhile addition to an underserved part of the typographic spectrum.

Version history

V1.0—Initial release version; 2014.07

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