In April of 2013 we were approached by Zazzle to draw a new logotype. Over the course of the next year the project evolved into a full package of typographic identity including a logo, icon, and a 14-style family of custom typefaces.
Zazzle started as a maker of custom, on-demand products. It went live in 2005 to let people design their own retail goods using user-generated content or content from brands like Disney in original ways. Today, Zazzle is opening up its platform of manufacturing and design tools for anyone in the world to combine products, designs, and ideas to make novel stuff together.
Virgo Bold Roman Character Set
Virgo - Twelve Style Font Family
Virgo Bold / Semibold / Semibold Italic
At that point in the development of their typographic identity, Zazzle was using Tobias Frere-Jones’ Archer for the bulk of their market facing material. They were somewhat attached to it, and the idea was to create a logotype that would function well with it. Something in the genre of the monolinear slab or Egyptian serif. The founders were eager to implement the new brand so timing was a factor. We were happy they had a stylistic genre in mind, if only to limit the scope of my exploration within a manageable range.
In our various briefings and discussions about Zazzle’s vision for their new brand, a phrase kept coming up over and over: “hand-made.” As a purveyor of consumer customized merchandise, the founders and creative team envisioned a brand with a sleek but handcrafted aesthetic--something that looked relevant to internet and technology culture but with a human touch.
Early on we experimented with some subtle rounding and beveling, giving it a feeling of hot metal and physical production. We imbued the letters with subtle details suggesting the effects of non-digital production methods. We like to think of letters as physical objects with physical forces being exerted on them. The Zazzle logo is wet. The wetness gives its straight intersections and strokes a smooth but constructed feel, while its soft stroke terminals bead up into plump “monkey tails.”
Our next task was providing consultation to help determine the suite of typefaces Zazzle would use in conjunction with the logotype and icon. While Archer is by all accounts a beautiful and utilitarian typeface (my personal favorite from the extensive and popular HFJ library) our thinking was that a typeface as ubiquitous as Archer in the corporate and editorial landscape would not be suitable for a brand aimed at projecting a feeling of handmade originality and craftsmanship. Fonts like Archer and Gotham are everywhere. You cannot turn on the television, walk outside in a commercial neighborhood, or flip through a catalogue without being confronted with them. They have achieved this level of total market saturation for a reason--- they are beautiful, utilitarian, well-marketed, and inoffensively bland. As such, they have become a trusted part of the corporate American aesthetic.
Every choice that is made in defining the aesthetics of a brand reflects a worldview and a philosophy. Of all the infinite possibilities the entity chooses a certain path. The end result is inevitably made up of some designed and some circumstantial aspects---the point is that it all tells a story. The popular cultural mythology about Silicon Valley has been readily distilled into an archetype: the revolutionary innovator who boldly challenges established ways of thinking and harnesses new technology to change the world. How can we use the tools at our disposal to tell that story? What would an appropriate accompanying aesthetic to this mythical hero be? Would Steve Jobs use Gotham? “DIY” and the Maker Movement in general are strongly relevant to the Zazzle brand, and with it the belief that the establishment is outdated and its accompanying aesthetics are dusty and homogenous.
We decided not to use Archer.
Our first list of possible Archer alternatives included some of our favorite releases of the last few years. We started with Shift, (a style referenced in the logotype itself) Jeremy Mickel’s insanely beautiful Slab serif inspired by 19th century slabs with a monolinear typewriter feel in the lighter weights. We also included: Artur Schmal’s Parry, Henrik Kubel’s Typewriter, Joshua Darden’s Jubilat, and Christian Schwartz’s Stag. We really wanted to use Kris Sowersby’s typewriter inspired opus Pitch, but the monospacing was not versatile enough for our purposes.
For one reason or another, every one of these possibilities was eventually ruled out. Some slabs like Stag and Jubilat were a bit too masculine and not really suited to text settings. Shift, with its long wedge serifs, was a bit too extreme in some places to work in all the contexts we needed it to. At this point Henrik had not released italics for Typewriter and three weights of roman wasn’t going to cut if for their needs. Besides that they were also not fans of Typewriter’s rounded stroke terminals. Parry was the closest we got to choosing an existing typeface for the Zazzle brand, but it was eventually ruled out as well. Parry’s beautiful wonkiness, slight contrast, and typographic compensations were a bit too pronounced. we worked directly with Jeremy Britton, the Director of Design & Strategy. He shared my passion for innovative typography and the story we wanted to tell with it. We had suggested the idea of a custom typeface to him at the outset, and with each rejected alternative the prospect became more and more appealing to everyone involved. We knew what we wanted, but what we wanted didn’t exist yet.
We decided to design Zazzle a custom typeface starting with three styles: a book, italic, and a bold. we wanted to make a monolinear slab serif that was versatile, genderless and friendly. It needed to work in display as well as subheader and limited text settings---on the page and on the screen. Typewriter inspired typefaces were in the zeitgeist of the design world at that time. 2012 had seen a flurry of releases in that vein, such as Kris Sowersby’s Pitch, Henrik Kubel’s Typewriter, Ondrej Jób’s Remi and Bernau/Carvalho’s Atlas. All this amazing work got us super excited about this style, so we decided to do our own research. One day on a stint in San Francisco, we were in Berkley combing through California Typewriters’ collection of restored machines when we found a few Olympia type style samples that rocked our world. The almost perfectly round bowls and open arches of the Italic lowercase were reminiscent of constructions and proportions we had been experimenting with in our own work.
Olympia Pica 12 alphabet --- 10 pitch design
Olympia Italic Elite No.89 alphabet - 11 pitch design
A Royal Futura typewriter, nice lowercase “g” proportions
A Remington 12 Cesare Verona
Archer is a great typeface. It is actually one of our favorite typefaces. A major key to its success is that it is based on Verlag, a modernist sans-serif with geometric tendencies and proportions well suited to incorporating the ball terminals and slab serifs.
Verlag’s open and balanced construction made it a perfect skeleton for Archer to fill out. We were very conscience of the skeletal forms throughout the process of designing what would eventually become Zazzle’s custom typeface: Virgo. We wanted the letter widths to hold a strong relation to one another without the stringent requirement of monospacing.
Virgo skeleton experimentation
The more we make type, the more we value the systematic relationship the glyphs have to each other over the individual forms themselves. In short we’ve learned to focus on the negative space. The seemingly endless permutations of glyph combinations require one to think about this space in an abstract and systematic way. As the late great Massimo Vingelli once said "Typography is really white, you know, it’s not even black. It is the space between the blacks that really makes it." The artwork is easy, it’s getting that artwork to fit together right that is the challenge. Another very important attribute of this rhythm between negative and positive space is the relationship of letter widths. Monospacing is, by it’s very nature, weird looking; there is a reason a W is drawn wider than an I.
The four diagonal strokes that make up the W will, by definition, take up more room than the single stroke of the I. But at the same time they are both equal members of the same alphabetical system. On the continuum of fixed width to proportional width letterforms, the aim of Virgo was to inhabit that perfectly harmonious sweet spot somewhere in the middle; incorporating aspects of both typewriter monospaced typefaces and modernist proportional width styles. We began experimenting with different width systems:
LEFT: Fixed-Width, CENTER: Balanced width (the sweet spot), RIGHT: proportional width.
The beauty of the Egyptian serif, and the reason this style dominates the genre of monospaced typefaces is this serif’s ability to reach out and inhabit horizontal space. Instead of utilizing this ability of extending slab serifs to cheat the widths of the letters for the purpose of evening out a monospaced typeface, Virgo utilizes this ability to give it a balanced and even system of letter widths. We were eager to incorporate some of those wonderful forms that made us fall in love with the typewriter vernacular. The book weight and accompanying italic came first.
We imbued Virgo with a surface treatment in keeping with the theme of the logo: subtle details suggesting the effects of non-digital production methods. Virgo’s diagonal bracketing on the intersections of strokes and serifs is a direct reference to Kris Sowersby's Pitch. Virgo’s brackets are less pronounced than Pitch’s and are part of a system of oddly sloped slabs, brackets, ball terminals and ink traps. Subtle construction devices like these are most commonly used to give digital letterforms an “inky” effect, with the intention of injecting the rigid perfectionism of vector geometry with attributes of the printed page. Virgo’s detailing is less about the ink and more about the metal. The skeleton of Virgo is rigid and clean for the most part. It is the serifs and transitions that subtly bulge, cut, smooth and sharpen.
Most of these devices were aesthetic treatments, but some served a structural purpose. Inktraps were utilized to chisel out intersections where too much form welled up and created textural unevenness.
A concept paramount to Virgo’s genesis was the combination of this unorthodox micro detailing with an overall textural evenness and legibility. Our goal was a correct balancing of these two attributes. The result would be a typeface whose subtle detailing came to the forefront in display settings and faded into an even textured paragraph of text.
The bold was a really fun weight to draw. In order to fill out properly, a bit of contrast and a lot of weight compensation had to be introduced, but the feeling of monolinearity was still maintained throughout.
For the figures and currency glyphs, we decided to make tabular (monospaced) the default style for the aforementioned aesthetic reasons as well as for utility in Zazzle’s intended uses.
Virgo Numerals Monospaced
Virgo is not the most feature heavy typeface we have ever made, but we did include a stylistic set for simpler “a” and “g” forms.
The original impetus for expanding the first 3 weights of Virgo into what eventually became a 14-font family came from our desire to draw hairline styles. The bracketing in Virgo is meant to create a textural evenness with its ball terminals. This effect is most evident in the hairlines, where the skeleton of the face is so thin that these details really come to the foreground. The brackets and ball terminals harmonize beautifully at this weight, peppering the word-shape like stars in a constellation diagram.
Virgo Hairline Italic
With these 5 masters in place it just made sense to build out the bold italic and with it all the interpolated instances (thins, lights, mediums, semi-bolds). Big thanks to the Beaver family, Jeremy Britton, and all the awesome people at Zazzle --- working with you guys was a real privilege.