Font development is limited by the rules of alphanumerical systems and a typeface designer’s imagination. But what if a designer’s imagination knows no limits? Petr van Blokland—graphic and typeface designer, programmer and developer of systems, thinker and teacher—is one of the brightest minds in Dutch design today. Never content with the status quo, he ceaselessly questions design and production processes, researching ways to improve them and make them more efficient. Why manually execute repetitive tasks in design apps when programming can do it for you? Why click endlessly when you can compute?
Van Blokland’s two major type families are rooted in a profound knowledge and understanding of traditional type design. His contemporary serif face, Proforma, and its sans serif sibling, Productus, combine understated beauty and elegance with robustness and flexibility. But Van Blokland’s new type system, Bitcount, springs from his fascination with systemization and programmatic design. Bitcount pushes design systems with defined parameters beyond their apparent limitations. It furnishes proof that programmatic design can produce beautiful, forward-thinking typefaces.
The Bitcount project started in the late 1970s, as an experiment in finding the minimum amount of pixels necessary to create a full set of ASCII characters. Pixel fonts (also called bitmap fonts) may be commonplace today, they weren’t back then. Working with pixel grids was almost exclusively the domain of engineering. The grid presents an interesting paradox when it comes to typeface design: a small 5 × 7 matrix may offer an astounding amount of possible combinations (2-to-the-power-of-35, or more than 34 billion different shapes), but alphabets have little leeway before a character turns into another one or becomes illegible. The eye of a type designer makes all the difference.
Now, some forty years later, and with remarkable panache, Bitcount realizes Van Blokland’s vision of an expansive pixel-font system.
The Bitcount superfamily is built on three spacing systems of different proportions: Bitcount Grid, Bitcount Mono, and Bitcount Prop. Grid and Mono are both monospaced. All the glyphs are drawn to fit on a grid with a fixed width of six pixels. Prop, as its name suggests, is proportionally spaced. Every glyph uses as many pixels as it needs; the W is wider than the I, for example. The glyphs in Grid are drawn to fit within a vertical maximum of eight pixels, which makes this variant very useful for situations where the height is fixed, like LED displays on public transport. Mono and Prop take up the vertical pixels required to display accents and full-length ascenders and descenders.
Bitcount’s basic package offers five principal pixel shapes per variant: Circles, Squares, Pluses, Line Squares, and Line Circles. These five pixel shapes each come in a range of different weights, sizes, and line thicknesses. Changing pixel size makes the characters darker, and is akin to changing the weight of the typeface. Because the construction of their characters is identical, Bitcount fonts with different pixel shapes can be layered to form shadows, highlights, and all sorts of 3D effects. Furthermore, the proportions of consecutive sizes of pixels make their inside and outside shapes match in size. This offers countless possibilities for creating compelling layer patterns.
All Bitcount fonts come in two more variants: Single and Double. As with changing the pixel size, switching from Single to Double increases the weight of the characters. Whereas Bitcount Single is perfectly monoline, with stems of even thickness, Bitcount Double adds contrast to the type system by doubling most vertical stems from single to double pixels.
Bitcount introduces the concept of the contrast pixel. Contrast is important in typeface design because it aids legibility. When designing type on a matrix, glyphs can be drawn by filling in pixels until a recognizable character appears—see, for example, the letter n. The problem with this approach is that it can make contrast seem superfluous, or like a luxury. The stems of such an n have a width of one pixel, equally spaced in horizontal and vertical direction. But what about diagonals? Simple math tells us that if the horizontal and vertical distance between two pixels is 1, the diagonal distance is 1.41. This creates a lighter area in the letter. Bitcount adds contrast pixels in places where letters are expected to be thicker while keeping the overall color of the type the same, thus giving consistency to the text.
All of the Bitcount typefaces are feature-rich OpenType fonts. Their character sets include small caps, several types of numerals (oldstyle and tabular figures, slashed zero), alternative taller capitals, extended ascenders and descenders, and letter variants like an alternate a, f and g. Stylistic Sets provide easy access to alternates.
Bitcount is released as both a package of 300 fonts and an OpenType Variation font. This strategy nicely illustrates how the TYPETR foundry goes about developing type. On one hand, fixed discrete instances work better when layering. The sizes and shapes of the pixels have to match the inside and outside proportions of the pixels in the other layers exactly. Because of the rounding that occurs in interpolation, variable fonts can never achieve this level of accuracy. On the other hand, live interpolation along a number of axes offers a distinct advantage that can never realistically be attained with static fonts, since generating all of the instances would result in thousands of separate font files.
Bitcount represents a major achievement in bitmap typography that opens new avenues for both static and dynamic typesetting. It is but the beginning of a larger project that will fully explore the possibilities of programmatic design systems.
Like all TYPETR fonts, Bitcount is available for print, web, applications, and ePub licensing. Bitcount is made for layering and playing. Because it’s different from other Type Network fonts, it’s priced differently. All webfonts may be tested free for thirty days. To stay current on all things TYPETR, subscribe to Type Network News, our occasional email newsletter featuring font releases, foundry happenings, type and design events, and more.