Taking all the ideas I had gathered in my research on Chromatic types, Reversed types, sectional die stamping, etc, I began thinking about my own project. The progressively multi-faceted aspects of many of these approaches to type design (for their time) inspired my experimentation process, ultimately resulting in my contemporary interpretation of 19th-century wood type design concepts.
In Kelly's book I found a typeface which I chose to use as a base to start experimentation and design of my own alphabet. The fact that I started with an existing design has several significant implications. In terms of practicality, avoiding development of a design from scratch helped save valuable time which I was sure to need further down the road for the physical production of my blocks (remember that I originally was aiming to complete this project in one semester). In addition, starting with a decidedly 19th-century wood type style was a good way for me to pay my homage, visually, to the wood type designers of the past.
More interestingly, the idea of working off the back of someone else's design was an everyday occurrence in the traditional 19th-century industry of wood type (as is mentioned above). As a matter of fact, the typeface I worked from—as it appeared in an 1838 specimen from George Nesbitt—had already undergone appropriation at least once before I got to it, from a more condensed version originally published in 1837 by William Leavenworth.6 Thus, my seemingly lazy choice of a starting point is very much appropriate for the topic! 7
The underlying typeface I chose to begin experimentation with is a simple yet historically representative Gothic. By choosing to start with a very simple design, I not only ensured that I would have more flexibility when it came to developing my own design, but also that the logistics of technical production could be kept as straight-forward as possible (at least to begin with).
A specimen of the original typeface was scanned and a useful subset of characters (namely A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, M, N, O, P, R, T, and U) were vectorized for further digital experimentation.
At this stage, I began tweaking the original letterforms to correct what I interpreted as design flaws or inconsistencies. Eventually this lead me (under the influence of the sectional die process, mentioned above), to precisely systematize many of the formal elements which could recur in multiple letters (eg, the rounded sides of circular letters or the straight vertical strokes forming the stems of other letters):
Next, I decided that as well as being able to print the letters of my alphabet, I also would like to enable the printing of each letter's reverse shapes. The concept of Reverse printing (as mentioned in my research above) is certainly nothing new. What is unique about my approach is that I eliminated any and all surrounding forms which would otherwise have given the reversed letter shapes a formal sense of context. With this lack of surrounding counter forms (especially in letters with flat sides) an interesting amount of figure-ground ambiguity was created:
To increase to flexibility of what could be done with this pairing of letter and counter forms, I broke the counters down further still. This deconstruction created an even more abstract and varied range of unique shapes to serve as a palette from which I could compose in almost infinite ways.
Next I began to experiment with the effects which could be achieved by mixing and matching different pieces of different letter forms and counter forms, joining disparate pieces and removing others to push the limits of legibility and figure-ground ambiguity.
The next progression was the addition of color…
…and before not too long, I found it quite pleasing to throw all preconceptions of legibility and traditional typographic communication out the window, experimenting with a wide range of aspects like non-linearity, transparency, etc (all of which can be achieved with letterpress printing). Indeed, even from the incomplete alphabet of shapes I had created, I opened many windows for the use of typographically derived forms as compositional elements. These could function, depending on the technique of their application, more like brush strokes than like letters.
It is important to note that at this point all sketching had still only been done digitally. All of these experiments were simply to test the possibilities of what might be done with similar blocks in a real-life printing environment.
After designing a few digital test compositions, I was pleased with the wide range of possibilities of what could be done. I did feel, however, that I could afford to go a step further by increasing the complexity of the letterforms. I did this by grafting large slab serifs on to the existing sans serif letters.
With an updated set of slab serif characters, I paid a visit to Wentworth Institute of Technology (where I would be producing the blocks) for technical advisement. It was here that some restraints were drawn to my attention. Most significantly: the fact that my letters were to be drilled out of solid blocks with a circular drill bit. The same way that you cant fit a square peg into a round hole, a round drill bit can not cut squared angles.
This created problems when it came to shaping any sharp corners in my letters, especially now that I had introduced many more right angles with the addition of the slab serifs.
I could have kept the squarish designs and cut each corner by hand, but opted (in the interest of time and sanity) to simply soften up my design by rounding the angles. I altered the letters, making sure that no corners existed that were any tighter than was possible to cut with the ⅛" drill bit I would be using.
By this time, I am happy to say, my letters had changed enough where the underlying structure of the original 1838 sans serif was still recognizable, but the face had taken on a character of its own as a rounded slab serif.
Since my time and resources were limited, I decided to choose a small subset of my newly designed letters to produce as actual blocks. For this, I chose letters which were useful for spelling a wide range of words as well as for examining how various different shapes might work as blocks (many of the most uniquely shaped letters are also the least common in use). The final choice for letters: A, E, G, H, N, O, and R.
All of the letters and their related counter shapes would eventually exist on their own separate blocks, but to reduce wasted materials (and time spent at the router) I arranged the total of 27 separate pieces on to twelve 4×5 inch blocks. These could later be sawed apart with a fine band saw. To make this sawing a bit easier, I included a minimum amount of extra space between each piece.
With a newly altered design arranged precisely (and the end of my semester closing in quickly), I was ready to get the production of the physical type blocks underway.