Designing Aften

Written by Frode Helland

When drawing on a computer, you never really know how those Bézier curves turn out until you put them to the real test: on paper. This is why experience is so crucial to a type designer. With time, you develop an intuition for what works, even though you cannot see it while drawing. In this case, however, the end product was not intended for print — it was to be displayed on the very computer screen I was working on. The process of designing Aften was very much one of un-learning. Ingrained principles and intuition had to be abandoned in favor of what actually looked right.

Comparing the original drawings for Aften and the optimised screen variant . The vertical alignments of Aften Screen is shared across the whole family to minimize rounding errors.

Translating high resolution curves into low resolution pixels tend to introduce rounding errors. The smaller the font size, the more dramatic the errors. Sometimes they can be corrected with something called “hinting” — at other times the computer runs an automatic process and outputs what it think you envisioned. To have a say in the latter, the only variables left to work with are the letterforms.

The various rasterizing engines all have their strange little quirks. On the Mac, things tend to get blurry and overly dark at small sizes. Tiny differences in coordinates can produce wildly different pixel patterns. Its relaxed approach to the physical structure of the computer screen opposes Windows’ gridfitting method, which itself can wreak havoc on just about anything.

My first step was to experiment with different spacing and weight variations. The relatively loose fit of Aften Screen is perhaps its biggest advantage over similar competitors. The various vertical measures were given ample distance from each other, and perfectly aligned across the whole family to minimize rounding errors. As heavier shapes tend to look optically smaller when the white area decreases, the bold is drawn wider and more open than the regular. This also helps narrow apertures stay open and clear. Looking under the hood of Aften, one will notice a lot of oddities. That oversized ring above the ‘å’, for example. Or how about the comma, or the diagonal of ‘N’? Important features were simplified and exaggerated and subtle shape adjustments reduces blur in troublesome spots.

Enlarged 14 px ‘a’ and text samples from various rendering engines: The first two show Windows (Cleartype and Standard GDI), followed by Mac (Quartz) and Linux (Freetype).

Whereas most grotesques are aimed for titling use, Aften clearly departs. Its angled Akzidenz Grotesk-like terminals becomes a method of opening apertures, the round shapes contrast Helvetica’s surface-filling squares. Its vertical proportions and spacing are that of a text face and gentle flares sets a warm tone. It has fairly narrow capitals, and the small caps intended for contemporary typesetting are noticeably taller than the x-height.

While Aften started its life as a me-too grotesque in the wake of successful designs as National, Maple and Parry, it soon became clear to me that this alone was no valid reason to release a typeface. The epiphany came late. The first seed must’ve been when a client asked about using it online. I had the fonts hinted externally at first, but when I eventually wanted to use it on our own website it was all too clear that it needed something more.

I went to great lengths to paint my vision of Aften on screen. I wanted to apply the same high standards we do to our print typefaces, turning every stone to minimize loading times, constantly redrawing and rethinking solutions in order to create a clear and legible text face for effortless reading on various screens and devices. And if you still haven’t guessed it: You’re reading it right now.

Licensed solely for screen use, Aften is a modest marriage of the humanist and grotesque genre, a text font that just plain works. It is available for self-hosting through our webshop, and delivered with hand-hinted TrueType outlines.