Every Tool Leaves a Trace

Kai Bernau



Every Tool Leaves a Trace
Kai Bernau

Every Tool Leaves a Trace

Specific tools for designing alphabets have always left an impression of their own intrinsic formal qualities. We don’t think of them much, but it is interesting to notice how much their specifics shape how we look at, and make, type.
An easy example are the conventional calligraphic writing tools like the broad-nib and pointed pens, which produce specific and unmistakable shapes through the kind of contrast that is inherent in them: a broad-nib pen will usually produce translation contrast while a pointed flexible pen will produce writing with expansion contrast.1 Much of the pedagogic model of Dutch calligrapher, type designer and teacher Gerrit Noordzij was based on the distinction of contrasts, the other one being that of letter construction.2
The specific letter constructions have formed, according to Noordzij, in a process of formalisation and de-formalisation of writing, in the tension field between speed and articulation,3 but one other component to why letters look a certain way is left out because it is perhaps too obvious: the pen does not make these movements alone, our body is part of this writing machine, and which movements come easy to us influences the alphabets just as much.

All models are wrong, but some are useful.4 Noordzij’s model is particularly helpful for type designer beginners because it has remarkable internal consistency that is experienced when practising calligraphy.5 Translation vs expansion contrast, and interrupted vs uninterrupted writing styles have been followed for centuries and have left their mark on so many of the typefaces that we use. In the context of the class Tools Make Shapes, the broad nib and pointed calligraphy pen are only used as the classic examples of how a writing tool favours a certain formal repertoire.
Other ways of making letter shapes leave different traces of their tools behind – from brushes that combine aspects of translation, expansion and rotation contrast all at once, to the telltale stair-steps of pixel fonts.

New shapes from new methods

If we want to arrive at new shapes – new contrast and new constructions – we need to build new tools and learn from them. This is the idea behind Tools Make Shapes, my course during the first semester of MATD.
Build new, unlikely writing tools.6 Explore the formal repertoire that it creates in combination with the user’s body. Just like classical calligraphy has an economy of shapes where a small set of basic strokes can be combined to form different characters, use those strokes the most that are easiest to write and to combine, and formalise through trial and error an alphabetic structure, together with a writing manual – how is the writing tool used, and how are your letter shapes formed.

The process is serendipitous, as the students first think of a tool, then assemble it, and then find out how (if!) it can satisfy their expectations. Students have a lot of freedom to fluctuate between playing up the idiosyncrasies of their devices and dinguses, or trying to create something more conforming.
Keeping the project mainly focused on analog and manual processes lowers the barrier to entry for those students who do not yet have much experience in digital type design, and offers a change of pace. The focus on the writing body also allows projects to become little performances.

360° Speedmob choreography by Raphaela Haefliger, Laura Csoscán and Dominik Bissem.

The sound of the future

To design typefaces is to invent ever-new formal expressions to the ever-same sets of characters. But rather than only rehashing history, only reformulating convention, only making slight variations to the same common pool of shapes that is our collective formal unconscious, we should strive to invent new ways to arrive at new shapes – through creating new writing instruments, or writing your own design software (it’s easier than you think!).

Tool-building has to be part of a designer’s methodology: making your own tools expands your possibility space, enables true experimentation, and lets you design typefaces that only you can design.
Critical thinking should be a major focus of any design education. That includes critical thinking about your tools. Software offers automatisms and magic solutions that lull you into its workflow and that stifle any thought of ‘how could this be done?’, ‘why is it done in this way here?’. It is like Instagram in this respect, everyone can apply the same filters, but everything looks like the same filters.
I want to teach about creative empowerment and self-reliance through making things yourself instead of tool-dependency. I want to free students from the dictate of the tool-makers and their ideas of what a typeface could be.
This course is a first step.

Tools Make Shapes, class of Kai Bernau, ECAL Master Type Design, 1st semester

Case study: IRÓN



Further reading

Kai Bernau is a graphic designer, typeface designer and educator. He is a professor for typeface design at ECAL Master in Type Design since 2011. He holds a masters degree from TypeMedia, the type design program of the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague. Together with Susana Carvalho he founded Atelier Carvalho Bernau in 2005.


[1] Gerri Noordzij, The stroke – Theory of Writing, Amsterdam: Buitenkant / The Hague: Royal Academy of Arts, 2019.

[2] Notably, Noordzij does not discuss serifs – too unimportant a detail in this categorisation principle. In this view, a Didot is not fundamentally different from Univers, nor Johnston’s rail alphabet from a Garamond.

[3] This is a notion Noordzij would often share in the occasional master classes he gave long after his retirement, using it variously to muse on how lowercase may have developed from uppercase, or italics/current scripts from romans.

[4] ‘All models are wrong’, aphorism generally attributed to the statistician George Box.

[5] In many languages, there is a word for ‘understanding something’ that is also a word for ‘holding something in your hand’, such as German begreifen, English to grasp, Dutch begrijpen, French saisir or Italian afferrare, reminding us that we also understand things through haptics, as anybody who has ever attempted to learn a musical instrument will agree.

[6] For the purpose of this project, this definition of ‘writing’ is sufficient: one movement or gesture results in one complete stroke. This is different from drawing, where usually the various contours of a stroke are designed separately, or lettering/sign-painting, where the (main) strokes of a letter-shape are often built up from various strokes of the writing tool.

Further reading

Karow, Peter: Digital Typography and Artificial Intelligence, ATypI / Dutch Type Library / Adobe, 2013.
Kinross, Robin: Unjustified Texts, London: Hyphen Press, 2002.
Midal, Alexandra: Design by Accident. For a New History of Design, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2019.
Noordzij, Gerrit: De handen van de zeven zusters, Amsterdam: Van Oorschot, 2000.
Noordzij, Gerrit: Letterletter, Vancouver: Hartley & Marks, 2000.
Noordzij, Gerrit: The stroke – Theory of Writing, Amsterdam: Buitenkant / The Hague: Royal Academy of Arts, 2019.
Potter, Norman: Models & Constructs, London: Hyphen Press, 1990.
Rappo, François (ed.): Typeface as Programme, Lausanne: ECAL, 2009.
Reas, Casey, McWilliams, Chandler, LUST: Form + Code, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010.
Wood, Luke and Haylock, Brad (Eds.): One and many mirrors: perspectives on graphic design education, London: Occasional Papers, 2020.

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