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Traffic Snack

A Frankfurt food stand serves up the provoking question: are we too dumb for smart fonts?

Contributed by Florian Hardwig on Jan 7th, 2013. Artwork published in 2009.


On a recent trip through Germany I had to change trains in Frankfurt. As in every concourse, there are several booths where you can get yourself a coffee or other refreshments. I was drawn to one by Traffic Snack, because the brush script on its display had caught my eye. Studio Sable is part of the award-winning Studio Lettering series by House Industries.

All three styles of this stunning set — Sable, Slant and Swing — emulate mid-century scripts, as they were practiced by commercial lettering artists before there were digital tools with myriads of fonts to choose from, in order to add a personal touch to store signs, package designs or advertisements. Thanks to their elaborate OpenType features, the fonts succeed at preserving the natural rhythm and animated flair of hand lettering, including its charming inconsistencies. This is achieved not so much with ligatures, but rather with alternates for repeated letters which fluctuate in size. Further, there are special initial and final forms, i.e. contextual variants that are automatically inserted when the letter is at the beginning or the end of a word. To give you an impression of the level of thoroughness: Studio Sable contains nine different glyphs for the ‘sch’ trigraph alone.

The antiqued serif that is used alongside Studio Sable pales in comparison, aesthetically and technically. It is Dieter Steffmann’s freebie extension of an earlier digitization by Walter Kafton-Minkel, which in turn references the Ben Franklin typeface as found in Rob Roy Kelly’s Wood Type Alphabets.

The most spectacular feature of the Studio Lettering fonts, however, is what House calls “culture-specific stylistic sets” — alternates that reflect stylistic preferences of native users:

The appearance of written language is often affected by regional customs […] Designer Ken Barber based “colloquial” letters on forms found in writing, textbooks and historical models, in addition to interviews with local artists and speakers.

Reviewer Adam Twardoch was thrilled about the technical implementation:

The variants have been linked to the OpenType language selection mechanism, so assigning a different language in InDesign automatically gives the text the appropriate local flavor. Bloody awesome!

Line 1 shows Studio Sable with its default (i.e. American) forms. Assigning German language to it triggers the local alternates. Line 3 juxtaposes American and German school scripts.

Most of these local preferences can be traced back to the ways how letterforms are introduced to children. School scripts vary from country to country. American Cursive typically has an enlarged minuscule form for ‘M’ and ‘A’. In German Schreibschrift, the bowl of ‘p’ is open.

No school handwriting model features the ‘d’ without downstroke, as seen in the “German” set of Studio Sable. This trait is not derived from primary scripts, but was popular in Central-European lettering. It is also present in many classic script typefaces made in Germany.

Of course I was curious to see how Traffic Snack makes use of this unique feature. Did they choose the local variants, being based in Germany? Or do they showcase the American and, to German eyes, slightly more exotic forms? After all, the Frankfurt station is an international place, and the shop’s name is in English, too.

What I found was disillusioning — both were true, or neither: Apparently, the designers were oblivious to the font’s extraordinary capabilities. Sometimes it’s the default shapes, sometimes the local alternates, applied haphazardly. Alkoholhaltige Getränke is “German”, but Apfelschorle is not. The style guide has the local alternates on the cover (most notably the ‘u’ with hook), but the character set showing makes no mention of them. No conscious choice was made. The typographic outcome is randomized, depending on whether the language attribute was set in the layout application or not. Likewise, all the effort that went into creating the contextual alternates was wasted here, as the compositors didn’t always bother to switch them on.

The devil is in the details: not only are these not apostrophes, but single opening quotation marks. On top, in German spelling apostrophes are unneeded and unwanted for marking possessive cases.

For type designers and font engineers, it certainly is frustrating to see their cutting-edge work ignored. On the other hand — is it really the graphic designer who is to blame? Can foundries expect users to read through a manual first? Is there a demand for such smart fonts, or are they simply too intricate, and the added value not appreciated? I am eager to hear your opinions.

One thing is for sure: Layout applications do a terrible job at making font features accessible. InDesign hides away Stylistic Sets in a sub-submenu of a flyout menu of a palette. Photoshop still has no glyph palette, right? I am looking at Adobe, but then again, it is not like other software makers offered a solution of striking simplicity.

All lament aside: Studio Sable is a beautiful typeface even without the extras. The identity still is inviting and thus functional. And the coffee tasted good, too!


10 Comments on “Traffic Snack”

  1. Miles Newlyn says:
    Jan 7th, 2013  11:42 pm
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    Doesn’t matter if they didn’t use the features, it still looks really great. Fantastic type choice by the designer.

  2. Julian says:
    Jan 9th, 2013  9:48 am
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    Warum steht denn da auch “leckere Belege”? Sagt man das in Frankfurt so? Würde es nicht Beläge (von Belag) heißen?

  3. Jan 10th, 2013  1:05 pm
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    I agree with Miles, the type choice and execution are superb. The irregular serif makes a nice pairing with Sable, in my opinion. The language alternates, being a fantastic tool, are at last no more than a fine detail. In some cases that detail may deserve its importance, but not in all. Since it’s true that the devil is in the detail, it doesn’t invalidate the success of the design. On the other side, I think these cultural alternates can be useful when composing book covers or other elements requiring display size.

  4. Jan 10th, 2013  6:27 pm
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    With – some – users being ignorant or unaware of advanced functions, it is crucial that the default works in an acceptable way. Well-designed fonts don’t rely on the availability of special features. The Studio Lettering fonts are exquisite and look superb even without contextual alternates.

    What I find worrying is the fact that the typeface can take on completely different forms, without the user having a hand in the matter. The cultural alternates are triggered via the language attribute. It is one thing if a user bothers to actively dive into an OpenType setting – or not. It is quite another when letters look drastically different, depending on whether the language is accidentally set to English, German, or ‘None’.

    Don’t get me wrong, the OT programming in Studio Lettering is mind-blowing. But if you don’t know what is going on and why, it leaves you scratching your head.

    Julian – yes, that’s a typo.

  5. Kiki says:
    Jan 15th, 2013  9:52 am
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    Would be interesting to hear the designer’s take on the matter. It may well be that s/he was oblivious to the choices. Or it might just as well have been a „client from hell“ thing, who knows? But I’m curious where your information – or rather the font designer’s – stems from, that the letter p is usually not closed in German handwriting? It is certainly not what I learned in school. So while I would use the German M or A for the capital letters, I’d prefer the US version of the lowercase p, since that’s how I was taught to write it.

  6. Jan 15th, 2013  1:35 pm
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    Kiki, now I am curious where (i.e. in which Bundesland) and when you went to school. The three most commonly used cursive script models all feature this “open p”. They have been digitized as FF Schulschrift A, B and C, see this list. Maybe you are referring to non-cursive and unconnected “print” letters?

    It certainly would be incorrect to claim that a “closed p” were unfamiliar to Germans – it is rather the other way round: an “open p” may look a little weird to Americans.

  7. Kiki says:
    Jan 18th, 2013  9:13 am
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    Florian, I started school in the early 70's in Hessen. And we were taught to close the p in „Schreibschrift“ mode. Apparently I was pretty good at it, since my teacher would remark on my pretty handwriting on my report card. She definitely wouldn’t say that today … the computer has wreaked havoc with my handwriting, even though I use it every day (I’m an illustrator/designer). :)

  8. Jan 18th, 2013  6:00 pm
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    I can report that Hessen in the ’80s was still closed-p-land.

  9. Jan 22nd, 2013  12:54 pm
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    Kiki, Indra, thanks for your input! Alright, then (some of) the Hessians must have been taught an undocumented Ausgangsschrift variant with a closed p. You live and learn.

  10. Jan 28th, 2013  3:44 pm
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    Hi, I am the designer of the TRAFFIC SNACK corporate design. Thanks for the great post and the positive comments. I’d like to give some insights about the use of American and German lettering at TRAFFIC SNACK.
    Our objective was to create a unique, emotional and somewhat nostalgic image for TRAFFIC SNACK to slow down rushing public and make them buy food. While all large and major signage was created by our studio, in order to make processes more efficient, we handed over the production of the small price markings to TRAFFIC SNACK office workers – and consciously gave them a bit out of control. This also meant leaving familiar Adobe terrain and setting up in Microsoft Powerpoint, a program not known by all for its joy of use. We have realised that Powerpoint pulls the American rather than German shapes but accepted it (as one more Microsoft dilemma to live with). Because of the diverse background of the people targeted (national, international) a mixed presentation in typography detail to me seems acceptable. I don’t believe that in the globalised world of today it is relevant that a German in the seventies learnt to write a “p” differently to an American in the seventies. And the truth is: we have already seen it a huge accomplishment that TRAFFIC SNACK, being very open and aware of the role of design, purchased the font sets AND used them. Instead of using Arial in weird colors.
    I do agree that using German and American shapes in the communication of one single store can be regarded as not 100 % consequent design. But then again the company has an english name with an english slogan with German communication. The inconsequence in letter shapes is consequent from that perspective if you will … :-) Or is it bad design? What do you think? With this I hope to open a discussion.

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