Wordy Type

When an elite society representing the world of print needs a typeface, who does it call? Jeremy Tankard and Alistair Hall, of course. Here we speak to Tankard, Hall and committee member of the Wynkyn De Worde Society Becky Chilcott about the birth of a new font...

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De Worde typeface (Jeremy Tankard) and sample book (Alistair Hall)

The rich printing and publishing history of Fleet Street in London has its beginnings in the work of a printer named Wynkyn De Worde. He was the assistant of printer William Caxton (credited with introducing the first printing press to England in 1479) and was the first printer to set up in the now legendary street. Today, his name lives on through The Wynkyn De Worde society, which meets at regular intervals throughout the year in London – at these events, some of the world's preeminent designers, typographers, printers and purveyors of paper congregate to talk, share knowledge about their professions and hatch plans. The society was formed in 1957 and as part of the celebrations to mark its sixtieth year,  has commissioned a new typeface in honour of its namesake. Society member Becky Chilcott, type designer Jeremy Tankard and graphic designer Alistair Hall gave us the inside story on the making of De Worde. 

Why did the Wynkyn De Worde Society want to make a typeface to celebrate its 60th anniversary?
Becky Chilcott: Every time the Society reaches a major milestone, we plan a year of events and outings to celebrate. These culminate in a special anniversary dinner held at Stationers' Hall but we also like to create something more lasting than the hazy memories of a jolly night to mark the occasion. For example, in 2007 we commissioned a plaque in honour of Wynkyn de Worde which was erected in St Brides church.

A committee was set up to help the 2017 Chairman, Margaret Willes, plan these events and at one of our meetings (after a few glasses of wine) the idea for the typeface sprang to life. We couldn't believe that one hadn't been designed in de Worde's honour before, considering how many members of our Society are eminent type designers, and felt that it was the perfect thing to do this time round.

The reasons for creating the typeface were two-fold. Firstly, it would help create a strong visual identity for the year. Secondly, we thought that it could potentially be sold to Members to help raise funds for our Charitable Trust (which sponsors students to attend lectures, conferences and an apprenticeship every year). Of course, only if its designer would be happy to do so!

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De Worde typeface (Jeremy Tankard) and sample book (Alistair Hall)

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De Worde typeface (Jeremy Tankard) and sample book (Alistair Hall)

How did the working relationship between the society and Jeremy and Alistair come about?
BC: We are very lucky to have so many prominent type designers amongst the Members of the Society and could have asked any one of them to create a typeface worthy of de Worde's name. We decided to approach Jeremy as we know he likes a challenge, we could probably persuade him to say yes, and – most importantly – he would take the design of the typeface somewhere completely unexpected and produce something we'd be very proud to have associated with the Society and its namesake. The way he approaches his work is very unique and he puts so much in to each typeface he creates – the level of detail is incredible.

We thought Alistair would be the best designer to work on the sample booklet with Jeremy, as he is also a Member of the Society and we wanted to keep it in the family (which we did with the paper and production too). Of course, he is also a very talented designer and we knew that the strong typographic approach of his work, coupled with his excellent copywriting skills, would be the perfect vehicle to showcase the typeface in all its glory.

How would you hope to see the De Worde typeface used, both in relation to the society and also outside of it?
BC: In terms of use within the Society, the typeface is being used on all of our communications throughout the year which includes letters, booking forms and ephemera relating to each of our events. It is mainly being used in print but we are also intending to use it on our website which is currently being redesigned – it works equally well on screen too.

The beauty of a typeface is that, once it is released, you never know where it is going to show up and is often used in surprising ways. In the spirit of de Worde, I'd like to see it utilised in a wide range of everyday applications – the range of weights in the typeface have very different aesthetics and I particularly find the retro feeling the bolder weights satisfying. I'd especially like it to be used as a text face and challenge the use of an italic as a primary rather than secondary form, as its creator intended. 

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De Worde typeface (Jeremy Tankard) and sample book (Alistair Hall)

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De Worde typeface (Jeremy Tankard) and sample book (Alistair Hall)

With the design of the De Worde typeface, you have taken historical cues from the work of Wynkn De Worde himself, but created a face with modern uses and applications – could you tell us about that process of mixing old and new?
Jeremy Tankard: Since de Worde was the first printer to use italic in the UK, it seemed a strong idea to look at the italic as the base for a final type. De Worde first used an italic in 1528 (see images below). I was very aware that I didn’t want to make a facsimile or revival. This would have little use today. The resulting type had to be forward-facing. I didn’t want a calligraphic or script italic – it had to be typographic.

I collected several features from the lowercase in the 1528 example that could be pulled together, to underpin a design. Italic caps didn’t exist at this time, so the lowercase had to inform the structure of the capitals. I didn’t want a sloped roman, just as the lowercase isn’t a sloped roman.

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The first use of an italic, by Wynkyn De Worde, 1528, found in The British Library in research for Tankard's typeface design

The long serif to the ascender. The structure of the lowercase p and m. The written feel of the lowercase – but not calligraphic as the later Venetian italics were. Once several features were played out across the lowercase, it became easier to see how the capitals could be made.

Are there any particular characteristics or features of individual letters that sum up the ethos of De Worde?
JT: The resulting type exposes different attributes across its different weights. The ExtraLight is more skeletal, clean cut and angular. The shapes are more definite, displaying a crisp modernity. A warmth is slowly added as the weight beefs up. The Heavy imparts a more period feel (mid-twentieth century). It reminds me of some of Oz Cooper’s work, (perhaps it’s the movement along the line and playfulness of the lettershapes).

There’s a lot going on across the character set. Several characteristics and features that run through the design include: An angularity to the curves is slightly reminiscent of black letter (broken script). A subtle hint to the movement of the stroke in the stems, i.e. a downstroke swells as it returns up to form an arch. The drop legs of R, K, k break the baseline adding more movement and energy. The final arch and leg of the lowercase m doesn’t match the structure of the n, h. The ‘wobbly’ rhythm seen in the italic that de Worde used is incorporated across the character set. Instead of aiming for a methodical rhythm as expected in a formal italic, De Worde is purposefully kept lively and spirited.

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Jeremy Tankard's development drawings for De Worde

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Jeremy Tankard's development drawings for De Worde

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Jeremy Tankard's development drawings for De Worde

The De Worde sample book is playful both in design and content, what was the brief you set yourselves for promoting the typeface?
JT: Over to Alistair for this one. I left him in charge and was more than happy to see his ideas. He got it spot on with a perfect balance of use, information and humour.
Alistair Hall: From my side, I took my inspiration from a few places. The fact that Wyknyn de Worde had been the first printer to set up shop on Fleet Street meant I could look to newspapers and printing as general topics of inspiration. Then for the mood of the piece, I took my cue from the Society itself. One aspect of the Society is that the members are all extremely knowledgeable, and their knowledge encompasses many decades of experience. I wanted to reflect that erudition. But, to counter that, the Society is also extremely social – every event will feature a distinctly pleasurable amount of drink, chat and laughter. So it was important that the booklet wasn’t too sober. 

But I guess my principal intention was to show off this fantastic typeface in the most demonstrative way possible. To show it big, show it small, to show how the weights could interact with each other, and to show off specific characters.

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De Worde typeface (Jeremy Tankard) and sample book (Alistair Hall)

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De Worde typeface (Jeremy Tankard) and sample book (Alistair Hall)

The type sample book is beautifully produced, could you tell us about the materials and processes you used?
AH: The cover is printed onto Remake Smoke 250gsm, and the text is on Shiro Echo White 120gsm. Both are Favini stocks from Fenner Paper. The Remake is actually made partly from the discarded residue of the leather manufacturing process, and is 100% recyclable and compostable. It’s basically a posh version of unlined greyboard. Utilitarian yet sophisticated. Much like the members of the Society. The Shiro Echo is a high-quality recycled paper, produced from 100% post-consumer waste. Both stocks were recommended by Justin Hobson at Fenner Paper. He’s another member of the Society, and his knowledge of paper is unrivalled – he’s a huge asset to any design project.

The booklet was printed with two spot colours by Typecast Colour. I’d been thinking of that old joke about newspapers – “What’s black, white and read all over?” – and used that as inspiration for the colours, though I used a dark grey rather than a black, just to soften it off a bit.

The front cover was foiled in white and red foils (by Benwells) to add a little bit of texture and refinement. The booklet was then three-hole sewn with a red thread, to emphasise the sense of craft that went into the making of the typeface.  

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De Worde typeface (Jeremy Tankard) and sample book (Alistair Hall)

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De Worde typeface (Jeremy Tankard) and sample book (Alistair Hall)

Just by using type, no images, the sample book successfully roots the typeface in a sense of time and place. How did you achieve that and can you share any favourite discoveries that researching Wynkyn De Worde led you to?
AH: I think with a type sampler, type IS image. It is the thing you’re looking at, so there’s no need to embellish with anything else. I did actually have a picture of a zebra in an initial draft, as a result of playing on that newspaper joke from earlier – 'What’s black, white and red all over? An embarrassed zebra'. But it felt terribly out of place amongst the other spreads, so I put it out to pasture.

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De Worde typeface (Jeremy Tankard) and sample book (Alistair Hall)

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De Worde typeface (Jeremy Tankard) and sample book (Alistair Hall)

Learn more about the Wynkyn De Worde Society, the work of Jeremy Tankard and of Alistair Hall