Design DNA

Monotype designer Terrance Weinzierl argues that whatever typeface you choose, the clues stored in a capital ‘R’ make it the most vital letter.

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Being a type designer, I’m frequently asked what my favourite typeface is, or what my preferred letter is. There are many that I like, for various reasons, and my taste continues to develop the more I study and create. But if I’m honest, my favourite typeface changes all the time depending on the day, week, or month. The same thing goes for music and food. Sometimes that curry pad thai is just the thing.  

A favourite letter though, which I am enduringly fond of, is the capital ‘R’. I like it because it carries a lot of DNA for the typeface. It has straight, diagonal, and round anatomy, all balanced in one drawing. It’s exemplary. The proverbial mosquito stuck in amber. You could reasonably extrapolate all of the other capitals from it, and make an educated guess at the appearance of the rest of the typeface.  

There is always a fine line to walk when designing type. A good typeface needs to have distinctive details, harmony and differentiation in shapes, and proper optical adjustments when required. The ‘R’ is rather flexible in its design and skeleton. It can feature a geometric straight leg or it could have a calligraphic influence, and sport a complex curve and finishing flick. If the leg is not quite right, you can tell. It has a delicate balance, like a sculpture.  

Because it carries so much personality, the ‘R’ becomes one of the letters I look to for typeface identification. Think about it; the Gill Sans ‘R’, the Helvetica ‘R’, the Frutiger ‘R’. Noticeable and distinctive, like the front grill on a BMW. But as I have to pick, today my favourite ‘R’ is Eric Gill’s Perpetua Bold Italic.