There are two common approaches to typeface design. The first is to design a new typeface to your personal taste, following your own rules or restrictions; and distribute it either through a type distributor or directly. The second is to work for a particular client on a commission. Besides the fact that the financial aspect is more secure, this method offers an opportunity to design a typeface following a very narrow design brief, suggested by the client or governed by the client’s particular needs and uses. Technical, historical or design considerations are all quite difficult to imagine if you design a typeface for your own use.
After designing typefaces for newspapers, for small print sizes in particular, an interesting challenge for me was to create a typeface for signage, for a medium other than paper. Unlike typefaces designed for small sizes, for poor quality paper and printing, which together push the designer to reinforce certain parts of letterforms, typeface characters made for signage need to be cleaner and more minimal in their form. A purity of expression is needed.
Book typefaces from the Renaissance remain our current archetype for most fonts created with paper as a final medium in mind. For signage, the purity of the Greek and Roman inscriptions seems more historically suitable. Their open counters, proportions, simplicity — in the case of Greek capitals — need to be followed when designing typefaces for monumental inscriptions.
Generic signage before the introduction of Parisine. Note that the text “Chevreuses” (red dot) is going far on the right.
Generic signage after the introduction of Parisine. Note that the text “Chevreuses” fit perfectly because of a narrow width.
Use of Parisine for RATP signages.
Design brief: A signage system more legible in Parisine
Let us return to the facts. In France, place names (particularly those from the Paris Métro) are in capitals only, in the majority of instances. In the early seventies, Adrian Frutiger was asked to design a special variation of his Univers typeface. His recommendation was to stick to capitals only to fit better with existing signage. At the same time, he designed Roissy (a preliminary version of the typeface called Frutiger).
Several decades later, the RATP started on a new concept for a signage system. Caps and lowercase in combination, which provide better word shapes and contrast, was adopted to improve legibility. For this new signage project, which was intended to be applied to all the transportation systems of the French capital, a typeface family was needed. After several proposals, including one by Frutiger, the RATP president decided that the creative team needed to select one of the typeface families already used by the RATP. Métro, the Adrian Frutiger all-caps face based on Univers; RER, Albert Boton’s thin, rounded, all-caps face designed specifically for the new fast Métro in the seventies; Gill Sans, used in recent years for official communication; Neue Helvetica, used for the bus signage system.
Key letters compared between Neue Helvetica Bold versus Parisine.
Circa 1995, Neue Helvetica was selected, logically, because of its large availability and compatibility with various computer platforms. This advantage ultimately produced the opposite result, because of the variety of different versions of Helvetica understood as the same face by potential users who tried to select an identical typeface, but mistakenly used Helvetica instead of Neue Helvetica. Because of the various widths, weights, and letterforms, the corporate guidelines have never been successfully implemented — the different players came from very different areas. When we refer to Helvetica, to a nonprofessional of typography, they don’t see the subtlety, nor comprehend the consequence, of choosing the wrong version.
Parisine: Why a specific typeface?
The people in charge of the signage system quickly understood that Neue Helvetica didn’t work well because of its width and standard spacing: the name of the station “Champs-Élysées Clémenceau” is obviously longer than the station name “Nation.” Historically, the name plates were sized in accordance with the length of the station’s name more than anything else. In stations where much information had to be displayed (various connections and ways out), the name plate was larger than in stations where not much information was needed. The new modular system permitted only a modest level of adaptation of the size of the name plates: a real problem in any Latin country that stubbornly resists standardization.
Characteristics of the new Parisine
Due to the problems described above came the idea for a specific RATP typeface with certain Helvetica characteristics, more economical in width, but with the same legibility. Parisine was born circa 1996, designed from Helvetica Bold, condensed at 90%. Parisine is intentionally more open to counteract the reduction of the areas of the counters due to condensing. Its forms are softer and more round, horizontal parts are slightly heavier, optically, to compensate for the verticality accentuated by the slight narrowness of Parisine. The specific forms of each character has been carefully optimised to differentiate each from the others, uniformly, to maintain the overall color of the typeface. The counter of the ‘o’ doesn’t repeat itself in other characters, like in Helvetica or Frutiger. Hence, the counters of the ‘b, d, o, p, q’ are all different compared to one another. The ‘g’ is more peculiar, in deference to Edward Johnston’s typeface from the London Underground. The ‘f“and ‘t’ are more wide than usual to constrain the verticality of the typeface. The ‘R’ has a strong diagonal tail, to help distinguish it from the ‘B,’ etc. Also, the capitals are designed to be more heavy than today’s norm to affirm the words set in all uppercase. Their proportions, based on Roman inscriptions, are quite large compared to the lowercase letters. Figures are also designed to be somewhat wide and open, to improve the legibility — they are used a lot for Métro and bus line references. This first version appeared only in two series, a bold and its italic, because of the signage system needed.
The counters of the ‘b, d, o, p, q’ are all different compared to one another. The ‘g’ is more peculiar, in deference to Edward Johnston’s typeface from the London Underground.
The main use of italics is for translations and tourist information. Its forms came from its use. More condensed, more cursive, and lighter, are the main characteristics. When designing an italic, 2 options are possible: The simple slanted form was not selected because of its lacking contrast to the roman. At the same time, the true italic form has a major problem with any ‘a’ that quickly can be mistaken for an ‘o.’ Without completely resolving the problem, the ending stroke helps its visibility. The ‘e’ is more round, like in serifed italics. After some tests, the ‘f’ was designed without is usual descender that we find in traditional serifed forms — too cursive for use at large sizes.
Parisine and RATP: A first conclusion
In 1999, despite the fact that the new typeface was not broadly used (mainly for budgetary concerns) only true new lines, stations, such as the 14 line, opened for the “Mundial Football Cup” benefited from the new signage set in Parisine. But the RATP signage team started to use Parisine for other purposes successfully, such as maps. This proved that the users had begun to appropriate the new typeface for alternative tasks. So, the need for a bigger family began. The map team asked for a Regular and Italic in addition to the Bold and Bold Italic.
Parisine, Parisine Plus, Parisine Office: Extended family
My 1996 dream: a big family for a broad range of communication and information material for the RATP. I proposed a 6-weight family with companion italics. After several discussions, during which time I explained that more weights would soon be a necessity. For instance, Extra Bold and Light, quite important for the hierarchy in maps and any other broad use of a family which becomes an important element of any global identity. My next step was to propose a budget for this project. I prepared two quotations: the first, more expensive than usual, for a regular and a corresponding italic; and the second, less expensive than usual, for a six-weight family. My objective was indeed to give the RATP a financial incentive to adopt the second solution.
Type specimen poster of Parisine create by Muriel Paris in 1999 for the launching of the complete families.
It has taken 6 months to design this new series and to redesign the existing ones. As usual theses days, thanks to typeface interpolation software, only extreme weights were designed, together with the Bold in the middle. The old Bold quickly became a big problem when I started to create all intermediate weights. Many trials and mistakes helped me adjust the weights of each series. To date, I continue to prefer Fontographer 4.1, for its speed on new computers, its ability to clean up early forms easily, its metrics and kerning assistance functionalities. But, quickly it became very old when moving to tedious things, such as the need for different x and y interpolation percentages, global control of IDs, copyrights, encoding, hinting. Robofog and FontLab are more up-to-date for such things: Robofog because of scripting, FontLab because it’s the only software able to build professional master fonts for MacOS and Windows. This last aspect is a key, as RATP uses different systems depending on the use and users, so a project can start in Adobe Illustrator for the Mac and finish in Freehand on the PC. The naming issues, because of cross platform compatibility, were resolved by 3 subfamily naming systems: Parisine Clair, Parisine, Parisine Sombre — each of them including 4 basic series, Regular, Italic, Bold, Bold Italic.
Parisine Plus started his life as a game when I designed Parisine. The Plus version was a diversion for me, and offered an opportunity to play with extravagant forms that are not feasible in the standard version because of its constraints. In fact, in the early days, I felt very skeptical about the novelty of Parisine, and the Plus helped me to appropriate the forms. The italics of the Plus were very interesting to design because of the various features normally used only in serifed fonts.
Parisine versus Parisine Plus.
Today, the typeface family is available for the public in all of its versions. But, strange as it is for me, the Parisine ‘standard’ became the most successful of my typeface families. I say strange because I always questioned myself about the novelty of it. Why Parisine is so appreciated, perhaps because it’s a synthesis between a Germanic Helvetica and a too Latin style of its creator?
Initially written in November 1997 after request from Sumner Stone, the editor of the Type Journal for a future issue of it, updated in 2000, and finally in 2002, but not already published in Type Journal. Copyright Jean François Porchez. Thanks to John Downer for the proofing of the English version.
→ Parisine: A workhorse & economical sanserif in 16 series
→ Parisine Plus: A fancy sanserif in 16 series.
→ Parisine Office: Humanistic sanserif in 4 series
→ Parisine helps Parisians catch the right bus
→ Parisine Plus and its fancy type effects
→ See also Proceedings of the St Bride 2003 conference and Métro Type