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Alan Greene & FF Atma - Interview by Ian Lynam

Ian Lynam: What is your personal history in the design field?

Alan Greene: I studied graphic design at Bradley University in Peoria, IL. Immediately after school, I worked at T26 type foundry in Chicago. Later that year, I moved to the San Francisco Bay area, and began work at FontShop. I am currently employed at MvB Design in Albany, CA.

What got you interested in working with type?

When I was in seventh grade, I tried my hand at an incredible rudimentary type design program included with Print Shop Companion on my family’s Commodore 64. My first subject was a 3D extruded rip-off of the titling for the film Koyaanisqatsi. I was utterly drawn into the title as it spread across the screen and sharpened at the tip of the Q.

Much later, in college, I found that I was much more interested in a block of nice text than in any imagery I could conjure up. There was something about the flow of text that intrigued me. But this was puzzling at first, particularly because I didn’t enjoy reading very much. I think what was pulling me in was the very nature of typography itself: a bunch of little abstract symbols arranged very neatly in a row, somehow comprehensible to the eye. Weird, I think. This still has me rather baffled.

I was eventually producing all of my projects in black and white, which my professors probably thought was a cop-out, but I was genuinely interested in stripping things down to black shapes on a white surface. Any excuse to compose an entire project using only typographic elements was a good one, as far as I was concerned.

What led you to the realization that you wanted to create a typeface? And what ultimate goal did you have in mind when starting on this path/conceptually, what were you looking to create?

When I saw that type design software was available, I knew wanted to try it out. It was a great feeling to see letters that I had drawn (albeit as unimaginably hideous as they were) being used as abstract components of an image, or as text on a page. I wanted to have created every element of my school projects, starting with the type. It was an ego thing.

For FF Atma, my goal was simply to create a distinctive, polished, useful text face. I wanted something that I could really take seriously, something that would allow me to explore my take on letter forms in a focused setting. Of course, things didn’t quite work out right away. There were many points along the way where I experienced the conceptual equivalent of starting from scratch. Although I was rethinking my intentions for an existing structure, the kinds of changes being made may have been best carried out by drawing the forms over. But I’m just guessing. Naturally, these major overhauls became less frequent later in the development process. (By “major,” I mean huge changes in the overall look and feel of the typeface that are immediately apparent from reading distance.)

Click here to be taken to FontShop’s font area, where you can try FF Atma and buy online.

FF Atma Book: Roman, Roman Small Caps, Roman Mid Caps, Roman Quarter Caps, Italic, Italic Mid Caps; FF Atma Medium: Roman, Roman Mid Caps, Italic; FF Atma Bold: Roman, Roman Mid Caps, Italic

What are the historical/theoretical jumping-off points for the face? What informs the formal qualities of the face? How did you determine the geometry and lines of the face?

I started by looking at typefaces that seemed to be very ubiquitous, but which I had never considered using. These would be mainstays like Times, Helvetica, and Trajan. I also looked to Democratica for philosophical guidance, as I was initially determined to create a typeface whose characters had all been drawn individually, without copying and pasting. FF Atma would eventually reveal only nominal evidence of such an approach, whereas Democratica embraces this concept at a structural level.

Through this casual research, I saw that the Baskerville types and their revivals (in particular, Mrs Eaves) were most pleasing to me. That FF Atma seems to take cues from other transitional typefaces is probably not accidental; I love the Baskervilles and it’s only natural that their aesthetic seep into mine.

What determines readability/legibility in your eyes?

Not as any disrespect to you or your question, but I really don’t think my opinions count when it comes to the issue of legibility. I have much more to learn about this subject before I go touting my own theories and pretending to know something that someone else doesn’t.

What I have learned from others (and have subsequently noticed for myself and incorporated into FF Atma) is that text typefaces rely fairly heavily on optical trickery to be serviceable at reading sizes. There are too many little tricks to mention at once, but they all share one thing in common: they all look wrong at first!

Partial character set for FF Atma Serif Book Roman, with various sizes of small caps

How does the face stack up against what you had envisioned as the end result?

Since it took so long to complete, my vision of the end result inevitably changed quite drastically over the course of the development period. I would say that FF Atma satisfies what I was aiming for, though a bit more involved than what I had initially planned.

Partial character set for FF Atma Serif Book Italic, with various sizes of small caps

How long did it take you to create the face?

From the first drawings to the final family, four years. However, it has not been without hiatus. The first couple of years were off and on, thinking it was done and working on other fonts. The past two years or so have been the much more intense development time. Most of that time was spent on just the most basic font in the family, FF Atma Serif Book Roman; the rest of the family had always existed, but was redrawn from scratch in the last year.

What evolutionary changes happened along the way?

Too many to mention. In very general terms, the original was very flimsy, misshapen, and full of affectations. The first things to go were the affectations, followed by cleaning up the forms considerably, and lastly (just within the last 12 months) strengthening the proportions and making it more stable. As I continued to learn, I continued to incorporate new ideas into the family. It’s funny, I used to keep notes on my progress at the very beginning. I distinctly remember thinking that the early changes being made were just sheer insanity. They were huge steps toward a much more traditional form, but they shocked me so much and I was very unsure of all these “risky” decisions being made. My notes reflect this panic quite clearly. Of course, now it’s hilarious to think that I was afraid to move away from such ghastly atrocities and into the realm of ok-ness.

What sizes will it be released in? What variety of weights? What informed these decisions on your part and what is different about the varying weights of the family?

The first release is a collection of serif types for use at normal reading sizes: about 10pt to 12pt, but they also work at larger sizes. The weights are Book, Medium, Bold, and Black. From there, all of the weights have eight styles: regular lowercase and three sizes of small caps, in both roman and italic. Each of these styles in turn has three sets of figures: proportional old-style, cap-height or small cap-height proportional lining figures, and cap-height or small cap-height tabular lining figures.

The decision to make various sizes of small caps just came from personal experience. There have been countless times when I wished for small caps that were between x-height and cap-height, or that were slightly smaller than cap-height, in addition to the more traditional small caps closer to x-height. By making all three sizes, I hope to have provided enough possibilities to be serviceable in many situations. I would certainly not recommend that a user employ all three small cap sizes in a single setting, instead choosing one or two and sticking to them. As for also providing them in italic and each with its own numbers, I wanted to make sure that nothing was left out. I also would certainly not recommend that anyone set a document in FF Atma Serif Black Italic Mid Caps with tabular figures. The idea of multiple small cap sizes is not my idea, by the way. It was done this way with Mrs Eaves, and perhaps others. I just extended it a little bit to include three small cap sizes in roman and italic, and in all weights.

How do you envision the face being used in a utopian situation (i.e.: ultimate project that you’d love to see it used in)?

If it were used for the liner notes of a gigantic Philip Glass box set, I would die of glee instantly.

Ian Lynam is a designer and writer living in Portland, Oregon.

FF Atma gives users a bag of tricks: small caps in three sizes with corresponding figures and punctuation.

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