Project Manual — Part 3: Manual Grotesk
|Published:||Aug 19 2018|
The design principles of Manual Grotesk fonts, their construction and the reasons why they were so popular for decades.
As I have mentioned earlier, I’m using the name Manual Grotesk for a whole system of typefaces that includes all fonts based on Richard Pipal’s narrow upright grotesk from the 1950s. Two of these fonts, whose digital versions I have named directly Manual Grotesk – Manual Grotesk A and Manual Grotesk B – are the best examples of the constructional principles of this wide family. Why, however, were these and not other fonts used on Slovak enamel street name-plates?
There are several reasons for this:
The glyphs of the Manual Grotesk system consist exclusively of straight lines and circles, strokes are uniform in thickness, construction is maximally utilitarian and without any ornaments. No special tools were needed to draw them; it was really a matter of seconds for an experienced designer to draw a glyph with just a simple ruler and a compass.
One of the most important aspects of Manual Grotesk is that the width of each letter or number is fixed and is expressed by the deviation from the width of the letter H. The default and most commonly used ratio of width and height is 3:7, where 1 is the thickness of the stroke. Most of the characters have the same width (B, N, O, S), some are narrower (E, F, L, T), others wider (A, M, V, W). The differences in width are expressed by fractions of the stroke width. For example, the letter E is 1/3 of the stroke width narrower than H, the letter M is 2/3 of the stroke width wider than H, etc. The tracking, as well as the most common kerning pairs, such as AV or TA, are defined in this manner too.
These predefined widths, in addition to simplification of drawing, bring another huge advantage. What might not seem so revolutionary today, was incredibly practical the analogue times – it was possible to calculate the real width of the whole line before one started drawing the actual text. The designers simply added up the widths of all characters in the line – for example H (3) + A (3 + ½) + N (3) – and then, based on the space reserved for the text, calculated the actual width of one unit in millimeters or centimeters. This dimension was then used to draw every glyph, so the text always filled the space just as expected. This allowed for justification of multiple lines or adjusting the spaces and tracking so the text fitted a desired line width or filled the space evenly.
This has proved particularly useful for the manufacturing process of street plates. In Slovakia, the street plates have a standardized size of 70 × 30 centimeters (27.5 × 11.8 in), the height of the letters is 9 centimeters (3.5 in) for the main text and 5 centimeters (2 in) for the secondary text. Each street plate has to be drawn individually so the text adheres to these dimensions – be it Mýtna Street (5 letters) or Slovenského národného povstania Square (31 characters including spaces).
For enamel technology, where the text is manually transferred using a cut-out stencil to a thin layer of enamel powder, there probably isn’t a more suitable typeface than Manual Grotesk. Its design is simple and geometric, without any complicated traps and most importantly – it is sans serifs.
On the stencils, the spaces between letters are cut out. Therefore, the letters have to be linked with the surrounding area by bridges. Because most glyphs feature simple vertical or horizontal strokes on tops and bottoms, it is very easy to apply these bridges and to quickly remove them once the text has been transferred onto the plate. This would be rather complicated and time-consuming if the typeface had serifs.
Last but not least, the decision to use Manual Grotesk as the typeface for street plates could have been influenced by the fact that every graduate of a secondary vocational school with a focus at least marginally related to typography had this design system in their curriculum. Therefore, not only graphic designers and promotional artists, but also engineers and industrial designer graduated from high school with at least minimal letter construction skills. In the early 1950s, when the standardization and uniformization of almost everything was taking place, and when the streets and squares were being renamed after socialis bigwigs en masse, the labor force already equipped with the skills came in really handy. At the times of the greatest demand, dozens of people worked on new enamel plates in multi-shift factories.
Let’s not forget about one more interesting aspect of the Manual Grotesk system. A large number of people worked with these letters in various sectors and in different geographical locations, which automatically led to many modifications and deviations from the master design. There can be found countless number of these variations throughout Slovakia. These, however, do not differ only in width or weight – the design system actually encouraged this type of modification.
What I have in mind under these variations are changes in construction and tweaks of the overall character, either according to the designer's personal preferences or based on the tool or technology used in the process. In the actual practice, signs using Manual Grotesk were enamelled, hand-painted, sprayed using stencils, cut out of wood or metal, or carved in stone. The result of the combination of these technologies with the author's personal contribution is creation of a large number of original variations. My goal is to digitize the most interesting of them within this project.
The diacritics also deserves a special comment here. Its references in the researched publications are very marginal, if any at all. The result is that designers were usually designing it in sort of a free-style way – they often reduced the diacritical marks to simple geometric shapes, sometimes they drew them surprisingly large and distinctive.
Some of the modifications served solely to simplify the work of the designer. A nice example can be seen directly on the street plates – for instance, the letters E and F are often optically wider than they should be. This is because the designer who drew the street name made the calculation of the line length easier by making the letters the same width as the base letter H, not narrowed by 1/3 of the stroke width. Also, according to the original master, arcs should overshoot the baseline and the cap-height line so that the round glyphs retain the same optical height as the the square-shaped ones. On the actual street plates, however, overshoots can be found only very rarely – even if they were drawn on the stencil, in the vast majority of cases they were simply cut off during the transfer of the text onto the plate.
Nevertheless, these flaws and imperfections show that Manual Grotesk was a flexible evolving system and that there is an actual designer, a real person, behind each application. There’s no such human element in digital fonts. It can be imitated, but the imitation can never compete with analogue.