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Essay by Rudy VanderLans

This text was first published in 2003 on the reverse side of the promotional poster for Priori.

After the popular successes of Exocet and Mason, Emigre has once again teamed up with Jonathan Barnbrook to bring you his latest venture into type land.*

Priori is a logical progression from Mason, a typeface he designed around ten years ago. Where Mason was designed purely for display purposes and featured only caps, Priori includes lower case, companion serif and sans serif versions, alternates and, according to its creator, is shooting for text face status - a bold claim from a designer who loves to wear his influences on his sleeve and who has little use for typography that aspires to be "neutral" or "transparent."

Like many of Barnbrook's typeface designs, Priori is based on his interest in British typography of the early 20th century. It is inspired by the work of famous British typographers, such as Eric Gill and Edward Johnston. But it also embraces all of the signage and lettering that Barnbrook observes in the streets, cathedrals, and public buildings of his London neighborhood. This mixing of native influences with a contemporary pop culture intent is what gives Barnbrook's types a distinct and unique flavor. Like its creator, Priori is a one of a kind.

Some sources and inspiration (click on image for enlarged view).

About Priori

At Emigre we have always had a soft spot for typefaces designed by graphic designers as opposed to typefaces designed by type designers. When graphic designers design type, there is a decidedly different intent and aesthetic at play that often results in surprising and unusual solutions to letterforms.

The professional type designer is almost always concerned with following tradition and established reading habits. Their knowledge and experience ensure that the basic principles of type design are well taken care of - all the small details that are so important when designing a complete font (especially text fonts), such as spacing, kerning, modulation, armature, etc.

Graphic designers, on the other hand, have something else in mind when they design typefaces. Their type is usually filled with connotations, quotes, questions, contradictions, critiques, and idiosyncrasies. Their typefaces are often an outgrowth of specific design jobs requiring custom made letters for posters or logos. They are less concerned with, and often also less adept at, the finer points of drawing type. They are also less restricted by tradition, which lends their fonts a unique appeal.

For a foundry to release such fonts commercially is a balancing act of correcting obvious mistakes and omissions while keeping the integrity and soul of the original idea intact. In the end, these fonts are not idiot-proof. They often require a trained, discriminating eye to use them effectively. This results in fonts that are perhaps limited in their application, but high on emotion and expressiveness when used well.

Jonathan Barnbrook is first and foremost a graphic designer. He is well known for his recent collaborations with the British artist Damien Hirst and his work for Adbusters magazine. He is outspoken about his political beliefs, and in his personal work often addresses the dilemma of reconciling the commercial aspects inherent in graphic design with his ambition to use design as a weapon for social change.

Another aspect that attracts us to Barnbrook's work is his ability to draw inspiration from his immediate surroundings. To us, his work comes across as particularly British with a definite leaning towards religious and medieval imagery, although he is quick to point out that he is neither religious nor patriotic. In a world that is becoming increasingly globalized with cultural specificity waning, Barnbrook's choice to draw inspiration from his own culture is both brave and highly effective. His work stands miles apart from most of his contemporaries. This preference is particularly obvious in the typefaces he designs.

Despite all their inherent contradictions and sometimes downright illegible characters, Barnbrook's fonts have sold remarkably well, particularly the Emigre releases Mason and Exocet, two typefaces based on primitive Greek and Roman stone carving and loaded with Barnbrook's typical religious and medieval connotations. Exocet became an immediate favorite for particularly dark, Gothic-like video games, such as Diablo, and comic strips of similar ilk. Surprisingly, it was used just as frequently in applications for an entirely different purpose, such as the logo for the upscale TAZO teas. Mason, too, found usage in a number of dark, cult-like settings, while also being selected as the title font for Walt Disney's re-release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The wide-ranging popularity of these fonts sprouted numerous rip-off and look-alike designs, all furthering the popularity of Barnbrook's fonts.

Emigre has never shied away from releasing fonts that have wide appeal. We enjoy seeing our releases saturate popular culture on all levels, although we are usually as surprised by their success as anybody else. Obviously Barnbrook has a finger on the pulse of a particular segment of type design, and we were happy to collaborate with him again on this new release.

Priori is a logical progression from Mason, a typeface he designed around ten years ago. Mason was designed as an all caps font, because, as Barnbrook points out, "At that time I disliked lower case. It was a reaction to the 'pretend modernism' that I saw everywhere around me. I thought 'Why do I need lower case letters when the most beautiful typography was set in capitals in Rome?'"

After that, he started to love what he hated, as many of us do at some point, and went through a period of using lower case only. "But," he is quick to add, "not in the same way as practiced by the so-called Swiss International Style. Instead, I was more interested in experimenting with historically based letterforms."

The typeface he wished to produce turned out to be one of his most ambitious type projects to date. In typical non-type designer fashion, Priori first saw the light of day on David Bowie's 2002 album Heathen, where a prototype version can be seen.

One of the reasons for a graphic designer to draw typefaces is to control every element on the page. While Barnbrook was able to create very intricate designs with the display fonts that he had drawn over the years, none were practical for setting texts in a book. Priori was to be his first text type design that would make it possible to finally control all elements on the page, including lengthy texts. To complete the challenge, it was to encompass matching sans and serif type.

Many type traditionalists will frown upon his claim. With all its idiosyncrasies, Priori does not exactly rival any established text fonts. But from Barnbrook's perspective, the claim is not so curious. He is a strong believer in the impossibility of neutral, transparent typography. For Barnbrook, every detail in a design helps to build a larger story. Nothing is neutral. Everything has meaning. And the more meaning, the better.

Priori is loaded with meaning. Barnbrook's interest in British typography of the first half of the 20th century provides Priori with its foundation. But it isn't inspired only by the work of famous British typographers, such as Eric Gill and Edward Johnston. Priori also embraces all of the signage and lettering that Barnbrook observes in the streets, cathedrals, and public buildings of his neighborhood. "I wanted to express some of the features from my favorite letterforms," says Barnbrook. "Some are more obvious than others. The 'a' echoes the alternative version of Futura. The 'W' reminds me of the ones carved in stone on war memorials. The slight tail on the 'n', 'm', and the 'h' are all from 18th century letterforms. The 'r' reminds me of letter shapes I've seen in hand-painted signs of 1940s London." Priori is about recapturing an atmosphere that permeates the designer's surroundings, yet is slowly disappearing.

The Naming of Priori

The naming of typefaces has always offered a particular challenge to Barnbrook. The context of naming type has changed dramatically over time. The design of a typeface used to be a life's work, and it would often be adorned with the creator's name. Today, naming typefaces is a bit like naming pop songs or pieces of art. To Barnbrook, naming a font is a chance to provide hints about the conceptual basis for the letterforms.

He often picks names that, through mispronunciation or misunderstanding, will generate additional meaning. Someone hearing the word "Priori" could easily confuse it for "priory," which is a place where monks live in isolation. This word transports us to the medieval era, a time when the first printed books appeared, and a time richly represented in the design of Priori.

However, Barnbrook first considered calling his font "Priori" when he came across the term "a priori" in the book Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig. (A priori would not work as the name of a typeface since it would be awkward to ask for. So he called it simply "Priori.") The term appealed to him. A priori conveys the idea of a specific concept built up in people's minds over time as the result of all kinds of outside data. In its simplest form, a priori means a piece of knowledge that is not based on actual experience but presupposition. This is how he saw his typeface. It was an idea he had carried in his head for a long time, a set of related serif and sans serifs infused with details from his favorite text types of the past. As he drew them, he tried to stay as close as possible to this imaginary model.

Barnbrook makes no claims that Priori equals Gill or Johnston or any of the text fonts of his British past. It is an idea for a text font based purely on the kinds of outside influences that Barnbrook relishes without being overly concerned with traditional ideas of legibility and functionality. Priori, then, is an a priori text font.

Priori Acute

In 2009, Priori Acute was added to the family. This experiment into three-dimensional letter form design plays with incongruous perspectives and twisting shapes that trick the eye.

* Aesthetic production by Marcus Leis Allion.


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