Studio Projects
Order a Catalog
Contact Emigre etc.

Studio Projects
Newsletter Archive
Base 900
By Zuzana Licko
Off the Grid

When Base 9 was designed in 1994, the goal was to create a comprehensive family of screen fonts with companion printer fonts, somewhat similar in purpose to Matthew Carter's well known typeface Verdana.

In the design process of these typefaces, the screen fonts largely dictated the look of the printer fonts, rather than the other way around, because outline fonts have a greater degree of flexibility than do screen fonts and are easier to adapt. For example, the proportions of the screen font determined the exact character widths within which the outline characters were adjusted to fit. Usually this process is reversed; character widths are normally adjusted to fit around the outline characters. Therefore, certain compromises had to be made.

Base 9 Screen Font (Lo-Res 9 Narrow)

Base 9 Printer Font

The design of Base 9 was a unique challenge, and while it generated some very surprising results that we would not have arrived at otherwise, the compromises ultimately generated shortcomings in the design of the printer fonts, particularly in the spacing. Over time, with the improvements of screen resolutions and hinting, these shortcomings in Base 9 seemed no longer justifiable, which lead us to surrender the purity of the concept in favor of a font which utilized the precision and sophistication of current technology generating greater legibility and applicability.

Base 900 Light, Regular, Medium, Bold, and Heavy

Whereas the Base 9 screen font was designed on a grid of nine pixels high, and had its roots in the Lo-Res 9 Narrow bitmap font, the Base 900 family is a high fidelity adaptation of the Base 9 printer font design. This lineage is an example of how technological restraints can serve as a source for design inspiration and exploration. In this case, the design morphed from a bitmap, to a restricted outline, to a full, high resolution typeface. The resulting Base 900 fonts still convey a modular, geometric style, reminiscent of the early computer technology era, but with an updated, more refined look made possible by a high resolution grid - which offers unlimited design possibilities.

One of the challenges when drawing Base 900 was finding the right balance between normalizing the design of Base 9 while maintaining its original character. The redesign still had to look like Base. To retain its character, the most distinguishing element that was carried over from Base 9 is the triangular spur detail which originated in the Lo-Res 9 Bold bitmap. To give definition to the cusps in the bitmap font, a pixel was removed to open up the area where the rounded stroke meets the stem. This open square area evolved into the trademark triangular wedge shape in the Base 9 printer font.

The extra narrow m is another example of a unique design element that resulted from the bitmap. When redrawing the typeface, the initial impulse was to draw a corrected m with a more common, wider proportion. But when implementing this more regular looking m, the typeface seemed to lose some of its character. So we opted to make the normalized m an alternate character, which is available in the OpenType version, along with alternates for the A I J W and w.

The alternate A employs the more traditional triangular apex, whereas the original round top straight sided design came from the bitmap where it was more legible, and avoided many spacing problems, which avoided many kerning pairs.

Base 900 also retains the original non-descending J and serifed I to preserve the character of the Base 9 design. The alternate descending J offers symmetric spacing within all caps settings, and the alternate I without serifs offers a more discreet look, which may be preferable in certain situations.

The original single story a with its triangular spur endings on top and bottom was also up for redesign consideration. A two story a was tried out in order to more clearly differentiate between the a and o to increase legibility. A three story g was also drawn for similar reasons. But these ideas were quickly dropped as it became immediately obvious that the results changed the overall look and feel of the design too much, situating it in the overcrowded stylistic neighborhood of too many sans serif fonts that aspire to look "neutral." Subverting legibility in favor of a more unique visual quality would make some type purists cringe. But others, who feel that type should impart more than just legibility, will enjoy the undeniable singularity of Base 900.

Due to the coarse resolution of the screen, the Base 9 bitmap and printer fonts were designed in only two weights: Regular and Bold. Because the weight could be increased only in whole pixel increments, the single pixel stem served for the regular weight, and the two pixel stem served for the bold weight. Without these restrictions, Base 900 introduces three additional weights: a lighter weight than the Regular; an intermediate Medium weight between the Regular and the Bold; and a Heavy weight.

Base 9 Screen Font (Lo-Res 9 Narrow)

Base 9 Printer Font

Similarly, the widths of the individual characters in Base 9 could vary only by whole increments of a pixel limiting the subtle width variations necessary to accommodate all characters. This meant that many characters shared the same size space, leaving some with extremely narrow or wide proportions.

Certain design details that are directly related to this restriction are the different solutions for some of the same characters in each of the two original weights. For example, the narrow lower case m and overlapping w in the Regular weight were the result of having to squeeze the glyphs into a narrow width. Whereas the m and w in the bold weight, due to a wider available space, have a more standard dimension and design. In Base 900, we decided to regularize these characters so that they appear more consistent throughout the five weights.

Base 9 Screen Font (Lo-Res 9 Narrow)

Base 9 Printer Font

Base 900

The loose and somewhat irregular spacing evident in the Base 9 printer fonts was also derived from the bitmap, as spacing adjustments had to be made in full pixel increments. In this respect, the original Base 9 shares some traits with monospaced fonts. Base 900 abandons these restrictions in favor of more traditional spacing.

Base 9 Printer Font                Base 900

Other improvements in the Base 900 family include a more subtle use of curves in the outlines. Type creation tools have greatly improved since 1994, as have my abilities as a designer of typefaces. Also, the original Base 9 contained many shapes based on simple geometric circles and ovals in keeping with the bitmap grid. Very few if any optical corrections were made to curves and lead in strokes. Even the thickness of horizontal and vertical stems, which also corresponded closely to the bitmap were kept uncorrected. This resulted in some uncomfortable visual effects whereby horizontal strokes looked thicker than vertical strokes. In Base 900, all these characteristics have been upgraded with the necessary optical corrections.

It's interesting to consider that some of the idiosyncrasies in Base 900 which derived directly from the bitmap, are used here for purely stylistic purposes. Design details that began as "form follows function" in the highly restrictive bitmap environment have now become purely formal to give a unique identity in the unrestricted high resolution environment.

When designing the Lo-Res 9 bitmap, the technology severely limited the shapes of the letter forms. When toggling pixels on a grid that allows exactly 9 pixels to define the letters from the top of the ascender to the bottom of the descender, it's obvious that the design options for each letterform quickly run out. On the other hand, the high resolution design environment, in which Base 900 was created, offers complete design freedom. In such an environment it becomes necessary for the designer to impose restrictions and rules to give the design a rationale.

Revisiting these old ideas for inspiration to create new designs begs the question whether to omit the earlier versions and consider the new version an improvement, or to introduce the new design as an addition alongside the old design. In the past we have redrawn typefaces to fix small problems to replace the old ones. In the case of Base 900, however, due to the significant changes, specifically in spacing and kerning, this would be impractical. Opening old files using the original Base 9 fonts and replacing them with Base 900 would completely rewrap the text. That alone was reason enough not to replace Base 9. Plus the look and feel of the new Base 900 fonts, while undeniably similar to its source, have a character all their own.


Base 900 Main Page



PDF Catalog Base 900

(240 KB)