Tobias Frere-Jones at DesignThinkers 2016

Last Thursday I had the opportunity to go to the DesignThinkers 2016 conference at the Sony Centre in Toronto. I felt like this year I appreciated it a little bit more, because now I have a year of graphic design education under my belt. I know what to look for, what to appreciate, and understand the world of design a little bit more. Last year was a great experience as well, but slightly more overwhelming, and I think there were things that I would have processed differently with more experience in graphic design.

The design campaign this year was Confessions, in which people who bought tickets online were asked to share their design confessions anonymously. These confessions were used as the backdrop for the entire conference and became conversation points for the attendees. Ironically, the confession I entered when I purchased my ticket was used in the campaign and appeared on the program I was given when I arrived at the conference. It was a slightly surreal experience. I’m not sure what the chances of that happening are, but it helped solidify my feeling that I belong in the world of graphic design.


My program with my confession on the front. Weird!

My favourite speaker was Tobias Frere-Jones, a typeface designer. He talked about designing a typeface called Retina for the stocks and exchanges column section of the Wall Street Journal. Although his presentation style was a little dry, it was extremely interesting to hear about his process and the types of things he needed to keep in mind while completing the project. The single most important thing is your target audience. In this case, the average reader of the stocks tables in the Wall Street Journal is around 70 years old. Thus, the eyesight of the average reader has deteriorated significantly.


Retina Microplus looks quite odd when you see it blown up.

Keeping this in mind, the typeface needed to work in very small point size (something around 5.5 pt). It needed to have equal space weighting regardless of the style (regular, heavy, black, light, etc) so that line and letter spacing were not affected when type was set in a style other than regular. It needed to be designed to keep ink from blurring the tiny spaces around the letters, which happens with crappy newspaper paper. All of the characters, including numbers, had to look as different from one another as possible so there was no room for confusion. Also, the Wall Street Journal wanted the new typeface to allow them to print more lines per inch in the section of the paper.


Here you can see it works beautifully.

As you can see, Retina Microplus does an amazing job of solving the many problems that the original typeface was having. It also works very well for screen application because of the odd spacing and shapes of the letterforms. When turned into an image made of pixels, the spacing allows the pixels to more clearly demonstrate what the character is, instead of just being a blurred image. A lot of typefaces become nearly illegible when turned into pixels. Retina Microplus takes care of that.


Several popular typefaces rendered illegible by pixellation. 

Frere-Jones spent 15 years designing Retina, in which he tried to solve the puzzle of how much he could take away from the letterforms and it still be legible. The brain fills in the gaps automatically, but he had to work to discover exactly what those gaps were. This was my favourite speaker simply because many people (designers included), scoff at typography. But it is an amazing tool in our arsenal, and it can solve problems just as well as any other design element or device. Typography gets a hard rap because most people find it boring, but I think it’s fascinating how thousands of small changes to type can make something infinitely clearer.

Frere-Jones’s website

Frere-Jones’s Twitter page

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