Letter perfect

Photo By DENNIS MYERS

Annie Opitz Olsen, a graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno, was
previously a Reno printer and calligraphy teacher. She works for
Wycliffe Bible Translators and has given type design training workshops
in Bangalore and Mexico City.

You were on a team that created a new
typeface. I would think there is a certain amount of satisfaction in
doing that. It’s a form of immortality—typefaces are in use
a thousand years after their creators are gone.

In a sense. I mean, if somebody imitates it, then there’s even
more immortality, I guess [laughs]. But with the fonts that we release,
we use what’s called the open font license, which means that
anybody can modify them and add things. … And we don’t
charge anything for that. The only thing is, they have to include the
exact wording of that open font license in their release and they
can’t use the name to be given to the [new version of] the
font.

Why did you name it as you did?

It’s what we call a literacy font. Andika is a Swahili word
that means write. It’s an imperative—it means write.
And part of reading is learning to write as well.

How long did creating it take?

It’s still going on. Victor Gaultney, who trained me starting
about seven years ago now, had ideas for this font for a long time and
started actually drawing some preliminary letter shapes about 2005, I
guess—maybe earlier than that. But he had done some of the
research on what literacy workers wanted and needed in a literacy font
and also the psychology of reading, how that worked. You know, how the
mind worked, processed digital information. And there’s still
more research that’s going on. Anyway, the [Andika] font that is
currently in release was released in 2007. … The character sets
right now have about 630-something actual glyphs and we are taking that
up to over 3,000. That includes variations on the shape because in some
areas they might want a lower case T without a curved bottom on it, for
instance, so we have an alternate for it. But you have to count all
those different things. …

What were some of the problems you
encountered?

Well, unfamiliarity with how something might be used. What does this
letter really look like, if it was a really different shape? What kinds
of things occur next to it? For instance, I’m thinking of
what’s known as the hooked Y in lower case. We’ve got a
diagonal movement that has to go into the space over the next letter.
And how do you set that angle of that diagonal so that it doesn’t
run into something that follows it? You don’t know, as a type
designer, what might occur afterwards. And we can’t predict, we
can’t plan for all that. We’re not doing it per-language.
We want a font that’ll work in really any variation possible. We
have not at this point done custom kerning [removing space between
adjacent letters] where you say, All right, I know that this letter and
this letter, this kerning pair is going to occur. So we don’t
know, we don’t know. So we don’t kern, we just look for the
best overall spacing that will work pretty much in any situation.

The Andika typeface.

As I recall, you like serifs and here you
were working on a sans serif typeface.

It’s very challenging. When you asked what kind of problems we
ran into, nobody may have drawn this letter before in sans serif
style. So trying to figure out what it should look like is an
interesting challenge. I keep a running document where I can compare
what we’ve done in our other Latin fonts to deal with those
characters. Our other two Latin fonts—or the three Latin fonts
are all serifs. And so, okay, I can see what happens here, but what
does this translate to in the sans serif? So it’s been
interesting, but it’s good, a good challenge … a design
challenge.

You were a printer and a calligrapher. Did
those experiences have any benefit as you worked on Andika?

Sure. I mean, the calligraphy background—which predates
everything else—that goes back to when I was maybe, I don’t
know, ninth grade or something, 13, 14, around there—that was
when I first was interested or began noticing letters. And having done
a fair amount of calligraphy by the time I started doing type design,
how it [helped] there was that I had a sense of the need to know the
order and the direction of the strokes—how you write things, what
stroke comes first, what kind of movement, and that does have a bearing
on type design of letters. The printing is a benefit from knowing that
things need to look a certain way on the page, spacing and things like
that. I mean, that has a bearing on calligraphy, too, but it’s
different aspects of it. In calligraphy each letter, you try and make
them consistent but there are still going to be slight differences. In
type design, you design so that they fit well together no matter what
the combination of letters are. And when you’re doing something
with a pen you can make modifications, depending on what letter comes
next or where you are on the line.

The Andika typeface, seen above, can be downloaded for use at http://scripts.sil.org/cms/scrIpts/page.php?site_id=nrsi&item_id=Andika

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Dennis Myers
About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada.