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Typeface Review

Eskapade

Reviewed by Matthew Butterick on March 13, 2013

When I worked as a designer in San Francisco, I had many pitch meetings with tech companies that went something like this:

“We want to tell you our new business strategy.”

Okay, I’m listening.

“It’s a secret, so you have to sign a nondisclosure agreement first.”

Sure, here it is.

“Remember that thing our competitor released three months ago?”

Yes.

“We’re making our own version of that!”

Gee, now I understand why you’re keeping your plan a secret.

There is always comfort in emulating competitors. That’s why it’s common in any creative industry — whether it’s the technology industry or the type industry — for a trickling trend to grow into a flood of similar products. But the essence of competition isn’t similarity. It’s differentiation.

But what differentiates a typeface isn’t necessarily whether it avoids a trend. On the contrary, trends can light the way toward unexpected discoveries. For instance, who would have guessed that the 50-year vogue for Helvetica would yield the excellent Neue Haas Grotesk?

This is why I find discussions about originality in type design to be unavailing. Originality isn’t the quality most vital to lifting a typeface — or any creative work — above the crowd. Rather, the most vital quality is its capacity to surprise.

“Isn’t that the same thing as originality?” Not at all. If I bring home flowers for my wife, it’s not original. But it’s a surprise. Originality suggests doing something that’s never been done before. Surprise suggests doing something unexpected with familiar ingredients. For that reason, surprise is the more subtle and difficult achievement.

And that is the core achievement of Eskapade. Eskapade is a family built on a single lovely surprise: that a roman text face can have a fully realized Fraktur companion. Designer Alisa Nowak has gone about the project with discipline but a light touch, nudging the roman forms toward the Fraktur and vice versa, discovering the harmonies between.

While the roman and italic are well done, the Fraktur and its italic steal the show. Nowak has a calligrapher’s eye, and builds her Frakturs from confident, contemporary strokes that remind me of the work of Berthold Wolpe (in particular, his great but little-known typeface Sachsenwald). The ornamented Fraktur caps have a sense of exuberance but also restraint — everything ties back to the core concept.

Oh, sure, Eskapade also includes acres of accented characters for obscure languages. But young type designers, take note: Nowak has not made the mistake of thinking that breadth can substitute for depth. Eskapade is the work of a designer who has taken the time to study familiar things more closely than the rest of us, and who has distilled that knowledge into a typeface that asks: “Do you see what I see?” We do.

Matthew Butterick is a typographer, writer, and lawyer in Los Ange­les. He is the creator of Butterick’s Practical Typography. His most recent typefaces are Equity and Concourse.

3 Comments

  1. Oh, I so agree. The fraktur is utterly stunning and potentially very useful. And those Roman Italic caps! That R! I’d love to give this a good workout.

  2. Hrant says:

    I’m very relieved that a review of Eskapade was taken up, especially by somebody who writes well! Because it was actually my own second choice after Fenland… although Turnip was strongly in the mix too. So as tempting as it is to turn this comment into a stowaway review, I’ll try to limit things here.

    We each see things differently (a Good Thing) and although I agree with many of your points, to me the originality-versus-surprise angle is backwards. Besides the fact that it shouldn’t be too surprising that “a roman text face can have a fully realized Fraktur companion”, (see the amazing Kaas at Village which I can’t claim is “fully realized”, but actually features a Hebrew blackletter! THAT was surprising.), to me originality is what catalyzes progress (which is the thing I for one value the most). A nice surprise can indeed be subtle, but to me it’s much easier to surprise people than to make something that will inspire emulation far into the future. After all, by definition you can’t emulate a surprising thing, so it has little cultural impact.

    The most original — hence most significant — contribution that I myself see in Eskapade is the blackletter’s Italic. Maybe I’m merely seeing what I want to see, but I’m seeing the unduly maligned “rotalic”… Most interestingly, this is something Nowak’s “calligrapher’s eye” cannot alone explain. To avoid repeating what I see as the significance of rotalics I’ll point to the Olympics font article I wrote for Typographica (to the comments of which I will shortly post a long-overdue reply).

    Also interesting to consider here is that Eskapade’s blackletter component actually came out first, in fact by about five months. Was a fully-integrated Latin component planned in advance, or was it added (or at least finished) once general interest in the blackletter was sufficiently encouraging? I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the former, but if it’s the latter that casts a different light on things.

  3. Original, surprising, whatever you want to call it…this is a truly beautiful typeface.

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Typographica is a review of typefaces and type books, with occasional commentary on fonts and typographic design. Edited by Stephen Coles and designed by Chris Hamamoto. Founded in 2002 by Joshua Lurie-Terrell. Relaunched in 2009 by Coles and Hamamoto.

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