When you want to transfer a typewriter face to the digital world, there are usually two routes you can take. Either you start from scans of a well-worn typewritten sample to produce a rough rendering of the letters on paper (this genre has been thoroughly explored in the past 20 years, with different levels of accomplishment), or you look directly at the forms of the metal letters itself, possibly discovering subtleties obscured by poor quality ribbon ink and uneven prints.
There is a balance to strike between slavishly reproducing the metal letters, which were never intended to be viewed “naked,” (Monotype’s infamously spindly Courier New is one of those that fail in this regard) and going overboard with the ribbon effects and roughness.
FB Alix is not merely a digitization of an existing typeface. Its upright weights are approximately modeled after the Prestige typewriter face, of which there are more literal digitizations available. While the Adobe rendering is stiff and angular, almost monoline, and lacking in detail, the Bitstream version is more rounded and adds some irregularities and weight. Both of these look outright clumsy when enlarged, and restrained at text size, compared to Alix.
In part, it’s the increased stroke contrast that makes Alix look more refined, but most interesting are all the details Butterick added. These details, which are hardly noticeable at usual text sizes, are modeled to give the lively impression of typewritten words, and add sparkle to the page without resorting to randomness and ribbon patterns. Zoom in on the individual letters and marvel at the strange shapes. Serifs come in various styles, from bracketed to angular, slab or wedge-shaped, even in the same letter; they are even asymmetrical in letters like ‘I’ or ‘H’. Terminals that you would expect to be equalized are drawn differently, like in ‘c’ and ‘e’. Stems like those in ‘f’, ‘h’, ‘k’ or ‘l’ are are tapered, and no two are the same. The outlines are drawn freely, but carefully, and don’t conform to the rules of the stroke, reminding me of the letters of W. A. Dwiggins or F. W. Goudy. The amazing thing is that all these inconsistencies don’t make the text fall apart, but are balanced out to create a homogeneous but vibrant image.
Alix’s natural size is 10 points, at which it sets the typewriter classic 12 characters per inch. Oldstyle figures are available in addition to the default lining figures, as well as proportional variants of some glyphs which amend the most problematic letters in a monospaced face (‘m’, ‘w’, ‘Æ/æ’ and ‘Œ/œ’) but also subtly adjust the letters ‘I/i’, ‘l’, and ‘r’.
There is a true italic – something that was uncommon on typewriters – with even more peculiar forms to discover.
Alix is truly a gem that shows that there are still new directions to be explored in a seemingly well-covered area. The typewriter may be dead, but typewriter faces are very alive.
Jens Kutílek is a graphic designer who works as Font Technician for the FontFont library in Berlin. Having spent most of his school days filling sketchbooks, and most of his free time programming his C64, eventually led him to the crossroads of art and technology.