Operator fonts

Typeface Review


Reviewed by Erik van Blokland on July 5, 2017

Early mechanical typewriters were pre-digital engineering marvels. These machines produced crude typography: all letters had to be the same width (or “pitch”). So narrow letters occupied the same space as wide letters, making some look stretched and others cramped.

Few type designers were involved with typewriter companies in those days, making the design of letterforms a technical assignment for an engineer. When the mechanical reasons for monospaced typefaces faded, the tabular quality of the typography gave it a new venue: in early digital terminals, the cathode ray tube could only show eighty columns. Again, all letters were required to be the same width; again, most were drawn by engineers.

Operator appears to be a monospaced revival of a late-electric-typewriter or an early-digital-computer face. Note the occasional serif that camouflages an unsolved spacing problem, the almost monolinear contrast, and the italic that tries so hard to be expressive with loops and connectors. But underneath, Operator communicates a different, more complex, more contradictory view of design.

Yes, the typeface bears a hint of newsrooms and fact-reporting journalists, but it manages that without a single skeuomorphic smudge. And only ten of the sixty-four styles are actually single-width. Close up, with all stylistic duties fulfilled, the shapes of Operator begin to shine. These shapes are not mechanical; rather, they’re cut from an elegant but tough material. The strokes are stubborn and do not always want to bend. The counters are open; the joints show contrast in sensible places and are very well balanced. Operator is far removed from mechanics and engineers; there is even an echo of a handheld writing tool here.

Perhaps Andy Clymer (senior designer at Hoefler & Co.) was motivated by the third great era of monospaced type: code. The process of digital type design involves all kinds of syntax, from features to Python to HTML and CSS. Operator may offer a glimpse of something Clymer wanted to make for himself: his view of what his own code should look like in the spartan environment of a code editor. One could argue that code typography is too important to leave to engineers and that it deserves the same scrutiny as more conventional fields of typography. Operator is a well-drawn and sophisticated typeface, destined for a wide range of applications, that sometimes pretends to be a typewriter.

Other examples of type designers making fonts for coding exist, but not many. To name a few: David Jonathan Ross (Input), Pieter van Rosmalen (Nitti), Just van Rossum (Python Sans), and Petr van Blokland (BitCount).

Erik van Blokland could not choose between type design and programming and decided to do both. Besides type design (some of which is featured on Typographica), he developed the acclaimed type interpolation tools MutatorMath and Superpolator, and coauthored the Unified Font Object (UFO) specification and the W3C Web Open Font Format standard. Van Blokland is a 1989 graduate of the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague (KABK) where he has taught in the Type and Media master department since 1999.


  1. Alexander Hedges says:

    You mention Python Sans by Just van Rossum. I couldn’t find it anywhere, is it available commercially?

  2. Just van Rossum says:

    Sorry, it is not.

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