In an era of ever-higher screen resolutions, Petr van Blokland has released a hymn to pixel-shaped letters on coarse grids — a programmatic system for a playful design approach.
A little over a year ago, I purchased a copy of Letters in studie, a booklet about type-design education featuring drafts of alphabets by students of Dutch art schools, edited by Gerrit Noordzij.1 It sparked my interest because it was published in 1983, a year that has occupied much of my attention during my PhD research on discourses of early digital type design (with an emphasis on developments before PostScript).2 The section on so-called “matrix-letters”, essentially sketches of bitmap fonts by Van Blokland and Jelle Bosma from KABK in The Hague, particularly intrigued me.
As early as the late 1970s, when low-resolution bitmaps were almost exclusively the domain of engineers, Van Blokland was concerned with simple letterforms constructed from round pixels on a 5 × 7-unit grid (five pixels for a form’s x-height, plus one pixel for capitals and ascenders, and another pixel for descenders). He wondered what the minimal requirements would be to create a full character set for ASCII (a standard of character encoding for electronic communication).3 His main thesis focused on legibility and exploring the effect contrast would have on these letterforms. In his introduction to Letters in studie, Noordzij explained that “in reality, the reduction of contrast is a complication of the simple starting point” and that “type without contrast limits the restricted possibilities of a coarse matrix even further”.4
By comparing letterforms constructed from single strokes (one pixel wide) with those comprised of both thick (two pixels) and thin (one pixel) strokes, Van Blokland demonstrated improved legibility — thereby proving Noordzij’s words. Considering the challenge of designing diagonals, which, on a coarse matrix, naturally reveal lighter areas than horizontals and verticals, these improvements are evident in letters n and h, as well as in other characters whose bows transition into stems. While studying these considerations and derivations, I also enjoyed seeing the first examples of this monospaced alphabet in use on photographs taken of screens (basically early screenshots).
Only a few weeks passed between my discovery of Letters in studie and the release of Bitcount on Van Blokland’s own Typetr label last year. The aforementioned single- and double-pixel-width weights are still there — but they represent a mere sliver of a fascinating system of parameters in the new and improved version of Bitcount. In total, the family consists of a package of three hundred fonts.
Programmatic type systems happen to be another research interest of mine, and Bitcount is an expansive one that can be very playfully explored. Aside from circular pixel shapes, Bitcount comes in four additional manifestations: circle outline, square, square outline, and plus symbols; each comes in five weights, ranging from light to bold. In addition to the uprights, there are slanted and italic counterparts and, on top of that, Bitcount is equipped with several OpenType features such as small caps, alternates, and a series of figure sets. Because there are strokes with and without contrast (as described above), different weights vary not by added pixels, but by pixels that increase in size. This clever feature allows all of the shapes and weights to overlap, designed as layers to form highlights, shadow effects, and all manner of patterns.
Letters from a low-res environment may seem questionable in an era of retina screens — but this is precisely what I find intriguing, aside from Bitcount’s historical references and systematic approach. In contemporary graphic design, there seems to be a tendency to rediscover decorative aspects of vintage characters, and there certainly is an appreciation of pixel type and lettering in the type community, as recently portrayed in Toshi Omagari’s talk at this year’s TYPO Berlin. Van Blokland’s typeface is an wide-ranging system of pixels. And I haven’t even mentioned the spacing parameters. Go to Bitcount’s microsite to discover those possibilities for yourself!
- The publication shows design work from art schools in Arnhem, Breda, Enschede, and The Hague. Some of the young type designers featured in it are well known today: Frank Blokland, Petr van Blokland, Jelle Bosma, Martin Majoor, Albert-Jan Pool, Fred Smeijers, and Wim Westerveld. ⤴
- If this interests you, read my article on the 1983 ATypI working seminar at Stanford University in Eye Magazine, vol. 24, no. 94, 2017, pp. 35–41. ⤴
- Read more about the making of Bitcount in Petr van Blokland’s own words. ⤴
- My translation from the Dutch original: “In werkelijkheid is juist de verkleining van het contrast een complicatie van het eenvoudige uitgangspunt. [. . .] Een contrastloos schrift perkt de sterk besnoeide mogelijkheden van een grove matrix nog verder in.” See Gerrit Noordzij (ed.), Letters in studie. Letterontwerpen van studenten in het Nederlandse kunstonderwijs, Eindhoven 1983, p. 24. ⤴