One can’t help but be impressed when one realizes that Jean-Baptiste Levée’s Paris-based type foundry Production Type hasn’t even existed for a year. Production Type has published an impressive and promising range of very different, very contemporary typefaces. One of them, Minotaur, originally developed as a custom project for a Paris art museum, is a superfamily consisting of Sans, Serif, and “Beef”.
I bought Minotaur Serif when it came out, simply because I found it intriguing and different from anything I’d ever seen. I didn’t know much about its history — at least not yet.
Writing about Minotaur is a bit harder than just buying it. I went down a deep rabbit hole of research, but it was an enjoyable journey. What follows is my analysis of the different parts involved in the Minotaur project.
The Hershey Fonts
When thinking about the Cold War era, a number of different images come to mind. For me, those are scenes from black-and-white movies. I think of serious people; they are smoking, talking on telephones. They are staffing a secret command central behind blast-proof gates; tape machines are spinning in the background. Fonts are not usually a part of this scenario.
Yet what Dr. A.V. Hershey was doing at the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory in Virginia (in exactly the time and scenario I am imagining) was creating some of the earliest digital representations of type. He made fonts! Cold War fonts.
Hershey’s “fonts” are quite simple: they are basically just lists of coordinates, which can be connected by straight lines, and then rendered using vectors on early cathode ray tube displays.
Hershey was working with the tools of his time, which likely meant operating room-sized computers on FORTRAN commands. The Hershey fonts are nothing like the digital fonts we know today. They may look crude to us, but certainly they were a remarkable achievement for their time.
Given the limitations of his tools, it is amazing how comprehensive and elaborate Hershey’s designs are. A fair number of alphabets were created, not only for Latin, but also for Greek and Japanese. A wide range of styles and variants were “drawn” too, in increasing complexity using up to three parallel lines to describe a stem. These family members included sans serif, serif (including italics and ligatures), script … even different styles of blackletter.
A Scotch Roman is a style of text face originally from Scotland, popularized in the US in the late 19th century. Some notable interpretations are Caledonia (Dwiggins, 1938), Georgia and Miller (Carter, 1993 and 1997), and Harriet (Cavanaugh, 2012). Levée references the version by New York punchcutter Bruce as an inspiration for Minotaur Serif.
Venus is (or was) a beautiful sans serif issued by the Bauer type foundry in the early 20th century. Christian Schwartz and Paul Barnes’ homage to Venus for Eye magazine is very good. Minotaur Sans is loosely based on Venus.
A Minotaur is a figure from Greek mythology; “part man part bull”, as described by Ovid. Consequently, a typeface named after such a fantastic creature should be a combination of two (not necessarily related) elements. Fortunately, a Minotaur has nothing to do with a Centaur.
Minotaur, the typeface
Levée’s description of Minotaur mentions the challenge of referencing Cubism in typeface design. I think he found a very thoughtful solution:
- In Minotaur, the sturdy models for Sans and Serif (Venus, Scotch Roman) are clad in a Hershey-style costume, neither of which is followed too closely. This recipe creates an intriguing combination of visual stimuli, and instinctively made me click “buy” — despite having no use for it at hand.
- Minotaur contains many references: Venus, for instance, builds a bridge to the era of Cubism simply through its shared age. The decision to include Lombardic caps in Minotaur Serif might seem like the most random (or hipster) decision imaginable, but apart from a genius way for making the project stand out, it is again a nod to Hershey, who included the Lombardic style in his work as well.
- Minotaur consists entirely of straight lines, and it is interesting to see those disappear in smaller sizes, especially in print. Finally, the oft-repeated sentence works well in small sizes, but has interesting details for large sizes is actually true, and more than pure font bullshit.
- Minotaur is not only an interesting display design. It is quite usable for very diverse typographic needs, such as a cultural institution might have. All the extras and features that are required of today’s text faces are included. There are even the rare but handy circled numbers (⓪➊➁➌➃➎➅➐➇➒⑩).
What I like about Levée’s style is his extreme professionalism, paired with a healthy portion of tongue-in-cheek humor. This may be the only explanation for the existence of a third style called “Beef”.
What is Beef? Why is this font so weird? Why is it so hard to even describe it? Does Beef refer to the bull-portion of the mythical Minotaur? Does Beef mean stress? It could be both. Nobody knows, and no explanation is given.
Minotaur Beef (even more than Minotaur Serif) looks unlike anything I have ever seen before. It’s like the weird uncle nobody wants to talk about. It is bold, has huge ink traps, the shapes are sometimes squarish where a round part should be, and vice versa.
Minotaur Beef has nineteen stylistic sets! Nineteen stylistic sets, with almost all dedicated to making the font look even weirder. I respect Minotaur Beef because it just doesn’t give a shit.
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Here’s some more insider information on the Hershey fonts that a mutual friend shared. (He was originally tasked with writing an implementation of the fonts for a 6502 processor back in the day.) A wonderful example of innovation born purely from a problem.
Frank shared some of his research into Hershey at TypeCon2015 and again at [email protected] West. I highly recommend watching his fascinating talk.
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