Typeface Review


Reviewed by John Downer on April 4, 2009

Without hesitation, I chose to review Orbe. I based my choice on the quality of the drawing. The drawing is exquisite. The shapes are supple and mature. They resonate pleasingly.

What I neglected to see or seek prior to making my choice known, was the designer’s statement about Orbe. It stands as one of the sloppiest stabs I have ever seen made by a designer in an effort to provide historical commentary that might help sell his type. The designer, Rui Abreu, would have done less harm if he had provided no commentary at all. So now I face two tasks: (1) review the design and (2) debunk the designer’s rhetoric. I’ll tackle them separately. First, the prose.

Prose Critique

The craft of writing blurbs is a craft I don’t take lightly. I write descriptions of my own typefaces, and upon request I sometimes write them for colleagues whose type designs I admire. To read a designer’s account of his own typeface which contains such a high proportion of egregious errors and unfathomable fallacies is striking, as can be said of the one which was written for Orbe. I call it the Orbe Blurbe. The Orbe Blurbe appears to be an independent attempt by an inexperienced author to do what he is not properly prepared to do: convince his peers and potential customers that he knows his sources or subject matter. Noticeably absent, are clues to the reader that the writer has a credible overview of major influences on, and developments in, the history of paleography.

Gaining command of a special vocabulary for addressing typographers, letterers, graphic designers, historians, and academicians is ultimately not just an incidental obligation, it’s a prerequisite. I would advise any type designer who attempts to write in English for publication, but whose first language is not English, to enlist the help of an accomplished English-language writer who is both an expert in the field of lettering & typography, and who is willing to thoroughly proofread and copyedit the designer’s rough draft. In the end, it is the responsibility of the designer to make sure that all the information about the type is truthful, comprehensible, and authoritative.

Rui Abreu claims that “Orbe is a blackletter font intended to somehow depict a portuguese calligraphic “cosmology”.”

1. Blackletter is an incorrect term for the genre of Orbe’s letters. They are versals in the “Lombardic” style. In part, they derived from ancient Roman cursive letters, and they often stood in for blackletter majuscules. Their function was/is to begin a line of text — sometimes blackletter text — but this is merely an association.

2. Orbe isn’t exactly a font in the usual sense of the word, as we use it English. It’s technically a set of initials. I consider the act of using initials for such typographical purposes as setting lines, to be a mild form of abuse. Readers should not assume that any collection of glyphs offered in digital font format is automatically a font.

3. Portuguese calligraphy had only a minor role in the development of the versals on which Orbe was based. Calligraphy, in the usual sense of the word, applies to writing. Versals in Medieval manuscript books, made in Portugal and throughout Western Europe, were normally painted with a brush and not written with a quill. The work produced with a brush by scribes in Portugal was not calligraphy (in China, yes; in Portugal, no). Versal forms were built up by outlining and filling each shape, or by filling in backgrounds. Scribal methods varied, but versals were commonly created by employing painterly (i.e., noncalligraphic) scribal techniques.

Rui Abreu contends that “The glyphs are a mix of lowercases and uppercases, all aligned at same height…”

1. The glyphs come from Medieval versals which were an amalgamation of Roman majuscules and Uncials. The Roman alphabet is bicameral. The Uncial alphabet is unicameral. Among the versals which resulted, are no minuscules. Moreover, there are no minuscules present in Orbe except for @, ∂, ß, and the two ordinals.

2. The author is applying the definition of “unicase” to an alphabet of versals which is decidedly unicameral. There is no such thing as a lowercase versal. A versal is capital. Alignment and height and are not criteria.

Rui Abreu calls Orbe “a very nice decorative and titling font.” and concludes that it has “a nice texture on longer text settings.”

1. There are indeed many nice decorative letters in Orbe. They’re ideal for starting words, not forming words.

2. Orbe could be used for titling, but I would not recommend it. The letters look best when they stand alone. For any user who is bent on setting words, I’d say use no more than 10 or 12 letters. Set only a word or two. Experienced typographers may be able to exceed my recommended limits if the letters are selected carefully.

3. I would strongly argue against considering Orbe for text settings. It is not a text face. Instead of promoting it as having “a nice texture” for text settings, a more conscientious, humane, responsible type designer would have issued a Consumer Warning to dissuade users from attempting such a seriously inadvisable experiment.

Design Critique

Now, to address the letters and other characters in Orbe, I must say that they show a level of drafting skill not seen in any of the other offerings on the R.Type site. Orbe is definitely the pick of the litter. It is replete with goodies. Some of the majuscules in Orbe have more than one form, which adds versatility. Sadly, two letters which are not offered in more than one version, are the M and N. This is disappointing because the M and N are the most boisterous, rebellious, and nonconforming of the bunch. They look silly in context. Their ponytail perkiness is quite unlike the overall demeanor of the rest. They should be placed in alternate positions, making room for more stylistically-suitable glyphs to occupy their slots.

The designer has done a respectable job of drawing lining figures which appear to fit the style of the majuscules. The ornaments are beautifully designed. They work superbly, and would surely work well even where no other glyphs from Orbe were present. The U looks unfinished, due to the strange treatment given to its upper-left corner. There is an inexplicably excessive assortment of TY and EX ligatures, most of which will prove to be practically useless. There are also ligatures for FI and FL but they don’t differ visibly from their individual components, so they’re redundant. Likewise, there was no clear cause to include an eszett. An eszett cannot be used as an initial.

In Orbe, letters such as H, I, and T are more sober in appearance than most of the other letters. Additional alternate forms are needed, in order to expand their ranges. The O, conversely, suffers from not having at least one sober, unornamented, version. Both existing forms of O are swash characters, and do not look appropriate in every situation. The E has an interesting shape. The C, the S, and one form of G are drawn with similar flair, but he E needs an alternate form, as well. Rather than having only the “flopped 3” style, imagine a flopped D with its stem reduced in weight to a hairline running vertically along the right side, and an interior crossbar spanning the full width of the enclosed counter, making it resemble the E in the Œ digraph.

It is my hope that Orbe will get a second chance to be introduced. But first, its character set needs to be extended and reorganized. Most urgently, though, the Blurbe needs to be discarded and replaced with an essay which is historically correct, plausible, and acceptably modest in its claims.

Thanks to Paul Shaw and Peter Bain for taking time to discuss with me the various issues I’ve raised in this review.

John Downer, an accomplished sign painter, show card writer, and letterer, helps to keep the hand-driven crafts alive by demonstrating to captive audiences around the globe. He has also designed typefaces for Bitstream, Emigre, the Font Bureau, and House Industries.


  1. William Berkson says:

    Don’t hold back, John :)

    Thanks for the very interesting essay, and pointing out the proper use of this beautiful design.

  2. Peter Bruhn says:

    Thank you John. It’s always good with critique. We’ll take it in and see what we can do to rework the blurb and the typeface.

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