Letter perfect

Annie Opitz Olsen


Annie Opitz Olsen, a graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno, was previously a Reno printer and calligraphy teacher. She works for Wycliffe Bible Translators and has given type design training workshops in Bangalore and Mexico City.

You were on a team that created a new typeface. I would think there is a certain amount of satisfaction in doing that. It’s a form of immortality—typefaces are in use a thousand years after their creators are gone.

In a sense. I mean, if somebody imitates it, then there’s even more immortality, I guess [laughs]. But with the fonts that we release, we use what’s called the open font license, which means that anybody can modify them and add things. … And we don’t charge anything for that. The only thing is, they have to include the exact wording of that open font license in their release and they can’t use the name to be given to the [new version of] the font.

Why did you name it as you did?

It’s what we call a literacy font. Andika is a Swahili word that means write. It’s an imperative—it means write. And part of reading is learning to write as well.

How long did creating it take?

It’s still going on. Victor Gaultney, who trained me starting about seven years ago now, had ideas for this font for a long time and started actually drawing some preliminary letter shapes about 2005, I guess—maybe earlier than that. But he had done some of the research on what literacy workers wanted and needed in a literacy font and also the psychology of reading, how that worked. You know, how the mind worked, processed digital information. And there’s still more research that’s going on. Anyway, the [Andika] font that is currently in release was released in 2007. … The character sets right now have about 630-something actual glyphs and we are taking that up to over 3,000. That includes variations on the shape because in some areas they might want a lower case T without a curved bottom on it, for instance, so we have an alternate for it. But you have to count all those different things. …

What were some of the problems you encountered?

Well, unfamiliarity with how something might be used. What does this letter really look like, if it was a really different shape? What kinds of things occur next to it? For instance, I’m thinking of what’s known as the hooked Y in lower case. We’ve got a diagonal movement that has to go into the space over the next letter. And how do you set that angle of that diagonal so that it doesn’t run into something that follows it? You don’t know, as a type designer, what might occur afterwards. And we can’t predict, we can’t plan for all that. We’re not doing it per-language. We want a font that’ll work in really any variation possible. We have not at this point done custom kerning [removing space between adjacent letters] where you say, All right, I know that this letter and this letter, this kerning pair is going to occur. So we don’t know, we don’t know. So we don’t kern, we just look for the best overall spacing that will work pretty much in any situation. …

The Andika typeface.

As I recall, you like serifs and here you were working on a sans serif typeface.

It’s very challenging. When you asked what kind of problems we ran into, nobody may have drawn this letter before in sans serif style. So trying to figure out what it should look like is an interesting challenge. I keep a running document where I can compare what we’ve done in our other Latin fonts to deal with those characters. Our other two Latin fonts—or the three Latin fonts are all serifs. And so, okay, I can see what happens here, but what does this translate to in the sans serif? So it’s been interesting, but it’s good, a good challenge … a design challenge.

You were a printer and a calligrapher. Did those experiences have any benefit as you worked on Andika?

Sure. I mean, the calligraphy background—which predates everything else—that goes back to when I was maybe, I don’t know, ninth grade or something, 13, 14, around there—that was when I first was interested or began noticing letters. And having done a fair amount of calligraphy by the time I started doing type design, how it [helped] there was that I had a sense of the need to know the order and the direction of the strokes—how you write things, what stroke comes first, what kind of movement, and that does have a bearing on type design of letters. The printing is a benefit from knowing that things need to look a certain way on the page, spacing and things like that. I mean, that has a bearing on calligraphy, too, but it’s different aspects of it. In calligraphy each letter, you try and make them consistent but there are still going to be slight differences. In type design, you design so that they fit well together no matter what the combination of letters are. And when you’re doing something with a pen you can make modifications, depending on what letter comes next or where you are on the line.

The Andika typeface, seen above, can be downloaded for use at http://scripts.sil.org/cms/scrIpts/page.php?site_id=nrsi&item_id=Andika