June, 2016

Serif History


June, 2015

In Memoriam:

Hermann Zapf


Jan, 2015


New Year's Cards


Nov, 2014

Counter Culture:

The Space Within


Oct, 2014

In Memoriam:

Hans Eduard Meier


August, 2014

The Development of the

Trajan Typeface

Counter Culture: The Space Within

Counter shape

In looking at letterforms, we commonly see the filled-in part of them as 'figures' on a neutral 'ground'. The strokes are the things we focus on as being the substance of the letter. But, Gestalt psychology has pointed out the fact that there are cases in which the distinction between figure and ground, can be ambiguous, as in the vase/face illusion shown below.

The shapes and gestures of counters—the spaces inside letters—play an important role in the visual impact of letterforms. Learning to look at the counter shapes, and then make them well, is part of becoming proficient in the crafts of lettering, calligraphy, and type design. Learning to take them into account in choosing and using specific typefaces is part of doing high-level typography. A conscious awareness of these shapes is an important component in creating typography that serves the designer's purpose.

When there are only a few letters at large size to look at, the details of the letterforms, including the counters, become highly significant. Counter shapes can evoke emotional responses by resonating with objects that are significant in our everyday life. Smoothly curved counters can subliminally evoke positive feelings. They may resonate with our memories of the moon, the pebble on the beach, or our lover’s eyes. Angular shapes and corners might evoke negative emotions from their association with sharp objects like knives, or broken glass. A combination of sharp and round shapes can create an energizing effect.

Designing an alphabet is always an exercise in balancing variety and uniformity. It is a complex puzzle in which we must integrate straight and curved letter parts, large and small features, joins, and other aspects of the system we are creating to achieve the desired effect. Even for what may seem at first glance to be a fairly simple alphabet design this process can be challenging.

As letterforms appear in words, lines, paragraphs and pages they create a texture, a rhythm. Is it rich and flowing? Is it monotonous? Or perhaps there are surprises. Surprises may be desirable when it comes to display typography, but they are not often welcome in reading lengthy texts, and neither is boredom. The risk of monotony seems to increase when the counters are more or less the same thickness as the strokes, and also more or less the same shape. The difficulty in reading gothic letterforms provided motivation for the revival of the Carolingian script which ultimately became the model for the lowercase we use today.


Much of the structure of digital type comes from metal type. The way we do spacing in digital type is an imitation of little pieces of metal set in a row. We still use the term 'leading' to refer to the spaces between lines. And, in order to gain some insight into the etymology of “counter” it is informative to have a look back at how metal type was made before the Linotype and Monotype machines were invented.



The process begins with cutting a punch—poinçon as it is called in French. To cut a punch, every letter has to be sculpted on the end of a bar of steel at the same size it is going to appear when printed. This was generally done with files and gravers like those shown in the illustration below. The gravers were used to scoop out the insides of the letterforms and the files pressed into service to define the outer shapes. Some punchcutters used a different technique to form the interior shapes in the letter employing a contrepoinçoin, a counter-punch. In this technique the shape that will define the inside of the letter is sculpted as a second punch and then struck into the primary punch to make a depression for that shape.

There could be both advantages and disadvantages to this technique. Fred Smeijers is a proponent of the method and its use by Dutch punchcutters of the 16th century. He has written a book called Counterpunch (London: Hyphen Press, 1996). Interestingly, 20th century and contemporary punchcutters such as Nelly Gable have not used this technique.1 The word counter appears to have had its genesis in “counterpunch” (contrepoinçon). The French were way ahead of the English when it came to making type.

A certain consistency might be gained in using the counterpunch to create modular counters in letterforms. But there is always the danger of too much repetition in constructing letterforms.

In creating digital letterforms, copying and pasting can become a vice. It is easy— too easy—to replicate the exact same configuration of vectors (Bézier points) in constructing characters. But, this practice frequently does not take into account that the new environment for the copied configuration of points may require a different shape, even if the change is slight. A great deal of type design, as every student learns soon enough, involves being sensitive to subtle differences. With that caveat, a combination of creating similar counter shapes and then modifying them slightly to fit the particular characteristics of each individual letter can be an approach that combines sensitivity and efficiency.

The completely enclosed spaces in our mainstream, roman, upright lower case letters are shown above. There are either eight or nine of them depending on the design of the lowercase g. The capitals often have eight. All the other mainstream roman letterforms have partially enclosed spaces except a strictly sans serif capital I and lowercase l if it is not hooked at the bottom. These spaces vary, of course, depending on the design of the letters. Spaces that are not completely enclosed have often been somewhat overlooked in letter design. They play an important role in many aspects of designing type. Now the openings for these spaces have an apt name. We call them apertures.2 The term 'aperture' has sometimes been used to mean 'counter' but this is a mistaken use of the word.

Of course, if the apertures for these interior spaces were closed, the spaces would become counters. On the other hand it is possible to open counters up with apertures of various sizes and shapes. There are alternate forms for some styles of our mainstream letters that do this. When counters are cut out of a piece of thin material to make letterforms for stencils, of course the counters fall out. Techniques for solving this problem have led to establishing a genre of stencil letterforms which are now being designed as much for their aesthetic qualities as for their functional ones. See Typography Papers 9, for more about stencil letters.

The interior spaces in letters, whether they are completely enclosed or not, play an important role in determining the amount of space that should be between letters. This subject, an investigation of spacing and kerning, will be the subject of our next blog.



1 James Mosley, personal communication, November, 2014.

2 The term aperture as applied to letterforms was coined by Robert Bringhurst in his book, The Elements of Typographic Style, personal communication, November, 2014.


© Copyright by Sumner Stone, 2014. All rights reserved.

Counter Culture: The Space Within
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