Designing bespoke and standardised visual systems for the public which serve hundreds of thousands daily commuters every day is an incredibly exciting brief to receive as a designer. For the Copenhagen Metro’s Cityringen, a 17-station loop line for the Danish capital that opened on 29 September this year, Kontrapunkt’s two heads of type design, Torsten Lindsø Andersen and Rasmus Michaëlis, were tasked with designing one key visual element for the line: a custom dot typeface for the electronic in-train displays.
The pair started working together after meeting at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Design in 2014. While running a small studio called ABC for the following three years, the two frequently collaborated on custom typeface designs alongside Kontrapunk and its founder Bo Linnemann, who eventually, invited the duo to join the company, later becoming joint heads of type design. “We only do bespoke type design, so on a practical level, this means that we are always designing for and together with others,” the pair tells It’s Nice That. “A bespoke typeface is the perfect polyglot. It can cross borders and bridge cultures. It speaks multiple languages, but its voice and personality stay the same.”
The in-train displays aren’t Kontrapunkt’s first involvement with the Cityringen – it was also involved with redesigning the service map to fit seamlessly with existing lines as well as the signage in the new line. However, Torsten and Rasmus was given the unique challenge of designing for the large by only using the small. “Typically, when we draw letters, we work with a vertical grid height of at least 1000 units. In this case, we only had 24!” they explain.
The roots for the typeface came as early as the original plans for the metro – starting the design seven years ago while the tunnels were being dug and the stations still under construction. For the original identity of Copenhagen’s initial metro lines, a 14-dot version of the highly legible sans serif Frutiger was developed but never used, and part of Torsten and Rasmus’ challenge was to update it for the new trains’ 16-dot displays while solving the shortcomings of the old design.
There were several technical aspects of the brief that the designers had to fulfil. Firstly, the font had to fill a 24-by-192 LED dot matrix display, secondly, it had to be an interpretation of Frutiger Bold that’s also used for the physical signs of the Metro while also fitting “Poul Henningsens Plads,” (the longest station name on the line) without ticker-text. “When you design letters on such a low-resolution grid you quickly realise how difficult it is to draw curvatures and angled strokes,” Torsten and Rasmus explain. “Take the lowercase ‘k’ for example – having two diagonal strokes within the x-height is not easy to get pretty. Either it becomes too heavy, too light, or too long.”
These specific technical challenges pushed them to think about typefaces in a different way, utilising techniques and concepts that they wouldn’t have focused on when designing a standard typeface. “We went to great effort to keep the counters as open as possible as well as ensuring a harmonic stroke-width and stem-width and by all means, avoid what we call ‘orphan LEDs’,” the designers say. Part of the goal is to create the most distinctive shape that does not muddle the LEDs at a distance, “especially when glow or light diffusion is a factor as well.”
The pair, extremely motivated by the democratisation of type design, are “on a never-ending quest to fight typographic aesthetic monoculture.” What this means, of course, is that typeface design should never be boring, too self-referential and insular. Having about three typeface projects ongoing simultaneously at Kontrapunkt, the two designers are not shy at all in picking new challenges like this typeface brief for Copenhagen’s Cityringen and public.