15 January 2017

Czech Typefaces for Television

We’re all familiar with typefaces used for newspapers, books, wayfinding systems and more. All of these groups have their own distinct forms and looks defined by various needs, criteria and specifications. Typefaces used on television screens typically feature lower capital heights for accented letters, higher x-heights, structural details that facilitate readability or prevent details from blending into each other, and importantly, well-formed figures (ideally with a tabular figure option that includes a fixed-width space for setting tables and charts). Numbers appear on the television screen very often – think programme schedules and station identifications.

Television clock designed by Jan Solpera;
the late 1960s.

Timer in Czechoslovak Television; ( © Česká televize )
1960s.

Further specifications are more of a question of typography than type design (increased leading may be welcome, for example; channels that have a large number of elderly viewers will want to make it easier for their audiences to read several lines of text, which is why the set type is intentionally more open). Over the past several years, televisions themselves have made significant advances – from classic CTR monitors to various types of displays, from low-res to HD (and more). As a result, displaying letter details on screen is not as much of an issue as it used to be. Type on the screen is now primarily viewed as a distinguishing graphic element, a part of the channel’s visual style. This has not always been the case, however.

The Czech Republic is a small country in the centre of Europe, rather below-average in terms of the general level of regularly available and seen graphic design and typography. But what is interesting is that the country’s television stations have been using bespoke fonts for several years now. Over the past nine-plus years, viewers have been able to see original Czech type design right on their screens.

Our studio had the opportunity to take part in a number of television typeface projects, either as designers, providers of technical support, or type engineers. As one of the typefaces was added to Briefcase Type’s product range, we were inspired to provide an overview of “television type”.

Type in the time of totality

Acclaimed Czech type designer and professor Jan Solpera attempted to create the first original Czech(oslovak) television typeface when he was employed at Czechoslovak Television in the late 1960s. He presented a design for a sans-serif font that would be suitable for use in lower-third graphics – news headlines, names, weather forecasts, and in longer low-budget news & interview programmes. The typeface encompassed just one style and was created in the most frequently-used font sizes in black and (importantly) in white. The design itself responded to the limitations of television technology at the time. The type was intended to be displayed using Transotype dry transfers, which were not unlike Lettraset type. In the end, the design was rejected.

In the early 1970s Czechoslovak Television prepared for a major design overhaul. The first stage was to involve a wide range of slides for segueing between programmes. This is when the station got the idea to create its own bespoke typeface that would ensure the institution presented a single, unified visual character. No longer an employee of the station of the time, Jan Solpera redrew his television typeface a second time.

Solpera’s paraphrase of Helvetica with a higher x-height. Aware of the unique design used for French television, he applied a similar principle to his own design. (Early 1970s)

Solpera’s typeface design had rectangular notches in parts of letters where the television signal interfered and distorted the image on the television screen. (Early 1970s)

Albert Hollenstein for Télévision Française. Picture taken from Hollenstein’s type speciment "Fantaisies / Exclusivité" (1972)

Critical points where straight and curved strokes or two straight strokes intersect were lightened with a negative dot, as were critical points in closed rounded characters. (1972)

Tests showed that this principle did not improve readability for rounded and closed characters. The horizontal proportions of the letters and the colour also had to be changed. Solpera tried drawing rounded letters so that the outer silhouette would more closely correspond to the usual appearance of the letter, but the inside silhouette would be squared off, adjusting to a principle that respected the conditions of television broadcasting much more. However, testing showed that the stroke width that was used did not work well and needed to be increased.

Solpera’s rounded letters with different silhouettes inside the letters. (Early 1970s)

Meanwhile, the efforts to revamp Czechoslovak Television failed miserably. Viewers responded very negatively to the new Op Art segues. Instead, the station started to broadcast a little basket of playing kittens during station breaks, which was more widely accepted than the black-and-white stripes, triangles and circles. Although the designs were never put in place, they are similar to a project in communist East Germany.

In the second half of the 1960s, Jan Solpera believed that Op Art elements would work well on screen. ( © Česká televize )

In the second half of the 1960s, Jan Solpera believed that Op Art elements would work well on screen. ( © Česká televize )

 

During station breaks, Czechoslovak Television broadcast a very popular short of playing kittens or drops of dew on a budding branch (1980s).

Videtur, a typeface designed in East Germany in the 1980s, undoubtedly met all the needs for “TV type”. It worked with a limit of 625 lines per frame, which was the key spec for CTR televisions at the time. The type design applied three basic findings learned during work on the television typeface: serif type is easier to read on screen than monolinear sans serif type; compact serifs make it easier to read lines of text; and contrast in character stroke weight makes it easy to differentiate one character from the next. Designer Axel Bertram’s interesting project essentially fell into oblivion along with the Berlin Wall.

Czech Television (ČT)
is a public organisation that receives significant support from the Czech state, not unlike the BBC. The broadcaster owns six channels: the 24-hour news channel ČT24, cultural channel ART, two entertainment/educational channels (ČT1 and ČT2), a children’s programming channel (D), and sports channel (SPORT). The station’s original logo, which used the abbreviation for Czech-Slovak Television (ČST), was used for nearly fifty years. After the country split, the middle “S” was removed and the logo lost its typographical balance.  

Original logo designed by Roman Rogl, a student at Prague’s Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design (UMPRUM).

Štěpán Malovec’s winning logo was never used.

Current logo designed by Studio Najbrt

After the Velvet Revolution

It was not until 2006 that another attempt was made to get a Czech typeface on television screens – this time a design by František Štorm (Stormtype). He entered a competition for a new logo and visual style for Czech Television, and along with a new logotype, he created a new typeface humbly named CTV. In the end, Štěpán Malovec won the open call for projects with his design using Avenir. Although he did not win the competition, František completed (or rather reworked) his typically “Štorm-esque” typeface and it can now be purchased as Vida.

František Štorm’s logo design with his original typeface called “CTV”

The terminals were sharpened to prevent them from expanding optically.

The first sketch, drawn on a Psion Pocket computer

The design used a diverse range of shapes and distinguishing features to facilitate reading longer blocks of text; Vida utilises the same principle.

TV Nova

is the largest commercial television station in the country. Its range of channels is very broad, including an entertainment channel, film and sports channels. TV Nova can be compared to Germany’s PRO7. Put side by side with Czech public television channels, Nova’s graphics are more vibrant. Unlike Czech TV, Nova uses a broader palette of typefaces for each of the channels and for individual shows. The logo itself, despite the graphic transformations the station has undergone, has remained František Štorm’s Teuton. For several years, Teuton was the station’s main typeface.

Novatica

In 2007 Nova decided to fundamentally change the graphics its stations used. It got rid of Štorm’s Teuton and contacted Marek Pistora, who worked with Tomáš Brousil (Suitcase Type) to create a typeface that followed the specifications provided by Nova’s graphic design studio. In their working designs, they sought an alternative to a readable, simply designed sans; one source of inspiration was Coolvetica (yes, really the typeface available at Da Font). Although the typeface had plenty of distinctive characters compared to the popular Helvetica, its quality left much to be desired. The result is a geometric sans called (naturally) Novatica.

The typeface bears a slight hint of 1970s typography; these days you could find something like it in the portfolio of House Industries. However, Novatica cleverly combines this essence with the almost timeless appearance of today’s popular grotesques like Helvetica. Novatica features a clearly readable design and pleasant width proportions. The embedded ink traps, primarily used to connect arches to stems, are one of its many interesting assets. As CRT screens were still very much in use in 2007, it was necessary that the typeface be optimised.

The Novatica family has a total of five weights, including strongly slanted italics.

Subtle ink traps are nearly invisible at normal sizes, but they brighten the skeleton quite nicely. In contrast, at larger sizes the ink traps become an interesting visual element.

A text version was also created that changed the characteristic “nma” glyphs to more classical versions that would facilitate reading.

The Novatica family has a total of five weights, including strongly slanted italics.

The missing projecting stem next to the shoulders in “n” and “m” is a typical feature. Given the character of the typeface, the single-story “a” is also pleasantly uncommon. The family has since grown from the original three weights to five.

Over time a version for the sports channel was created that used very narrow letter-spacing. The distinctive, constructed letter suits Novatica as a whole. Nova has been able to make the most of a single typeface family and achieve typographic diversity throughout its channels, all despite having a seemingly simple typeface structure – thus proving how flexible Novatica is.

TV Nova has been able to make the most of a single typeface family and achieve typographic diversity throughout its channels.

TV Nova has been able to make the most of a single typeface family and achieve typographic diversity throughout its channels.

TV Nova has been able to make the most of a single typeface family and achieve typographic diversity throughout its channels.

TV Nova has been able to make the most of a single typeface family and achieve typographic diversity throughout its channels.

TV Nova has been able to make the most of a single typeface family and achieve typographic diversity throughout its channels.

TV Nova has been able to make the most of a single typeface family and achieve typographic diversity throughout its channels.

TV Nova has been able to make the most of a single typeface family and achieve typographic diversity throughout its channels.

TV Nova has been able to make the most of a single typeface family and achieve typographic diversity throughout its channels.

In 2014 Nova decided to abandon Novatica for good and release the exclusive licence it had been using. This allowed Novatica to become a new typeface offered by Briefcase Type Foundry. The design is no different from the original version, except for a handful of structural changes. More radically slanted italics have also been added. This full-fledged type family offers a wide range of uses, as TV Nova proved in its own broadcasting for over eight years.

TV Sans

After several unsuccessful attempts, which included a labour strike against implementing Štěpán Malovec’s new logo, Studio Najbrt was contacted in 2011. The Prague studio created a new logo that is a clear nod to the original one.

Applications of the logo designed by Studio Najbrt

Applications of the logo designed by Studio Najbrt

Individual station logos

Along with the logo design, a new corporate typeface was designed for Czech Television. Marek Pistora presented sketches for two regular styles. We worked with Marek to develop his designs, and by 2013 we had created a comprehensive type family. The family is divided into two basic groups, Print and Screen, indicating the medium for displaying the font.

Print has five weights, while Screen has only three.

Print has five weights, while Screen has only three.

The oblique version does not emphasise text; it is solely intended for aesthetics.

The oblique version does not emphasise text; it is solely intended for aesthetics.

The condensed version is naturally used for news reports, often squeezing a lot of information into a small area.

The condensed version is naturally used for news reports, often squeezing a lot of information into a small area.

Although Print and Screen are naturally very similar, Screen was subject to many series of tests on various display units. Czech Television still had a large number of viewers who were watching broadcasts on CTR screens (and after all, the ongoing confusion with digital screens and broadcasting systems did not inspire much confidence among the type designers) and logically wanted to consider their needs. Extensive testing throughout the course of our work showed we needed to make changes to details in the skeleton and the general structure; diacritics were adapted so as to improve readability at smaller sizes.

Screen has increased letter-spacing compared to Print.

With its humanist sans-serif nature and open characters, TV Sans is reminiscent of Frutiger and Myriad. It is a surprisingly wide typeface, but this adds to its friendly, calm temperament. A condensed version was also created for use in tables, scoreboards and more. The absence of an italic style is interesting, but quite common for television type design. The sports channel does use a slightly oblique style, which is the only one to slightly stray from the otherwise clear (typo)graphic design. Marek Pistora’s TV Sans has been designed with regard to easy readability in television broadcasts and its identification with the Czech Television logotype in the station’s general visual style.

Czech Television uses the typeface on all its channels: ČT1

Czech Television uses the typeface on all its channels: ČT1

Czech Television uses the typeface on all its channels: ČT1

Czech Television uses the typeface on all its channels: ČT24

Czech Television uses the typeface on all its channels: ČT24

Czech Television uses the typeface on all its channels: ČT24

Czech Television uses the typeface on all its channels: ČT24

TV Sans is not a visually striking typeface and comparisons with channels in other countries that use more striking designs would not be fair (like Miles Newlyn’s Sky and Fontsmith’s Channel 4). As Czech Television is a public service, moderation and reservedness are traits that can only be expected in this case. The design for Czech Television is uniform for the station’s entire portfolio of channels.

Organica

In 2014 TV Nova decided to rebrand its main channels. It abandoned Novatica and again turned to Tomáš Brousil (alone this time) for help with the new typeface. Tomáš was able to use the experience he gained from Novatica and TV Sans. The graphic design team at TV Nova used Fontfabric’s Nexa as the interim font.

Organica is clear, a unique typeface in five weights was created that showcases Brousil’s thoughtful and rational style.

The calm look is supported by the minor differences in the widths of individual letters (the unusually wide “t” and “f” are pleasing).

Like Nexa, Organica is a geometric sans, but unlike Nexa it is lighter – which is a logical requirement for typefaces that appear on television screens. Especially the bold styles were lightened. The crotch where the rounded stroke and stem meet is more distinct, making more complex, darker glyphs like “e” and “s” less likely to optically blur. Organica also avoided using an eccentric “g” or “J”, which seemed too striking in Nova’s original visual plan. The differently designed figures in Nexa were also surprisingly irritating. The minimal differentiation in width proportions from thinnest to heaviest styles is also a smart feature that helps to save valuable space on the television screen while providing the typeface with a calm appearance.

The circular structure of the sans serif typeface places it in the same subclass as Century Gothic, Avenir and FF Mark. Although the source of inspiration for Organica is clear, a unique typeface in five weights was created that showcases Brousil’s thoughtful and rational style.

TV Nova’s current look following the 2014 redesign

TV Nova’s current look following the 2014 redesign

TV Nova’s current look following the 2014 redesign

TV Nova’s current look following the 2014 redesign

TV Nova’s current look following the 2014 redesign

TV Nova’s current look following the 2014 redesign

The graphic design teams at the country’s two largest television stations played a major role in the fact that the stations use bespoke typefaces. Over time, many people from the two graphic design teams moved from one station to another and logically applied the typographic knowledge they had gained at their previous post. Besides aesthetic and practical reasons, another reason to produce a new typeface is financial. It is initially a large investment, but one that is only made once, allowing the station to save money over the long term. Broadcasting licences are often complex and every distributor and type foundry has their own terms and conditions, which may represent a huge expense for an entire television network. These are terms the managers of Czech television stations understand. In this regard the Czech Republic is very rich, and not only in regard to original typeface design. The award-winning studio Oficina, which has been active on the motion graphic market for years and has long worked with Czech television stations, has also played a part in this; their design for the Czech television station COOL is worth noting.

Cool uses ITC Conduit, a typeface that is already on the market; even so, the purely type-based design is appealing.

Cool uses ITC Conduit, a typeface that is already on the market; even so, the purely type-based design is appealing.

Cool uses ITC Conduit, a typeface that is already on the market; even so, the purely type-based design is appealing.

Cool uses ITC Conduit, a typeface that is already on the market; even so, the purely type-based design is appealing.

Cool uses ITC Conduit, a typeface that is already on the market; even so, the purely type-based design is appealing.

Cool uses ITC Conduit, a typeface that is already on the market; even so, the purely type-based design is appealing.

Cool uses ITC Conduit, a typeface that is already on the market; even so, the purely type-based design is appealing.

Cool uses ITC Conduit, a typeface that is already on the market; even so, the purely type-based design is appealing.

The future

Although Czech television stations use bespoke typefaces, their potential is not entirely exhausted. The current 3D appearance leans towards the traditional (Sky News probably went the furthest in this regard in 2012, when their 3D rendering reached almost apocalyptic proportions).

As technology advances, broader areas of use for typography and type design are opening. The Dutch news channel RTL Nieuws connects technology and media into a single stream of information, with television losing its dominance as a source of information and the RTL websites and phone apps being of equal importance. As a result it created a single, unified whole with an identical graphic and typographic design using Graphik typeface. Such a revolution still awaits the Czech media market.

Article prepared by Tomáš Brousil and Radek Sidun

 

Thanks to: Filip Blažek, Radovan Černý, Jean-Baptiste Levée, Miles Newlyn, Oficina, Jan Solpera, František Štorm, Alan Záruba