National 2 design information

The inspiration, history and development of the National 2 typeface family. A total of 64 fonts over 4 widths, National 2 is a comprehensive expansion of National’s original aesthetic concept.

1,560 words by Kris Sowersby
3 September 2017

National 2 is a complete overhaul of our popular sans, National. 10 years in the making, every single letter is re-drawn and re-mastered. The weight distribution is better, the curve quality is refined and there are three new widths: Narrow, Condensed and Compressed. A total of 64 fonts over 4 widths, National 2 is a comprehensive expansion of National’s original aesthetic concept.

I was very green when National — my second retail typeface — was released by Village in 2007. As a recent design graduate keenly interested in typography and typeface design, I was filled with an unflappable zeal. But I didn’t know nearly as much about design and typography as I thought I did. 

Various sketches, 2004 – 2007.

In the years leading up to National I spent my days endlessly sketching letterforms, trying to understand the basic mechanics and systems of typeface design. I agonised over typographic details in books like The Elements of Typographic Style, Designing books and Counterpunch. My prized $25 copy of Printed matter was re-read so many times the pages came loose. I’d leave notes in the margins of What is a designer expounding on the profound truths, which in hindsight are just cryptic scribbles. I was so very sure of what constituted “good typography” — humanist typefaces set rag-right with liberal doses of small caps and old-style figures.

The National Grid #1, March 2006.

During this time I got a copy of The National Grid, a very interesting “provincial publication for graphic design”, designed and edited by Luke Wood and Jonty Valentine. It was typeset in Times New Roman and Helvetica Neue, pre-dating the “default” typography trend and contemporary resurgence of both typefaces. 

I was appalled: everyone knew Helvetica was “illegible” and Times was old and stuffy! But worst of all, why should a New Zealand design publication have to use such “foreign” typefaces? I used to imagine typefaces had “accents”: Caslon was British, Bodoni was Italian, Garamond was French and so on.

Part of the impetus for starting Klim was to make local typefaces for local designers — typefaces that could speak in our accent. The National Grid was the perfect example of what I thought “was wrong” with New Zealand design: we were “forced” to use type from over there instead of here. And, so, with these fevered thoughts I started to draw National.

“The National Gothic” — National’s working title in The National Grid #2, December 2006.

National was drawn as the stylistic opposite to Helvetica: looser spacing; old-style figures as default; unambiguous forms; shorter capitals; stylistic alternates; a “true” italic; small caps; angled Grotesk terminals and ink-traps. The general functional aim was to make something suitable for long-form reading at small sizes, something more classically “typographic”. These qualities and features are what I imagined constituted a “proper typeface” to create “proper typography”, something that would be vastly superior to the overused juggernaut that is Helvetica.

National was released publicly in 2007. For the release I wrote:

“National is a deceptively simple sans serif with subtle quirks in the details that give it a distinctive — but not distracting — personality. While National travels through, and touches on, a lot of historical material, it is designed to thrive in our modern typographic climate. National’s details are drawn from the best pre-Akzidenz grotesques, giving it a humble, workmanlike character with an agreeable tone of voice.”

It sold surprisingly well, quickly outselling my first typeface Feijoa. It won a TDC award and helped gain international attention for Klim. In 2009 it was updated to include three additional weights: Thin, Light and Black. Over the last 10 years it has been a steady and solid earner for Village and Klim.

The unreleased National Compressed in the Klim Type Specimen No.1, 2009.

Over the past 10 years my drawing and typeface-planning skills have improved. Designers have often asked for National Compressed that I drew for Victoria University in 2008, but I didn’t want to release it for retail sale. I did want to add narrower styles, but didn’t want to follow the weight range and certain structural decisions from a decade ago. While I was happy with the overall atmosphere and style of National, I had grown uncomfortable with its awkward weight range and the quality of the outlines. I felt the only option was to redraw the lot as National 2

Here’s what’s new in National 2:

All letters are completely redrawn. (1) The outlines and spacing are much more refined, lumpy curves are smoother. (2) Unnecessary ink-traps are eliminated. (3) Certain forms have better proportions and stroke-weight distribution.

The cap height is slightly higher. I don’t know why I made the cap-height so low in National. I was probably overly influenced by serif book typeface proportions.

Better weight distribution. National 2 has fewer weights than National, but a better distribution of weight across and between the style range.

Lining numerals are default. I regret making old-style numerals the default in National. Our main National support request is, “can we please have lining figures as default?” This is despite 20+ years of OpenType savvy desktop applications and widespread browser support of CSS @font-face features. National 2 has old-style figures accessible as OpenType features for those that need them.

No small caps. I very rarely see them used in National, and decided they were unnecessary for National 2.

National 2 is “bigger on the body”. It looks larger than National at an equal point size, which allows better fallback web font support. National was drawn before widespread uptake and acceptance of web fonts. There are still no rules or guidelines stating what “normal” font metrics are, so the best I can do is match what constitutes widespread expectations: i.e. system font sizes.

Three new widths: Narrow, Condensed and Compressed. All widths have matching italics, weights and features.

The regular width of National 2 sets the tone for the family. A useful range of eight weights from Thin to Black are distinctive at large sizes. The middle weights — Light, Regular, Medium and Bold — are particularly suitable for smaller sizes.

National 2 Narrow is perfect for demanding typographic tasks where space is at a premium. It’s designed for efficient copyfit without looking conspicuously condensed.

National 2 Condensed has the classic proportions of poster and headline fonts that all designers know and love. It wants to be used large and in charge — especially in all-caps.

National 2 Compressed is the most compact of the family. It has all the flavour and personality of National on a very small footprint. It’s best used at large sizes for expressive display typography.

National 2 has 64 fonts in total, Klim’s biggest family to date. It’s more refined and comprehensive than National, but has the same workmanlike qualities and atmosphere. Aesthetically it is similar, but conceptually it has changed.

National in use for Compass in Hand by Project Projects.

When Project Projects used National for Compass in Hand I distinctly remember questioning my idea of national typographic identity. They used it so masterfully — the level of competency, skill and production with the books astonished me. But why was a New York studio using my New Zealand typeface for a MoMA show catalogue? Why was my typeface more appropriate than an American one? Perhaps my idea of typefaces having “accents” and a specific geography was quite wrong.

Since I drew National my patriotic zealousness has mellowed. The irony of drawing a typeface for locals with subsequent international popularity is not lost on me. It’s also ironic that New Zealand has no endemic typeface designs to draw upon, unlike USA and Europe for example.¹ So all of my typefaces — including National — are intrinsically tied to the typography of other nations. Slowly, but surely, my typefaces have been embraced by the local design community. They’ve filtered through the internet and design studios and into the wider visual landscape of New Zealand. This is what I wanted when I started Klim, and it’s humbling to see it happen.

I am not forgetting the work of Joe Churchward. His typefaces are wonderful, but they never seemed to permeate the visual culture of New Zealand. His lettering work did, but like most lettering work it is ephemeral.

The great flattening and fragmentation of online digital culture fascinates me. I love watching trends flash up, disseminate and dissipate. It seems that contemporary graphic sub-genres and sub-cultures treat typography differently, they have distinct ways of using and thinking about typefaces. This endless recontextualisation of typefaces is something that was lost on me when The National Grid landed on my desk a decade ago.

With the re-drawing of National as National 2, I aspire to shed my original confused, pseudo-patriotic impulse and embrace and refine the aesthetic of the typeface itself. Because we live in a networked world where cultures are embraced and shared, designers use typefaces for their visual subtleties, aesthetic and inherent quality, not purely because of their geographic origin.

Notes & references

I am not forgetting the work of Joe Churchward. His typefaces are wonderful, but they never seemed to permeate the visual culture of New Zealand. His lettering work did, but like most lettering work it is ephemeral.

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