Jean François Porchez: métro type

Parisine, a Parisian Type

There are two common approaches to typeface design. The first is to design a new typeface to your personal taste, following your own rules or restrictions, and distribute it either through a type distributor or directly. The second is to work for a client on a commission. The latter method offers more financial security and an opportunity to design a typeface following a narrow design brief, suggested by the client or governed by the client’s needs. Technical, historical or design considerations are all difficult to imagine if you design a typeface for your own use.
After designing typefaces for newspapers, it came as an interesting challenge to create a typeface for signage, for a medium other than paper. Unlike typefaces designed for small sizes, for poor quality paper and printing, which factors push the designer to reinforce certain parts of letterforms, typeface characters made for signage need to be cleaner and more minimal in their form. A purity of expression is needed.
Book typefaces from the Renaissance remain our archetype for most fonts created with paper as a final medium in mind. For signage, the purity of the Greek and Roman inscriptions seems historically suitable. Their open counters, proportions, and simplicity in the case of Greek capitals, need to be followed when designing typefaces for monumental inscriptions.

Design brief
The way the Métro started its life strongly influenced signage in the stations. In the early days, a number of commercial companies ran the different Métro lines. This is one of the reasons that the inscriptions varied enormously, from enamel signage to big ceramic station nameplates. Sans serifs were mostly used for big signage, and on the carriages, letters were painted in a style appropriate to the carriage design. Early on, it was Art Nouveau forms. At the time, most of the transportation process was done manually by rail workers, from the sale of individual tickets, to the semi-automatic door closing. Later, the national rail network, the RATP, took over.
It was not before the sixties, however, that the overall signage question was taken into account by the RATP. After the Second World War, at the time of the industrial boom and automisation, the network was extended into the surburbs and signage became a key factor. The situation was similar for buses. Most of the direction signs on both sides of the buses were done by lettering artists, always in caps, in various condensed sans serifs. This method was used on the buses until the end of the seventies, when Helvetica was chosen as to replace these methods.
In the early seventies, the RATP set up a study group, including Swiss type designer Adrian Frutiger. He was asked to design a ‘special variation’ of his Univers typeface. The variant was introduced in 1973 to replace the twenty alphabets previously in use by the network. Later, Frutiger wrote: ‘It is the special charm of the Paris Métro that its applied aesthetics are not stamped with a uniform style. Forms of expression of the past hundred years, such as the beautiful Art Nouveau portals, are in many cases still present. This variety should be preserved as well as possible, as an enrichment of the scene. The joining together of typographical elements into a new harmonious order was a task requiring a certain degree of restraint so far as the creation of new forms was concerned.’
His recommendation was to stick to capitals to fit better with existing signs and with the historical roots of the Métro. The new alphabet was used only when the text needed to be updated or the station renovated. Soon after, around 1973 to 1975, Frutiger's Roissy, a preliminary version of the typeface called Frutiger, was created for the new Aeroport Charles de Gaulle. This time, without historical constraints, he used caps and lowercase instead of the all caps RATP alphabet. Frutiger wrote: ‘We rejected an elongated condensed face because of its loss of legibility. The similarity of the shapes of all letters, due to central vertical lengthening, has an unfavourable effect.’ I remember clearly from my childhood the strikingly contemporary effect of the new airport with its signage on yellow.

It was not until the early nineties that the RATP started to move towards using caps and lowercase signage concepts, which provide better word shapes and contrast. This formula was adopted to improve legibility. For future signage, which was intended to be applied to all the transportation systems, from the Métro to buses in the French capital, a typeface family was needed. The RATP president decided to select from one of the typeface families already in used by the RATP. These included the Adrian Frutiger all-caps face based on Univers, the RER, Albert Boton’s thin, rounded, all-caps face designed specifically for the new fast Métro in the late seventies, Gill Sans, used in recent years for corporate identity and official communication, and Neue Helvetica, chosen by designer Jean Widmer, which was used for bus signage system from 1994.
Neue Helvetica was selected because of its general availability and compatibility with various computer programmes. This seeming advantage actually produced problems. Potential users mistakenly used Helvetica instead of Neue Helvetica. Because of the various widths, weights, and letterforms, the corporate guidelines have never been successfully implemented. Early on in the testing process, the people involved came from very different areas. (The signage, from basic stickers to illuminated boxes or classic enamels metal plates needed a range of production methods.) Non-typographers could not comprehend the consequence of choosing the wrong version.

Why a specific typeface?
The people in charge of the signage system quickly understood that Neue Helvetica did not work well, because of its width and standard narrow spacing. The station name ‘Champs-Elysées Clémenceau’ is obviously longer than the station name ‘Nation.’ Historically, the name plates had been sized according to the length of the name of station or the design style of the station itself. At stations where a lot of information had to be displayed (various connections and ways out), the name plate was smaller than in stations where less information was needed. After some tests in real conditions with strict rules, the final modular system permitted a modest level of adaptation of the name plate size: a real problem in France, which stubbornly resists standardisation.

Due to the problems described, the idea emerged for a specific RATP typeface with some Helvetica characteristics, and with the same legibility, but more economical in width. The rail network asked several of the larger typefonderies to provide quotations for a ‘unique’ Helvetica to belong to the RATP, to avoid multiple versions of their signage applications. They wanted to give away the typeface in one way or another to their suppliers. However, typeface designs are intellectual property. Neue Helvetica is used by the RATP, and many others. RATP could not buy and distribute a font licence, nor could a designer be asked to create a ‘RATP Helvetica’, we call that piracy.

Most companies approached responded with quotations based on large corporate multi-site licences, without dealing with the design problems described. Instead of doing this, I asked for a meeting and brought some typeface research. I had made just two station name signs, directly on Illustrator, as we do when we design a logotype or a lettering job. I built some comparisons with Helvetica in reverse (signages are usually white on dark). We went out into a dark corridor, I put two A4 samples on the wall, asked to make the corridor as dark as possible, then started my explanation about the legibility of the open faces, horizontal openings, and various widths. The RATP team was surprised by the result and became very interested. We decided to sell the project in-house as a kind of Helvetica, which it is not at all, but possibly one for non-typographers! This earlier conclusion proved the enthusiasm of the team in charge of the signage. The typeface was adopted, and cut its supposed family links with Helvetica soon after the idea was accepted. Parisine, a name created by the RATP team, was born in the summer of 1995. The development of the new bold and a true italic took a couple of months and the two series were delivered to the RATP in January 1996.
In 1995, was involved in the organisation of the annual August conference of Rencontres Internationales de Lure, in the south of France. One of the speakers that I invited, American digital type designer Sumner Stone, visited me at Malakoff in Paris before the Rencontres. We discussed the Parisine project and he seemed pleased by its humanistic touch. Sumner has strong interests in inscriptions and calligraphy. He has been at the head of the type department of Adobe and managed the Trajan, Lithos, and Myriad projects, among others. We had an impassioned discussion about the importance of the capitals in inscriptions, their spacing, the difficulty of fitting them with lower case lettering. He told me about his experiments on this, which I found enriching, and which allowed me to confirm some of my own views. At that time, he was thinking about an all caps sans serif face for the Cecil H. Green Library, at Stanford University, which he went on to create as Basalt. (The reference to Parisine has been acknowledged by Sumner Stone in an exhibition of his work at the Ditchling Museum in Sussex, United Kingdom in 2000.)

In his Essay on typography, which compared two type displays, one in square narrow heavy letters, the other in purely ‘Gillesque’ caps, Eric Gill wrote: ‘A return to mere legibility seems desirable even if the effect be less striking. To this end it is necessary to study the principles of legibility; the characters which distinguish one letter from another, the proportion of light and dark in letters and spacing.’ Later on, he wrote: ‘Many engineers affect this style of letter, believing it to be devoid of that ‘art-nonsense’ on the absence of which they pride themselves.’ The style of letter to which he refers is close to what Helvetica represents, to my eyes. I have thought for a long time about this idea of contrast that helps legibility. Humanity is the key when you design typefaces, and this is particularly true for public signage, where no special marketing effect is nee, just a service to the public. Type designer Ladislas Mandel perceives typefaces as cultural items, writing: ‘Our first glance of any written work is always cultural. If the perceived forms are contained in our cultural references, we recognise them, we ‘own’ them like the reflection of our own image and we open large the doors to their intelligence.’ With Gill, Mandel and Frutiger share a concern for the act of perception as a key factor. (...)
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(...) Today, the typeface family is not only used by the RATP for signage, maps, and communication, Parisine is available to the public in all of its versions. But, strange as it seems to me, the Parisine ‘standard’ became the most successful of all of my typeface families. I say strange because I always questioned myself about the novelty of it. Why is Parisine so appreciated? Perhaps because it is a synthesis between a Germanic Helvetica and the too Latin style of its creator? [Ler mais...]
Jean François Porchez teaches typography at Ensad, France and Reading University, England.

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