Zenon doubles the stakes

This ‘contemporary Renaissance’ book typeface is now available in eight weights with matching italics. Designer Riccardo Olocco tells us about the origins and main features of his ‘relaxed’ and ‘quiet roman’ suitable both for print and screen

Riccardo Olocco is a co-founder of CAST and a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Reading. Besides Zenon, for us he has also designed Gramma (2014), Brevier (2014), Arzachel (2017), and Sole Sans (2018) which he co-designed. 

Zenon is a text face suitable both for screen and print, first released in 2015 in four weights. In 2021 the weight scheme was reviewed and four new intermediate cuts* were added in order to extend the range to the current eight weights with their matching italics: Book*, Regular, Regular-Dark*, Medium, SemiBold*, Bold, ExtraBold* and Black. 

When and why did you start designing Zenon? 

Zenon is a type family I developed as my graduation project for the Master course in Type Design (MATD) at the University of Reading. I went to Reading in 2013, having spent the previous 15 years freelancing in Milan and around northern Italy. Besides freelancing, I lectured in typography at the University of Bolzano, where I moved to in 2007. I went to Reading with some ideas about the type family I wanted to design, though with hindsight I don’t think that is a useful approach. Students should probably start a master course without preconceptions, in order to be ready to take on as much as they can, though in my own case I really couldn’t avoid my particular preconception.

What ideas did you have in mind? Did you get any inspiration from a historical model? 

My plan was to design a Renaissance type, not a revival but a contemporary typeface developed from the analysis of historical models. I was aiming for a relaxed, quiet roman, not too outspoken. 

I didn’t want to add too much personality to the shapes, and I was determined to avoid quirky strokes like inner angles in the rounded letters or other calligraphic traits. I wanted to design a contemporary interpretation of a traditional 20th-century revival of Renaissance type for a wide range of applications, but without having any specific type to revive. 

I chose to work on Renaissance letterforms because this was a style of type I had not previously designed, even though I had been researching 15th-century Venetian type for some years. In my research I took macro photographs from original books, then I extrapolated the letters and printed them at the highest quality and analysed them in greatly enlarged reproductions. Matching this workflow with bibliographical research, I was able to map the use of a certain type and its dissemination. When I started the course I already had quite a lot of photographic material. 

Frames from the film L’OEuvre au noir (1988), based on Yourcenar’s novel and directed by André Delvaux. The main character, Zenon, is played by Gian Maria Volonté. Top: The Alchemist, engraved by Philips Halle after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, published in Antwerp by Hieronymus Cock after 1558.

Zenon’s design process looks sophisticated. Is there any clue in the name you gave it?

Zenon (from Greek: Ζήνων) is the name of the main character of Marguerite Yourcenar’s L’Œuvre au Noir. He was a Belgian alchemist, physician and humanist of the 16th century, interested in the human body. The novel is historically accurate but the main character is fictional. Yourcenar invented Zenon as the sum of historical figures like Erasmus of Rotterdam, Paracelsus, Servetus, but also Leonardo da Vinci and Tommaso Campanella. She picked up details from the lives of each of these great men.

Similarly, the typeface I designed is a sum of different styles, from Francesco Griffo to Robert Granjon, from the first sketches of Times New Roman to Fred Smeijers’ Quadraat. I took inspiration from each of them but I did not follow any particular model. Zenon is an apparently Renaissance revival with modernish proportions. A closer look reveals that it is a typographic potpourri.

Some of the Renaissance romans that were analysed during the development of Zenon. Top: the De Aetna roman (Venice 1496, c. 16 pt). Bottom left: the so called Decameron type, another 15th-century Venetian type (c. 1490, 12 pt). Bottom right: Robert Granjon’s Petit-texte roman (c. 1570, 7.6 pt).

Among all the printed letters you photographed for your research on 15th-century Venetian type, which ones were the most influential?  

For the roman lowercase my sources were the illustrious De Aetna roman, the ancestor of Garamond’s faces, and another type that ​​Giovanni Mardersteig attributed to Francesco Griffo (actually with no evidence), which he called the Decameron type. This is a rough workhorse, about 12 pt, and it was used by many printers in Venice and abroad – we find it in Lyon too. I studied these historical typefaces along with some later romans by Robert Granjon; in St Bride Library I found the Lamesle specimen (Epreuves générales des caractères qui se trouvent chez Claude Lamesle fondeur des caractères d’imprimerie. Paris, 1742) where several of Granjon’s types are displayed. I chose two types of different sizes, so I could study the optical adjustments and the degrees of detail: the Gros-romain (R118) and the Petit-texte (R54), both from the late1560s. 

While Granjon’s later types show a masterful infusion of tension in his letterforms – a display of elegance and a stability that has seldom been achieved in history – the Venetian types are crude and rudimentary by comparison. I took inspiration from these four types but my aim was to try a synthesis, to combine the different characteristics in a single design that could fit snugly into a contemporary environment.

Analysis of the capitals of the famous Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, printed in Venice by Aldus Manutius in 1499.

What were your sources for the uppercase? 

I turned to the epigraphic capitals of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, cut by Griffo to match the De Aetna lowercase. Griffo’s model was clearly the Roman Imperial capitals carved in stone, which were so easy to find all around Italy at the time. I eventually borrowed some details from these caps and a general taste, but I polished down the strongest features, and I regularised the widths of some letters because they looked awkward on the screen.

The work developed over the months and the general proportions of the lowercase underwent several tests: during the time of the Reading course little by little I kept condensing the letterforms towards modern overall proportions (i.e. similarity of letter widths). The Zenon letterforms are now condensed and robust, and they are able to withstand low quality printing. The Regular weight is low in contrast, while there is a considerable amount of contrast in the Black; finally letters, figures and all glyphs are slightly sloped (about 2 degrees). These features seem to me to lead to an organic design, slightly irregular on the page.

Work in progress: printouts of letters with notes and sketches (University of Reading, 2014).

Does Zenon have any calligraphic connotations?

The Zenon letterforms do not reflect a specific tool, I usually design without being inspired by a writing instrument. My design is fully computer-based. My workflow is basically as follows: I sketch a few letters on paper with markers or pencil, then I work on the computer right away. After the earliest stages, where I establish the basic letterforms, most of the remaining glyphs are designed on the computer, without any prior sketching on paper. Nonetheless, I always I print letters at big sizes sketching on top of the printouts. Sometimes I use black markers and white gauge, tuning the shapes on paper and then repeating the same changes in the outlines.

Two types analysed while designing Zenon Italic. Top: Robert Granjon’s Petit-parangon italic (1554, c. 18.5 pt). Bottom: Graljon’s St. Augustin italic (c. 1571, 13.5 pt).

What about italics?

Zenon Italic was the result of another small piece of historical research. I studied two of Granjon’s italics from different periods of his career: I tried to mix the elegance and the smoothness of his mature couchés style with the angularity of his extreme Baroque types and the work of some master calligraphers of the 15th century that were certainly studied by Granjon too. From the highly cursive, free flowing hand of the Vatican scribe Giovan Francesco Cresci I borrowed the wide and strongly asymmetric serifs, noticeable in the capitals of Zenon Italic. The italic letters are sloped with an angle of about 9 degrees and quite compressed; the junctions of n, b, etc. are deep. The result, as I see it, is a lively, spiky, narrow chancery italic that stands with its own personality beside Zenon roman.

Samples of text typeset in Zenon. Top: Regular Italic, Medium Italic, Bold Italic and Black Italic (2 lines each). Bottom: two spreads of the Zenon specimen, submitted for the Master course in Typeface Design (University of Reading, 2014).

You said that you developed Zenon as a graduation project for your MATD. How much time did you need to finish it? 

Zenon was developed during my 2013–2014 Master course in Reading and then I completed and fine-tuned it during the following year. In autumn 2015, after many tests and trials, it was released by CAST. 

Zenon had a lucky gestation and had time to mature. Indeed, before its release, it had already been used in several printed projects, such as James Clough’s Signs of Italy, as well as in my everyday laser printouts since the end of 2013.

Zenon was also favoured during its development. Eight months almost entirely dedicated to this typeface, with frequent reviews by the teachers of the department and all the visiting lecturers, is a once-in-a-lifetime luxury. And finally, as an academic project, Zenon benefitted from the influence of many people and the list of designers I need to thank is very long. But above all I need to mention Gerry Leonidas and the late Gerard Unger.

Some lines of Zenon Greek from the MATD specimen.

Besides the Latin roman and italic of Zenon, the typeface that you submitted for the Reading MATD also included Greek, Cyrillic and Bengali. Are you still planning to complete and produce these other scripts? 

I am. With our partner Giulio Galli and the help of other designers such as Radek Łukasiewicz (who designed the recently-released Jantar family) we are working to implement a multiscript side of CAST. During the coming months we are going to release the Cyrillic, Greek and Arabic versions of some of our type families and Zenon is one of them. 

I enjoy designing Greek and Cyrillic, but though it is interesting work it is nothing compared to Bengali – which unfortunately is not included in our plans for the moment. I literally love designing Bengali letters as well as the task of matching such funky shapes with a Latin type; but this latter is tricky work because the density and the activity zones of the two scripts are generally too far apart. My passion for Bengali started during the MA in Reading. 

Three samples of text typeset in Zenon Cyrillic, Greek and Bengali from the MATD specimen.

Fiona Ross teaches type design for Arabic and Indian scripts and she passed on to me her love of Bengali. I studied the script and learnt how to write it. That year I spent several weeks in India, at a friend’s place, and I went to Kolkata to meet a writing master and other people involved in writing and typefaces. I wrote my master thesis on Linotype Bengali, a typeface for digital phototypesetting designed by Fiona and Tim Halloway in the late 1970s. It is a fascinating story because although Linotype terminated its production in the early 1990s, since its release this typeface has very nearly monopolised Bengali typesetting, and it is hard to find a Bengali typeface that is not based on it (my Master thesis is available here).

Detail from a page of Franco Mussida’s L’oro del suono (Nomos Edizioni, 2020), designed by Tipiblu and typeset in Zenon.

Why did you design and add four new intermediate cuts? 

I still use Zenon in nearly all of my layouts and printouts and I still think it works very well as a book face, but during its development I deliberately designed a regular weight that was fairly robust (not surprisingly Plantin has always been one of my favourite types), but it was a touch too bold for Italian publishing standards. After discussing this matter with Alessandro Corubolo and Luciano Perondi, who are both experts in typesetting, I decided to expand the family.

But there is something else I want to say. When I developed Zenon in 2014–2015 I was skeptical of the tendency of releasing big families with little variations between the weights (or cuts). But in recent years I’ve received some complaints about excessive variations between Zenon’s weights, and this convinced me to review it and add more cuts. The aim was to offer greater choice to end users. 

Book and Regular-Dark, two of Zenon’s four new intermediate cuts, compared to the Regular.

What would you like to say to all past, present and future Zenon users?

Among the new additions there is the Zenon Book cut, which has a weight that is more appropriate to Italian publishing standards, and Zenon Regular-Dark that is slightly bolder than Regular. I think that such a variety offers an important choice for setting books or magazines. Furthermore, these new weights help to obviate a common printing problem: if a text is set and printed black on white in Zenon Book and another page or column is reversed with white type on a dark ground, Zenon Regular set at the same size will compensate for ink spread – which always reduces the strength of letters. The same goes for Zenon Regular and Zenon Dark. 

In general I can say that I hope the letterforms will caress readers’ eyes while they sprint along the lines. I expect Zenon to present the content honestly, like a hand-blown glass – rather than a crystal goblet –, where the irregularities of the structure and the roughness of the surface can grab your curiosity, for a few instants, without failing to show the wine inside.

Most of the information in this interview was first published in Spring 2016 in No. 30 of FPBA’s journal Parenthesis, which was edited by Sebastian Carter and entirely typeset in Zenon.