Fabbrica. Technicality boosting versatility

Michele Patanè’s Fabbrica is not only a pragmatic, multifaceted sanserif face, it is a practical reflection on the geometric genre and the nature of technical shapes. It comes in two styles – Fabbrica and Fabbrica Sharp – each with eight weights and matching italics. Highly readable at small sizes, and so distinctive that it is fine for big headlines or titles, Fabbrica is eminently suitable for branding, publishing and advertising, as well as for technical publications

Interview by Massimo Gonzato

Michele Patanè is a typeface designer, font engineer, researcher and educator living in London. In 2012 he got an MA in Typeface design at the University of Reading and since 2015 he has been a visiting lecturer both in Reading and at the ECAL in Lausanne. With Riccardo Olocco he was the author of Designing type revivals. Handbook for a historical approach to typeface design. Fabbrica is one of his latest faces and his first for CAST foundry – it was released in May 2022.

Please give us a short but comprehensive description of your Fabbrica typeface. 

I’ll try, but I can’t guarantee that it will be exhaustive… Fabbrica is a sans serif typeface playing with the concepts of form and function in the geometric genre, trying to add a controlled distinctiveness without distracting from its practical usage. It has a fairly big x-height, even proportions, squarish curves and technical-geometric letterforms. The proportions allow for a texture that looks rational and organised. It was designed for branding, publishing and advertising as well as for technical publications.

Tell us more about the ‘controlled distinctiveness’ and ‘technical-geometric letterforms’ of Fabbrica.

For several years, brands have favoured round, smooth typefaces based on simple geometric shapes. There are understandable reasons for this, and week by week the market offers plenty of valid alternatives novelties. At the same time, many type designers are coming up with new explorations that aim to diversify an increasingly homogenised visual landscape. Organic shapes, super-contrasts, 1970s vibes, de-constructed forms… Never before have brands had such a broad range of options to support their identities.

Within this picture, Fabbrica sits comfortably with its fine balance of personality and functionality. Geometry does not necessarily mean simplicity. And complexity does not necessarily affect usability.

Fabbrica is said to draw inspiration from the world of industrial production. When you designed it, did you have in mind any historical models? Did you apply any rules from your handbook Designing type revivals?  

Fabbrica is the Italian word for ‘factory’. I chose this name because of the technical, engineered nature of Fabbrica. I think that from the world of industrial production, my typeface took a functional, utilitarian aesthetic while keeping its own distinctive elegance. 

With regard to the handbook, Fabbrica is not a revival, of any sort, but I applied the same research approach while investigating what has been done in the genre of geometric types. It was particularly useful to look at artefacts where this kind of types were used: technical drawings, lettering on machinery, measuring devices, etc. Understanding the context of usage, helped me to extrapolate that personality that I wanted to come through. Once I determined this personality, I was able to distil it into the letterforms.

Can you explain and detail how Fabbrica deploys all the potential of a truly versatile typeface?

Fabbrica comes in eight weights, and two styles, Fabbrica and Fabbrica Sharp. The first style features rounded corners that soften up the letterforms making them warmer and more approachable. The second style can be used for texts set at small sizes, where the printing might create a natural rounding of the corners. Or it can be used to give a more punchy flavour to a project. 

All Fabbrica’s distinctive letters had been designed in order to balance their uniqueness without interfering with the general functionality. They take on more evident roles when the typeface is used at display sizes or for logotypes, and they add a dynamic quality when used for texts too.

You can envisage Fabbrica as a colour palette, where each part of the typeface represents a colour and can offer the designer unique tones of personality. The capitals, for example, with even and compact proportions, emphasise a structural, architectonic feeling, while straight, angular terminals emphasise the geometric construction. Or thinking about long text reading, there are a few solutions that allow a better experience, like having the ‘I’ and ‘l’ at different heights as well as looser spacing for the weights more commonly used for text typesetting (between Regular and Bold).

How long does it take to design a typeface like Fabbrica? And what about your collaboration with CAST? 

The first release of Fabbrica took a full year of intense work, between July 2019 and August 2020. Then I followed up with further integrations and refinements until 2022, when CAST released the font. At the moment I’m working to add a different range of widths, something that will complement the system, and extend further its functionality.

My relationship with CAST goes back quite a while. I used to work with Luciano Perondi and especially Riccardo Olocco before CAST started up. And I still work with them. I worked with other members of the foundry too – people I’ve known since when I used to live in Italy (before 2011). Our paths crossed on many occasions and I’ve never lost contact over the years. 

I had complete confidence in their skills and know-how and when I was looking for somewhere to sell the project, finding common ground with them was easy. And I’m happy they’ve been taking care of the typeface since then. It’s a growing foundry, with a good number of typefaces, but not too big to have overlaps, and most importantly… they care. 

Here’s the last question: what is Fabbrica’s most important quality?

I think that the most important quality of Fabbrica is its usability. Fabbrica was my first project after starting my own venture. It was born out of the need for a functional and flexible typeface. The lightest and heaviest weights are display-oriented, while the in-between weights are for long text reading.

I’ve been using Fabbrica daily since the earliest inception of the project. Developing the design based on practical needs helped me understand what worked and what didn’t. Since it’s first release, I keep finding it remarkably usable.

The typeface has a solid framework and functionality is never compromised. On top of the solid foundation of Fabbrica, designers find ways to fine tune the personality thanks to the sets of alternates. I’ve also been asked to make tweaks to the default setup of the typeface in order to cater to specific needs. For example, setting up the more rounded version of certain glyphs as default, or using a single storey ‘g’ as default, and so on. This allows customers to have a default set of glyphs without needing to activate specific OpenType features. 

So, having said earlier, ‘complexity does not necessarily affect usability’, now I would say that in the case of Fabbrica, technicality boosts versatility.

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