At the end of last year, Nigel Cottier, Principal Designer of London-based graphic design studio Accept & Proceed, released Letterform Variations, a personal project that looks at letterform construction using basic grid and shape-based systems. The project includes a 692-page book containing 19,840 letters, all derived from one simple framework, ten variable fonts (with 16 alternatives for each roman symbol) totaling over 19,000 alternative characters within two weights), plus renderings of each letterform mechanically drawn onto archival paper. “I see it as experimentation more than anything else, an investigation into system-based design, and trying to see if I could look at language differently. There was no goal in the beginning, just fun,” says Cottier.
And no wonder. Cottier began creating letterforms using basic grids and geometric units as a childhood pastime. “At school, I would sketch loads of letters in the back of my schoolbooks, trying to find new ways of drawing a ‘K’, a ‘g’ or an ‘R’ but always using the square grid as a base,” he says. “If I’d known the value in using mathematics and its potential for creativity, maybe I would have paid more attention in math.”
The letterforms are meant to be seen as simplified but surprising variations on the familiar forms of Latin-based alphabets, and to show how system-based design creates a wealth of outcomes while possessing a visual beauty of its own. Letterform Variations isn’t a typeface in the true sense of the word, yet the patterns seem to form a secret unique language. Reminiscent of runes and other primitive image-based language systems, the patterns call to mind circuit boards, dynamic liquids, molecular diagrams, and single-celled organisms, both organic and mechanical at the same time.
A viewer’s eyes first read the glyphs as decorative patterning as the repeated forms within the letters interact, and then see that they can be deciphered to read a message. “The written language becomes secondary but still present. Language structures are diverse but the threads running through the genealogy of alphabets are really interesting,” Cottier says. “The alphabet is a playground recognizable and accessible to all. So as long as you can read, an ‘A’ is an ‘A’ and people can connect to it. There are all these different ways of re-interpreting it and games you can play within its structure. The alphabet is the canvas and how you process it is the medium.”
The result of his experimentations is handsome forms hovering in the zone between geometric shapes and alphabetic code. While the symbols may appear generated by programming language, much of it is done by hand. Cottier generated shapes using Glyphs software, then edited out elements to reveal letterforms based partly on algorithmic functions (such as constraints, rules, grids, and modules) and partly on his own personal judgments about composition, balance, and visual dynamics.
The designer says, “It would be difficult to give a ratio of the rational to the emotional in this project. To be a designer you need to be logical and rational, but we are all emotional beings.” The human touch, adding heart to the cold logic of algorithms, makes this set of letterforms as unique as a fingerprint. Another designer editing the same set of basic shapes would have come up with an entirely different alphabet from this one molded by Cottier’s unique design eye.
While the project feels exhaustively complete, a framework exists to create a whole range of new letter sets using the original system as a template, by simply switching out or adding new units. The book also contains a section entitled Further Grids that change the base structure, meaning that thousands of other variations are also possible. Cottier isn’t sure if Letterform Variations will ever be finished; in fact, he believes it will just keep expanding.
A final thought on the work/play dichotomy: Cottier has enviably integrated his personal interests in patterning and form into his professional client work. For example, an Accept & Proceed project for the Nike SS18 collection in 2016 used transitional patterns highlighting muscle and skeletal structures as a lovely abstraction of living form into geometry. “To be honest, at Accept & Proceed we are always trying to work in a hidden system or insert something smart and discoverable into projects,” Cottier says. “Clients tend to want things to look great but if there is that little extra something to find within, it can really make the whole project resonate.”