For the last few months, I’ve had a tab open with the type specimen for Columba—a magically warm typeface designed by Lewis McGuffie and published by Colophon Foundry at the end of 2020—and I just can’t close the tab. It’s simply impossible to take my eyes off this charming thing, but I don’t know why. So, let’s figure it out together.
The typeface comes in three variants: Text (for body copy and regular sizes), Banner (a thin and more flourishing style for headlines), and Ruby (for tiny footnotes and whatnot). What are these variants for? In typesetting, the size of the text itself is very important: When you set the text very small, for example, shapes become harder to distinguish at a glance. You might not notice at first but you’ll spend more energy trying to distinguish one smudgy shape from another as you read, so designers will often retrofit the shapes of a letter for a specific size (a practice called optical sizing).
This makes sense: if we’re designing a billboard then we probably shouldn’t use a typeface that’s made for a book (or, maybe we should do that just because we shouldn’t, but this is expert-level, kickflip typography and can be rather difficult to pull off). That’s why Columba has that Ruby variant. It’s designed specifically for smaller sizes and when you compare it with the regular Text the difference is subtle, but noticeable enough.
Now let’s zoom in for a closer look because I don’t think you can appreciate the differences in just a few screenshots (Text is on top again, Ruby beneath):
Notice those big chunks that have been cut out of the shapes for Ruby? Those are called ink traps. When you use Ruby at those smaller sizes your brain fills in the gaps to make the letterforms more readable.
When I asked McGuffie about his experience designing Columba, he mentioned how the design of the Ruby variant became weirder over time:
“In first drafts of Columba Ruby I tried not to ‘make anything up’ – for example the ‘g’ looks like it does because that was what worked best at 6pt. However, at some point Gerry Leonidas (the course leader of the Reading MATD) encouraged me to take a less-mechanical approach and to make Columba Ruby look as strange as possible close up. This was good advice. It helped me push for more exotic solutions to the problems of scale, without compromising the functionality. With this design process, Columba Ruby ended up looking interesting close up but still fundamentally a functional tool.”
I love the idea of making Ruby extraordinarily weird up close but from a distance looks natural to the eye. This is difficult work, especially when type designers need to support multiple languages with these typefaces—suddenly expanding this into a system of more than 500+ glyphs. Each letter needs to be drawn, and each language needs to be studied closely:
“The multi-script support was interesting because it made me realize how important proportional width is the relationship of character’s widths to one another). This was something I had taken for granted in Latin, but in Greek by looking at letters (which at that point I couldn’t read) they only started to work together once I really considered their related widths. Greek is a very rhythmic writing system, closer to hand-writing than Roman latin is, and finding that rhythm was the key to making the script work. I also started some traditional Chinese characters but gave this up for time reasons. The idea of making the symbol of ‘eagle – 鷹’ work at 5-6pt gave me a headache.”
This is what makes the design of Columba so interesting: Each letterform is both utterly beautiful and utterly boring. You have to pay close attention. This is intentional because Lewis designed these letters for complex typographic situations like newspapers: “The most gratifying part of the process was the point following the first drafts of the basic alphabet when Columba started to look like a real thing, but preceding the stage of filling out every character required in a digital font,” McGuffin said. “Once the basic alphabet and numbers started to look okay, I began to mock-up newspapers with columned text, captions, quotes, headlines. Thereby testing the Text, the italics and Ruby sizes in combination.”
Hearing him talk about all these different considerations makes me realize how much of type design is simply a stressful juggling act: You have to make sure that these optical sizes and glyphs and languages snap together and feel like they’re part of the same visual language. “Columba looked like it would work in the real world. I lingered in this moment, making mock-ups and trying to perfect the drawing. I saw how tactically favoring slight curves over some straight lines in downward strokes made the Text size feel warm. How much spacing affects a paragraph or how different scripts would work together in my made-up newspaper pages,” he continued. “I have some experience with editorial design, so when I started to see a type family that I myself would want to buy and use, I was quite happy.”
I come back to all my open tabs and zoom in as far as I can and I still can’t quite figure out what I like so much about Columba. Columba is confident without being obnoxious, lovely without going around shouting about how great it is. Most folks wouldn’t notice all these different puzzle pieces though, yet it’s each of these small details that, when combined together, holds my attention. Ultimately Columba asks for no applause or high-fives, wouldn’t set off any fireworks or ask for promotions. Instead, it requires the only compliment a typographer can hope for: a wink and a tip of the hat, a silent nod of approval.