Courtesy Frere-Jones Type.
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Name: Retina
Designer: AIGA Medalist Tobias Frere-Jones, with contributions by Graham Bradley, Nina Stössinger, Tim Ripper, Dave Foster, Octavio Pardo, Ksenya Samarskaya, and Colin Ford
Foundry: Frere-Jones Type
Release Date: October 5, 2016

Back story: Retina was originally created in 2000 in a MicroPlus size with the very specific purpose of composing tiny, yet readable stock listings for the Wall Street Journal; it’s also one of just 23 digital fonts that MoMA acquired in 2011 for its permanent collection, NBD. Now team Frere-Jones has retooled and expanded the font family so the rest of the world can use it. More than that, it represents the solution to a visual problem Frere-Jones has been puzzling over for more than 15 years, ever since he was a student at Rhode Island School of Design: how much can a type designer mess around with letterforms and still expect a reader’s eyes and brain to automatically fill in what’s not quite there? Or, as Frere-Jones puts it, “I wanted to see what happens when letterforms are really vague.

“The design process was like very carefully throwing wrenches into machinery to see what will break first. Of every typeface I’ve ever designed, this is the one I’m proudest of…it represents the summary of years of observation and hypothesizing on an idea I was trying to prove to myself.”

Why’s it called Retina? “I wanted the name to refer to sight in some way, but also to start with a cap R because that character came out with such a distinctive shape,” Frere-Jones says.

What are its distinguishing characteristics? It’s an unusual design process to start with the smallest sizes first and then create the larger ones, but Frere-Jones found it refreshing, if a little odd, to work backwards. The MicroPlus weights use exaggerated proportions and deep-cut notches to absorb ink in print and reinforce the gesture of each shape on screens as well as paper. Each letter has an individually customized width across all weights from lightest to heaviest (unlike a monospaced font where all characters are the same width), making Retina ideal for tabular material where columns can take on additional type weights without having to rejigger their tab stops. For headlines and larger sizes of text, the Standard styles were developed with more conventional proportions and details. 

What should I use it for? Retina was designed to speak with a clear voice in any medium—meaning the sky’s the limit here.

Who’s it friends with? Retina plays unexpectedly well with centuries-old typefaces like Garamond and Janson, thanks to similar structural qualities such as open apertures that emphasize and differentiate its internal shapes. “Although I didn’t set out to connect Retina to any specific point in history, it has an unusual sympathy with oldstyle designs,” says Frere-Jones. “I was pretty surprised by that, since I hadn’t planned the type’s personality at the outset, but let it come directly from the process.”