Friday, May 06, 2011

Washington Post

For a child born in 1971 and growing up in 70s Britain, probably the most magical place in Britain would have been BBC Television Centre. And, thanks to Blue Peter, it was a building that I was pretty familiar with. After all, Peter Purves had shown me countless times that the building was ‘like a huge doughnut, with studios around the outside, offices inside the centre ring and a fountain in the middle’.

BBC Television Centre, front gate

One of the most distinctive features of the building was its signage. The same typeface was used on everything from cameras to warning lights to the front gate.

EMI 2001 with Raymond Baxter

The typeface employed was a very common sight when I was five years old. It was used all over Chard Post Office, on signs made by SWEB (the South Western Electricity Board), and even for signs on the changing room doors at Maiden Beech School in Crewkerne. But, as I grew up, this signage was slowly replaced by signs using more modern faces. By the early 80s BBC Television Centre was just about the only place where it could be seen.

BBC Television Centre Studio One

I’d always wondered what the typeface was. The first clue was when I bought the book Encyclopedia of Typefaces by W.P. Jaspert et. al. The book contained a small scan of the face labelled as ‘Doric Italic’. This led me to search on font websites under the ‘Ds’ until I found a typeface that was called ‘AT Derek Italic’. This was close. In fact, it was very close. But it wasn’t right.

AT Derek Italic

For instance, in order to recreate the 1960s caption below, I had to alter the AT Derek lettering extensively:

BBCtv Science and Features recreated

The face used came up in conversation at The Mausoleum Club. The Mausoleum Club is a web forum for people who want to talk about proper television rather than other the kind that we get these days.

By a stroke of good fortune, BBC Graphic Designer Bob Richardson was present and he told me for the first time definitively the name of the font. It was called Washington. I then spent a couple of days plucking up courage to ask Bob if he would be kind enough to send me a scan of the font so that I could recreate a digital version.

Bob was very, very kind and also keen to see a version of the font in truetype form – I received a scan of Washington the next day. The scan he sent was taken from his copy of the BBC Graphic Design Print Room specimen sheets. The book contains all of the metal typefaces that were available to graphic designers (or ‘commercial artists’ as they were initially known) from the early 1950s until circa 1980.

Washington recreated by the BBC for a capgen

Bob told me that the BBC had actually recreated Washington in a format suitable for a caption generator for ‘The Lime Grove Story’ (a 1991 documentary to commemorate the closing of the BBC’s Lime Grove studios) but the BBC didn’t have a version of the font in truetype form.

So, now I had a scan I needed to recreate the font. The plan was, as usual, to trace each character or ‘glyph’ in Inkscape

Tracing in Inkscape

…then import the glyphs I had traced into FontForge

Glyph imported into FontForge

…and use FontForge to generate the final typeface.

The finished typeface

This is exactly the same way as I had recreated the Central Television corporate font, Anchor and Oxford. Only this time I had the best source material possible.

As I’ve talked about recreating fonts extensively in the past I’ll just talk about a couple of things that were either new or different in this case.

P and R superimposed

The first thing of interest was that the font was a real, live metal type and it wasn’t as ‘regular’ as I had come to expect from digital faces. The width of the vertical stroke in the ‘P’ would be quite different in width to the vertical stroke in the ‘R’ which would both differ in width of the vertical stroke in the ‘D’.

It was this kind of irregularity that really gave the font its charm and sold it as an old metal typeface. Therefore I was determined to keep that as much as possible and not to try and make the font too regular and clinical by ‘fixing’ all these quirks.

R coming to the point

The second thing I needed to know was when to ignore curves. Letters such as the capital R would have curves at the corners where you would expect them to come to a point. I did toy with the idea of leaving these curves in place but that looked dreadful at large sizes so that was one thing I did end up ‘fixing’.

There were a number of glyphs I had to create myself, as they didn’t exist when Washington was created or were not a part of the original face. For instance the Greek letter mu is a combination of the letters p, q and u:

P, Q, U make a MU, Cuthbert dribbled and guffed

I also added things like Euro and Rupee currency symbols, copyright and trademark symbols and so on.

One thing I did this time, which I should have done before, was get FontForge to create all the accented glyphs for me. In other words, instead of creating separate Inkscape files for each accented character and importing them into FontForge, I simply created each accent as a glyph and got FontForge to automatically create all the accented characters for me. This saved me a huge amount of time.

Once you’ve created these few characters…

It’s important for me to have a decent coverage of the Latin alphabet as I know first hand how frustrating Hungarians find it to have to use a tilde or diaeresis instead of their double acute. I also like to make sure that the Welsh language can be used with any typeface I create.

…you get all these free!

FontForge created the accented glyphs almost perfectly and out of a few hundred glyphs I only needed to adjust half a dozen by hand. I found this pretty amazing.

Buoyed with my success at automatic accented glyph creation I thought I’d try some automatic kerning. Kerning is the adjustment of the spaces between letters. For instance the distance between the letters ‘T’ and ‘o’ in ‘To’ is quite different to the distance between the letters ‘T’ and ‘h’ in ‘The’.

Good kerning makes all the difference to the appearance of a typeface. Here's the word ‘colour’ unkerned…

Colour with no kerning

…and here it is kerned.

Colour kerned

For all my other fonts I had sat down and kerned every possible letter combination by hand. The results are excellent but it also involves a large amount of wasted effort. The reason is that many letters (e.g. c, o and e) kern exactly the same as each other. FontForge not only allows you to put these letters into ‘classes’ to kern as a group, but it will also detect these ‘classes’ for you and attempt to kern them all into the bargain.

Kerning by classes – click to enlarge

I tried using this feature for the first time with Washington, and it worked pretty well for most letter combinations. However I do need to tweak this kerning by hand to ensure that all possible combinations of letters look good. Until this is done the font is only really useful for desktop publishing or vector art where you can alter the kerning of each letter combination by hand.

This task will take two or three days to do and it’s not something I want to do now, as it is really a job you need to come to fresh. So in about a month or so I’ll kern the font and release version 1.1 – I’ll post here when the hand kerned version is available.

So when the font is exported, how does it fair? Well, here's an example I put together which compares Washington to AT Derek:

A comparison - click to enlarge

As you can see, AT Derek may be more elegant but Washington is definitely more ‘BBC’!

The Washington Book typeface is released under the SIL Open Font licence.

All the software I used to create the typeface was free software, including the operating system – Fedora.

You can download the latest version of the Washington font from here. Windows owners will need 7-zip to uncompress the archive. The font is free – the only thing I ask is that if you find it useful please drop me a line or add a comment below as I’d love to hear from you.


Tim said...

Uncanny - I was wondering a few days ago what "that 70s BBC font" was called, and now you've solved the mystery! Many thanks :-)

Unknown said...

Yes, I had been wondering what it was called for years before I finally found out. Thanks for leaving a comment!

wbhist said...

And count me as now having this typeface in my font library.

There were quite a few "custom" (read: proprietary) fonts in use at various U.S. station groups over the years; among them the typeface used from May 20, 1963 into the 1990's (and in some cases, beyond) by the stations (both TV and radio) of Group W (Westinghouse Broadcasting) - approximated (and very badly at that, in the eyes of some typesetting aficionados) by Ray Larabie for his freeware font "Anklepants"; and a typeface called "Metromedia Television Alphabet" that debuted in August of 1967 and whose numbers were used well into the mid-1970's for the TV stations they owned (i.e. WNEW-TV/5 in New York, WTTG/5 in Washington, DC, and KTTV/11 in Los Angeles). You can check David Gleason's website for Broadcasting magazine back issues (the page to look for is pp.56-57, on the March 25, 1968 issue for the description of such typeface; plus various March 1969 issues for ads placed by Metromedia in the magazine for the various characters).

Unknown said...

@wbhist Every time you post one of your fascinating comments I get more and more interested in the history of American Television. I'm ashamed to admit previously I'd thought of it as simply ABC, CBS and NBC plus their local affiliates but there was obviously a whole lot more to the story than that.

Tim said...

On a related note: do you happen to know anything about the similar serif font used for the "Studio 1" sign in this article? That's another one I've often wondered about...

Unknown said...

@Tim It looks like Stymie Bold Italic to me - the same font used (albeit with a modified G) originally by Granada.

Gene Cowan said...

What an amazing coincidence that just as I was pondering about the BBC's font, you were posting this entry! Considering how difficult it was to come across your blog, I can only assume that you are the first on the internet to have done this research - and you have my undying thanks for your hard work to create the font!

Unknown said...

@gene Many thanks for commenting. I'm glad you finally found my blog: I know it is quite hard to find! Hopefully you'll find something of interest in some of the other posts too.

Zaphod Camden said...

I have just downloaded this—I've been after this typeface for some time in fact, it's one of the highlights of my childhood too (I was born in 1973).

Many thanks for posting!

Unknown said...

@Zaphod Camden Glad to be of assistance, and I love the OUP-style unspaced em-dash in your comment too!

IanMH said...

splendid, thanks for the story and the font download link - I was after a font to use on my 1970's 'theme' for my Android phone, and it looks great with the cheesy yellow & brown wallpaper background I have - although I am sure it should be used for nobler purposes really. Cheers!

Unknown said...

@IanMH Thanks for taking the trouble to leave a comment for me - I'm delighted you've put the font to good use.

Lyon>LA said...

Would you be able to tell/show me how the Welsh word "dewrder" would be spelled out in a proper old Welsh text style?

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Hi Dave, lovely to read this fascinating article - and to have the font available to download. It's all over Richard Marson's new Tales of TV Centre documentary, previewed last night at the NFT and due on air tomorrow night. What brought me here was a search to discover the identity of the "BBC Television Centre" typeface used on the exterior wall of TC1 from 1961 to 1997, above the atomic-style dots. It always looked to me like Profil/Decorated 035, but I see that it can't be that. It doesn't look like Clarendon either. I wonder what it could have been...?

Unknown said...

Many thanks for the Washington Book typeface.

Just to let you know, we're using Washington Book in the logo for which is the campign to keep all eight BBC Television Centre production studios open.

I have of course given you a credit at

Best wishes


Henry E Jones said...

Thanks for the info. I needed to replicate some BBC signs for a TV shoot. Very useful. I've given your blog a credit on Twitter, just search for your name. Thanks again.

Unknown said...

Thanks Henry, glad it was useful!

Stewf said...

Nice project! Discovered your post while doing some research into the typefaces that led up to Washington. Here's some more info on the related typefaces, the first of which may have originated in Hamburg as Fette Kursiv Grotesk in 1892.

Unknown said...

Absolutely fascinating Stewf. Many thanks for the link, I'll be reading your site this weekend.

Unknown said...

hi - is this available as a TTF?

Unknown said...

Hi Joseph - yes it is, use the link at the end of the post and you'll find a ttf in the archive.

Anonymous said...

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I'm the last to comment until I have got mine online - but I'm enjoying it.
Where are your Social Media Links and Subscribe to Newsletter or Blog Update links?
Hugs, Mal

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steward said...

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TV Studio

Richard said...

Hmm, this looks awfully familiar...

kit said...

just looking at this font being made has caused the bbc home video jingle from the early 90s to play in my head, repeatedly. which actually is quite pleasant, it turns out. seeing those R, G and B ribbons play out in my mind is somewhat of a trip. also i might currently be mildly sleep deprived.

(i just looked them up on youtube and it turns out i've conflated the post-97 video with the pre-97 music.. although the post-97 has similar music too. but the pre-97 video does have the RGB colours streaking in, just not in a ribbon fashion.)

so, needless to say, i've downloaded it. also i had never thought of using inkscape to make fonts, but it makes total sense! for well over a decade i've had it in the back of my mind to make fonts based on my handwritten/drawn interfaces in sketchbooks, but never looked into how to do it properly. i knew of ways to do it with bitmaps, but of course those don't scale well.