Dan Rhatigan: The Feedback Loop & Teamwork in Type Design

Dan Rhatigan joined us today to talk about the untold story of type design – the collaborative development process that is often glossed over, especially for typefaces that predate digital drawing tools.

Photo by: Amber Gregory

He focused his talk on the Gill Sans font family, which has been enormously popular since the 1920s. Gill Sans is an interesting case study because there’s a lot of detailed documentation forming a more complete picture of how it came to be.

Like many other typefaces, Gill Sans didn’t spring into existence fully formed by its named designer –Eric Gill. While Eric Gill lays claim to the genesis of the Gill Sans typeface, many others have contributed to its development over time. Dan walked us through the collaborative steps, the “loops within loops” of activity and contributions, that went into the final product.

The initial idea for Gill Sans came through in the form of a sketch which served as a guide for negotiations and refinements that would take place between the teams – exploring treatments of different details and proportions of shapes.

The next step was the drawing office where blueprint drawings would be produced (by hand) for every size and style of the type family. This was a very time consuming process that required skilled craftsmen and high degrees of precision. Once a particular letter form was perfected, that blueprint would be reused as much as possible for variations of letters that had the same characteristics. These blueprints would then be traced in the hot metal production of the final type.

Because Gill Sans was so popular, the font family grew very rapidly with many variations and custom versions being added over time. These custom fonts ranged from those used for Apple’s iOS to children’s toys. While the flexibility of the font family was among its strengths, it also posed an interesting challenge to type designers who needed to honor the core concept of the typeface as they experimented with alternate versions. Understanding the limits was key.


Dan Rhatigan

Dan Rhatigan works with Adobe Typekit in New York as the Senior Manager of Adobe Type. He has over 25 years of eclectic experience in various industries as a typesetter, graphic designer, typeface designer, and teacher, including several years in London and New York serving as Type Director for Monotype. He has a BFA in graphic design from Boston University, and MA in typeface design from the University of Reading in the UK, and a very tattered passport.

The slow and carefully documented process that Dan depicts is an interesting contrast with how type production and manipulation has become today, and makes us wonder where it will go in the future.


– By Tara @musingt