David Jonathan Ross: The ups and downs of vertical typography

Local liquor stores can be the start of great things. For David Jonathan Ross they were the start of an in-depth exploration into the realm of vertical letterforms. His analysis of shop signage in the urban landscape, as well as the technical and aesthetic challenges when vertically drawing letters and setting type resulted in the typeface “Bungee”.

This is not the first time David Jonathan Ross has explored a special niche of the typographic universe. A few years ago he became renowned through his research in reversed-stress and horizontally emphasised typefaces—backasswards type as he likes to call it— and his coding typeface Input.

Designed to be horizontal

Beginning a presentation by showing images, GIFs or videos of cute animals and pets to break the ice has become quite common among presenters, and David Jonathan Ross— or DJR, as self-proclaimed fangirl Indra Kupferschmid simply calls him— is no exception. While cheekily fishing for the audience’s attention he effortlessly manages to connect his dog Lilly to the subject. Just like the Latin alphabet, Lily is designed to be horizontal and living in a vertical world and while it is still easy for her to get on her rear legs, latin letters have a harder time doing so.

Valuable advice from John Downer. © Sebastian Weiß / Monotype

Looking east

When trying to tackle complex typesetting problems, it can always help to have a peek into other script systems. Typefaces inspired by connected handwriting for example may benefit greatly from some knowledge about how Arabic typefaces work under the hood. In Bungee’s case, David Jonathan Ross’ inspiration came from vertical scripts that are used in Korea, Japan and Mongolia, as well as multi-script hybrid type systems such as Nikola Djurek’s Balkan Sans and Sori by Sebastian Moser.

Urban landscaping

Buildings are empty canvases waiting to be filled with texts.

He points out that even though verticality is something unusual for Latin typesetting and fonts in general, it is a very common thing in urban lettering and signage. There, vertical signs can come in almost any shape and form; from narrow to wide, hot to cold, sans to uncial and even from slab to blackletter, “and it can even be Hobo”. But the most interesting to David Jonathan Ross is a sans serif style with squarish shapes and open counters. The style is referred to as “gas pipe”, though it remained unclear exactly where the term comes from— but the pointers are greatly appreciated!

Ask the Experts

With a (vertical) phenomenon this widely spread, it is even more surprising how little is being taught and communicated about it. Ross’ research shows that there is a bunch of letter forms which are not very suitable for vertical setting. One problem is the horizontal width of shapes like “M” and “W”, as well as the “I” on the other side of the spectrum. In this respect, designing letters for vertical use is not much different from designing a monospace typeface.

By solving unusual, interesting problems you end up with unusual, interesting solutions.

Another is the asymmetry of letters like “L” and “J”. American sign painting expert John Downer warned David Jonathan Ross especially not to “unleash” these problematic letters on people. DJR put them in anyway, but included the “John Downer Honorary Stylistic Set”, replacing them with nothing. Problem solved, right?

David Jonathan Ross holding a (obviously vertical) invisible sandwich. © Sebastian Weiß / Monotype


Speaking of problems, just like in horizontal typesetting, the spaces between letters is as important as the letters themselves and still difficult to handle— something the Bauhaus in Dessau has trouble with too.
While traditional Latin text setting is determined by left and right side bearings around letter shapes, Bungee works with top and bottom side bearings. This means that DJR drew multiple height versions of each letter and also for the accented ones. When spacing has enough to balance letters and not-letters, you would usually apply kerning. Conveniently, there is also an Opentype feature for that. All this makes sure that the user experience whilst working with Bungee is a pleasant one.

Tech and Color

As important as it is to DJR to design interesting typefaces, he is just as concerned about the technical implementation of it. He was not shy of showing HTML and CSS commands that are needed to set vertical text on the web or where to find the vertical text tool in Adobe’s Photoshop and Illustrator, but weirdly not in Indesign, as Ross comments.
In the past, colour and layering fonts like LTR Federal and Nitti Monstro have become quite fashionable. Coming from the colourful world of neon signage, it was clear that there should also be colour font styles for Bungee. These were partly designed and generated with the Robochrome Extention for Robofont by Jens Kutílek.

Useless things take us to potential awesomeness

In terms of readability, the entire genre of display typefaces is a bad idea.

David Jonathan Ross closes his talk by showing a picture of his favourite sign but I will refrain from going into details about it. If you haven’t seen it, you should go and watch the video right now. Are you back? Good.
During the Q&A after the talk, he also shared his perspective on typefaces and which ones he would like to see more of in the future. Looking at his projects it becomes clear that DJR is all about finding interesting niches. He himself describes the font world as a nightclub. In the middle, it is very busy, typefaces are bumping up against each other and spilling drinks all over each other in what is the generic sans serif area. At the same time, he enjoys grabbing a drink and finding a corner to have a nice conversation with a few other typefaces which may have a different take on a specific idea. And if that club closes, there is a liquor store just around the corner.

David Jonathan Ross

David Jonathan Ross

Type Designer (Los Angeles)

David Jonathan Ross draws letters of all shapes and sizes for custom and retail typeface designs. He joined The Font Bureau in 2007, and his typefaces include Manicotti and Trilby, reversed stress slabs; Condor, a high contrast sans; Turnip, a rugged bookface; and Input, an extensive family designed for computer programming. David often shares his love of letters through lectures and workshops, and curates Retro Script L.A., a collection of cursive signage in his home town of Los Angeles.