Nigel Cottier details how he created 19,840 letterforms with one simple grid-based framework
From the mind of London-based graphic designer Nigel Cottier, Letterform Variations is an ongoing study into letterform construction using basic grid and shape-based systems, exploring their potential to generate vast amounts of varying alphabetical outcomes. Having spent much of his career developing the project alongside his role at Accept & Proceed, Cottier collaborated with Slanted Publishers to capture it in printed form; culminating in 19,840 letters showcased across 692 pages.
EM How are you doing Nigel?
NC I’m doing pretty good.
EM How would you describe your Letterform Variations project to somebody discovering it for the first time?
NC A Playful Study into Letterform Construction.
EM I imagine it didn’t always look how it does today in the book. How did you get into the project and find the direction you’ve taken it in?
NC It’s had a few iterations over the years. It all really began when I was at school, sketching letters in the back of maths books, trying to find different ways of drawing a ‘K’, a ‘g’ or an ‘R.’ But I had the idea to formalise it a few years ago. We were working on a project for a client. I’d proposed developing a type system that would have lots of alternates for each glyph. The project aesthetic was very different but I used what I’d learnt to develop the system.
EM Were you actually aware of or studying graphic design when you did the first sketches at school
NC I think at the time it was more a way of preventing boredom. We did have a really great art dept. at my school and I had the option to study what was called Graphic Art as a GCSE. So I think it would have been around then I became aware of graphic design being a profession.
EM Can you place where your interest in system-based design and typography came from?
NC I joined A&P fresh out of art school when it was in its first couple of years. Back then system-based design was the main principle behind a lot of what we were doing. I loved the possibilities of it and found out about people like LeWitt, Gerstner, Morellet, Molnar, Mohr, the people who pioneered it all. Typography is a little tricky as it’s so universal it’s difficult to pinpoint. It feels like I’ve always been interested in it.
But in truth, a lot of it is done by hand, or at least by logic.
EM How did you come up with the framework that each letter is based on?
NC The framework or grid for Letterform Variations 00 (Section A in the Book) partly came from those doodles I was doing in my maths books, four squares with diagonal crosses through. I wanted to create a simple grid structure that would allow for many different variant forms.
From this system, I created a load of alternative characters. Certain characters you can create loads of alternative forms for, like ‘R’ and ‘a’ but the symmetrical characters like ’T’ and ‘O’ are more difficult. I selected or edited them to 16 alternative characters or stylistic sets for each basic Roman symbol (a-z, A-Z and 0-9), this created the base set.
And then the subsequent letter sets 01-09 are adapted versions of the original system replacing the line grid structure with more nuanced forms, geometric forms and combinations of geometric forms.
EM Can you tell us about the creation process for the letterforms?
I have been asked in the past what programming language I use, probably as a lot of my work appears to be processing. But in truth, a lot of it is done by hand, or at least by logic. The system generates the forms, it’s just a case of editing out elements to reveal the letterforms. Most of the work was done in Glyphs.
For selecting each specific letterform I guess it’s based on designer judgement choosing whether a letter is a letter and isn’t read as a different letter. There are some interesting crossovers with certain letters. If you push things far enough an ‘L’ can look quite like a ‘2’ or ‘J’ like a ‘5.’
EM For the artwork versions of the letters, how does the mechanical drawing with a Posca paint marker work?
NC Each letterform is recreated in Illustrator as a single line filling in the full character form or the multiple units that make up the full form. This is then converted to a .gcode format and the artwork is drawn using a CNC software and an old Joto X.
EM Why did you decide to culminate the project into a book? And what was the process like of putting it together?
NC It felt like a nice way to communicate the project. The typefaces are fun experiments in themselves but the book is more about demonstrating the scope of grid and system-based letterform creation, and showing the individual letterforms as beautiful or in fact ugly characters. I’d love it to be a bit of a handbook for people to create new letterforms or logotypes or even to just look at what a font or typeface is a little different.
Designing the book itself was quite a simple process once the system was created. I approached a handful of publishers with a blad, thankfully a few were interested but I had some great conversations with Lars (Harmsen) at Slanted and it felt like a good fit. They had also just published Jannis’ Shape Grammars and the two projects felt very connected.
It was a while before we could publish it as their schedule was so full last year. They have some great titles coming out. I just bought Flexible Visual Systems which is such a great look at system-based design.
I’d love it to be a bit of a handbook for people to create new letterforms or logotypes.
EM Do you think Letterform Variations ever informs the commercial work you do during your day job at Accept & Proceed?
NC The project is an experiment, looking at processes differently, trying to look at letterforms differently. Experimentation is a big part of what we do. It all influences and informs commercial work just like the commercial projects influence the experimentation. It’s one big continuum really.
EM What do you have in mind for the future of the project?
NC The framework is there to create a whole range of new letter sets using different forms and the original system as a template. I’d also like to keep investigating variable fonts. All the letter sets within the collection are variable fonts and there is loads of potential for using variable font technology in really broad ways outside of the width, weight and contrast parameters. Creating letterforms that can really change personality dramatically on a single or multiple sliders is really fun.
There is also a ‘Further Grids’ chapter in the book that looks at alternative grids, which could be developed. I like that the forms may inspire other designers in the creation of interesting letterforms, or grid-based type systems. The scope of it is so broad.
The alphabet is a really interesting playground, it’s recognisable and accessible to all so as long as you can read an ‘A’ is an ‘A’ then people can connect to it. There are all these different ways of reinterpreting it. It’s like the alphabet is the canvas and how you process it is the medium.