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Yulia Gonina

SFT Sushka: the Sweet Science of Font Design

Rational typeface design is not just about developing neutral sans serifs. It’s about tackling design challenges head-on, from solving spacing and diacritic issues in small headlines to reducing glyph sets by half without sacrificing expressiveness, or creating a variable font without its typical problems. The key is to carefully consider and weigh each decision. In this article, we will delve into the intricacies of rational font design and explore these challenges in depth.
I Had a Plan and I Stuck to It
When I first started Schrifteria and was considering which fonts to release, I had a plan in mind: to alternate between large, “serious” projects — workhorses — and small, creative display fonts. In theory, this would allow me to release two original projects a year, which is a good result for a small type foundry. Plus, it would be interesting for me to switch between different types of projects.

The first typeface, SFT Schrifted Sans, filled the position of a serious project. Now it’s time to move on to something more fun.
Why Narrow Typeface?
In previous articles, I have written that neutral grotesque fonts sell the best, and this is not just a subjective observation, but rather a quantitative fact. Additionally, it is clear that creative display fonts sell much less than neutral ones, regardless of how much we may want the market to operate differently. However, if I am going to add a display font to my collection, where should I start?

If you take a stroll through the streets, visit some shops, and observe your surroundings (which I personally enjoy doing), you will notice a multitude of narrow fonts in use. The character of these fonts varies from fairly ordinary (such as narrow Helvetica) to eccentric fonts of different breeds and styles. I have long been wondering why this is the case, and I have come to the conclusion that they are simply convenient, as they allow for large messages to be fitted into a very limited space. Experienced designers also know that the larger the font size, the less white space (between and within letters) we want to see. And narrow fonts help us get rid of it successfully. But these are my own thoughts on the subject, and they can be argued.

So that’s how I decided that the first display font in the Schrifteria collection would be narrow.
Some examples of condensed fonts in the wild.

Some examples of condensed fonts in the wild.

Creative Cravings
As for the character of this narrow font, I relied on my own current preferences. Lately, I have been inspired by creative product packaging, so I decided to take it as my target use. In terms of character, I wanted something tasty, like cookies or pastries. Of course, the font is not limited to this application, and a type designer never knows where and how their font will ultimately be used. But having some guidelines in work are always useful.

I decided to name the typeface “Sushka” which is a traditional Eastern European sweet — crunchy sweet bread in the shape of a circle or oval (just like the letter O in this font).
SFT Sushka name. Sushka — a traditional Eastern European sweet.

Sushka — a traditional Eastern European sweet.

Choosing the Character
Of course, there is always an option to make a very narrow version of the same SFT Schrifted Sans, and it’s quite possible that this project would be even more popular. But there are already so many simple narrow fonts out there, and in this case I wanted something more original. At the same time, not too wild, to maintain some universality of use.

As a result, I came up with a modular grotesque font with rounded corners, playful incisions, and a shifted waistline. And I also came up with the letter “s”, which looked like a burger, that in turn gave guidance to other exotic solutions in the glyph constructions.
SFT Sushka — a modular grotesque font with rounded corners, playful incisions,and a shifted waistline.

SFT Sushka — a playful modular sans serif.

Unusual Font Family
The SFT Sushka typeface is not a typical font family. It changes in both thickness and width at the same time. Why is that?

I had planned to keep this project small by limiting the work to just two masters. However, I wanted to create something more interesting than simply altering the weight or width of the font. I was intrigued by the idea of achieving an effect where the font appeared to stretch and compress vertically. But, in reality, this was a non-trivial task.

Unfortunately, due to technical limitations, it is not possible to create a fully functional height axis. In theory, it can be done, but the font would either be inconvenient to use or the change would be very minimal. But I wanted to achieve the effect of letters growing several times larger. So, I took a different approach and created two extreme styles: a compressed and a “wide” (although it’s still quite compact) one. And I made it so that if you put identical words written with these styles on top of each other and make these words the same width (by changing the font size), the characters in these styles should be similar in width and thickness. To achieve this, I had to change the width and thickness of the characters simultaneously.
SFT Sushka font family.

SFT Sushka font family.

If you look at the styles in the same size, they will look like a gradient from very narrow and eccentric to wider, softer and fluffier ones. So, the variation is not just in width and thickness, but in the general mood as well.

In addition to the width variations, SFT Sushka also has two subfamilies: one with incisions and the other without. When testing the font in different situations, such as posters, packaging, etc., I realized that the incisions in the letters, which give the font a very playful appearance, do not work well in all situations. Therefore, to expand the font’s versatility, I created a more subdued version without the incisions.
SFT Sushka and SFT Sushka Flat.

SFT Sushka and SFT Sushka Flat.

Unicase
I notice that in most cases I described earlier, designers prefer to write text in All Caps. I even had a thought to limit the font to only uppercase letters (after all, the project was planned to be short, and this could save a lot of time). But in the end, it seemed to me that only uppercase letters were not expressive enough, it turned out to be too boring and straightforward. Therefore, I decided to stick to only one case, but to take all the best forms from both lowercase and uppercase letters. That’s how the font became Unicase.
The Dilemma of Diacritics and Tight Line Spacing
When it comes to large headlines, and the desire to reduce white space, it’s not just about adjusting letter spacing — designers also want to narrow the line spacing. This is not a problem in English, but many other languages are less fortunate due to diacritics. When traveling to countries where diacritics are used (including where I currently live), I often observe the tricks designers have to use to fit diacritics into a line: they compress them, lower them by overlaying them on letters, or completely eliminate them, resulting in “bald” text, and so on.
Some examples of condensed fonts in the wild.

Creative struggle with diacritics

In SFT Sushka, I wanted to fundamentally solve this problem. It was an interesting graphic challenge — I made the letters with diacritical marks shorter so that the diacritics would only slightly protrude above the line, both top and bottom. The challenge was to find the ideal size for these shortened letters. If they were too small, words with both upper and lower diacritics looked too “jumpy”. If they were too high, my original idea would be lost.
SFT Sushka Latin with tight spacing.

SFT Sushka Latin with tight line spacing.

In addition to letters with diacritical marks, there are also letters with parts that descend below the baseline. Many such characters exist in Cyrillic, and it was a separate challenge to incorporate them into my design concept.
SFT Sushka Cyrillic with tight spacing.

SFT Sushka Cyrillic with tight line spacing.

Drawing Cyrillic in SFT Sushka deserves a separate article. You can read it here.
Cyrillic for SFT Sushka: The Designer’s Brain Teaser
In this short article, we will take a detailed look at the thought process behind finding unconventional solutions for Cyrillic letters.
Some Details: Working with Counterform
Another interesting challenge was working with the complex letterform of Ø. In condensed designs this character can often look clumsy — if the crossbar is drawn across the full height of the letter, it looks unattractive and bold, and large areas of white space can appear on either side of the letter. However, the graphics of this font allowed for experimentation. As a result, I used a counterform as the crossbar. I think this solution looks more elegant in this font than the classic approach. By the way, I decided to use a similar approach for the slashed zero, but there I completely cut the character to differentiate it from Ø.
SFT Sushka. Working with rcounters as with crossbars.

SFT Sushka. Working with counters as with crossbars.

Numbers vs Letters
On the surface, it may seem like numbers are a seamless extension of the letters in a font, but in reality, they can live their own life. First, they have a different logic and contrast distribution, historically speaking (though this is not very important in our case). Secondly, they often have their own function — to draw attention. For example, think about when you enter a store, what’s the first thing you see? Price tags. Or how we’re taught to make compelling presentations? By emphasizing numbers. Or think of products like “5-grain bread” or “3-in-1 cleaning solution”. In these contexts, it’s crucial for numbers to be easily readable.

SFT Sushka is not the most legible font, especially when it comes to its compressed versions, and if we were to make the numbers adhere to the same parameters and sizes as the letters, their distinctive function would suffer. The solution: numbers in SFT Sushka have wider proportions than the letters. This way, they can be easily read even in the narrowest versions and stand out well in lines of text.
SFT Sushka. Figures

SFT Sushka. Figures

OpenType Features
In SFT Sushka, almost all features that are present in SFT Schrifted Sans are also included.

  1. Stylistic sets are represented by individual glyphs with alternative forms.
  2. Localization features are also present, which are necessary for full language support. The only missing localizations are for Bulgarian and Serbian languages, because the font is suitable for them without any additional adjustments!
  3. Digits (including slashed zero) and currency symbols are available in both proportional and tabular forms. There is no old-style version, as there are no lowercase letters in the font.
  4. Small digits and letters, as well as fractions, are also included.
  5. There is no Case feature because the font only has one case, so there is no need to adjust the punctuation.
  6. However, there is a Contextual Alternates feature that will, for example, raise the colon between two digits.
Safe Variable Font
SFT Sushka is designed to be convenient to use in limited spaces thanks to the variations in width of its glyphs. A variable font would be particularly useful here, as it would allow the user to precisely adjust the font size, rather than being limited to a few predetermined options.

However, there is a problem with variable fonts — they are not yet a perfect technology. One of the most common issues that can arise is unexpected contour overlaps, which can occur during printing. This is because many glyphs in a font are made up of separate, overlapping elements. When we export fonts in static formats, all of the contours are automatically merged, so there are no issues with displaying or printing them. However, variable fonts are exported in their non-merged form, which unfortunately can sometimes cause display issues on certain printer models and software programs.

In SFT Sushka, I solved this problem by removing all of the contour overlaps in the font file itself. This means that both the static and variable versions of the font are equally safe to use.

Why can’t we do this in all fonts? In theory, it is possible. However, in practice, it would significantly limit the design possibilities and could lead to other issues. SFT Sushka has a relatively simple construction, which allowed me to employ this technique.
SFT Sushka. No intersections in variable font.

SFT Sushka. No intersections in variable font.

As a Conclusion
The project turned out to be quite short, but there are absolutely no random decisions in it. Everything that can be found in the font is thoughtfully considered and has a reason behind it. I hope this will add comfort for users, but if you have any comments or suggestions, I would be happy to hear them!
April 2023