The disturbing world of type designer Jeremy Tankard

Jeremy Tankard is a man far more interested in type than himself. When briefed by the Galley Club – where he this week delivered a talk called ‘Disturbing Type’ – to say something about himself, Tankard instead presented three rather audience-challenging projects he had completed while a student. On his eponymous website (Jeremy Tankard Typography) there is no ‘About’ page; the expected biography of the man behind typefaces such as Bliss, Corbel and Shaker is instead bundled in with the Copyright and Credits small print.

While Tankard’s Royal College of Art creations weren’t the easiest concepts to get to grips with, I was particularly taken by his alternative “Story of O”: not a tale of erotic fiction but a narrative of consonants being up in arms and vowels being ejected from the alphabet. If we learned anything about Tankard the man from this introductory presentation it’s that he spends a lot of time looking back – at past typefaces and publications – he isn’t frightened of playing outside the rules and he’s more than a little obsessed by fonts and type.

Taking inspiration from the past

To create the sans serif font Bliss, Tankard studied five different typefaces:

  • Edward Johnston’s Underground
  • Gill Sans
  • The Transport typeface used on UK Motorway signs
  • Syntax
  • Frutiger

He wanted to tap into the ‘Englishness’ of the first three fonts, was inspired by the dynamic appearance of Syntax (whose letters were originally drawn over the structure of an ‘Old Face’) and harked after the opened-up letter forms that make Frutiger so clearly legible from a distance. The result, according to Typographica’s Stephen Coles “improves on nearly every failing in Johnston and Gill Sans. It’s also a great replacement for Frutiger and Syntax”. It’s therefore unsurprising that, although I can’t find clear confirmation of the fact, it looks like one of the most heavily-marketed reading devices on the planet currently uses Bliss for its branding.

Kindle Fire HD

Amazon’s Kindle branding appears to use Tankard’s Bliss font

Playing outside the rules

While we didn’t have time to learn about Tankard’s Disturbance font on the night, Design & Typo reveals Tankard named it so because “my lecturers said ‘you can’t do this to the alphabet, it’s too disturbing!’” – a brave move in a field the designer himself describes as full of “rhetoric and dogma”.

disturbance quote

The vertical ups and downs certainly create the “new word shapes and a new rhythm” that Tankard says he was aiming for, but each of the individual letters in the Disturbance alphabet was – perhaps surprisingly – chosen “for maximum legibility”.

Obsessed by fonts

The more Tankard talked about the development of his own fonts, the clearer it became that typeface design requires a certain type of skill and attitude. The process of making type is – says Tankard – “very dull and repetitive”. He talks about “lots of looking, testing, reviewing” and showed numerous pages of sketchbooks filled with meticulous notes and measurements. If you commission him to create a font, he’ll say it takes four weeks (of his work, not client thinking or changing-their-mind time), but in reality some of Tankard’s fonts have spent months or years in gestation. Even when they are ‘finished’, the development of new symbols (like the Euro) require additions and revisions; demands for additional language character sets also mean he may need to revisit past creations. And ‘a font’ isn’t just a set of letters and symbols; every new design comes with user guides, type specimens, kerning tables and the like.

The opening spread of Tankard's Kingfisher Sample Book

The opening spread of Tankard’s Kingfisher Sample Book

While Tankard’s head might always be brimming with new, off the wall ideas, his work with commercial organisations like Adobe has taught him to be methodological, to consider critical details at all stages and to be hugely organised. This organised and methodological approach is, he says, “the only way not to go mad”. So, perhaps the word “obsessed” is a little unfair. Rather, Tankard is just a man committed to creating, manufacturing and licensing high quality digital type. And his knowledge of the past, his confidence to challenge the status quo and his attention to process and organisation are all key components of that craft.

Tankard's Disturbance, Bliss, Arjowiggins Inuit, Shaker and Blue Island fonts

Tankard’s Disturbance, Bliss, Arjowiggins Inuit, Shaker and Blue Island fonts

You can try any of Tankard’s fonts out on your own text with the curiously addictive ‘Try it Out’ tool on his website.


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