dot-font: Cooling Magma

When Sumner Stone releases a new typeface design, it’s worth paying attention to. Stone was for a long time the director of type development at Adobe, and his eponymous super-family of related typefaces (ITC Stone Serif, Stone Sans, Stone Informal) in some ways set the standard for digital fonts designed for a variety of output devices and resolutions. His recent designs have been either book faces or signage faces; with his latest, which he calls Magma, it’s hard to decide exactly where to place it.

The subtle variations in Sumner Stone’s latest typeface, Magma.

Magma is what might be called an “incised” typeface, a sans serif where the strokes are subtly curved so that they swell slightly at the ends. The most famous example is Hermann Zapf’s Optima. This curve is a characteristic that gets lost at small size or low resolution, but that comes into its own at display sizes; even at larger text sizes, it adds a little bit of liveliness without being obvious about it.

Magma is very much in the vein of some of Stone’s earlier type designs. Its capital letters bear a strong resemblance to his all-caps signage face, Basalt (I could easily imagine using Basalt and Magma together). The shapes of the lowercase letters recall some of his other typefaces, but this seems to have more to do with Sumner Stone’s calligraphic taste in letterforms than with any attempt to make Magma a companion to any of the other text faces. He says explicitly that Magma is intended for both text and display work, and I presume that the purpose of the face’s incised look is to make it a little less monotonous than a plain sans serif in blocks of text. The factor that works against sans serifs as text faces isn’t their lack of serifs but their relative (sometimes complete) lack of contrast in the thickness of their strokes. Magma doesn’t have much stroke contrast, but the subtle curves of the straight strokes give it a somewhat complex texture.

Magma as it appears at text sizes.

Weight Management
In Magma, Stone has introduced something that he calls “Halo™ fonts“. Each of the four primary weights (light, regular, semibold, bold) has a corresponding Halo font, with exactly the same spacing but a very slight bit of added weight to all the strokes. “Weight management” is how Stone describes the purpose of these additional versions. “Halo fonts can be used to compensate for the weight loss caused by reverse printing or any other reproduction process which decreases the weight of the type.”

Slight variations of weight (here between Magma Halo and Magma Semibold).

In other words, if you want Magma to have the same look when it’s reversed out of a dark background as it does when it’s set as black type against a light background, use the Halo version for the reversed type. The nature of color perception is such that reversed type looks lighter than the same weight of regular black type; Halo fonts compensate for this. They can also be used to get a consistent appearance when printing on different kinds of paper stock. (Some newspaper typefaces have been given finely graded weight variations for this same purpose, though I don’t know of any where the weights are paired like the Halo fonts and their companions.)

In the PDF type specimen for Magma, Stone includes notes on how to use the Halo fonts effectively, especially how to adjust their tracking depending on the circumstances. He also explains how you can create “short capitals” and “short figures” by setting a smaller size of the Halo font alongside the non-Halo version at full size — a very clever way of broadening the typographic palette without having to create separate small-caps fonts. He even gives us the precise percentages of the point size that will achieve this effect.

Space: the Final Default
Stone also includes detailed notes on letterspacing and tracking in general, with specific recommendations of how much looser or tighter to set Magma at very small or large sizes, in order to make it look consistent. This is all very carefully thought out, but I find that, to my eye, the whole typeface looks uncomfortably tight. I’m judging this only from samples in the type specimen, so I can’t try out the fonts to see how they work, but I imagine that if I were using Magma in real work, I’d increase all of the suggested tracking values, very slightly, across the board.

Magma benefits from paying close attention to tracking values when you use it.

(This is not the first time I’ve found that I prefer something different from the default values in a font. When I used to work a lot with the multiple-master version of Adobe’s Minion, with its range of optical sizes, I found that in general the next-smaller optical size looked best in text; for example, when setting text in 10pt, I’d use the 9pt design, because it looked slightly heftier and more solid, and it read better. In the end, all you have to go on is your own eye; although a font’s “out of the box” spacing ought to be ideal, that’s not always the case. There are, for instance, many digital adaptations of hot-metal faces where the digital version is way too tightly spaced; the worst example may be Monotype’s popular Gill Sans, where both the regular weight and especially the light weight look much better when they’re tracked loose. This is an entirely separate question from kerning, which can also be faulty; some beautifully designed typefaces have built-in kerning pairs that create more problems than they solve, and need to be adjusted.)

Typographic Refinement
Magma is not yet available as an OpenType font, but Stone says he’s working on one. “It is made for it, of course.” Since he has given Magma a number of alternate characters and ligatures, and has gone to great lengths to create a system for constructing fractions effectively, it’s clear that the OpenType format will make it easier to use these additional typographic features. In the present fonts, they’re all there, but you have to access them by hand.

Some of the alternate characters available in Magma.

Stone’s 31-page type specimen for Magma, which uses passages from Fitzgerald’s translation of the “Odyssey” for its sample text, shows off the typeface to good advantage, with lots of variations of size and weight and style for comparison. It’s very practical, although you’d have to print it out at high resolution on good paper to get a truly representative sample of how Magma would look in print. That’s the trouble with type specimens that exist only as digital files. But this is a very handsome one.

It’s not clear to me where Magma will find its niche. Among sans serif typefaces, it’s exactly the opposite of an industrial sans; Magma invites literary uses, though I’d be surprised to see anyone set a whole book in it. I’m curious to see how different typographeres and graphic designers will end up putting it to use.

Posted on: January 24, 2005

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