I don’t understand why. Just. Why.
For far too long now I’ve had a tab open with the type specimen for Columba, a magically warm typeface by Colophon, and I can’t close it. It’s simply impossible to take my eyes off this charming thing but I don’t know why.
So let’s figure it out.
First up, the typeface comes in three variants which is neat: Text (for body copy and regular sizes), Banner (a thin and more flourishing style for headlines), and Ruby (for tiny footnotes and what not). Here, take a look:
Why all these different variants though? Well, in typesetting, the size of the text is very important: when you set the text very small then shapes become harder to distinguish at a glance. You might not notice it but you’ll spend more energy trying to distinguish one smudgy shape from another whilst you read. So designers will often retrofit the shapes of a letter for a specific size (this practice is called optical sizing).
This makes a whole bunch of sense: if we’re designing a billboard then we probably shouldn’t use a typeface that’s made for a book (or, maybe we should do that just because we shouldn’t, but this is expert-level, kickflip typography and is rather difficult to pull off). This is why Columba has the Ruby variant, which is designed specifically for smaller sizes and if you compare it against the regular Text then the difference is subtle but noticeable.
On the top here is Text, the bottom is Ruby:
Notice those big chunks that have been cut out of the shapes for Ruby? Check the counter of the A where the triangle has notches and isn’t straight (you might need to zoom in). Those are called ink traps and when you use Ruby at those smaller sizes your brain fills in the gaps to make the letterforms more readable.
And when we zoom out it’s clear that Ruby is darker and thicker than the Text variant:
This isn’t a new technique—I hear type designers talk about optical sizing all the time—but it’s odd that I almost never hear web designers mention it. I wonder if this is because for websites there is this upper limit of how many typefaces we can use before we start to drastically hurt performance. On my own site for instance I’d love to use an optical weight like Ruby for bits of tiny text but I have to make that trade-off for performance instead.
This optical weight is one reason why I love Columba but I think my admiration comes from the warmth of the letterforms perhaps? There’s something so inviting about each shape; they’re both utterly beautiful and utterly boring....
…actually, now that I think about it, it’s not the warmth of these letters at all and maybe this other quality instead; the fact that it’s not obvious why Columba is beautiful in the first place.
I love that Columba is quietly lovely and isn’t going around shouting about how great it is.
Most folks wouldn’t notice it, as Columba doesn’t get in the way, but these small details would stop some folks dead in their tracks. They’d give no applause or high-fives, and they wouldn’t set off any fireworks or dole out promotions. Instead, they’d pay the only compliment a typographer can hope for.
A wink and a tip of the hat, a silent nod of approval.
Until next time,