Name: Cowhand
Type: Retail typeface
Publisher: Monotype
Release year: 2015
Purchase links: MyFonts

Cowhand is a display typeface designed to keep words at one specific width. Words of one letter will have one very wide character, words of two letters will have characters of half that width and so forth. At the maximum of 20-letter words, characters become very tightly compressed. If you want to type more than one word in a block, you type non-breaking space (option+space in Mac) to hold words together. It was designed as part of a Font Marathon over the course of 3.5 days in Monotype’s NY office.

The idea of Cowhand came to me from a Chinese calligraphy artist called Xu Bing, who writes English words in a form of Chinese kanji. While his work looks like a piece of Chinese calligraphy, but reads in English. Chinese kanji is called ideographs, meaning each letter carries an idea, rather than pronunciation (although some are used purely for phonetical purpose). This inspired me to make a Latin font that always sticks a word into one shape, a typographic adaptation of Xu Bing’s idea.

People ask me if I was inspired by the iconic opening sequence of Dr. Strangelove by Stanley Kubrick, but this is not the case. I hadn’t seen the film until four years later, let alone the opening. It’s a wonderful film that gets better and better upon repeated viewings, and does have a great handwritten credits.

My first attempt was made as early as in 2010 while I was studying typeface design at the University of Reading. The core idea is exactly the same; the font would make a word into a uniform length. This means, if I wanted to support up to six-letter word, I would have to draw six different alternate glyphs for all letters to account for 1-letter word, 2-letter word… until 6. Maximum of six is not quite useful, yet it was not easy to multiply glyphs manually. It was before I turned pro and before Glyphs came along; despite it was possible in principle, I was not capable enough. Some years later, I started using Glyphs which made interpolation work a lot easier, and learned Python which helped me automate stuff immensely. When I received the invitation for Font Marathon, to make a typeface in 3 days, I thought this idea could be revisited.

While I was sketching it prior to the Marathon to find the best style that meet certain requirements. For the typeface to look perfectly justified, the left and right edges of the word always have to align, meaning they should all have the same sidebearings. It should also be monospaced so that different letter widths don’t come into equation. A dramatic change in width can result in distractingly uneven stem thickness, and the strokes needed to be thin. It also needed to fill the monospace body and look blocky. And I came to the horizontally stressed serif, commonly known as the Western style. With this design, the strokes can stay thin while maintaining density.

I decided to aim for 6000 unit word length supporting up to 20 letters. I could draw two glyphs at least, one for 1-letter case in 6000 units, and 300 for the narrowest 20-letter case. Using these masters, sometimes with additional intermediate ones, all width variations could be interpolated using Glyphs’s smart component and Python. Sometimes the design needed to switch design completely; the dollar sign would start with two bars striking through, but the bars will be reduced to one as the letter narrows, and eventually none.

After I made the core idea work, my appetite for density brought my attention to open gaps like LT which would be impossible to kern since this is supposed to be monospaced. But who said monospaced letters need to stay inside the body? If the width can’t change, the outlines can! All you need are outlines extending to the neighbouring letters. It means letters like A had three “kerning” variants, because it could extend left, right, or both ways. Thus Cowhand became the first monospaced typeface that has “kerning” as far as I know.

There are other fonts that aggressively change its width to fit a text box, most notable of which is DJR’s Fit. While Fit makes use of the variable font technology for the user to achieve it, Cowhand does it automatically for its arbitrary width, and it’s a pre-variable technology. I don’t think Cowhand is really obsolete technically speaking, but variable font is obviously more flexible. Maybe one day Cowhand will become variable?