Parafina: Progressive Nostalgia

New designs, News, Releases — 17 February 2021

For Parafina’s design, I was inspired by a hand-lettered display-sized alphabet dating back to the mid-20th century, created by the Spanish letterer Miguel Pedraza. But Parafina is not a direct translation of those shapes, nor is the family a revival of Pedraza’s work. Instead, that alphabet acted as a catalyst. Seeing it caused me to reconsider how a working typographic-system based on geometric shapes of varied widths could be built. 

Alphabet by Miguel Pedraza, circa 1940

In 1927, Futura set the mould for how geometric types usually look. While Paul Renner did not teach at the Bauhaus himself, Futura’s proportions are not far off from the school’s doctrine of pure geometry, based on circles, squares and triangles. Together, those shapes create the rhythm we have come to expect from geometric sans serifs, but Parafina dances to a different tune. While not breaking the mould completely, it is a geometric sans generating a more varied rhythm in texts. Although you will still find round, wide characters, Parafina’s lowercase letters like h, m, n and u are narrow.

Parafina Medium on top and Futura Medium on the bottom

Parafina Medium on the top and Futura Medium on the bottom.

While Parafina has feet in the past, its eyes are on the future. The typeface is sophisticated and contemporary. It has six upright weights. Even though I designed Parafina for use in display sizes, each weight has three different optically-sized fonts on offer, named S, M and L. As these small, medium, and large designations suggest, the optical sizes are optimized for specific size ranges. Even though all the fonts are intended for use in big sizes already, the larger your type will be, the less space you need between the characters. Layout applications like Adobe InDesign enable users to track text to a wider or narrower setting, but that only adds or subtracts the same amount of space between every letter. Parafina’s three optical sizes per weight have different amounts of inter-character spacing, meaning that they provide better solutions than an application’s automatic settings can produce.

Parafina’s 18 fonts each include several ligatures and alternates inspired by the American designer Herb Lubalin’s typography. These Lubalinesque shapes are immediately recognizable – think back to the overlapping letterforms he used to such great effect in Avant Garde. They became an iconic feature of graphic design over the past half-century. Lubalin was probably the first typographer to shake up the Bauhaus purity of Futura-style geometric sans serifs by adding unexpected and dynamic shapes into his texts. Since Parafina’s rhythm already quotes Pedraza’s lettering – a historical model representing a progressive break with modernist dogma – it was a natural step for me to add these ligatures and alternates into the typeface, too.

The name ‘Parafina’ is the Portuguese word for paraffin wax, which has a low melting point and is often used in candle-making. I could say that Parafina will ‘lighten up your work’, but the letters in the typeface’s name are a showcase for the design’s geometry and the rhythm it creates.

Optical Sizes

The Parafina family has six weights: Thin, Light, Regular, Medium, Bold and Black. Customers who purchase a single weight receive three separate fonts since each weight has an S, M and L version. Those Small, Medium and Large optical sizes have similar letter shapes, but there is more space between the characters in the S optical size than in L. The diacritical marks in the L optical size are also slightly larger and closer to their base letters than is the case for the M and S opticals. The exact designs of Parafina’s Lubalinesque ligatures change from size to size as well. When the amount of space between a font’s characters changes, its ligatures’ design need to follow the new tune, too.

Ligatures

Parafina’s fonts all have 11 discretionary ligatures for visually-striking capital-letter pairs in its character set. These combinations are CA, EA, FA, KA, LA, NT, RA, SS, ST, TH and UT. Each is reminiscent of the sans serif ligatures Herb Lubalin used in his editorial design for Avant Garde magazine. I added them to be used with some of the alternates described below. However, the OpenType features for ligatures and those alternates are cumulative, giving users the freedom to implement them either together or separately. The 11 ligatures were individually drawn for the 18 fonts to always align with the other characters’ exact forms and spacing.

Alternates

In addition to ligatures, the Parafina fonts all have alternates that users can substitute into their work via one or more of the fonts’ 11 OpenType Stylistic Sets. The first two sets include Lubalinesque alternates, which add the same kind of dynamism to texts that Parafina’s ligatures do. In the first stylistic set, the letters A, M, V, W and accented versions of them each tilt to the right. In the second, they tilt to the left. The third stylistic set activates a unique capital G. The default Parafina G has no crossbar; this alternate has a crossbar but no stroke at its bottom-right, leaving the crossbar unjoined from the C-like part of the letterform. Stylistic set four has a descender-less Q. Set five has a more lowercase-style Y, made from only two diagonal strokes. Sets six and seven each feature a simplified, ultra-geometric lowercase t, which has no out-stroke at the bottom. In stylistic set six, the crossbar of the t is visible on both sides of the vertical stroke; in seven that horizontal element is only visible on the right-hand side. Stylistic set eight has more Lubalin-inspired alternates: forms for the v, w and y that tilt to the right. The ninth stylistic set has a zero that looks like a lowercase o. The tenth has a simplified, ultra-geometric one that is just a vertical stroke, without a beak at its top-left. The last set includes a raised colon, which better separates hours and minutes or minutes and seconds, and is therefore helpful when typesetting time.

Design & History

The impetus for the Parafina typeface’s design was in an alphabet created by the Spanish letterer Miguel Pedraza. This alphabet had an unexpected rhythm to it. Certain lowercase letters were noticeably narrower than anticipated. As is common in geometric sans serifs, the O and o seem to be drawn from perfect circles, C, G, Q, W, c and e were expectedly wide. On the other hand, certain letters were surprisingly narrow – especially the h, m, n and u. I reflected on this source material before making several significant changes. Together, those make Parafina more contemporary than vintage-looking. My lowercase a is single-storey and lowercase letters’ ascenders have the same height as the typeface’s capitals. Nevertheless, the rhythm generated by the occasional, narrower-than-expected letters gives Parafina’s its distinct look and is a significant reason for designers to select it over other geometric sans serifs.

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