Network Sans was produced as an ambitious project to put typography at the core of public transport and city branding. This quietly radical type family was developed over the course of a year, alongside several similarly ambitious inhouse identity projects. It involved a wide range of stakeholders, across public transport and city wayfinding divisions.
Primarily, it was produced by the inhouse design team at Public Transport Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. Responsibility for design and delivery would fall to your humble author—although many design details and drawings were produced in collaboration with Dean Butler as lead creative and design director on many inhouse projects at PTV. Over the course of Network Sans’ development members of the PTV inhouse design team were encouraged to provide input.
Print specimens were regularly posted up in the design studio at PTV which team members (and, indeed, anyone from associated departments who were walking past) would react to, adding notes, making sketches and questioning details. The goal was to create a sense of ownership that would filter out from PTV into wider communities.
Why produce a typeface inhouse?
Commissions that are hyper conscious of their visibility facing taxpayers often come with many caveats. Once we decided we needed a typeface family unique to PTV, we had to address the stipulation that our typeface design should be sourced locally or nationally—no expensive international commissions allowed.
Our initial research phase confirmed what we already knew—as opposed to places with a lineage of custom designed type produced for various public entities and businesses (think Johnston—the typeface used throughout London’s Underground—or the City of London’s use of Albertus or Erik Spiekermann’s work for Germany’s transport system to name a few), there were almost no custom typeface projects produced locally or nationally at the time and therefore there was a scarcity of typeface designers we could reach out to.
We did scope out off shore type designers and type design studios to see if there was any way to work together given the lack of local resource to little avail.
Whilst negotiating with select type designers we started to build a character set of our own. This set continued to grow, becoming more polished as time went on, until a decision was made to take the project—design, build, mastering and licensing—in house, in its entirety. In terms of addressing budgetary constraints this was a huge win. I split my time at PTV between looking after our typeface and a host of collaborative identity projects, many of which we were able to test out our type designs with.
Mastering is a lot of work.
Producing a typeface can be relatively straight-forward in terms of software and time constraints. Generally, letterforms, once drawn, are converted into vectors and then dropped, part-by-part, into a font creation program which then outputs the collected letterforms into a single file (or a family of files if you have a range of weights and/or styles i.e. Bolds, Italics etc.). To a working graphic designer this process makes reasonable sense.
The hurdle we had to overcome was producing a hard-wearing typeface that appeared polished and ‘correct’ across a broad spectrum of applications and sizes—from 5pt timetable text filling up an A1 sheet to LED displays of widely varying pixel quality on station platforms to large scale billboard to tram wraps to event signage and more. The naive assumption that getting our type family to a standard ready to distribute to external designers wouldn’t take as long as the design of the letterforms, was quickly dispelled once they were approved.
So we searched (again) for a local, or national, resource that could help us ‘master’ the project. At one stage we reached out to an independent type designer in the next state over (who specialised in letter drawing rather than font development) to help expand our range of weights. These weights were too crudely extrapolated to be useful and were mostly disgarded, resulted in only a handful of chatacters (mostly numerals) being added to the completed typeface as a courtesy.
Soon the ‘mastering’ (i.e. kerning, hinting and any other features to be addressed before a typeface is ready to be released) was also taken in house. This was an intense period where I was freelancing for the PTV team from my home studio, working solely on Network Sans in a race to meet the penultimate deadline for the project.
Licensing is work too.
Another task that had to be done before our type family could be distributed was the writing of an EULA. For the unfamiliar EULA stands for ‘End User Licence Agreement’. EULAs have become a common attachment to distributed typefaces in the digital era. They are extensive legal documents that describe details of the ownership of a particular typeface within a font (font being the legal definition of the type of software that contains a set of letterforms). EULAs protect the copyright of a typeface, maintaining the identity of any entity it seeks to represent.
I am not a lawyer, I’m a designer and there was no precedent for protecting an assets such as a typeface within PTV (or, indeed, any other local government department as far as I could tell). Research was required into best practice for how to describe a typeface as a legal entity in order to protect it. This was then checked by internal legal teams who found the project particularly fascinating. My point being that the EULA was a necessary project in itself and something none of us anticipated having to spend time on—another learning curve.
Along the course of this project, Network Sans provided many useful lessons in the implementation of a type-led identity and the creation of the sort of robust, versatile and suitable set of letterforms that could support this approach. Yet, there were aspects that deserved more attention than we were able to give them, particularly in regards to mastering.
The rapid growth of a community of local typeface designers—not only highly skilled at drawing unique letterforms—but also in the detailed production of finished font families (supported by the Communication Design programme at RMIT University) has been inspiring and encouraging. My wish was that this cohort had been available when we initially embarked on this comprehensive project.
With this in mind a fresh redraw of Network Sans has been made—starting from scratch—keeping in mind the many lessons learnt from initial development and having lived with the variety of applications it has appeared in throughout the city (and state).
This next iteration has begun life within a ‘variable’ work space. This means lightest and heaviest weights are drawn first (as opposed to Network Sans which started with one weight which had to be extrapolated out). New technologies, techniques and additional research has already informed this new stage. ︎
Much of the work of the PTV Design Team often flies under the radar (for appropriate reason) although conversation provoked within the public sphere does emerge from time to time (for this I personally thank the many transport enthusiasts who unknowing provided much of the feedback that helped propel forward many of the unprecedented—locally at least—versions we worked on. For a slight glimpse into the hard work and dedication that continues behind the scenes at PTV (and similar inhouse teams) see this article on seat fabric designs (another project I contributed to): ︎︎︎theage.com.au
Under exclusive license to the Victorian Government’s Department of Transport and Planning and Public Transport Victoria based in Melbourne, Australia.