Case Study

Reviving a forgotten font: Type detectives give life to Brygada

Mysterious Polish font matrices spark interest in a lost and forgotten pre-World War II typeface

Ten artykuł jest również dostępny po polsku.

A man uncovers an unused font in dusty piles of metal plates and blocks. He is intrigued by the mysterious letters “K” and “R” with curly legs, and a handwritten note on old brown paper that says “Brygada.” He starts an archeological quest to research the origins of the font–and inspires a team to revive the font with 21st century software and a microscopic camera.

Is this the plot line for a new “Indiana Jones” movie or the origin story for a remade digitized font?

It’s the latter. It’s the story of Brygada, a lost and forgotten 20th century typeface remade for the 21st century.

97 matrices of 28 point size Brygada typeface written on brown paper

Handwritten note with “Brygada” name in Polish

It was the summer of 2015 and Mr. Janusz Tryzno was the owner of the Book Art Museum of Łódź located in a 19th century villa in Łódź (pronounced “Woodge”), Poland. He dug through piles of font matrices (metal blocks with letter shapes used to cast letters) and metal plates wrapped in brown paper from the Polish National Type Foundry. After uncovering the Brygada matrices, he asked museum volunteers, Przemysław Hoffer and Borys Kosmynka, to examine the matrices to see if they could bring the font back to life.

Mateusz Machalski led a team of type professionals including Borys Kosmynka, Przemysław Hoffer, Ania Wieluńska, and Andrzej Tomaszewski to revive the orphaned font that had never been used in print materials.

Uppercase, lowercase and punctuation marks on golden matrices on gray bricks

Brygada matrices found in the Book Art Museum

Where was Brygada from?

Before the team went about recreating the font, they had to do some typographic detective work. “Digging through an archive, uncovering the history bit by bit, scraping the matrices from the patina, and taking the time to have a look at the original had a very archeological feel to it,” says Kosmynka.

The team found Brygada in a Polish foundry catalog from 1954, but there was no evidence it had ever been used. “We didn’t find Brygada in any foreign catalog and deduced that it must have been a Polish font made in Poland,” Kosmynka said.

There was also a clue with the name **“**Brygada.” The word means "brigade" in Polish. “The name pointed us towards the interwar period when there was a very strong nationalistic, independent spirit to build a national identity when Poland gained independence in 1918,” explained Kosmynka. The Brygada matrices were similar to other matrices from the Idźkowski Type Foundry during the interwar period. It’s possible that the font was made at this time and never had a chance to be used because the publishing industry was barely functioning during World War II.

The curly cues

Could two curly letters be the biggest clues to solve the mystery of the font maker’s identity?

Mr. Tryzno was particularly fascinated by the letters “K” and “R.” Their curly legs made him think they could have been the work of Polish type designer Adam Półtawski between World Wars I and II.

Golden matrices with letters in brown outline

The uppercase “R” and “K” with curly legs found in the Brygada matrices

The overall design and proportion of the letters seemed to be similar to the Antykwa Półtawskiego (Antique Półtawski) typeface, which the team had recently reworked and digitized into Półtawski Nowy (New Półtawski).

“There are many letter ‘Ks’ in combination with other letters in Polish. The uppercase ‘K’ and ‘R’ have similar shapes. To blend the 'K' and 'R' with other letters, Półtawski added curly legs to the uppercase R and the lowercase and uppercase K in the Antykwa Półtawskiego typeface,” Kosmynka explained.

Serif capital R and K with curly legs

Uppercase R and K in the New Poltawski font

Remaking a font in the digital age

Unlike in the “Indiana Jones” movies, where the archeologist wears a fedora and carries a satchel with his tools, using a shovel to find lost treasures, the Brygada team was in the digital age—so they used a digital microscope camera and the Glyphs font editor software to excavate and modernize their discovery.

After photographing the tiny letterforms, there were four stages to digitizing the typeface:

  1. Importing the image to Glyphs on a background layer
  2. Retracing the letters on top of the images using the bezier pen tool, and then removing the photos from the background layer
  3. Examining the digital "beta" curves
  4. Adjusting the beta curves to make a more readable final version

In remaking the letter "g," the Brygada team determined that its upper bowl was too big, while the bottom loop was too small. This top-heavy shape not only made the "g" look unstable or wobbly, but it also made it stand out from the other letters. They adjusted the proportions fix these issues.

26 second video with the letters “e,f,g,h” with only the “g” changing form

The four stages to remake the letter “g”.

The camera and software were the tools, but the team had to rely on their expertise and imagination to determine the original font maker’s design ideas.

“We had to identify the font maker’s deliberate decisions and what came about by accident or error from the design. Then we had to separate the two and recreate the design as though the original designer was art-directing the project in the 21st century,” said Kosymynka.

The team had to keep the spirit of Brygada’s design while making it more readable and usable.

“We wanted to improve character width proportion, contrast ratio, stroke thickness, consistency of the joints between diagonal/horizontal/vertical/curved strokes, droplet or serif terminal size, serif width, and general horizontal proportion of the characters. All of those factors influence readability. Learning the art of proportionate white space is something that takes the most time in training as a type designer,” said Kosmynka.

The team changed the "Z" character, for example, to make it more balanced because the width of the serifs was inconsistent/not proportional to the characters. The designers determined that the thickness of the middle stroke was too light, so they adjusted it to fit with the other characters. To make an even more balanced look, they adjusted the widths of the capital serif letters by making some of them a notch wider, or narrower.

2 uppercase letter “Zs” in black

1. Original "beta" Z is narrow 2. Fixed “Z” version is wide

The clean up job was successful. According to Kosmynka, “When you look at a page that is typeset in Brygada, it doesn’t feel shimmery like before when some areas felt darker or lighter. When you read text with many variations in lightness and darkness, it makes your brain work much harder and it is unpleasant to read. When you set a text in Brygada it feels quite light and bright. It has square slab serifs which gives it an industrial and late 19th century or early 20th century vibe.”

Preserving and expanding culture through a font

With funding from the Polish Government and Google Fonts, the Brygada team did more than just bring Brygada to life in Latin. They modernized the font with a more readable design, added Latin diacritics, converted the style for Greek, Cyrillic, and the international phonetic alphabet. The team also made Brygada into a variable font, available on Google Fonts.

Expanding Brygada to Cyrillic was relatively easy because of the similarity of the design of some Latin and Cyrillic letterforms. “The Russian Tsar Peter the Great reformed the Cyrillic script with the Civil Script in the early 18th century to make Cyrillic letterforms more similar to Western European writing in the Latin alphabet. Some Cyrillic letters look very similar because their proportions, thickness, and design come from Latin,” said Kosmynka.

To make the Cyrillic “И” (pronounced as “ee” in English), a type designer can take the uppercase Latin “H,” remove the horizontal bar in the middle, and add a diagonal bar.

Alt text: Black uppercase letters in serif font

Left to right: Cyrillic “И”, Latin “H”

While the move from Latin to Cyrillic was fairly smooth, the transition to Greek took some creativity due to the stylistic differences between Latin and Greek.

Brygada Greek font in black, light green, and light blue

Brygada’s Greek “Κ” (kappa), “α” (alpha), “λ” (lambda), “η” (eta), and “μ” (mu)

“Trying to match a Greek design slab serif style is more complicated. Greek looks very much like handwriting, while the Latin Roman style looks more constructed. The angle of the pen in writing Greek—and the movement of the hand—is different than in Latin script. Only some Greek kappa letters look the same as the Latin capital “K.” The “η” (eta) and “μ” (mu) letters share some similarities with Latin script. However, “α” (alpha) and “λ” (lambda) would look totally different if they were drawn in the same way as the Latin script is written,” said Kosmynka.

Since Brygada’s Latin font was made in the Didone typeface style, the team was inspired by Greek Didone fonts to make Brygada’s new Greek font.

Throughout the Brygada journey, the team continued to be typographic detectives while recreating the font for various writing systems and for a modern audience.

In addition to typographic and archeological research, recreating a font is like remixing, remaking, and translating a song. Just like a composer has to keep the spirit and words of a song with a new arrangement, a font maker has to identify the spirit of the letterforms and remake them in a new style, paying close attention to readability. Translators of songs don’t do literal word-for-word translations, but transmit the meaning and spirit of the songs into other languages. In the case of Brygada, it has gained a new life for the next generation of typographers, not only as in the original metal type for people in Poland writing in Polish, but for designers around the world in several writing systems. A forgotten song has begun to sing again.

Brygada is available on Google Fonts.

Borys Kosmynka is a Polish typeface designer and typographer based in the United Kingdom. He is on the board of the Association of Applied Graphic Designers in Poland. His work often combines design and typographic historical research. Kosmynka received his PhD in Typeface Design from the Academy of Fine Arts of W. Strzemiński in Łódź and his MA in Typeface Design from the University of Reading.