In the Helvetica Documentary by Gary Hustwit, there is this section around the 20 minute mark where they discuss what made Helvetica so particular and recognizable.

“When you talk about the design of The Hass Neue Grotesk, or Helvetica, what its all about is the interrelationship of the negative shape, the figure ground relationship, the shapes between characters and within characters with the black, if you like, with the inked surface. And the Swiss pay more attention to the background so that the counters and the space between characters just hold the letters.
I mean you can’t imagine anything moving it is so firm. It’s not a letter that’s bent to shape, its a letter that lives in a powerful matrix of surrounding space. Oh, its brilliant when its done well.”
– Mike Parker, Director of Typographic Development for Linotype 1961-1981.

Ever since hearing this a few years ago I’ve never paid closer attention to the negative space of letter forms, in particular, the negative space of counters.

At this point it may be helpful to introduce a little bit of Letter Anatomy. There is a great, concise resource on Letter Anatomy in Ellen Lupton’s book “Thinking with Type”:

Typography Anatomy

Any letter that leaves negative space completely enclosed by the letterform has a counter. Counters are what I focused on for this project. These letters would include Aa, Bb, Dd, g, Oo, Pp, Qq, R, and a few numbers like 4, 6, 8, 9, and 0. The Capital P in the example below doesn’t have a complete counter, but that’s only unique to Garamond and a few others, they usually do have counters.


I thought Garamond was a great choice for playing with counters because it follows the same principle of negative space directing the shape of the letter forms, but its counters are much more organic and recognizable when separated from their positive counterparts. Let me show you what I mean:

The word “Bag” is great illustration for this idea. You can almost as easily read the form of the counters as you can the letters themselves because they are so familiar. I found quickly that some words are more recognizable in special combinations of uppercase and lowercase than always starting with caps and in some cases you have no alternative, like having only a lowercase g or uppercase R to work with.
One of my absolute favorites is the way that the counters in the word “age” all appear together:

There are some words that don’t handle this quite so well, however. Words like “bead” and “badge” might be more difficult for non-graphic artists to recognize:

In an attempt to compensate for this, I think I’ve discovered that sometimes pairing regular and italic versions of the counters can give a little more information to help distinguish where the letter forms would be:

I wanted to get a better feeling for the way the letter forms, outline shapes, and counter shapes interacted to aid our interpretation so I made regular and italic versions of a few more words as well as paired the regular and italic versions of each.










Some work better than others and in some instances I would choose to pair italic counters with regular outlines and on and on with many more possibilities. This practice has given me much more confidence to appropriately alter letter forms and their negative space when working on logos and special layouts. I haven’t used R, Qq, Pp, or any numbers yet, but its I think their eventual addition will provide much more flexibility in addition to adding some new words.
Its a little too crazy to really have any idea of what’s going on, butjust for fun, here are all the words I’ve worked with so far:


I’m excited to put this to more practical use and would love to hear unique ideas you may have.