CV Dida

Lettersoup collaborated with Viktor Nübel as Working With Type to create a suite of type families for Cornelsen Verlag, one of Germany’s two most prominent publishing houses for educational literature.

In 2019, Viktor Nübel was invited by Cornelsen Verlag to propose a pitch for a new custom typeface. Cornelsen Verlag is one of the leading providers of educational media in German-speaking countries. Building on a high level of didactic competence, they develop tens of thousands of teaching and personal learning products—for print, digital, and cross-media. Nübel had prior history with the publisher: he occasionally supported the company with typeface expansions, advised them on font licensing issues, and created typographic manuals. Realising the massive undertaking would be too extensive to manage on his own, Nübel contacted us to collaborate on this project.

The original brief stipulated which kind of typeface was needed and for which publications. It included an overview of the many typefaces currently used by Cornelsen Verlag, some of which had been designed specifically for the publisher. A thorough analysis revealed the flaws in the fonts used so far. Examining FF Schulbuch Nord, which is used for many of their first readers’ books, showed that its closed letterforms and narrow spacing are not suitable for children just learning to read and write. Besides the aesthetic aspect, there were many advantages to commissioning a custom typeface: it would considerably cut down on licensing costs, clean up the typographic palette, allow for having fonts with character sets tailored to the specific needs of the publisher and its products, and strengthen the brand by having consistent typography throughout the different media.

After processing the information outlined in the brief, we realised that a single typeface could not meet the project’s demands and scope. The range of applications was considerable. The typeface not only needed to help novice readers learn the individual letters. It was also going to be used in materials for high school graduates or adult education, where letterforms take a back seat and the content becomes the main focus. We needed to expand our vision. This insight made us decide to develop a coherent system consisting of two type families: a sans serif and a serif. To allow us to proceed swiftly, we divided the workload. Viktor Nübel designed CV Dida Serif while Botio Nikoltchev took care of CV Dida Sans.

We aimed for a design that would perform admirably in print and on-screen with our sketch for the sans serif. It had to accommodate a wide range of topics and a variety of users, from German to mathematics, from elementary to vocational and adult education. In addition, we wanted the typeface to lend Cornelsen Verlag’s brand values ​​a typographic identity. Instead of going for a radical shake-up, we opted for a gradual and organic improvement. Compared to FF Schulbuch, as mentioned earlier, CV Dida’s character shapes are more open, and the spacing is somewhat looser. The relatively low x-height emphasises the difference between the lowercase letters and the capitals, which received classical proportions. These properties lend the typeface a lively and friendly air, and they also ensure that it performs equally well in print and on the screen.

A serif face, also called Antiqua, lends itself better for immersive reading, particularly long texts for adult education or high school. The new CV Dida Serif is an improvement on Century Schoolbook, for example, which also has been used in Cornelsen Verlag publications. We applied a similar approach as for CV Dida Sans when designing the new typeface. Drawing characters that are more open and increasing the spacing worked wonders. We also decided against teardrop-shaped terminals to achieve an original, contemporary look. With digital media in mind, we made sure our design had a significantly lower contrast to achieve better rendering and legibility on-screen, even in small type sizes.

Armed with the two typeface proposals and a thorough analysis of the shortcomings of Cornelsen Verlag’s current typography and suggestions for areas of improvement, we presented our pitch to the company’s representatives. Because we were going up against formidable competition, we were elated when the project was awarded to us in autumn 2019. We’d like to think the decision was primarily emotional, and it was the actual design of the typeface that won over the client.

When developing a typeface for first readers, type designers need to consider many specific aspects. Germany stipulates official requirements for typefaces for children who are just beginning to read and write, to have letterforms that facilitate the learning process. These include, for example, a ‘7’ with an intersecting horizontal bar, an ‘ß’ with a descender, a small letter ‘t’ with a pronounced upper part, and the typical ‘spoon-l’ that ends in a curve at the bottom. To complicate matters, even more, the federal states each have additional demands. One ministry of culture insisted on an ‘R’ with its leg originating at the intersection of the stem and the bowl. Another wanted an ‘M’ with the vertex reaching down to the baseline. A third one demanded a ‘9’ with a spur at the top right of the bowl, making it look like a raised lowercase ‘g’, a feature unheard of in typography. Storing the required characters as alternatives would not have been a real problem. However, packing them all in OpenType features made the fonts challenging to use and diluted the design concept. Together with Lisa Stöckel, Brand Interactive Manager and Matti Wachholz-Hausmann, Head of Product and Content Design at Cornelsen, we determined that Dida Sans should have a separate variant for elementary school children that implements all these requirements: CV Dida Junior. On the other hand, CV Dida Sans is the original adult version containing the two-story a and g and a straight ‘l’. These details make the typeface look slightly different in text, providing the pupils with a visual cue that they are no longer in primary school.

Our experience with large-scale projects taught us to start small and iterate often. Presenting results frequently offers the possibility for a constant exchange of information and knowledge with the project’s stakeholders, specifically about the value of typeface design. The development of the CV Dida font family became an intensive process in constant dialogue with the clients. Cornelsen Verlag put together a panel of experts consisting of experienced typographers, textbook designers like Christopher Halm, brand strategists, and digital developer Frank Rausch. The milestones in the sprints were discussed, tested, and checked regularly. With the help of a digital specimen, a project website, the group could view every intermediate stage in detail, allowing them to examine all the styles and characters. This strategy also allowed the stakeholders to try out the font at several stages in its development. The project website proved very helpful, especially when physical meetings were no longer possible due to the Corona pandemic. The evolution and test rounds were not limited to just the experts. Teachers at elementary schools and grammar schools as well as high school students—the future users of CV Dida—were presented with mock layouts set in the trial fonts and asked about their impressions. Their feedback, which was consistently positive, was implemented to develop the CV Dida type families further.

When we moved from two typefaces to more variants, the experienced designers in the panel understood the need to expand the project’s scope. However, we needed to build up trust from the upper echelons. We had an ongoing dialogue with the client throughout a long and intensive process, helping them understand how type works and how a comprehensive typographic system would benefit the company. Eventually, Cornelsen Verlag realised that having a narrower version of CV Dida Sans would be a valuable asset and commissioned CV Dida Sans Compact. This variant sets economically—it allows for fitting more characters on the same line length. Another challenge was getting the different departments onboard and catering to their needs. While people working in print prefer compact letterspacing for improved word shaping, developers of apps and online products need looser spacing for better legibility on-screen, and the corporate and advertising teams have an affinity for display faces. All these factors helped us drive our main point home: a single typeface can’t do it all, hence the need for a coordinated system consisting of several font families.

The CV Dida suite of typefaces is still in full development. The typographic system currently consists of four families: CV Dida Sans, CV Dida Serif, CV Dida Sans Junior, and CV Dida Sans Compact. Each typeface comes in six styles: Regular, Semibold, and Bold, all with matching italics. We are continuously expanding the typefaces and their character sets, for example, adding Greek and other characters for mathematics and physics and drawing additional weights. Currently, a workhorse version optimised for continuous text is in production. You could compare the suite of type families to software that gets improved with regular upgrades. CV Dida fonts are already used in some elementary school titles. We can’t wait to see them deployed in all ten thousand educational products and throughout the Cornelsen Verlag brand.

Written by: Yves Peters aka Bald Condensed.
Pictures by: Lisa Stöckel and Lettersoup.
Video by: Cornelsen Verlag GmbH

State 29.05.2021  I might change this text over time, as the project expands.