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Examples in use


This covers the making of Marvin Visions Bold, from idea to finished font, showing the different design decisions.



This describes the process of expanding Marvin Visions from one weight to a family with two variable axis as well as a short conversation with Michael Chave.



by Mathieu Triay

Visions is a new science fiction magazine that aims to introduce the genre to a wider audience. Mixing classic texts and new writing, its identity needs to reflect a breadth of styles and ideas.

During the research phase Kabel, Serif Gothic and Avant Garde quickly proved to be the typographical staples of the genre (together with a collection of more unusual ones). To a degree these typefaces, along with the often lavish illustrations, have given science fiction its look in the collective mind. To reach a new audience, SF needs a new image. The well established one is unfortunately also associated to a lot of clichés that put off some otherwise interested people. The quest for a typeface that could tread the line between a modern look and a retro feel had begun.

Ideally, you’d want a classic with a twist. Something that’s a bit like Kabel, sorta like Serif Gothic, and with the impact of Avant Garde. Marvin doesn’t really tick all these boxes but it somehow captured my imagination as soon as I spotted it. I felt a hint of science fiction about it, only realising later that it had been used for that purpose. But more importantly, I could sense something mysterious, and maybe even comical, hiding inside it. Unfortunately there was no proper digital version available. Everything out there was poor and somehow managed to suck the life out of it. That’s why I decided to look for what made it magical to my eyes.

Analysing Marvin

Marvin’s letter shapes aren’t new. You’ll find clues to its origin in the Art Nouveau movement, but not only, as it seems to draw inspiration from a variety of styles. Typefaces like Desdemona (1886) revived by David Berlow (1992) exhibits a major source of inspiration. Probably not a coincidence that Desdemona was first revived by Face, the original publisher of Marvin. It has friends in the popular Busorama (1970) and the obscure Pinto. It’s a cousin of Pump (1970) and is on a first-name basis with Blippo (1969), as well as some non-identified siblings.

Marvin gets its distinctive voice not only from its Art Nouveau vibe but also from its almost geometrically perfect construction. Its roundness and familiarity with Bauhaus typefaces shows its roots in geometric sans serifs at the same time. Typefaces inspired by the Art Nouveau lettering are usually built with a brush stroke — a handmade feel that could transport you to Paris. The original Marvin doesn’t care much for brush strokes. It’s built like a tank with fat stems, little to no optical correction and a C that’s simply half of the letter O. Marvin doesn’t have the time to dilly‑dally.

I only managed to find a handful of examples in use but the vast majority uses the Lubalin-esque tight-not-touching style. Maybe to support that trend, Marvin had generally narrow, plump, letters – a structural decision that can help to reduce the white space between the shapes. By going away from Roman proportions and with the limitations of a seemingly modular typeface constantly re-using bits of itself to build itself, Marvin had a few letters that felt awkward. Whether it’s because of the rigidity of the construction or not, letters like P, R, C, K, Y were much narrower than the rest, producing an uneven rhythm within words. After closer inspection, the curve on the A and V (which looks like it’s simply been flipped) leans in, flattening the shape as it curves. Creating more white space above the curve felt inconsitent with the intent of use with tight spacing.

These details (or flaws) could be part of what made Marvin and its charm, but I thought the design could benefit from a fresh perspective. I wanted to solve the problems I could see at a glance: how to bring Marvin’s character to the modern world? How would it work online? At different sizes? How would it work with different languages, diacritics, etc.? How can I make it sturdy and versatile?

Redesigning Marvin

With a specimen provided by Tom Etherington in hand, I started by following the shapes closely and drew what I saw. If you know a little about type design, you know that it’s often recommended to start drawing H and O first. They’re not the most exciting to design but they inform the vertical, horizontal and round strokes throughout the typeface. Moreover, this is where you’re likely to start when spacing the font.

I knew a decent amount about typography, but not a lot about type design so I started with the letter that fascinated me the most: the A.

The A Team

The first things that Marvin shows you – and they’re in the name – are its A, N and V. My instinct was that the magic was hiding in there and it was crucial to get these letters right. As soon as my first printed specimens came out, I started to see issues. The words had no balance and some letters, like the tower of Pisa, were about to topple.

I had a different image of Marvin in my head. For me, it had strong and sturdy shapes, sure on their feet. The narrowness and the flatness of the curves reduced the counters when my idea of Marvin was more open and maybe more ‘Roman’. I particularly wanted larger counter to increase its readability and friendliness so it could be used in different contexts. As a result, Marvin Visions is based on the initial impression that Marvin made on me rather than a true reproduction of its lettershapes.

With over 42 different versions, the A was one of the most time consuming glyph. The task was to find a curve that could fit A, V and N whilst maintaining the impression of visual harmony. They have a wider, more pronounced curve that feels smooth throughout, arching over the stem. It creates space inside the letter and closes the gap you’d have next to shapes like T. Obviously the curve couldn’t be transplanted to the V and N without being adjusted, paying particular attention to the joints and shoulders.

The cog in the night-time

When I started to work on the O, I was surprised by its simplicity. This was a round, unapologetically geometrical shape. Wide, with a generous counter, to the point that any idea of an overshoot had been forsaken. A perfect circle inside another, the pinnacle of geometric sans-serifs.

However, there are very good reasons why circular shapes need special treatment in terms of design and I couldn’t dismiss them completely. I tried to keep the outside circle as perfect as possible, in line with the original intent, and focused on the counter to compensate the optical illusions. The resulting shape should still look very much like a perfect circle with a more mathematical approach to the solutions offered by the likes of Futura and Johnston.

There’s only so long you can look at the word COG without going mad. The rounded shapes were redesigned together with the idea that the O could overshoot minimally but the G and C should rest on the baseline and meet the cap height like other letters to keep visual harmony and consistency. Because of the white space either side of the O, the overshoot is not really noticeable but helps to lift it to the level of the other letters. When it came to the C, whichever way you cut it, the half-circle had a tendency to be troublesome: it looked squashed by two towering forces when used in the middle of a word, breaking the rhythm. Following my idealised Marvin, I extended it a fraction in order to give it more room to breathe next to letters with a straight stem.

is right

The general narrowness of R, P and K made them feel cramped, almost as if they were from a compressed weight by comparison. Starting with the X and Y, I widened the aperture at the top to better match the general width of the typeface. The idea wasn’t to turn this into a sort of monospace font. I simply wanted to be mindful of the space each of these letters needed to express themselves, using something closer to Roman proportions for consistency.

If you were to draw an R, would you just tack a leg onto a P? Maybe. They share some of the same DNA after all, but it doesn’t mean they have to be clones. If you don’t consider what you want the R to look like first, you increase the chances of the leg sticking out like a sore thumb.

Marvin suffered from that because that’s exactly how it had been built. The resulting shape was definitely too narrow to accomodate the leg and looked strange at the start or end of a word. To remedy this, I sketched the proportions of the R first and built the P based on these. I then went back to the R to finish the job, taking care of adjusting the curve to account for the thickness of the joint.

26 sailors,
33 soldiers

It only took a few weeks for me to get a full alphabet, but I could see and feel that something wasn’t quite right. I needed to cement my vision of Marvin to get it looking the way I imagined it. Examples in use that could guide me were hard to find, particularly because I didn’t know where to look. I decided to let the project sit for a while.

On holiday in Ukraine I found this box for a model boat. I didn’t care for the inside as much as I did for the outside. This was the first time I saw Marvin in the wild and it was in Cyrillic. I still haven’t resolved how or why or even who but the fact is: someone made a Cyrillic version of Marvin and it was used to sell model boats. Note the inverted V to make the ‘El’, continuing what had been done for the A, V and N.

I spotted Marvin a second time on that trip, in giant letters on the side of a lorry. Ritter Trans, an Austrian transport company uses Marvin as its logotype. Again, I have no idea how they maintained this in the digital age but here it is. When I came back, I was ready to tackle the project again. Based on the box and research on the alphabet, I drew a set of Cyrillic glyphs. It came out spikier than latin Marvin but also somehow cooler and prompted me to start looking the latin alphabet again.

Ready for international waters

After the Cyrillic, it only felt right to try to get Marvin to speak as many languages as I could. The Letraset specimens showed a few diacritics but again I couldn’t find any of them in use.

When I first drew them based on the original ones, they felt off. They didn’t have the renewed strength of rest of the typeface. They looked a little too apologetic and forced me to improvise. For the acute accent for instance, it was necessary to stray a little from Marvin’s rigid build. It now flares up slightly as it goes higher, with more of a slant helping to make it more recognisable.

Thanks to Toshi Omagari’s expert advice, the general look and feel of the diacritics has improved dramatically. One of them is particularly worth highlighting: the ogonek. If a glyph has a brush stroke in its DNA it’s this one and it doesn’t really jam with steamrolling Marvin. Luckily, research showed they can be more graphic in display faces, sometimes reduced to a square or rectangle. It was an opportunity to bring out the curve from the A again, reducing the ogonek to its simplest movement.

The circumflex accent has a pointy top, as is usual in written French. The caron, unexpectedly maybe, didn’t inherit the same shape and got a flat bottom instead. That seemed to be the preferred form for languages using it and was a better fit for Marvin too.

Finally, The german double S (know as eszett) was an interesting one to draw. Until very recently there wasn’t an official capital version of the uppercase ß in a single glyph. It’s not a new letter and there are extensive articles on the history of it. The debate is still happening it seems, but the fact is, ẞ is now part of the German letterset, so Marvin Visions supports it.

Nearly D@&€!1!1

The specimens I could find only had a handful of punctuation marks but I had no luck finding them in use once again. The comma, in particular, was a problem. It looked great on its own, but as part of a sentence it looked too much like a full stop. It was so round it couldn’t fulfil its role. I particularly wanted a flick in the tail, feeling that a slightly diagonal stroke was important to the semantic meaning of it. The one that made the grade was derived from the original, retaining its roundness with an exaggerated tail. The same comma worked perfectly as a quote mark. For the comma accent, it would have been easy to keep using that new design but it was reaching too far down. Instead I went back to the initial comma and there it looked right at home.

The ‘at sign’ – or as they say in Romanian, the monkey tail – was an interesting challenge. Usually the lowercase ‘a’ would be your starting point, but Marvin being uppercase only I had to come up with something different. The final design embraces the circular nature of the glyph and Marvin’s affinity for perfect circles. Looking forward to seeing that on a business card!

The figures were a different kettle of fish and had to be redrawn entirely. The 2 and 3 had a great look to them but didn’t feel balanced. The 1 looked like a capital I, the 5 needed a serious face-lift, the 4 had some thickness problems. The rest was workable but needed correcting. It became an optical game to fit in the thickness necessary for the strokes but keeping the width consistent and the counters large enough.

Spacing Oddity

The spacing came very late. Type designers usually recommend to space as you draw, finding the right fit one glyph at a time. It makes sense, and the process would be less painful because you don’t have to tackle it all at once. That’s something I didn’t know, so I ended up with a full alphabet and no spacing at all. Professionals also say ‘drawing is spacing’ by which they mean your drawing decisions – the white space inside and outside the letter – will influence how tedious the spacing process will be. Luckily, I had that intuition from the beginning with the adjustments I wanted to make to the A.

Using Walter Tracy’s method, I worked out a first spacing that was pleasant, not tight but not too loose either. My theory about the openness of the counters and the more consistent width of the glyphs proved to be fruitful. It looked good, and worked even at sizes of 24pt on paper. The problem was that it’s generally harder to tighten a looser font (causing collisions) than to track a tight one. Marvin is best suited for display sizes and giving it a tighter default spacing made more sense for the release. I kept the idea of a looser spacing for the sub-headline family where lighter weights will appreciate the room and started working on the current tight spacing.


The result of that process is a more consistent Marvin. It has larger counters and strong, stable shapes. It’s a little more versatile, will look great on screen and in print, and it can be tracked without completely collapsing. It retains the charm and genial look of its forefather but brings its distinctive feel into the digital world with a bang.

All of this wouldn’t have been possible without the tireless support, feedback and encouragement of Claudia Toia, Matthew Young and Tom Etherington. Thank you.

I also want to thank Toshi Omagari and Nadine Chahine for their friendliness and professional advice that transformed a personal project into what it is today. Thanks also to Canada Type for letting me use the name Marvin Visions, check out their very different Marvin.

Lastly, thanks to McConnell Studio for going out of their way to help me identify the original designer of Marvin, which I unfortunately haven’t managed to get in touch with. Michael Chave, if you’re out there, I’d love to chat!


by Mathieu Triay

After modernising Marvin, ironing out some of the kinks I could see and making a more sturdy and a little more versatile version, I set out to extend it. I started working on Marvin Visions to support Visions, a new science fiction magazine, and magazines have editorial needs that can’t be satisfied by a chunky sans. Of course the magazine would use other typefaces to do what Marvin can’t, but if Marvin was to be the identity of the magazine it would need additional flexibility.

Marvin is not naturally suited for this kind of job, like an elephant in a china shop, it tramples happily any subtelty and detail. However, Marvin is a geometric sans at its core, and despite its Art Deco influence, it looks surprisingly normal if you don’t use letters like V/A/N (without looking neutral, or ever having that pretension).

Early on I wondered what a regular weight would look like. It wouldn’t tick all the boxes but maybe that would bring enough flexibility to use it smaller, with a little tracking. That’s where the idea of the family came from, thinking I could make another master and get three more weights that would work for headlines and sub-heads.

Marvin Goes On A Diet

I had spent a very long time perfecting the skeleton of the bold weight, fixing curves and proportions. Making the bold weight had been an effort in reviving and re-interpreting, and the safety of that net was very pleasant. There was a source of truth to go back to, to hold onto. Making another weight without reference was something new and exciting but I was on my own for the first time.

Modern sans serifs come in a large variety of weights pretty much since Univers. You’ve got the bolds, the semi-bolds, the demi-bolds, the mediums and whatnot (the 60’s had different schemes, with Fat and Obese once used to describe the bolder end of the spectrum). As a result, there are plenty of references to go on to make a regular weight geometric sans serif, and not the least, the same references that were used to make the bold weight (Kabel, Serif Gothic, etc.). The main difference lied in retaining the ‘Marvin mood’ and not slip into a sanitised version of itself. However, typefaces with similar influences to Marvin seemed to be harder to find as part of a family (besides maybe Busorama).

So I started using the same skeleton I spent so much time perfecting. The proportions, the curves, everything I had refined, collapsed pretty quickly as soon as the stem width was halved.

Letters like C that had been extended a little bit started to look like they lost balance. Same thing for P/R/K and all the other letters I had spent so much time crafting. The design decisions of the original Marvin were starting to make themselves clear, with the difference in proportions between letters becoming far more apparent at a lighter weight. At the same time, my own design decisions were starting to show. The more open counters and wider curves made it far more readable at smaller sizes.

As soon as the proportions of troublesome glyphs were fixed, I started on spacing. I didn’t want to make the same mistake I had made before and start spacing too late. Because the main use was still display, I wanted to keep the tight-not-touching spacing I had for the bold weight but the spacing still had to be a little looser to accommodate the far larger counters.

When the first proofs were out the first reactions were ‘This is nice but, what if it was even lighter? Like, super thin?’. These were comments by designers — type users — and not type designers which made it all the more relevant. If a designer sees how they could use a specific weight of a font, sees something that they like in a regular weight but can visualise a thinner one working very well for something, it’s worth listening. I followed up very quickly with an extrapolated, auto generated, thin weight. Although it was all over the place, it was a great way to see how things might look slimmed down to the extreme with low effort. It got the thumbs up.

For a simple sans serif like Marvin, two masters covering the extremes (a thin and a bold) can be enough to interpolate a number of weights in between with reasonable accuracy. So I set my regular weight aside and started from scratch with a thin weight instead.

The problems I had encountered with the regular weight were only exacerbated. The same letters looked completely squished against towering others like O which pushed aside anything and everything out of sheer circularity. The spacing had to be much wider to avoid words looking like a series of barcodes on the page. The number 3 needed a completely different construction and the whole alphabet simply started to look lanky.

The challenge had just gotten harder. Thin sans were very trendy a few years back and a lot of families have extremely thin weights. But when it came to capturing the same 60’s Marvin feel, with a touch of the Art Deco, thin examples were much scarcer. I did find a few examples that I could look at but most of them dealt with proportions in extreme ways. Either everything was extended or they stuck more to the Art Deco style and ran with letters with massive differences in width. In the meantime I had also acquired the full Face Photosetting catalogue and could draw inspiration from other faces designed by Michael Chave and his team.

At this point, I made the decision to go with modernity. I wanted Marvin Visions to be versatile so something too vernacular might restrict it to some very specific situations. I set out to embrace the width difference but to compensate as much as possible like I did for the bold weight.

This time, the O had to forego a little of its perfection and accept to become more oval, if only for the sake of its siblings. The K and the R have their legs stick out much further, when they’re traditionally very narrow in Art Deco lettering. The C is properly extended to compensate its half circle nature. The U is wider, as are a lot of the letters, to compensate the loss of fat. If you lose weight, you gotta build muscle to replace.

This brought a couple of new things to the design. The introduction of proto-ink traps in the N, R, K, M and W to prevent their joints from darkening and causing black spots. The very graphic ogonek designed for the bold weight certainly didn’t stand the test of the thin weight and had to adopt a more classical approach.

The final result retains the Marvin feel but doesn’t tread too far into the Art Deco territory which maybe would have been the easy thing to do. Instead it feels like it veers more towards the modernist aesthetic without completely forgetting where it comes from.

Neue Kabel, Marvin Visions and Busorama (again)

Marvin Goes Under The Microscope

When the thin master was well under way I started working on individual glyphs for the purpose of interpolation. For some reason, I couldn’t get a regular weight that felt like the one I had designed earlier in the process. The thin design decisions had taken their toll on the mid-weights so I re-introduced some of my regular drawings in a middle master, bringing the total number of masters to three. This provided greater control over the look and feel of Marvin’s transition from fat to slim, playing up to different decades of art and design throughout.

It took a little over 3 months to get to a point where I was happy with the drawings and the weight progression. It looked great for display use, as intended, however, when used smaller and tracked, things started to fall apart once more.

Because of the tight-not-touching spacing, the side bearings work differently that they normally would. There is less compensation to apply for open counters because you set your space based on whether the sides of the letters are touching. As a result, whenever the new display weight were tracked to be used smaller, the spacing didn’t look elegant enough at small sizes. As the space between the letters increases, the need to optically adjust the spacing also increases. For instance, in the bold weight, you get 15 units of space on either side of the H but also on either side of the F, which would traditionally be a lot smaller to the right. But as the distance between the letters increases, the space on the right side of the F might actually get smaller because of its very open nature.

I toyed with the idea of duplicating the weights and setting a new default spacing for use in small sizes. However, very quickly the letters appeared lanky again when used small. Everything appeared very narrow and tall, even with looser spacing.

There are many adjustments to make for a typeface to work at smaller sizes. The idea that the same design can work equally well at all sizes is very optimistic. That requirement imposes a lot of restrictions on the design of the letterforms, leading to very similar utilitarian designs. So it’s no coincidence that in the past each letter was designed separately to work at a specific size. With the advancement in screen and printing technologies, the need for this may have decreased slightly but there is such a thing as a text version and a display one.

Feeling like I needed to learn more about what designing for small sizes entailed before I jumped back, I got hold of the very useful Size-specific adjustments to type designs. The book takes a very exhaustive approach to the different things that can affect how we perceive letters. Essentially the very things that made the display weights of Marvin interesting were also detrimental to their use in text size. The letters needed to be squatter, shorter and wider, and the weight progression needed to be less extreme. The thin weights needed to be bolder and the bold weights needed to be less bold. The three display masters were redrawn to create three small masters. They’re a little bit shorter, wider, and even larger counters. The diacritics have been repositioned and redrawn to match the new looser spacing adapted to small sizes.

For the same reasons, I drew an alternate round top A that would distribute space around itself a bit better. The slopping A created too much space at the top and while it still works, the round top A sometimes look more comfortable. There’s also an alternate V and slopping A for both optical sizes. These had already appeared in the original version thanks to a simple flip, for instance in the logo for the Teatre Victoria in Barcelona.

Marvin & The Shape-Changers From Outer Space

Of course, Marvin Visions is not meant to be used for extended text, but as the smaller weights were shaping up I could see these being used for captions or running heads. Usually type families will have display and text sub families but this wasn’t adapted to Marvin Visions which has a cruder grading and no text pretensions. Following the advice of David Jonathan Ross, they were named with a more playful ‘Big’ and ‘Small’.

With six interpolating masters, three ‘small’ and three ‘big’, I could generate many more weights than were initially promised in the pre-orders. I chose a grading of 6 weights for ‘big’, and 4 weights for ‘small’, essentially cutting out the extremes and increasing the thickness of the middle weights.

There were a lot of challenges in keeping things point compatible in the K, 3, and a few others, but that paid off. Glyphs, the software I used to make this font, offers beta support for variable fonts out of the box. As a result, every family pre-order and purchase includes a variable font based on the 6 masters with two axis: weight and optical size.

The variable fonts aren’t supported in InDesign just yet which makes its usefulness for the magazine somewhat questionable, but for designers, and I’m thinking mainly about the use of the more extreme weight ends of the small optical size, this opens new possibilities. And if your browser supports variable fonts, you’ve been enjoying the Marvin Visions variable font throughout. Purely for web performance, a woff2 of Marvin Visions variable is 32kb and the 10 weights in woff2 amount to 230kb. You can read on the other benefits of variable fonts in an article I wrote earlier this year.

Marvin Meets His Maker

In my previous Notes on Reviving Marvin, I put a call out to get in touch with Michael Chave, the original designer. Having failed to reach out to him after all my trails had dried up, I was sort of resigned. However, thanks to Florian Hardwig of Fonts In Use who managed to find a way to contact him, I was able to get in touch with Michael and exchange a few emails about type design and the type industry of the 60s/70s. Here’s what he said (links added for the reader).

At this point I was very glad to have my suspicions about the design of Marvin confirmed. If you take a look at the original 4 and 8, the counters are already incredibly small so going any bolder would take a redrawing and also include some visual corrections.

Marvin and Matra together in the Face Photosetting catalogue.
Specimen of Cupid, drawn by Michael Chave, from the Face Photosetting catalogue.

Early in our conversation, I mentioned to Michael my plans to expand on Marvin and turn it into a family. We also discussed the idea I had very early on to maybe add a lowercase (but relented).

Michael has been extremely generous with his time and even took a look at my proofs of the new weights for Marvin Visions and gave me this feedback which made this whole project worthwhile.

Following on from this very nice compliment, Michael also sent me his sketch for a lowercase that he’s made after our conversation.

A sketch for a lowercase for Marvin by Michael Chave (2018).

Having tried and failed to draw a satisfactory lowercase ‘a’ myself, I was taken by this elegant solution that fits so perfectly and effortlessly with the Marvin mood.

Marvin Goes on Holiday

The project is finished. This is already much more than I ever thought I could do and it’s time for me to let Marvin be for a little while. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll find the time to finish the oblique axis I started? Or complete the lowercase alphabet? In the meantime, the family will get free updates based on the needs of the magazine.

I want to thank David Jonathan Ross for his invaluable feedback on the family but also his general guidance in the type world. Thanks to Toshi Omagari who took the time out of his insane schedule and video game fonts to send me a very helpful list of fixes to make. Thank you to James Jones for designing these lovely posters that showcase the new capabilities of Marvin Visions. And thank you to the good people of Diacritics Club for taking a look at my proofs months after month.

Particular thanks to Claudia Toia, Matthew Young, Tom Etherington and Francisca Monteiro for their continuous support, encouragement and always spot on feedback.

Finally, thanks to Michael Chave for his generosity, time and insight. It’s been a real privilege to chat.

Original Letraset masters for Marvin. Picture taken at St Bride’s Library.