Cisalpin – Font of the Week

Type Gallery – Cisalpin

Font Designer: Felix Arnold, 2004

Cisalpin™: The ideal typeface for cartography

The Swiss designer/typographer Felix Arnold designed Cisalpin during the late 1990s, after he had challenged himself to create a contemporary typeface that could be used for cartographic uses. Arnold came to the subject of cartographic typefaces after analyzing many maps and atlases, and discovering that there was no standard typeface for these types of documents.

Like any good cartographic type, Cisalpin is very legible at small sizes. Cisalpin is a linear sans serif face, with slight resemblance to renaissance serif types. The various weights are all clearly differentiated from one another. And because space is often a premium on maps, Cisalpin runs narrow. Words close in around themselves to help them become more identifiable. The letterforms in Cisalpin are durable, and can maintain their readability when placed over complex backgrounds. They have open interior forms, flattened curves, tall x-heights, and a capital height that almost reaches the tops of the ascenders. Cisalpin also has pronounced Italics, with a very clear angle of inclination. Each letterform in the family has been optimized so that they cannot be easily mistaken for another. This again helps minimize the misunderstandings that often occur because of illegibility.

Although Cisalpin was developed for use in cartography, it may be used for countless other purposes; any font that can work well in small sizes on a map could be used almost anywhere else!

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Important Differences Between Cartography and Book Typography
Like books and other printed things, the overall impression of a map often stems from its typographic design. Often this will be the primary source of critique against it! The type can be too big, too small, to thick, or too thin. Unlike most books, however, maps are multi-layered, complex compositions. The uppermost layer of type often contains the most important information, but must remain legible without covering over too much of the visual detail underneath.

To describe the situation in cartographic design another way, the wrong typeface choice can ruin an otherwise beautiful map! However, even the best typeface design cannot save a map if it is not used properly. A clearly designed hierarchy, using the type in concert with the map’s other elements must be put into place.

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Regarding its typographic needs, cartography (maps and plans made for print or screen) is different from traditional print design the following reasons:
  • On maps and plans, text competes with the graphics. In books and magazines, they normally work alongside one another. Text on maps or plans may include place names, descriptions, additional political or geographic info, elevation, and coordinate points.
  • Cartographic text cannot be placed over backgrounds that share the same color as the letters.
  • Cartographic text is also typically placed over many various types of backgrounds – which are usually dark – instead of a common white background, as is the cast with traditional text-based documents.
  • Small text can be difficult to read when placed over complex, textured backgrounds.
  • The eye reads text on a map letter-by-letter, instead of through word shapes.
  • On maps, single lines of text often run across the page diagonally, or on a curve.
  • Type size and style changes quite a lot on maps.
  • Much map text is set in quite small point sizes.

Because of these differences, typefaces designed for use in cartography must meet the following standards:
  • The typeface must be legible in small sizes.
  • At the same time, the typeface must also be slightly narrow, to avoid line lengths running too long.
  • The different styles and weights of the typeface must be clearly differentiated from one another.
  • Individual letters must also all appear different from one another, to help minimize misreadings and misunderstandings.
  • The typeface must be able to form good word shapes, which will also directly increase legibility.

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Before beginning on the development of his Cisalpin family, Felix Arnold heavily researched the practice of cartography and map making, in order to identify all of the needs necessary for this branch of design. While he was drawing the typeface’s characters on his computer screen, Arnold used a reduction glass to refine their design, assuring that it would work in the above mentioned situations.

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Direct contact to Felix Arnold: [email protected]

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Under the following address you can download sample maps, created with Cisalpin, as PDF file:

Copyright information for the images depicted here:
Institute of Cartography, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zürich)
Swiss Federal Office of Topography, Wabern
Grundbuch- und Vermessungsamt Kanton Zürich
Let the outstanding quality of this typeface convince you. Download a printable sample of Cisalpin as a PDF.

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