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The joy of code: (Re)building my letterhead

Topics/tags: The joy of code, marketing, typography, long, rambly

Grinnell College is in the midst of developing a new visual identity for the College [1]. Among the changes are an updated wordmark [2], new typefaces, and, as you might expect, new letterhead and new business cards [3].

I write a lot of recommendation letters which are almost exclusively in electronic form. I also write a lot of other letter-like documents, such as memos or thank-you notes to donors, that also live in electronic form. If I’m going to support our visual identity, I need to revise the processes and resources I use to write those documents. So, let’s see what I have to do.

(Note: Those who don’t want to read up on the whole process can just look at the sample.)

Step 0: Review workflow [4]

I developed my workflow for generating these documents about fifteen years ago, when we made the last significant change to our visual identity. What is that workflow? It’s a bit strange. I wanted something that let me generate nice looking documents quickly and work on our Linux workstations. Working on Linux workstations ruled out Microsoft Word. I also edit more quickly in vi than I do in Word. I suppose I could have used TeX or LaTeX; both certainly make nice-looking documents. But if I recall correctly, I had difficulty finding the right way to import both the Laurel Leaf logo and my signature and place them correctly. LaTeX also seems like overkill for a quick memo. Or maybe I was just burnt out on TeX variants; I’d done too much TeX consulting in grad school.

In any case, I decided on a fairly nontraditional workflow. I compose most of my letters and memos in HTML, use html2ps to convert the HTML to PostScript, and then use ps2pdf [5] to convert the PostScript to a PDF document. (That’s also similar to the workflow I used to use to make PDFs of my course Web pages, so that may be why I chose that workflow.)

What about the images and other things that need careful placement? At the time, they would only give us a jpg of the Laurel Leaf, so I hand-crafted an encapsulated PostScript file with the Laurel Leaf, the College name, and my contact information. That allowed me to get the spacing just right. A few hacks with the bounding box and it ended up placed perfectly on each page.

It’s a strange workflow, but it’s served me well. Including HTML tags while I write is easy [6]. I write and edit faster in vi than I do in any other program. Once I’ve created the HTML, my standard Makefile does the rest. And the resulting letters and memos look nicer than most of what I see on campus. Plus, the files are small, which makes them easy to upload to places.

I’m not going to change the workflow, so I have to update the resources.

Step 1: Identify necessary changes

I will need to change the fonts in the letterhead and the body of my letters. That means figuring out how to tell both html2ps and ps2pdf to use other fonts.

I will need to figure out which fonts I’m supposed to use.

I will need to update my custom header, Fortunately, I can grab an SVG file of the wordmark from our visual identity page. And it’s easy to convert SVG to encapsulated PostScript, or at least I think it is.

Step 2: Convert the Wordmark

I actually converted the wordmark relatively early in the process. I find some aspect of the text in the wordmark disturbing and my original goal was to experiment with the wordmark (e.g., to change the font size or the letter spacing). I’m better with PostScript than I am with SVG [7], so I started by finding software that converts SVG to PostScript. Fortunately, Cairo seems to do the trick. I don’t love the generated PostScript [8], but I can work with it.

Looking at the generated PostScript was interesting. As far as I can tell, neither the original SVG nor the PostScript embed the font; hence, we simply have paths for each of the letters. Even with that change, I would have expected that the letters would have been drawn in order. But they are not. If I have it right, here’s the order in which they are drawn.

G_______ _______
G_____l_ _______
G__n__l_ _______
G_in__l_ _______
Grin__l_ _______
Grin__l_ C______
Grin__l_ Co_____
Grin_el_ Co_____
Grin_ell Co_____
Grinnell Co_____
Grinnell Co__e__
Grinnell Co__e_e
Grinnell Col_e_e
Grinnell Colle_e
Grinnell College

I checked the SVG and they appear in the same order there. The SVG also has a strange little bit in which it draws an oval with no fill over the center of the g. I can’t tell whether or not that’s still in the generated PostScript.

Step 3: Identify appropriate typefaces

As far as I can tell, there are six typefaces involved in our institutional identity. Are you ready?

  • Futura PT serves as our primary sans serif family.
  • Since Futura is a commercial typeface that is not traditionally available on workstations [9], we are told we can use Arial instead. I’ve already written about why Arial is not an appropriate substitute for Futura [10].
  • Freight Text Pro serves as our primary serif font.
  • Since Freight Text Pro is a commercial font that is not traditionally available on workstations, we are told that we can use Georgia as an alternative. Of course, Georgia is also a commercial font. However, some version of Georgia usually accompanies Microsoft products, which it appears Communications assumes we will use.
  • We use a bastardized version of Berlingske for our wordmark. Why do I say bastardized? Because our friends at Oologie decided that they should redraw some of the letterforms [11]. The lowercase g has a serif that is supposed to echo the Laurel Leaf. The uppercase G uses a very different serif than in the original. And the lowercase r looks nothing like the distinctive r that characterizes Berlingske.
  • The department name [12] is supposed to appear underneath the wordmark and we’re supposed to use Berlinske Sans bold there.

That’s a lot of commercial faces. And they haven’t provided an alternative for Berlinske Sans Bold, which means that it’s almost impossible for someone to build an equivalent electronic version of the letterhead. I’m also a bit concerned about the use of four different faces in one document. That seems like a strange design decision. In the old model, we used only one face; I found that provided a compelling unity. Oh well, my job is not design; it’s adaptation.

Think about the message we could send if we instead chose to use open-source faces. And wouldn’t it be even cooler if we were like the Cooper Hewitt Museum and commissioned a noted type designer to create a new typeface which we then released under an open-source license? That would be a great way to reinforce the idea that Grinnell and Grinnellians contribute to society. But no, we blow our advertising budget on people who can’t craft reasonable prose.

Now, what can I use as open-source substitutes?

  • I spent the most time on Futura since that’s such a distinctive font. I found three open-source fonts that share many characteristics with Futura, including the mixed-height letters and the tail-less lowercase t: Renner* [14], Glacial Indifference, and Josefin Sans. I see that the bold form of each is narrower than Futura bold, but I’ll live with that. After all, if Communications thinks Arial is a reasonable substitute, almost anything close will suffice
  • I didn’t try quite as hard for Freight Text Pro. In a previous musing, I identified Besley* as a possibility. Part of me thinks that a version of Computer Modern Serif [15] would be amusing. I suppose if I’m thinking about Computer Modern, I should also consider Concrete Roman.
    Born, which I found somewhat randomly, actually matches the more slab-like serifs relatively well without being a full slab face. I’ve seen a recommendation for Source Serif Pro as a reasonable alternative. Neuton has been recommended as an alternative to Georgia. Merriweather seems like another font with a large x-height and relatively slab-like serifs.
  • Fortunately, I don’t need to find an alternative to Berlingske Serif. I have the wordmark in SVG and don’t need anything else.
  • I was tempted to use something like Arial as the alternative to Berlingske Sans. But that seemed wrong. I’m lazy, and it’s only a few words, so I think I’ll just use Alegreya Sans.

While I think Renner* generally does the best job of matching Futura, it’s lowercase a looks very different and I really wanted a Futura-style lowercase a [16]. I know that Josefin Sans differs particularly in the use of angled bars in the e, but I also find that it captures the feel of Futura the best. I had planned to settle on that. But once I made letterhead in the various faces, I decided that Glacial Indifference actually seemed to do the best job.

For Freight Text Pro, I quickly eliminated the Knuth fonts. I think that part of Communications’ goal is that we use something slightly different and, well, to many people with whom I communicate, CMR is a familiar font. It also seems wrong to use TeX fonts in something other than TeX. It turns out that Born lacks either an italic or a bold. I really need all three styles. Source Serif Pro has a bold, but no italic. Besley* feels a bit too old [17]. I think I’ll try Merriweather, at least for the initial experiments.

I suppose I could have asked Communications which they’d prefer that I use [18]. Maybe I’ll do that in the future.

Step 4: Determine how to use TrueType and OpenType fonts in Ghostscript (also install fonts)

My initial Web searches worried me. The Ghostscript Font Documentation made it seem like I needed to edit a list of fonts that appears as part of the global settings and therefore not accessible to ordinary users [19].

But it turned out to be remarkably easy. I just needed to put the fonts in some directory and set the environment variable GS_FONTPATH to point to that directory. On my Mac, Font Book puts them in ~/Library/Fonts. So …

 export GS_FONTPATH=/Users/rebelsky/Library/Fonts:${GS_FONTPATH}

I’ll set up a matching directory on MathLAN and then synchronize them with a single command.

rsync -avz ~/Library/Fonts/

That worked well.

Step 5: Write the PostScript for the letterhead

I have the old .eps letterhead file. I have the new wordmark converted to eps. I know how to use fonts. This should be straightforward, right? It’s mostly a case of shifting things around and finding the right position, or so I hope.

But first, I should fix some of the program design issues from the last time around [20]. I have about a dozen lines of text that I place at the right side of the page. In the past, I was using an absolute location for each line. This time through, I should allow PostScript to compute the placement of each line. Let’s see …

We’ll start by defining a few variables

% X position of address line.  Should not change.
/address-x 574 def

% Y position of current address line.  Modified by the line, contact,
% and skip procedures.
/address-y 191 def

Next, we’ll define the procedures for normal lines, contact lines, and skipping a bit of extra space.

% amt skip
%   Skip a bit in the address section
/skip {
  address-y exch sub /address-y exch def
} def

% string line
%   Print the next line in the current font
/line {
  address-x address-y moveto showright
  fontsize 1 add skip
} def

% label info contact
%   one of the label/info pairs
/contact {              % label info
  AddressPlain fontsize selectfont
  dup                   % label info info
  address-x address-y moveto showright  % label info
  stringwidth pop       % label width
  address-x exch sub    % label new-x
  10 sub                % label newer-x
  address-y moveto              % label
  AddressItalic fontsize selectfont
  fontsize 1 add skip
} def

Did I mention that I love stack-based languages?

Now that I have that in place, the address section is relatively straightforward.

% Name
AddressBold fontsize 1 add selectfont
(Samuel A. Rebelsky) line

% Title (or titles)
1 skip
AddressItalic fontsize selectfont
(Professor of Computer Science) line

% Lab
5 skip
AddressPlain fontsize selectfont
(Grinnell Laboratory for Interactive Multimedia) line
(Experimentation and Research) line

% Address
5 skip
(Department of Computer Science) line
(Grinnell College) line
(1116 8th Avenue) line
(Grinnell, Iowa  50112  USA) line

% Contact
5 skip
(office) (641-269-4410) contact
(fax) (641-269-4285) contact
(cell) (641-990-2947) contact

% More info
5 skip
( line
5 skip
AddressBold fontsize selectfont
( line

As you might expect, the nice thing about this form is that it’s easy to add and drop lines. It probably needs a little more work (for example, I might have the contact procedure offset by a particular amount, rather than the width of the text plus 10, but I’m relatively happy for the moment.

Step 6: Convince html2ps to work with other fonts

I started out reading a guide to fonts in html2ps [21]. After way too much time had passed, I found myself confused by references to PHP and wondered whether I was reading the right documentation. In the end, it seemed that I’d found the wrong version of html2ps. This seems to be by someone named Darren and is written in PHP. The one I use is by Jan Kärrman and is written in Perl.

It appears that html2ps will only work with pfa files [22]. So I’ll start by trying to create those files. I have Font Forge on my computer [23]. Do I want to convert the easy way or the more general way? That is, do I want to just open each face in FontForge and then export as a .pfa or do I want to figure out how to script FontForge? Let’s start by seeing how hard scripting is. The documentation suggests that I should write something like the following.

# Copied from
while ( i<$argc )
  Generate($argv[i]:r + ".pfa")
  i = i+1

Of course, the FontForge executable on the Mac is in a very different location. So I tried using


And … well, things did not go as planned. Here’s the error message I received.

  File "/Users/rebelsky/bin/convert2pfa", line 4
    while ( i<$argc )
SyntaxError: invalid syntax

So I tried using the simpler sample program, without a loop. That gave me an error, too. After way too much futzing around, I realized that (a) the command-line version needs a -script flag when it’s running a script and (b) the command-line version needs a -lang=ff flag to indicate that it’s using the old school FontForge scripting language [24]. So the line really needs to be

#!/Applications/ -lang=ff -script

Yup, that worked.

All that’s left is to write the html2ps resource file. That should be relatively straightforward. Here’s what I wrote assuming that I’d use Merriweather.

  font-family: merriweather;

@html2ps {
  font {
    merriweather {
      names: "Merriweather-Regular Merriweather-Italic Merriweather-Bold Merriwe
      files: "/Users/rebelsky/Library/Fonts/Merriweather-Regular.pfa /Users/rebelsky/Library/Fonts/Merriweather-Italic.pfa /Users/rebelsky/Library/Fonts/Merriweather-Bold.pfa /Users/rebelsky/Library/Fonts/Merriweather-BoldItalic.pfa";

Step 7: Reconsider typeface choices

Once I’d started to put everything together, I realized that I needed to rethink some of my choices. Glacial Indifference did a fine job in the header. However, I realized that I might also need it for some parts of the body, which meant that I needed four fonts: Roman, italic, bold, and bold-italic. Glacial Indifference lacks a bold-italic. That meant switching to Renner* or Josefin Sans. Alternately, I could just stick to the primary serif font for section headings in the body. While I really like Josefin Sans, it feels too edgy.

Of course, that choice of font ultimately depends on the primary font. In the end, I decided that Besley* seemed to work the best. And, once I’d decided to use Besley*, I was able to employ a bit of a hack. Instead of using a sans-serif font for the headings, I used Besley* fatface for the bold and bold italic. That actually seems to work pretty well.

Now that I’ve made that decision, I have a bit more freedom for the header. Since I don’t have to use the sans serif font in the body, I might be able to stick with Glacial Indifference. No; now that I look closer, I see that Glacial Indifference doesn’t use a uniform width for digits. Since I have phone numbers in the header, that strange design decision makes things look messy. I guess I’m going with Josefin Sans. I’ll just deal with edgy in the header. Unfortunately, it looks like it also has non-uniform digit widths. Do these designers not think people will use their typefaces for numbers? Oh well, time to rewrite the contact script to use a uniform offset.

I think I’m done. What does the new letterhead (and body text) look like? If you didn’t look at the beginning, you can now. Here’s a sample.

Step 8: Review outcomes

Most importantly, I can once again generate electronic memos and letters that seem to follow the College guidelines [25,26].

I’ve cleaned up some PostScript code I wrote fifteen years ago to make it more adaptable. I always enjoy improving my code [26].

I now know more about using alternative typefaces in both Ghostscript and html2ps. That knowledge may benefit me in the future.

I’ve gotten to play with different typefaces. I really do enjoy thinking about type. I haven’t had enough time to do so in the past few years. I’ve also installed some useful software, particularly Cairo and FontForge.

I’ve now looked at the new wordmark and letterhead enough that they don’t bother me nearly as much as they used to.

I understand my system well enough that I can switch typefaces if Communications insists that I use others [28].

Unfortunately, my letters, which used to be only a few kilobytes, are now up to a few hundred. It’s probably the fonts that now must be included.

Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable exercise. And I really do appreciate being able to write nice-ish looking memos and letters that meet design standards. Now I need to get back to grading and reviewing.

[1] It could be that Communications has finished developing that identity. But I don’t think we’ve been told about all the aspects.

[2] The wordmark consists of the logo plus the associated Grinnell College. I don’t think we called our previous thing a wordmark because the words were separated from the logo.

[3] Folks on campus may be able to see them in the online store if they creating an account on the store.

[4] I’m listing a series of steps. I didn’t quite do the work in this order. Many steps intertwined with other steps.

[5] Part of the Ghostscript suite of tools.

[6] I can also use Markdown if I so choose.

[7] Believe it or not, but I find some joy in programming in stack-based low-level languages.

[8] For example, they rename gsave, which saves the graphics state, to q and grestore, which restores that state, to Q. I assume that they assume saving and restoring will be done often enough that this change makes the file much smaller. But it also makes it much less readable. For those who care, here are some of Cairo’s other bindings.

/q { gsave } bind def
/Q { grestore } bind def
/cm { 6 array astore concat } bind def
/w { setlinewidth } bind def
/J { setlinecap } bind def
/j { setlinejoin } bind def
/M { setmiterlimit } bind def
/d { setdash } bind def
/m { moveto } bind def
/l { lineto } bind def
/c { curveto } bind def
/h { closepath } bind def
/re { exch dup neg 3 1 roll 5 3 roll moveto 0 rlineto
      0 exch rlineto 0 rlineto closepath } bind def
/S { stroke } bind def
/f { fill } bind def
/f* { eofill } bind def
/n { newpath } bind def
/W { clip } bind def
/W* { eoclip } bind def
/g { setgray } bind def
/rg { setrgbcolor } bind def
/d1 { setcachedevice } bind def

[9] There are a few Futura fonts on Macs.

[10] You might want to read this even stronger opinion on Arial. I’m particularly fond of the following.

Despite its pervasiveness, a professional designer would rarely—at least for the moment—specify Arial. To professional designers, Arial is looked down on as a not-very-faithful imitation of a typeface that is no longer fashionable.

[11] Does our license with the font manufacturer allow derivative works? Or is that Oologie’s responsibility.

[12] The examples I’ve seen include Division of Science or Computer Science Department. I find it fascinating that they order the modifiers in that way since most people refer to them as the Science Division and the Department of Computer Science.

[14] Yes, the asterisk is part of the name.

[15] I see that both PostScript and TrueType versions are available.

[16] I realize that because these are open fonts, I might be able to modify them. That seems a bit extreme, even for me. On the other hand, it would be fun to learn more about font design. Perhaps in the future.

[17] Yes, I realize that’s part of the intent.

[18] I did write and ask something like, Our Linux workstations don’t have Arial or Georgia. Are there open-source variants you’d suggest? I got no reply. But now I have some fonts to suggest, so maybe they’ll have opinions.

[19] Yes, I have root privileges on my Linux box. I’d rather not have to use them.

[20] I told you this was a joy of code musing. You just had to wait long enough.

[21] Or trying to read.

[22] PostScript Type 1 in ASCII, and therefore somewhat human readable.

[23] I added it somewhere in this long and tedious process.

[24] FontForge switched to Python at some point.

[25] Since we don’t have a published set of guidelines yet, I can’t be quite sure.

[26] I have done one subtle thing that likely violates the guidelines. I wonder if anyone will notice.

[27] No, I don’t just write bad code so that I have an opportunity to improve it.

[28] If they tell me to switch typefaces, will they provide me with commercial ones or will they identify other open-source typefaces they prefer? The most likely answer is they’ll let me stick with the typefaces I’m using.

Version 1.0 of 2018-05-25.