Tripper Pro: A Story of Broken Bones and Broken Letterforms

by Yves Peters

posted on 03-05-2020

Discover the peculiar origin of Tripper Pro, Underware’s family of stencil display faces.

When Tripper Pro was initially released, Underware wrote an extensive article about its genesis. Now that the Tripper Stencil variants have also been added to your Adobe Creative Cloud subscription, we’re revisiting and updating this article on the Adobe Blog.

Tripper was designed by accident. Or, more precisely, because of an accident. One day, Bas Jacobs — one-third of superstar type design studio Underware — was high up in a tree in a forest, exploring a treehouse with his children, when some rotten parts gave out and the entire treehouse collapsed. A trip to the ER revealed he had broken his collarbone. Unfortunately, he is right-handed, and it was his right arm. During his revalidation, Bas was forced to use his left hand for everything. He welcomed this temporary handicap as an opportunity to develop and strengthen his “weak” side. After a couple of weeks, he had reached an acceptable proficiency in executing certain tasks like writing, typing, eating, and brushing his teeth. The one thing he couldn’t master with his left hand, however, was drawing type in a bezier-outline application.

Image source: Holland International Blues Festival. Tripper Pro has given Holland International Blues Festival its distinct look since the inaugural edition in 2016. Curaçao-based designer and artist Carl Ariza designed the visual identity, which then traveled all the way to Grolloo in the north of Holland.

Drawing the bezier outlines that make up letterforms requires combining precise tasks that need to be carried out simultaneously, like clicking and holding your thumb in the exact position on the trackpad to mark the on-curve point, and then carefully drawing the off-curve point with your index finger while keeping your thumb pressed down. The complexity of the tasks meant Bas was physically unable to draw smooth curves with his left hand. It left him with only one option: creating letters with no curves at all. Just click, click, clicking, drawing exclusively straight lines from one point to the next. This restriction is how Tripper acquired its distinct, curve-free aesthetic.

Recovering from a broken collarbone can easily take six to eight weeks. This “time off” gave Bas enough time to develop the core of the Tripper family. Although all three Underware designers are digital natives, their typefaces all start as freehand sketches on paper. In that respect, Tripper became a first for them. Faced with the fact that freehand sketching proved to be if not impossible then at least problematic, they took the easy route and fell back on doodles and sketches done before the accident. Tripper Black was the first font to be drawn. By the time the lighter, more condensed styles were done, Bas’s collarbone had healed and his life back to normal.

Image source: Underware. After choosing Tripper Pro for their own logo and literally carving it in stone, Studio Baak created this beautiful present for Underware.

Developing stencil type is like solving a myriad of small puzzles because each letter becomes a brain teaser in itself. More than deciding on each character’s shape, the designer also has to figure out where the bridges — the gaps between the letter fragments — need to come. For many characters, up to 10 variants were drawn before settling on their final form. Due to the nature of the design, different solutions had to be found for the blackest, widest weight and the lightest, narrowest weight to make them work equally well. As a result, the incompatible masters made it impossible to create the intermediary weights entirely with interpolation.

Each Tripper font ended up containing 665 characters, 136 of which are not the result of a simple linear transition, which means there are refreshingly unpredictable variations between the different weights. Add to this completing the character set with regular and integrated accents, several figure styles and alternates, and drawing arrows and ornaments just for fun, and suddenly two years had slipped by. What started as merely killing time, sitting on a couch while recovering from physical injury, ended up as a small but eye-catching set of ready-to-use stencil fonts filled to the brim with OpenType extras.

Image source: Underware. What do you do when you’re developing a stencil typeface? You break out the cardboard and X-Acto knives and get to work with cans of spray paint to test the letters in real life.

During Tripper’s production, Underware couldn’t resist taking the typeface out of the digital realm and bringing it into the real world. The straight-lines-only concept proved beneficial. Letters could easily be cut out of cardboard and spray-painted on large boards. These manual trials foreshadowed the creation of Tripper Pro’s two siblings, Tripper Rough Pro and Tripper Stencil Pro.

Image source: Underware. Even though they look perfectly random, Tripper Rough Pro’s textured letters were entirely programmed in the computer.

In line with their mantra — three guys looking for new problems — Underware did find new problems. They wanted to create a rough version with a random, spray-painted look while keeping Tripper 100% digital. Instead of manually spray-painting the letters and scanning them, Underware wrote a script for Tripper Rough handling different parameters for resolution, variations in size, accuracy, etc. After playing around for quite a while, Underware began to fine-tune all the settings. Speed issues came up quickly, especially in the bolder weights. Generating a test version of the family could easily take 15 hours: a test version with six alternate shapes for each glyph lasted one hour for the light weight, but five hours for the black weight. Dozens of test versions were generated over hundreds of hours before the final fonts were released months later.

Tripper Stencil is a more straightforward variant, but just as interesting. The typeface automatically creates actual stencil shapes by knocking out the letterforms out of solid blocks with distinct angular initial and final forms.

Image source: Underware. Studio Baak flipped the script — instead of spraying the letters through cutout stencil shapes, they took advantage of Tripper Pro’s straight lines to let the text emerge from the wood, transforming a felled tree into a community bench.

While Tripper’s design was borne out of strict limitations — letterforms consisting of straight lines only — the digital fonts ended up being loaded with lots of intelligent built-in mechanisms. For example, users don’t need to do anything manually when setting text in Tripper Stencil. Every line starts with the initial angular shape. As soon as you enter more than one space, Tripper Stencil will complete the stencil for the current letter(s) or word(s) with the final shape and start a new stencil for the following letter(s) or word(s). And it takes an adventurous user to put Tripper Rough through its paces. If you are willing to venture off the beaten path and explore new typographic horizons, discover the magic of its ever-changing dots.

In an email, I asked Bas Jacobs if he had seen any exceptional or unexpected applications of Tripper Pro in use. “The most surprising use — for us as type designers — probably was Studio Baak who turned Tripper into monumental, three-dimensional sculptures,” Bas wrote. “We would have never thought of this possibility while designing the typeface because it is counterintuitive. Conceptually, stencil type in the physical world is intended to be painted as flat letters on three-dimensional volumes, most often architecture. So seeing the actual letterforms executed in three dimensions in stone and wood was very exciting.”

Image source: Underware. Coloring, shifting, and moving Tripper Pro’s letter fragments creates new, unexpected forms of typographic expression.

“Tripper’s striking letterforms work best in huge sizes — just a few words or, even better, just a single word,” Bas said. “Generally speaking, stencil fonts already contain lots of character, and Tripper occupies its distinct place within that genre. It can function as a strong brand builder. Despite its expressive shapes, Tripper remains remarkably legible. So we’re curious to see a new logo, a single word, set in Tripper Black, to position a brand in a unique place in the market. Given the liberal supply of typefaces, it can be hard to identify the potential of each design. But Tripper’s stencil aesthetic transcends its most obvious functional use: cutting stencils with the typeface. The monumental shapes can also create a unique visual style, for example, by coloring, shifting, and moving the individual letter parts into freeform typographic pieces.”

Tripper’s story doesn’t end here. Underware has an additional variant in the making: Tripper Rounded. They already drew a first complete version five years ago, but are still improving on the design and will release this new Tripper sibling when it looks just right.

Image source: Underware. The unofficial Underware mantra spray-painted in Tripper Pro Light in poster size for an exhibition in Helsinki, Finland.

The fact that Tripper became a stencil display face draws a surprising parallel between Bas’s broken collarbone and the typeface, as the letterforms seem broken in separate pieces. Maybe it was not an accident, but fate disguised as an accident. Now, we’re eagerly awaiting Underware’s next disaster. And there’s more. During the period I was editing this article, I had a bicycle accident when my back wheel got stuck in tram rails. Just like Bas Jacobs, I ended up in the ER, where they diagnosed a broken thumb and torn ligament. This second accident became an eerily appropriate coda for a blog post on Tripper Pro. Or it shows a disturbing level of empathy from yours truly. You decide.

Topics: Creativity, Typography