I’ve been asked about Huia more than any other piece of work. Questions regarding its inspiration and reference, for example. ‘Why are there only lowercase characters?’ Or, ‘why it is not for sale?’ They continue to come. I don’t mind them either; I’m pleased to talk about this typeface. It definitely has a unique story behind it, though I consider it to be somewhat naive. To me Huia stands as an example of what I don’t (or didn’t) understand about drawing letters, and therefore I don’t take great pride in the ‘design’ of it. It looks interesting, but it’s not hard to make interesting looking work. For a typeface the real test is how it functions, and how well it serves its purpose. In this respect, I suppose Huia was ill-fated from the beginning.
This was my first type concept. Why anyone would try tackling a conceptual blackletter script for a first attempt at designing a typeface is a valid question to ask. It was the beginning of my third year at university, and we were given a typeface brief. The wider goal here wasn’t to ‘research and report on typeface anatomy’, or ‘consider the tools of typeface origin and apply your findings toward a new typeface concept’. Put plain and simply, the outcome was this: draw the alphabet. Given that we were a bunch of students who knew next to nothing about type, the outlook wasn’t promising.
My idea first spawned from admiring (from afar) the re-drawn logotype for the New Zealand Herald, a dominant NZ newspaper. I was particularly taken by way the uppercase ‘Z’ worked within the text. I remember appreciating how different it was from the rest of the characters and yet it belonged. This became a starting point for me. It was all downhill from here.
I did not pay much attention to existing textura blackletter types, at least beyond those I could easily find. I didn’t fully understand the opportunity that lay in front of me. We had a library full of incredible books that were left over from when the university was still a printing school. I dug through a few of the classics, but didn’t really draw on anything specific as a guide. I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going. I finished the assignment, naming the font after the NZ scientist Sir Ernest Rutherford. At the time I saw something in the letterforms that reminded me of early scientific ephemera, I have no idea why. Influences were coming from everywhere and were hitting with little accuracy. My original inspiration was nowhere to be seen—that’s really the crux of it.
While most students were keen to move on and never look back, I took an interest. Later that year we received an open brief for our final assignment, and I chose to carry on in this arena. This is where the story gets interesting. I decided to revisit this typeface, as I saw it as an opportunity to right what I had come to see as many wrongs. By this point I had begun taking type-specific research a lot more seriously, as well as regularly conversing with some reputable typographers and type designers. My eyes began to open, and before long I had some applicable direction on redrawing each letterform.
My focus turned to the tool of origin, where an understanding of calligraphy gave me a clearer insight into the nature of the pen. This led to more open counters and resulted in a higher contrast. Still, being a blackletter, I was in over my head. I cannot credit any specific types with influencing this process, which is a flaw on my part. I was waving a blunt quill. At the time I felt the basic anatomy was sound and simply needed correcting—a viewpoint which has since changed. Through taking an interest in the Carolingian roots of blackletter I felt as though I was making more informed decisions. Still, I constructed the characters in a very modular way, essentially losing the script aspect that makes textura (one of the core branches of what we know as blackletter) so unique. The human-ness of the type simply wasn’t there, and simple words looked awkward and unappealing. I chose not to tackle an uppercase, as doing so would mean breaking this method of working. I could not get my head around the fact that each character didn’t rely on a ‘system’ that I could construct from the same kit of parts. Once again, the outlook wasn’t great.
During this time, I fell back onto an old family story, one I had long forgotten. This had nothing to do with the work I was doing, and yet it was entirely appropriate. It’s uncanny the way things unfolded, so much so that I can’t accurately describe how it all came together.
According to the story, a Huia specimen was gifted to a grand-relative of mine by a Māori dignitary as a gesture of unity. I’m unsure of the exact validity of this, and I remain skeptical if it even happened at all. Regardless, to me there was enough to work with. The Huia, an incredible and now extinct New Zealand bird, is aligned with a stirring message. Below is summary I wrote at the time:
"Huia (the bird) are an extinct member of the indigenous New Zealand wattlebird family. The largest among their relatives, Huia were renowned for their distinctive white-tipped tail feathers—considered as cause for great ceremony and tradition by Māori. Huia are also noted as the only bird in the world to have such a vast variation in bill shape between sexes. A pair, having mated for life, would work together to survive. The male, using his short, hard bill would seek out and dig through rotten wood or scrub; where the female would then offer her long, narrow bill to collect the food within. The survival of one would depend on the other. This concept of oneness is central to tikanga Māori, where the whole is considered a sum of its parts. Without one, the other may not exist. The Huia signifies oneness. It represents moving forward through life in common union."
I realised there was a cultural aspect here that needed to be respected. Beyond this, lay an opportunity to use the typeface I had been working on as a carrier of this idea. Within the forms and their relationship to one another I could see something of the ‘oneness’ the Huia represented to me. Waka Huia were highly decorative, carved boxes used by Māori to house prized possessions—including Huia feathers. I felt this typeface could too 'house' the Huia's message.
I began setting specimen text in Te Reo Māori, and immediately found that the awkwardness disappeared. The Māori alphabet only consists of 15 characters, including two diagraphs (two characters that combine to give one sound). One of which being a ‘wh’ which made for a stunning ligature (I’m still working out how I can construct the other).
There are a number of things worth clarifying at this point: this is not a typeface designed for the Māori language. If anything, it’s more of a commentary on two cultures working and living together. Such a distinctly European type style set in Te Reo Māori brings with it a tricky tension. To date there has never been a specific brief providing the necessary parameters for a 'solution' to be reached through this work. Based on this, I suppose, Huia might therefore be defined as more of an art project than a piece of functioning design. Nevertheless, I display it here because of the story behind it.
I continue to work on Huia, but for now I’ve chosen to leave it presented in the form that I originally designed it. As my abilities and interests in letter anatomy continue to grow, so too does this typeface.