Building Bickham Script Pro 3: Supporting Greek and Cyrillic

Bickham Script Pro 3 expands the range of the Bickham Script fonts beyond the Latin alphabet, to the Greek and Cyrillic scripts. In the 18th century, round-hand styles of writing were practiced both in Greek and in Russian and the other languages using the Cyrillic script; there were writing manuals and copy books in both scripts, and there is even an example of Greek (but not Cyrillic) in The Universal Penman. The Greek and Cyrillic hands, though, were not as extensive or grand as the English round hand examples engraved by Bickham.

Bickham's Greek script

Greek script from George Bickham’s The Universal Penman (London, 1743), folio 208 (detail). Image courtesy of the Letterform Archive, San Francisco.

In developing appropriate Greek and Cyrillic versions of Bickham Script, David Lemon — Adobe’s senior manager of type development — brought in two of the foremost experts in coordinating type design across different alphabets: Gerry Leonidas for Greek, and Maxim Zhukov for Cyrillic. Leonidas and Zhukov have advised Adobe and many other digital type foundries on the intricacies of Greek and Cyrillic type design, pointing out which similar characters should look the same in multiple scripts and which should not, or which elements of different individual letters need to be consistent within a font. Their experience and perspective is invaluable — especially when the type designer does not read either Greek or one of the Cyrillic-written languages, as was the case for Richard Lipton.

“Though I had designed Cyrillic and Greek roman and italic forms, and even did Cyrillic and Greek script work on Sloop for a custom client, I had little experience with historic roundhand forms in these languages,” says Lipton.

Lipton had also been concerned about “learning how Cyrillic and Greek glyphs (lowercase mostly) would interact with each other, and keeping the rhythm and flow that was present in the Latin lowercase.”

Lipton had worked on basic Greek and Cyrillic extensions to Bickham for a private client, which jump-started the work that needed to be done to turn Bickham Script into a Pro typeface for Adobe. It was in this process of extension and refinement that Leonidas and Zhukov got involved, as well as Robert Slimbach.

Greek: Adapting a script with sensitivity

The way Greek letters are traditionally constructed and written is simply not the same as the way Latin letters are, and this is especially apparent in the flowing round-hand style, written with a steel-nib pen. Gerry Leonidas describes the challenges as twofold: “a stroke structure that does not fit the characteristics of a steel nib (e.g., direction reversals within the letter, entry and exit at the ‘wrong’ points of the compass), and joining strokes that are not helped by the pattern of instrokes and exit strokes in letters.”

“This can be seen,” he continues, “in the original attempts by Joseph Champion (a pretty poor affair, trying to make the Greek conform to a Latin stress without sensitivity to the forms) and George Bickham (who throws away the rulebook, and approaches the script much more freely).” Their attempts at Greek shown in The Universal Penman and elsewhere are only partially successful.

Leonidas continues,

Adobe does neither in its Greek typefaces. Adobe’s Greeks occupy a middle ground between script-specific characteristics, and references to the typographic texture of the Latin, but with considerable efforts to maintain the integrity of the forms. This has the consequence of putting in front of multilingual readers typefaces that are easy to read and work with, and of promoting a model for type designers that is relatively easier to follow than a 100% Greek-derived model would be. (In this case, Bickham’s very original Greek would have been much more difficult to ‘sell’ as a partner to the familiar Latin model.)

So, for Adobe’s version the challenge was that of adapting a fundamentally Latin ductus to the Greek, while respecting the characteristics of the script, as well as taking advantage of the potential for substitutions to approximate the texture of handwritten words.

Slimbach describes researching historical examples of Greek script in the process of developing and refining the contextual forms for Bickham Script Greek, then developing “an exhaustive set of sketches of mostly lowercase alternate forms (a mix of original and adapted historical variations) for Richard to use as a general guide for his outlines.” He and Leonidas discussed a range of alternates and manners of stroke connections, bringing Leonidas’s knowledge of historical forms into play and adding depth and authenticity to the final choices.

Robert Slimbach sketches of beta character

Robert Slimbach sketched out alternate forms of the Greek beta, noting to Lipton, “Variant 4 could serve as a starting point for the default form,” and, “Betas 9 and 10 are discretionary forms for your consideration.”

Greek type specimen in Bickham Script

Bickham Script Pro 3, showing many of the final Greek letters.

Cyrillic: Finding typographic harmony among transitioning styles

The Cyrillic script is used for a number of different languages, but by far the dominant one in the 18th century would have been Russian. In the Russian Empire, Tsar Peter the Great had introduced a drastic reform of the writing system at the beginning of the 18th century: the so-called “civil type,” which rationalized the old Church Slavonic forms and made them look more like their Western counterparts in the Latin alphabet. This naturally had an effect on cursive handwriting, too, though the change was not instantaneous.

Maxim Zhukov elaborates,

In Russia, the ‘English hand’ became popular, and actually standard, in the 19th century. However, many of the Cyrillic glyphs in Bickham Script Pro can be traced back to the formal hands of late 18th century, both Russian and non-Russian.

In his copybooks of 1776 and 1778, Zaharije Orfelin, a famous Serbian scholar and educator, set high standards of Cyrillic penmanship. It is interesting to see how the ornate, rococo 18th-century glyphs interact with the pre-Petrine letterforms in modernised ustav style.

Given the unsettled nature of Russian, Serbian, and other Cyrillic handwriting in the period of The Universal Penman, this historical influence for the design of Bickham Script had to be balanced against keeping the letterforms consistent with the Latin forms already in place.

“And of course,” says Zhukov, “there should have been quite a bit of design extrapolation done by Richard, to harmonize the Cyrillic glyphs of Bickham Script Pro with their Latin and Greek sisters.”

Cyrillic sketch from Robert Slimbach

Robert Slimbach’s sketch of Cyrillic swashes.

Cyrillic type specimen in Bickham Script

Bickham Script Pro 3, showing many of the Cyrillic letters.

In the end, Lipton was happy with the results, and with the process of getting there, taking satisfaction in accomplishing a smooth rhythm and flow for both Greek and Cyrillic in the traditional round hand style. “Also,” he adds, “I enjoyed the collaboration of working with Robert, Maxim, and Gerry, whose experience, insight, and historical research into all the problems that arose in such an ambitious project came to light, and were, I believe, solved.”

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John Berry

John D. Berry

John Berry writes, speaks, and consults extensively on typography, has written and edited several books, and has been a program manager on the Fonts team at Microsoft. He is Director of the Scripta Typographic Institute.