Our Masthead

Wei Huang

The WSJ masthead is a perversion of Gerrit Noordzij’s1 cube. The cube is a model for describing and prescribing a typographic universe. The typefaces within the cube have their origins in handwriting – what Noordzij calls the ‘primacy of the pen’. This theory is outlined in Noordzij’s treatise on the construction of letters: The Stroke. Jan Middendorp summarises it in Dutch Type2 (illustrations have been added for clarity):


Bodoni (high-contrast) and Helvetica (low-contrast)

Noordzij’s analysis of the letterform is based on the principle of ‘contrast’ — the distribution of thick and thin along the strokes.


‘Translation’ is the contrast produced by the broad-nibbed pen:
an oblique vector projected on a path. 


‘Expansion’ is the contrast produced with a pointed pen, whereby increasing the pressure
makes the two halves of the pen part, thus causing a gradual thickening of the stroke.


Another contrast type is rotation – whereby the angle of the ‘counterpoint’ is variable.

Translation is a diagonal type of contrast; expansion is vertical. Typefaces can be designed with one of these extremes in mind, or as a mixture. The fact that the ‘space’ of possible letterforms within this scheme is a continuum is illustrated by Noordzij’s cube. 


Noordzij’s cube is a way of analysing letterforms without putting them into separate categories. It ranges variants of one character along three axes: the kind of contrast (z), increasing contrast (x) and diminishing contrast (y).



Increasing contrast is achieved by increasing the thickest parts of the stroke.
The axis for increasing contrast could also be interpreted as ‘weight’.


Diminishing contrast is achieved by increasing the thinnest parts of the stroke.


Existing typefaces can be found on the cube.

These simple principles provide the student, typographer or type designer with a set of tools which allows almost every kind of letter – except for those composed of extremely exuberant shapes or purely mathematical constructions – to be analysed. Noordzij has emphatically recommended his model as an alternative to conventional type classifications, such as the complicated scheme created by Maximilien Vox. Such classifications have many shortcomings. They are fixated on details, lack flexibility and produce a multitude of categories which do not provide any true insight into the construction of letterforms. Noordzij’s model is simpler and less rigid; as he himself points out, it not only takes into account those typefaces that already exist. but also provides a tool for creating forms that do not exist yet.

Open though it is, Noordzij’s model is, of course, also rather normative. It focuses on a certain kind of typeface and – as the work of some of his former students shows – encourages the creation of type designs which fit into the scheme. Typefaces which do not adhere to it (such as a high-contrast or geometric sanserif) can only be regarded as either ‘wrong’ or irrelevant.

Noordzij has acknowledged the shortcomings of a theory built around contrast but only in its lack for describing even more parameters of the pen — such as articulation (number of strokes) and speed. Noordzij’s cube doesn’t include details such as serifs, terminals, flourishes, and so on. In reality, letters drawn through outlined shapes without a skeletal structure are ‘wrong’3.


WSJ explores type designs through a perversion of Noordzij’s cube’s Logic – a kind of alternate or subset universe. Formally: it is achieved through a 90 degree counter-clockwise rotation in the angle of the counterpoint and a reversal in the direction of rotation. Its genesis is in the mouse; through tracing simulated brush-strokes plotted via béziers rather than a digitisation of brush or pen stroke.

WSJ may not be in Noordzij’s universe but it is of it; despite never making any actual marks with a brush or pen in the process, the method of making the shapes adhere to the stroke.4



  1. Gerrit Noordzij is a typographer, type designer, and teacher from The Netherlands who who directed the writing and lettering programme at the Royal Academy of Arts in the Hague, an early precursor to the Type and Media programme. His work and theories on the construction of letters have influenced generations of type designers (in particular his sons Christoph and Peter Matthias Noordzij, Petr van Blokland, Just van Rossum and Erik van Blokland of LettError, and Frank E Blokland). []
  2. Jan Middendorp, Dutch Type, 010 Publishers, 2004, p. 152 []
  3. “Writing off the typefaces of designers such as Neville Brody as no more than “illustrations”, Noordzij has argued that such pointless excursions into the territory beyond the typographic universe will be “sorted out by history” and are not worthy of his concern. For Noordzij experimenting with the notion of legibility is akin to the absurdity of proposing a square wheel, the implication being that the roots of typographic convention are too deep to be hauled up for inspection.” Emily King, New Faces, A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of Kingston University for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, 1999:
  4. See for example Beowolf: a digitally native typeface by LettError. Despite formal departure through digital manipulation, Beowolf has its roots in handwriting, and thus can be encompassed by Noordzij’s theory; “the starting point is not a shape but a method of making a shape”. via » []
Wei Huang is a type designer and designed our masthead.