In today’s branding circles, there are the image geeks and the type geeks—the latter of whom frequently extol the virtuous presence of a perfectly crisp finial or manual kerning. For an increasingly visual reader demographic, typography can speak louder than the words it treats to convey the more elusive essentialities of a brand—personality, tone, age. But too often in this space, form trumps function; beauty rules purpose. It’s rare to see a typeface that is as lovely as it is legible—it’s even more rare to see a typeface that is lovely, legible, utilitarian, and on-brand. It’s this reality that makes the story of the Castledown font—created for students learning to read and write at the Castledown Primary School in East Sussex, England—all the more unusual.
Neil Small, a former teacher-turned-headmaster of Castledown Primary, was frustrated by a not-uncommon concern in our era of universal design: standard library fonts used in workbooks were dull and hard to read for students with dyslexia. When he first contacted Colophon Foundry, a London type studio, he had a clean typeface in mind— one shaped closely to young learners’ natural writing patterns. His request came with an extra layer of complexity and seeming impossibility: Small believed that the right font could be a learning tool in and of itself—a scaffold that would improve all students’ reading and writing practices.
Colophon designers Edd Harrington and Anthony Sheret spent a month with Castledown students, immersed in observing the minute details of their letter placement, pressure points, licks and type preferences as they traced out their letters and first words—contextualizing their findings against accessible design tenets. The namesake custom design they unveiled has now been in use at the primary school for a year. And beyond making it indeed easier for all students to trace, replicate, and read without issue, the Castledown typeface has become the school brand —its friendly curves and inclusive feel extended to a whole new audience of readers via the Castledown Primary website and print collateral.
While a month-long, audience deep dive isn’t always possible in type design, attention to the subtlety of real-life “typography” is and should be. The otherwise unnoticed oscillations of a pencil, or the intrinsic, human patterns of letter formation are precisely what make for designs that go beyond brand, legibility, and utility to refreshingly personal intimacy—the kind that translates across workbooks, mediums, and audiences. In this case, the story of one primary school’s pursuit of a deeper purpose through workbook type design provides an inspired lesson in visual communication—the kind that all true type geeks and branding experts can get behind.