Rian Hughes’ 15th collection of fonts, “112 Hours”, is entirely dedicated to numbers. Culled from a myriad of sources – clock faces, tickets, watches house numbers – it is an eclectic and wide-ranging set.
The idea for this, the fifteenth Device Fonts collection, began when I came across an online auction site dedicated to antique clocks. I was mesmerised by the inventive and bizarre numerals on their faces. Shorn of the need to extend the internal logic of a typeface through the entire alphabet, the designers of these treasures were free to explore interesting forms and shapes that would otherwise be denied them.
Given this horological starting point, I decided to produce 12 fonts, each featuring just the numbers from 1 to 12 and, where appropriate, a small selection of supporting characters — in most cases, the international currency symbols, a colon, full stop, hyphen, slash and the number sign. 10, 11 and 12 I opted to place in the capital A, B and C slots. Each font is shown in its entirety here.
I soon passed 12, so the next logical finish line was 24. Like a typographic Jack Bauer, I soon passed that too -— the more I researched, the more I came across interesting and unique examples that insisted on digitisation, or that inspired me to explore some new design direction.
The sources broadened to include tickets, numbering machines, ecclesiastical brass plates and more. Though not derived from clock faces, I opted to keep the 1-12 conceit for consistency, which allowed me to design what are effectively numerical ligatures.
I finally concluded one hundred fonts over my original estimate at 112. Even though it’s not strictly divisible by 12, the number has a certain symmetry, I reasoned, and was as good a place as any to round off the project.
An overview reveals a broad range that nonetheless fall into several loose categories. There are fairly faithful revivals, only diverging from their source material to even out inconsistencies and regularise weighting or shape to make them more functional in a modern context; designs taken directly from the source material, preserving all the inky grit and character of the original; designs that are loosely based on a couple of numbers from the source material but diverge dramatically for reasons of improved aesthetics or mere whim; and entirely new designs with no historical precedent.
As projects like this evolve (and, to be frank, get out of hand), they can take you in directions and to places you didn’t envisage when you first set out. Along the way, I corresponded with experts in railway livery, and now know about the history of cabside and smokebox plates; I travelled to the Musée de l’imprimerie in Nantes, France, to examine their numbering machines; I photographed house numbers in Paris, Florence, Venice, Amsterdam and here in the UK; I delved into my collection of tickets, passes and printed ephemera; I visited the Science Museum in London, the Royal Signals Museum in Dorset, and the Museum of London to source early adding machines, war-time telegraphs and post-war ration books.
I photographed watches at Worthing Museum, weighing scales large enough to stand on in a Brick Lane pub, and digital station clocks at Baker Street tube station.
I went to the London Under-ground archive at Acton Depot, where you can see all manner of vintage enamel signs and woodblock type; I photographed grocer’s stalls in East End street markets; I dug out old clocks I recalled from childhood at my parents’ place, examined old manual typewriters and cash tills, and crouched down with a torch to look at my electricity meter.
I found out that Jane Fonda kicked a policeman, and unusually for someone with a lifelong aversion to sport, picked up some horse-racing jargon.
I share some of that research here. In many cases I have not been slavish about staying close to the source material if I didn’t think it warranted it, so a close comparison will reveal differences. These changes could be made for aesthetic reasons, functional reasons (the originals didn’t need to be set in any combination, for example), or just reasons of personal taste. Where reference for the additional characters were not available — which was always the case with fonts derived from clock faces — I have endeavoured to design them in a sympathetic style.
I may even extend some of these to the full alphabet in the future. If I do, these number-only fonts could be considered as experimental design exercises: forays into form to probe interesting new graphic possibilities.