A versatile serif typeface designed by Barbara Bigosińska, Mala was published by Bold Monday in 2016. To kick this review off, I should lay my argument right out on the table. It is based on two assumptions. First, that the best typefaces are designs created with a specific area of application in mind. Second, that a great typeface works in more places than those it was designed for. Bigosińska began Mala during her studies on the Type and Media course at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague and she developed a specific brief for herself: Mala is a cartographic typeface. She designed it for map-making.
Maps can be fascinating design objects themselves. Their origins are just as old – if not older – than typography itself. Moreover, at least until recently, most maps didn’t use typography at all. Instead of being printed from moveable metal letters, their letterforms were drawn or engraved, depending on the printing technique used to reproduce them. These days, digital tools blur the boundaries between lettering and font-using. At the same time, digital document-creation workflows have removed all the barriers that kept proper typefaces from being used in cartography. Why not design a typeface for maps?
Bigosińska has been always enjoyed the visibly handmade quality that historic maps have. Sometimes, their forms even look awkward to us today. She began collecting pictures of maps printed from hand-engraved copperplates “where every single letter was different,” she writes. “On those maps, lettering and illustration were integrated at a different level than nowadays. They used to complement each other, but now, the illustration is usually just another layer of data.” If you are designing a map: by all means, consider Mala (especially if you want to use serif type for it). But this review is not written for map makers’ benefit. I’m pitching it to readers who are editorial designers and book designers.
Let me explain why you should consider trying this typeface out. First, Mala is a curated type family. Its 32 styles might sound like a lot, but that figure is not excessive for a system that includes three different widths. Bigosińska considered which styles might work well together, and those are what we find in the total. Her selection makes Mala useful for designers working on complex documents and need to rely on typography to create a hierarchy of information. Mala’s compliment of styles offers just enough variety to differentiate between multiple kinds of information and help users establish distinct layers within a document’s content.
I think that a combination of Mala’s diverse styles can, all together, hold their own with an editorial design. If you need different fonts for headlines, several layers of sub-headlines, introductory paragraphs, the main text, image captions and more, Mala should do the trick. When it comes down to it, the robust letterforms in Mala’s regular-width styles will hold their own where it counts: in your document’s main text areas. I need to define robustness, and I mean that Mala’s characters are wide and sturdy. Although every weight does not necessarily have a lot of contract between its letters thick and thin strokes, there is always some contrast in their forms.
By any means, a system of 32 fonts is still somewhat complicated to grasp all at once. Mala’s three widths (condensed, regular and extended) each include a range of eight weights from Extra Light through Black. Only the regular-width weights have companion italics available. Mala’s condensed and extended widths are intended for use in much larger sizes than the regular-width styles. Think about your headlines: sometimes, you have a lot of vertical space, but very little horizontal space. Using Mala’s condensed styles will activate this area of your document. The extended weights will shine when you have a generous amount of space to explore.
Mala is neither a revival of a specific historical typeface nor does it directly synthesize cartographic lettering styles into a digital format. There is no specific stylistic canon that it seems to reference. The fonts set a little wide. Except for the narrowest letters, many letterforms have similar widths. Their proportions are more modern, typographically-speaking, than being inspired by Renaissance examples. That regularity gives a little bit of a typewriter-like feeling to texts set with Mala. Nevertheless, there is still some differentiation between character widths. Letters like M or w are as wide as they need to be here, while i and l aren’t forced to fill up spaces predetermined by other members of the alphabet. Mala has a large x-height. Its capital letters are also short, allowing for the letters’ counters to be large. There is more volume inside Mala’s characters than around them (if you image a Garalde lowercase – oh boy, it’s the opposite). Mala’s serifs are always visible; they won’t break away.
A designer’s intent is always an important thing to consider, so to close this review, I’d like to discuss the elements in Mala most inspired by old-fashioned cartographic design: its swashes. “These were one of the most beautiful features from early map-making that I wanted to bring into the digital realm,” Bigosińska stated. Like the rest of the typeface, those elements are probably just as useful in other kinds of documents, although they probably need to be used sparingly at most. Mala’s OpenType features include a great deal of capital-letter swashes. Some of the flourishes that they take are very elaborate, occupying up much more total space than the base letterforms they are attached to. It may look like their forms are based solely on style, but the expanses they fill has a function, too. A large body of water on a map, for instance, can take up a lot of the total area. A swash letter at the beginning or end of its name can fill up part of that space, activating a section of the map that might otherwise be empty.