Renault Carname is a new typeface system for the interior and exterior badges on Renault vehicles, designed to remain visible even when the car is in motion. Production Type conceived and produced the type with technical assistance from the car design team at Renault. The flexible family of various widths, weights, and slopes covers the spectrum of visual expressions in the Renault line, from hulking, muscular trucks to swift, nimble cabriolets.
A SHORT HISTORY OF CARS AND CHROME
Since the invention of the horseless carriage, chrome lettering has had an important relationship with the automobile, lending not only a name, but also a personality to each machine. It began with the ornate, Victorian-style logos that adorned the radiators of the first consumer cars at the turn of the 20th century. These badges, often replete with decorative heraldry and frilly swash underlines, echoed the graphic art of the era. Each metallic nameplate acted as the maker’s signature, and many even looked like written signatures, which was typical for companies at that time.
Car badges gradually shed their complexity as the visual world accepted Modernism in its various forms: Streamline, Art Deco, and Minimalism. Car shapes got cleaner, and so did their labeling. Despite this, there was a period during the late 1940s to ’60s in which many cars reflected the bold and adventurous optimism of the space age. Stars, rockets, and other intergalactic visuals could be found in car badges, just as they were represented in the ostentatious fins and fenders of the cars themselves. Many manufacturers had a unique badge for every model in their lineup, each with a different style of lettering and/or graphic element. In terms of variety and eye-grabbing appeal, this was the golden age of chrome lettering.
The excess and eccentricity of car design met a harsh end as fuel prices increased, urban spaces got tighter, and vehicles became smaller and more sensible. Heavy chrome letters were now lighter and simpler, often glued instead of bolted. Many manufacturers switched their badges from metal to plastic. The material changes were practical, but this conservatism made its way into the design of the lettering itself, resulting in a dull sameness that has permeated much of the automotive industry for over 30 years.
The Renault Carname project acknowledges this trend and breaks away from the current convention without reverting to nostalgia or retroism. That’s not an easy task: When working in an industrial environment with numerous technical constraints it’s easy to settle for a predictable aesthetic. Renault Carname manages to steer away from the industry’s typically “technical” look while retaining a solid and dependable mood.
LETTERS THAT REFLECT THE SKY, NOT THE GROUND
Chrome letters have their own peculiar way of behaving, and must be treated as such. Receiving and reflecting light elegantly is one of the key roles a chrome letter is expected to play: their shapes need to interact closely with the environment, their lines and curves must perform seamlessly with sun rays. Among the multiplicity of parameters, the Production Type team sought the most down-to-earth (matching a minimum typeface weight to the viscosity of a glue) and the most person-oriented (thickening and rounding small stems & spikes which can be hazardous in case of an impact). Their solution happened to be surprisingly poetic, too. The upper surface of the letters is not flat, but a parabolic, asymmetric curve, similar to the profile of an airplane wing. At any mounting angle the letters will thus always reflect the sky, not the ground.
GETTING AHEAD OF THE CURVE
Much of the design thinking revolved around ways to reduce the distortion of letters throughout the manufacturing process. Ironically, Bézier curves, initially invented for the manufacturing of automotive parts, were insufficient. Letters produced by a cutting machine and drilling equipment require lines that are examined with programmatic tools. Most of the work started with 3rd degree curves, but this also proved to be insufficient. Both for extrusion and for unmoulding, arch connexions (n, R) needed to remain somewhat open. Likewise, narrow angles were a permanent constraint. Some straight-to-curve connexions (B, D, P, R) could be engineered but were optically bumpy, and other curves (O, o, 8, S) were optically acceptable but technically mediocre. For instance, beautifully soft gradients of light could not be achieved and would instead render jaggy. The solution is to use clothoïd curves, a type of curve popular in the drawing of highways, railroads, rollercoasters and — perhaps not coincidentally — car parts. Clothoïds combine the advantages of being optically pleasing, mechanically easy to reproduce, and numerically stable. The digital drawings were examined with curvature diagrams and reconstructed for machine-cutting if needed. The main glossy surface of the letters was the trickiest case, and required the use of 8th degree curves.
A surprising degree of preparation goes into the making of moulded, three-dimensional, injected plastic letters. Before the development of Renault Carname, the original vector outlines of the fonts were used as plinth for extrusion, resulting in severe outline distortion, such as the thinning of strokes. The new types induced the opposite modelling process, were the letter became the upper part of the mould.
Plasturgy — another term for injection and compression moulding — needs a consistent beveling angle to allow the object to be properly extracted from the mould. European standards require these extrusions to have a clearance angle of at least 1,30°. Depending on the manufacturer’s precision, this angle can vary. Increasing such an angle is always possible, but would deliver bulky, lumpish letters. However, this angle is increased in tight corners, such as the counters of ‘A’, ‘8’, or ‘S’. For safety, all edges are rounded in three dimensions. Even at small sizes, such slight interventions affect the outlines of the fonts. At the bottom end of the letter, the base remains straight and has no clearing angle: it needs to be hollow to receive an adhesive foam, which will be pushed and compressed when mounted on the car. When the letters are set on a curved surface, the amount of foam is increased to account for this variation. Very rarely is the extrusion of the letter adjusted to the curved surface; which means that there is still room for enhancement: these non-flat surfaces can benefit from using non-flat mould bases. Bevel extrusion angles can be adjusted to optically compensate some diagonal shapes such as in the ‘A’, ‘R’, and ‘W’ — all within the acceptance range of mould makers. Similar to the process of making plain, two-dimensional rounded fonts, rounding factors can be improved and proportioned in accordance with the lettershape, too.
Developing prototypes and moulds for injected plastic is a skilled, time-consuming and costly process. The first master reference is a chromed brass letter, machine-drilled in the bulk. Mould makers work directly from CAD data. The letters are not used as matrixes, but as rapid prototyping tools. Such precision moulds being rather expensive, their production can only be undertaken in mass production. For the same reasons, letters with separate parts (like a two-part uppercase ‘K’, or ‘i’ dots) are avoided whenever possible, especially for entry-market cars. At Renault Design, most volume letters are made of PMMA plastic injected into Polyglass moulds to achieve a high brilliancy. These moulds are finely polished with diamond paste and cotton, until they obtain their final sheen. PMMA plastic, initially black, is then plunged in several chrome baths. Some other badges use the same technique, reversed: the letters are hollow and are filled with paint deposited via a robotic syringe. Other techniques include chrome foils that are cut and hot-stamped onto flat surfaces, and adhesive vinyl stickers with chrome overlay. Some brush aluminium parts are simply silkscreened and varnished (such as doormats). The most inexpensive markings are flat prints covered by a cambered drop of resin.
A chrome badge not only gives a car its name and personality, it also attracts attention by its very nature. All car parts are given a standard brilliancy rating from 0 to 100. The matte dashboard plastics, for instance, usually have a gloss score of 5/100. Chrome letters are graded 90/100, making them the shiniest elements on a car.
GOING THE EXTRA MILE
The final artwork for this design not a two-dimensional typeface in the strict sense. In Renault Carname, the attention to rounding, cambering, and extrusions contributes to create a three-dimensional typeface, where the design fills a given volume. Expanding the alphabet into several weights and widths created many combination possibilities, allowing more freedom for Renault’s car graphics department. Production Type continues to work with the in-house team, optimizing the balance between design choices and industrial possibilities.
Renault Design: Laurens van den Acker, Sidonie Camplan, François Blanchard, Julie Bokhobza, Pierre Louisnard, Nicolas Merlhiot, Fabrice Gottini. Typeface design: Jean-Baptiste Levée. Team: Yoann Minet, Mathieu Réguer. Imaging: Juliette Bacle. Animation: Marie Guyon. Photography: Julien Lelièvre. Contributing editor: Stephen Coles.
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