The Swiss Army knife
exploring the whys and whynots

I was twelve, I think. I was just about to set off for my first Scout camp. It was a Saturday and raining (it always rained in Manchester). As I was about to hesitantly leave the car and the relative warmth of my dad's Capri, he gave me a small gift. A tiny present wrapped in Christmas wrapping paper. It was June. Unwrapping the little gift I was beyond thrilled to see the gift was my first knife. Not any old knife, but a small Swiss Army knife with a blade, a saw, some scissors, a couple of screw drivers and some tweezers. Of course, all I used was the knife – probably whittling some wood to toast a marshmallow.

Swiss Army knives – or, the more generic, multi-tool knife – are a useful tool to carry with you whilst camping. Keeping everything together in one nice, compact little package. Except, they are never really that good at anything. The knife is ok, but too small. The screwdriver is fiddly. I always get my finger trapped in the scissors. And you need fingers of a five year old to prize out the little tweezers. They are the exact opposite of that well known saying 'do one thing well'. They do lots of things sort of ok but not great.

This brings me on to one of my gripes about type specimens, but also one of the things that makes them curious publications. They are tools – for the designers to make decisions and for the foundries to sell. They are marketing material. They form part of a larger collective piece of work. On the web, they are interactive and invite participation and investigation from the user. They are not generally passive. They are all of these things.

But are they a Swiss Army knife?

How could they work harder? Should they focus on just being really good at that one thing? But what is that thing?

This project aims to provide some insight into what makes a useful, delightful, purposeful specimen. It's part research project and part publication. As well as what you see here: a journal, and a feed of specimens, a newsletter – and more to come, I will also be undertaking months of research with users and creators of specimens. Trying to understand how they can be made better. From there, I will be exploring, prototyping, and testing design patterns – in print and digitally – to provide better ways for people and type designers to evaluate typefaces. All of which will be published and made available here and on a public repository on Github.