Angular, graphic serifs
Typefaces such as Stanley (Ludovic Balland for Optimo, see also his typeface for Theatre Basel), GT Sectra (Grilli Type Foundry) and Portrait (Commercial Type, for Wallpaper* magazine) are functional serif typefaces with a strongly contemporary aesthetic. They have simple triangular or slabby serifs, and an angular and chiselled shape. An overall constructed rather than drawn form, and use of straight lines instead of subtle modulation, gives a strikingly bold, graphic and incised look in text and headline. Noe (Schick Toikka) is softer and more curvaceous, but its bold triangular serifs, and sharp contrast and modern proportions of large x-height and open counters give it a striking sense of newness. These typefaces have historical reference points, for example Stanley is named after Stanley Morison, designer of Times New Roman. However, these designs haven’t been bogged down in the typographic navel-gazing of attachment to historical references at the expense of contemporary relevance.
If you are a wannabe type designer and are wondering what sells, the answer is in one word – scripts. Though defined by penmanship and with forms derived from writing with a pen or brush, there are many new and surprising designs. These mix hard and soft shapes and skills of calligraphy and drawing. This moves them away from the traditional and familiar styles of calligraphic lettering design. Donki, by Gunnar Link is a heavyweight design that mixes brush and sharp-edged forms. Saline (Mika Melvas) is an angular and almost bitmappy connected script, as if low resolution or if its Bézier curves have been retracted. Like Saline, Haltrix (Blackletra) is constructed as if from straight lines, clearly drawn on a computer rather than written or painted, but still crafted and beautifully made.
These are the bold, utility-style typefaces seen in European art books or fashion / art magazines in sparse, bold layouts. This has now achieved a kind of crossover status in the recent and high-profile rebrands of fashion label Acne and paper merchant GF Smith. Programme (Optimo) mixes pared-down, sparsely geometric, angular forms with more functional letter shapes. There is also a rotated version as an alternative to a standard italic. Typefaces such as Replica (Lineto), Akkurat and Circular by Laurenz Brunner and Aperçu (Colophon Foundry) combine references from mid-century modernist typefaces, 19th-century Grotesques, mixed with the modular geometry of the computer. Despite the myriad imitators and wannabes, at its best, most notably in Circular, it is a typestyle that takes these start points, shakes them up and makes something relevant – just different enough, new, and also super useable.
The so-called experimental-sans typefaces take as starting points geometric sans serif typefaces, usually caps only, and add to or abstract them to make semi-readable into rune-like designs. Seen on tumblr and aggregate-content sites such as ffffound, experimental sans fonts are seen on self-initiated posters for parties, art colleges or art projects, fanzines or art magazines. Though there are a great many very similar looking, uncrafted and somewhat derided designs, the work of Karl Nawrot & Walter Warton of creative partnership Voidwreck stands out. Their typography is part of a portfolio of intelligent, inventive work including illustration and 3D pieces, all much copied. Also elevating this typographic style is Benoît Bodhuin. He has developed cleverly thought out type families mixing interchangeable styles from wavy to angular, and used them on strikingly individual graphic design projects (promotional poster for Mineral shown).
This isn’t new of course, there have been regular attempts to oust Helvetica as the go-to functional sans serif typeface. However, these aren’t me-too designs that look to bandwagon-jump onto the seemingly insatiable appetite of graphic designers for functional sans serif typefaces. They look back to original forms, or look to explore what makes these designs so timeless and usable. The recent release of Neue Haas Grotesk (for Font Bureau by Christian Schwartz) takes the original drawings of the typeface that became Helvetica to make a faithful and expertly crafted version of the original 1957 version. Hate the fact that Helvetica’s numerals are lower than the cap height? Use NHG. Neutral (Kai Bernau of Carvalho Bernau for Typotheque, for Works that Work magazine) is derived from an average of sans serif typefaces, so smoothing out their features to produce a design with ‘an absence of stylistic associations’. The mooted re-release of the oddly so far un-digitised classic Haas Unica will give designers another authentically mid-century option.
Gareth Hague is a type designer and co-founder of design studio and type foundry Alias, alias.dj