A NEW FLARE
The tapered Sans Serifs style that Warren Chappell embraced with Lydian in 1938 is making a comeback
By LIRON LAVI TURKENICH
A trend is perhaps only spotted after its peak, but nevertheless, worth noticing and speculating on the “why” and especially on the “why now?” In the deep sea of recent geometric sans serifs and grotesques, there is a new group of typefaces that are sparkling bright, acting as an antidote to uniformity and sameness. These recent releases are less neutral and share modulation, calligraphic traces, flared stems, and have a more “organic” overall feel.
Veronika Burian, co-founder of TypeTogether foundry, observes that “the type world is looking for new ideas and inspirations and overall design is becoming more human; natural and less sober or digital.” These typefaces can be divided into two subgroups: The flared sans serifs, similar to the famous Optima typeface by Hermann Zapf, published in 1958; and the calligraphic sans serifs, in the genre of Lydian, designed by Warren Chappell in 1938.
Eight recent designs showcase this trend best: Amira (Cyrus Highsmith, Occupant Fonts), Brightcut (Elizabeth Carey Smith), Chap (Schick Toikka), Cobalte (Jean-Baptiste Levée, Production Type), Conglomerate (Greg Shutters, Typetanic Fonts), Gitan (Florian Runge via Rosetta), Robinson (Greg Gazdowicz, Commercial Type) and Sanserata (Gerard Unger via TypeTogether).
Historically, “this typographic style fell out of fashion when late Modernism took over, and it effectively went into hiding for the next fifty years, reappearing only in the service of novelty or nostalgia,” says Stephen Coles, editor of Typographica and co-founder of Fonts In Use. Because these areas “haven’t been explored in any depth for many decades, they feel fresh to young eyes.”
Over the past few years, a process of “warming up” the sans serifs is visible through these new designs. Greg Gazdowicz explains: “Things are usually happening as a reaction to something else, at least in my opinion. It seems that more and more people want something less rigid and a reaction to that would be something more warm and human.” It is, therefore, not surprising that the designers use words like “informal,” “generous,” “friendly,” “cheerful” and “raw” to describe their typefaces.
EXPERIMENTING, REFERENCING, DRAWING
Each of these recent typefaces’ story begins differently, in some cases years before the official release, but the desire to design a typeface that is a bit different, repeats itself. “I have already designed nine or ten sans serifs, now I wanted to add a different one,” says Gerard Unger. Cyrus Highsmith shares this wish: “For North Americans of my generation, Optima was everywhere when I was growing up, especially in the dentist’s office. I thought to myself [that] it would be interesting to do a typeface in that genre that wasn’t Optima, that didn’t remind me of going to the dentist.”
Jean Baptiste Levée states, “Flared sans are a weird breed. They are not really sans, not really serifs.” And indeed some new typefaces, like Gitan and Conglomerate are dealing with, and possibly enjoying, the challenge of classifying their genre. Descriptions of the typefaces begin by addressing potential customer questions such as: Is it a display or text typeface? Sans or serif? Square or rounded? Calligraphic or geometric? and conclude with contradicting explanations such as “both all and none” and “genre-less-ness.”
Elizabeth Carey Smith’s Brightcut was triggered by a typographic challenge. “Working in fashion, I’d been continually perplexed at the overuse and misuse of Didones. I understood there were two factors appealing to the fashion world: the tradition of high-contrast modern typefaces, and the stroke contrast itself. That said, the fine strokes often betray what people love about them because they’re used over heavy photography, and particularly in print, they get lost unless used quite big.” Brightcut was designed to give designers an alternative.
Sometimes, a type designer’s existing typefaces are a fertile ground for new designs. Sanserata, as well as Amira both began as a curious experiment of cutting off the serifs, quickly becoming independent from their serifed companions. “What can you do after making a design like Alverata? Another sans? But then not a straightforward one,” says Unger.
Cobalte’s beginning was defined through a brief, as Levée explains: “The project started by a commission to design custom type for a bank. The design agency wanted to have a type that would not be the usual sans serif but that would still be somehow contemporary and modern. They wanted to work somewhere in the field of flared sans. Cobalte is actually based on the same skeleton as two of the sans serifs from my catalogue.”
As for historical references, Optima and Lydian are two better known examples, but additional typefaces from the years 1929-1980 are inspiring new designs as well: Icone, Pascal, Stahl, Samson, Albertus, and Stellar. These not-as-famous typefaces get a second chance to be valued as inspiring designs, after slipping away from the mainstream memory.
Being reluctant to simply offer a revival, designers made different design decisions to make their typefaces look contemporary: Choosing carefully which outstrokes will flare (Sanserata), adding angularity (Amira, Gitan) or contrasting the calligraphic qualities with geometric aspects (Conglomerate, Chap and Robinson). According to Gazdowicz, Robinson was infused with Helvetica. “The combination with a different structure altogether changes things completely. Lydian was based solely on calligraphy, this is based on a structure of something that’s a sans.” Choosing Helvetica as inspiration was based on being surrounded by it his whole life. “I feel like those forms, that structure, the widths, everything, is just kind of ingrained in me.”
Often a personal challenge is what motivates designers to decide on the type’s style: “The goal was to challenge myself with a difficult design that would take the road less traveled, says Unger.”
Florian Runge describes the beginning of Gitan as “a somewhat naïve and selfish attempt at discovering uncharted territory.” Indra Kupferschmid, who deals regularly with classifying and sorting typefaces, agrees: “We are doing the same style of sans serifs over and over, and I have the feeling that people are looking for a style that is not too busy—and not done by everyone else.”
In creating Amira, reflections of the past were leading the way: “Sometimes what I do as a designer is I just look for challenges. So I thought to myself: I wonder why there aren’t more typefaces like this,” Highsmith asked. “Are they hard to draw? Is there something strange about it? there aren’t as many calligraphic sans like Amira and Optima and Lydian, because they don’t sell very well. Optima is the exception; it was incredibly popular for a long time… Amira does not sell well,” he laughs.
Greg Shutters can commiserate: “The typefaces that I feel like I’m going to use the most, are they ones that sell the least.” Perhaps this is because these typefaces are more appealing to type designers than to the general graphic design community. However, “that may change if it is a new trend that just hasn’t moved to the mainstream,” suggests Coles, who observes new typefaces and their usage on a daily basis. But, he says, those typefaces “are being used by more adventurous designers.” According to Levée, the flared faces “succeed well when you want to give your branding a feeling that’s a bit more organic because there’s much more going on in the stems and in the strokes . . . so far Cobalt has been used mostly in branding applications that will require this kind of voice. Something that will not be too clean or too sleek, that will have some more complexity.”
Many of these typefaces are still too new to know the sales numbers, but the fact that collaborative foundries like TypeTogether and Rosetta are choosing those designs for their type libraries, show their hope for commercial success.
When multiple designers produce similar shapes independently, it means that they are reading the situation in a similar manner,” says Gerry Leonidas, the MA Typeface Design course director at the University of Reading. According to Carey Smith “We’ve been so inundated with new grotesques over the past 10-15 years that we’re really lacking expression . . . you’ve got a large audience looking for something that feels different. New grots are 99% boring.”
This trend might not only rise from the type designers, but from the users themselves. Coles states: “I believe that part of this shift in perception comes from many [graphic] designers finally seeing that typefaces can be the most flavorful part of their design. They can be the main element of a design that embodies personality and voice, not only merely delivering content, like the neutral typefaces of the recent past.”
Additionally, notes Kupferschmid, Lydian and its companions are being recently used in unexpected ways. Using them on websites gives them a trendy new context. Type designers are encouraged by those examples to try and draw contemporary typefaces in those styles.
“Some cultural and technological changes laid the ground for this trend,” says Leonidas. According to him, we are no longer fascinated by the International style, and the grotesques look poor and clunky on high resolution screens.
“So, if you say that grots are not fit for reading on screens anymore, but you don’t want to go back to humanistic sans serifs—which are a stylistic dead end—what do you do? Well, it’s obvious, and there are only two things you can do.”
The first possible path according to him is to “explore alternate modulations like horizontal stress sans serifs: look great, work fine, but too much of a deviation from the main trend to be accepted easily by the audience.”
The second path is to “explore detail work at the level of the stroke and sub-letter elements, like in and out strokes” and it is what can be identified as the trend happening now: flared stems, calligraphic joints.
Is this trend of flared and calligraphic sans serifs only a blip on the typographic timeline? Is it merely type designers wanting to vary their type libraries whilst experimenting? Or is it a narrow genre, returning to our lives as a mark of a larger movement in the area of sans serifs, towards more human and expressive faces?
We might not be around to assess the size of this trend, but it’s good to keep in mind Highsmith’s words: “It takes so long to design a typeface and the market is big and moves quickly [. . .] If you are trying to draw the typeface that is going to be popular, you are probably too late.”
Liron Lavi Turkenich, a type and graphic designer in Tel Aviv, studied type design at the University of Reading. She spoke at Typo Labs in Berlin this year about styles for Hebrew.