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AscenderFonts Designer's Toolbox

Designer's Toolbox - March 2009

Typographic insights from Steve Matteson

This month we continue sorting through our sans serif tools. We covered the warped geometry of geometric sans serifs last month and found that letters constructed to optically look like circles aren’t circles at all. This same kind of mechanical refinement can be found in this month’s category – the Grotesques.

The earliest known sans serif (by William Caslon in 1816) was an awkward and uneven block letter design but in the next 70 years the genre exploded into an important staple for every printer. Typefaces with attributes of the sans serifs created in the late 1800’s are called Grotesques – arguably this name came from the shock of having no serifs. Many considered them ugly.

Over time these new sans serif type families were carefully planned out to offer a large range of weights and widths. Precisely drawn to look uniform and nuetral they were a reflection of the industrial revolution’s precision manufacturing.

Since the 1800’s the Grotesque sans serif designs became more refined and rational. From Monotype Grotesque to News Gothic to the ubiquitous Helvetica and Arial, quirky charm gave way to cold industrial mechanics. Types from within this genre can either be somewhat warm and evocative or invisible and cool.

The most important point to consider when choosing a Grotesque sans for a project or client is just how refined you want the appearance to be. The illustrations on the next page compare words set in different Grotesque types. Notice how the subtle message in the choice of type can complement the word.

Any typeface will become more organic with each irregularity and nuance. typefaces that are more regulated or refined appear more mechanical. By taking a close look at the typeface, and the words you are trying to communicate, one can unify the two and create more effective designs.

Finally, it should be noted that, like the Geometric sans serifs discussed last month, the Grotesque sans serifs tend to be very closed up in appearance. Terminal endings on a, e, g, and s are very long and tend to cause the interior of letters to fill in. Some people complain of difficulty distinguishing the numbers 3 and 8 or 5 and 6 in Grotesque types like Helvetica (top left) or Monotype Grotesque (bottom left). This type of issue becomes prevalent in information tables, small point size text and especially information displayed on computer and device screens.

If legibility is a chief concern, extra leading and larger point sizes will aid the reader. For critical information it might be best to turn to the sans serif genre discussed in our next installment – contemporary humanist.

So tune in next month and we’ll discuss legibility, 9th Century Carolingian manuscripts and the typefaces most popular for building the user interfaces we use every day.

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