Fonts – A Brief History of Univers

26th September 2016

What is a font?

A font is a set of letters, numbers and other characters in a particular style and shape. These can then be used for both printing and display purposes. Fonts predate the invention of the computer by quite a long time, and historically, fonts of different sizes were regarded as separate entities. This group of similar fonts is then collectively known as a typeface, though the two terms have become interchangeable over time.

When producing documents for print and direct mail it’s imperative that an appropriate typeface is used and that this matches or compliments accompanying artwork that will be used.

More importantly it is essential that the text is easily readable, either by a human being or an automatic sorting machine. Direct mail bureaus have extensive libraries of fonts that can be used on a large variety of different print jobs and applications.

Serif-Type Fonts

The origin of fonts goes back quite a long way to the invention of the printing press in the 15th Century. This is arguably one of the greatest innovations of modern times as it allowed scientific ideas to be published quickly and distributed throughout the learning centres of Europe.

One of the earliest fonts to achieve widespread recognition was Garamond, named after the French typeface designer, Claude Garamond (1490-1561). Garamond is still widely used today and is renowned for its clarity and legibility, hence it is used in a number of children’s books such as Harry Potter.

Another font which is contemporary with Garamond is Bembo, a product of the Italian Renaissance. Collectively these are now known as Serif fonts, which refers to the short lines attached to the ends of stokes and curves.

Here is sample of various characters:

As time progressed, printing technologies evolved and so did the fonts, hence, Garamond and Bembo are sometimes referred to as old-style.

The popular Times New Roman font was actually brought out very recently in 1931 for The Times newspaper; it was the subject of some controversy recently when it was used on a very old renovated sailing ship. This is often termed a transitional font as it still preserves some of the characteristics of the older traditional serif fonts, whilst conveying a slight modern and less elaborate appearance:

There are two other types of serif font, the “modern” sans-serif fonts are also referred to as Didone fonts which were developed in the late 18th century Europe, a product of the age of the enlightenment.

Then there are the slab-serif fonts which hint at the arrival of the sans-serif typeface. A particular Modern/Didone type font that is still popular today is Bodoni, named after its Italian designer Giambattista Bodoni (1740-1813). Here, the line variations and serifs are applied more symmetrically:

Rockwell is a good example of a slab-serif font, with its nearly constant thickness of lines:

Sans-Serif Type Fonts

When we talk about modern fonts, we tend to think of the sans-serif typeface, but this has also had a complex history and development. The earliest of these fonts to be used in large-scale print production were introduced in the late 19th Century, however it is highly likely that they were used on a smaller scale before that time.

One of these was Akzidenz Grotesk, which was released by the Berthold Type Foundry of Berlin in 1896. Similarly in America, the News-Gothic typeface was introduced by Morris Fuller Benton in 1908:

This still has “old-fashioned” characteristics such as the traditional letter-g. Akzidenz Grotesk and News Gothic are collectively known as Grotesque (or traditional) type fonts. Following on from this are the Neo-grotesque, Transitional, or Realist fonts with our old friends Helvetica and Arial:

The simplification of this typeface design continued throughout the 20th Century but produced a bit of a backlash, with some people claiming that Helvetica looked “boring and bland”. This resulted in two further font-types: Humanist and Geometric.

Humanist fonts tend to employ line thickness variations and are more artistic in nature. One of the first humanist designs was Johnston (1916), named after Edward Johnston and used on the London Underground. This was followed a decade later by Gill Sans designed by the extremely controversial figure of Eric Gill (1880 – 1940):

One of its first applications was for the LNER railway company and hence it is principally associated with the launch of the Flying Scotsman (both the famous locomotive and the flagship train service – arguably the original HS1).

Geometric fonts were introduced in Germany in the 1920s. The not inappropriately titled Futura designed by Paul Renner (1878-1956) seems to be one of the most popular:

Not dissimilar to this is Avante Garde which as its name suggests was designed for the trendy late sixties Avante Garde magazine. The letter designs are based on geometric shapes such as circles and triangles, which seem to produce a very modern appearance.

Italic and Handwriting Fonts

Most people have the perception that italic fonts are where the standard trigonometric shear transformation function has been applied to the letters. This gives the letters a slanted appearance:

This has not always been the case, with the italic version of Garamond being quite different from its standard version.

Some of the characters have an almost handwritten manifestation, particularly the letters Q and f. This principle was also applied by the Humanist-Sans-Serif designers, so we have Gill Sans:

It is easy to see that handwriting fonts are the next logical step from this, in an effort to make marketing information look more personal. However, care needs to be taken as some of these fonts have a very elaborate appearance and the letters can be misinterpreted.

The FSME Font

As we once again proclaim the indomitable success at the Paralympics with our all conquering TeamGB athletes it is worth mentioning a special case. The FS Me typeface was designed in 2008 by Jason Smith from the London based design studio Fontsmith. This was carried out in conjunction with the charity Mencap and was specifically designed for those with learning difficulties:

Finally, The Creation Of Univers

Univers was designed by Adrian Frutiger in 1954.

It is a good point on which to end this survey. Adrian Frutiger and his other associates in the Swiss printing industry had a considerable influence on 20th Century typeface design. He created a considerable plethora of different fonts of varying designs. The most famous of these is his namesake Frutiger – a design so influential that it has prompted accusations of plagiarism.

Adrian Frutiger died recently in 2015, his life was not without tragedy and as a result he created a mental health foundation to help young people. Long may his legacy continue.