Typographers shift to serif typefaces

After decades of sans serif ubiquity, the serifed font is making a spirited return. It’s a good example of how typographic trends shift with other elements of visual culture, finds Scott Billings

In 2007’s Helvetica, a feature film daringly organised around the sheer preponderance of one typeface, director Gary Hustwit pointed his lens at an urban landscape that has become dominated by the clean, open shapes of the eponymous sans serif. Among other things, the film showed how Helvetica’s clear, balanced form has become a typographic synonym for the spirit of the times, particularly for global business, confidently expressing modernity, approachability and reliability. As designer Neville Brody explains in the film, ‘Helvetica is a mark of membership; it’s a badge that says we’re part of modern society, we share the same ideals.’

Helvetica (the typeface) may be the standard-bearer, but the qualities of a number of sans serifs have been beloved by many designers (and their clients) for similar reasons/ they are seen as contemporary and clean, and are often boldly graphical. Geometric Futura and humanist Frutiger abound; Verdana and Arial are all over the Web.

‘Some design consultancies – which will remain nameless – are probably at fault for an entire generation of designers going through a phase of using Helvetica for everything – me included. Maybe what designers are starting to consider is the idea of creating something more bespoke and fit for a purpose,’ says Dwayne Lewars, director at design consultancy Blacklabs. He recently found inspiration in local architectural flourishes when designing letterforms for a poster celebrating the character of Blacklabs’ neighbourhood in London’s Soho. Perhaps tiring of the serif-free scenery, some designers are turning more to serif fonts and reframing what a contemporary

typeface might look like. ‘I think there is a tendency for designers to start working with serifs again. People eventually get a bit bored – we’ve had Frutiger and Helvetica and so on everywhere; it creates a barren visual landscape,’ says Bruno Maag, director of type design consultancy Dalton Maag.

Like all elements of visual culture, type is subject to the whims of fashion. Not month-to-month (or even season-to-season) fashion, granted, but a rider on the waves of alternating trends and styles nonetheless. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, serif typefaces such as Didot and Bodoni were perceived (and categorised) as ‘modern’, thanks to the high contrast between the thick and thin elements of their letters. Vogue magazine uses a version of Didot on its masthead, although to contemporary eyes this arguably looks more classic than modern.

In fact, it is in magazine design especially, that typographic elements can be seen denoting and reflecting what’s in fashion, says Freda Sack, director of Foundry Types and president of the International Society of Typographic Designers. ‘I saw serifs coming as a trend about 18 months ago. You’re starting to see it more in magazines and newspapers, particularly the use of slab serifs and modern serifs,’ she says.

Encapsulating this shift nicely is The Guardian’s 2005 repackaging in the Berliner format, which saw the iconic Helvetica headers removed in favour of slab serif font Guardian Egyptian, created especially by Paul Barnes and Christian Schwartz. Sack also cites fashion weekly Grazia as an example of serif fonts being used in a contemporary, bold way (incidentally, Grazia’s editorial design was trumped in the 2006 D&AD Awards by The Guardian’s). ‘People are using serifs now in a much bolder and in-your-face way, even though they are still traditional in some ways,’ she says.

Anticipating more demand for flexible, contemporary serif faces, both Dalton Maag and Foundry Types have just released new designs, Cordale and Foundry Origin, respectively. ‘Our Foundry Form typeface is a sans serif and serif that work together, but we noticed that people were starting to want the serif version more. We’ve also found that, over the past year, people have started asking for Foundry Wilson – which is more classical, like Baskerville – after a period in the wilderness. So Foundry Origin has really come out of a sixth sense that this is a coming thing,’ says Sack.

According to Maag, most contemporary serifs are softer and more humanist in style than their forebears, with slab serifs now being used much more frequently in display and advertising. Sack agrees, saying, ‘Most serif typefaces that are being designed or redesigned now need to be used in different environments and contexts than earlier serifs.’

In a rebranding exercise last year, building society Norwich Union began using the slab serif Clarendon in advertising created by ad agency AMV BBDO. But imminent integration with the Aviva insurance group will see a return to Frutiger, considered a more globally suitable corporate font. ‘People see everything that is geometric and squeezed to a grid as contemporary, and everything with curves as old-fashioned,’ says Maag. ‘But harmonious proportions in shapes are also dead contemporary, depending on how you treat them.’

It should also be said that Adrian Frutiger himself recently worked on a serif version of the classic sans serif Frutiger, released as Frutiger Serif by Linotype only six months ago – further evidence of the return of the serif, perhaps.

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  • Bob Talarczyk November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    (this email was originally sent to the creators of Helvetica (the film) October 6, 2008….Swiss Dots, London with no response)


    This email is in response to the seeing the film, Helvetica.

    To The Helvetica Film Team: I recently had the pleasure of watching your movie, Helvetica, and I thought that it was very good overall. However, never once was Geigy Pharmaceutical and its top graphic design team (many now in Helvetica Heaven like Fred Troller, Theo Welti, Marcus Lowe and many others.) mentioned in the role that Helvetica played in the worldwide corporate identity (Branding) that Geigy created using Helvetica. (In the beginning Geigy originally had an exclusive contractual agreement for the use of Helvetica to my knowledge) Geigy literally wrote the book on Corporate/Brand Identity through their in-house design group both in Basel and in the U.S. which many others followed throughout the world and in many cases still follow. We all have creative license to create history as we choose and that is very acceptable here in the colonies, but to have the Swiss designers who were interviewed in your film leave Geigy out is astonishing. All the designers interviewed missed a valuable part of Graphic Design History by leaving out the incredible Graphic Design movement at Geigy, Basel. There has been nothing like it since. Maybe you were aware of this or maybe it was edited out…. but unfortunately many young and growing designers have lost a valuable piece of inspiring graphic design/type history desperately needed in today’s industry. Geigy In-House Design ( design/copy standards continued through the merger of Ciba & Geigy ) played a very important role in the use of Helvetica globally in setting Swiss Design standards including the grid, flush left, copy setting and copy writing standards. Most of all, when design&copy= concept, the audience would actually be GRABBED by the combination of graphic+headline and would actually READ stunning copy in an era of perfection and creativity when design&copy ruled. In my opinion, you had the opportunity to preserve a fabulous movement in global graphic design&copy concept guided by Helvetica. Clean & Simple… when marketing wasn’t a department and design& copy had a godfather… or today when creativity and democracy = mediocrity.

    Thanks, Bob Talarczyk,

    Creative Director/CEO Darkhorse Design, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA

    Former Design Director, Producer Ciba-Geigy Pharmaceuticals,U.S.A.

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