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.