Fat chance

Fat faces are moving out of 19th-century textbooks and into the 21st century, taking a stand against the monotony of modern typography, says Simon Loxley. We also ask three designers if sans serifs have dominated for too long

I was walking among the displays of one of our major high street outlets a few weeks ago. I won’t name the shop, but suffice to say that both Twiggy and Myleene Klass have pocketed cheques from it recently. Something strange and rather disturbing was starting to happen.

As I tried to read the signs informing me of new lines and offers, my gaze kept sliding off the words before I could take in the message. I tried again and again, with no success. I left the store not only as ill-informed about its wares as when I had entered, but seriously alarmed. I consulted an optician, who told me that my eyesight was fine; then a brain specialist, who assured me that there was no sudden loss of grey cells. At the St Bride Library in London, I relayed my woes to a trusted friend. Fortunately she had seen similar cases. I was, it seemed, suffering from typographical ennui.

My fairy godmother was unperturbed. ‘The problem,’ she explained, ‘is that sans serif letterforms have been all-conquering during the past decade, because they are synonymous with sleek, stripped-down 21st-century style. Just as people no longer want Victorian antique furniture with feet the shape of eagle’s talons, preferring to kill each other getting through the door of a new branch of Ikea, no one has had much time for serifs. They started to look over-elaborate and slightly fusty, the kind of thing Stanley Morison got excited about. Morison was many things, but let’s face it, he was rarely, if ever, cool. And the on-screen suitability of sans serifs has only reinforced their dominance. Most of us spend a fair bit of time on the Internet these days. It’s the modern medium.’

She lined up her diagnosis of my poor condition. ‘But when something becomes over-familiar, it loses its power to attract, to startle, to engage our attention,’ she said. ‘And that is what has happened with you. After its latest visual overhaul, the shop you visited has adopted a slim sans serif which, while pleasant enough, is, to put it frankly, boring you so much that you cannot even bear to read it any longer.’

Leaving St Bride Library, I wandered the streets. The implications of what she had said were unsettling. Would I soon find myself unable to heed the graphics around me? Fine, if this just meant missing out on the latest BT call package, but what about a sign saying ‘Danger – sheer drop’?

‘Big Issue, sir?’ I stared dully at the cover of the help-the-homeless weekly, but suddenly felt life coursing back into my veins. The headlines were set in a chunky slab serif. Slab serifs? Those 19th-century display faces of Vincent Figgins – OK, everyone loves them, or the solid, let’s-get-back-to-Blighty, feel of Festival of Britain typography. But the last time I’d used Rockwell I’d rubbed it down from a sheet of Letraset, and hated it. And Stymie didn’t even bear thinking about.

Yet this example before me was of a modern cut, angular and vigorous. ‘Keep the change,’ I shouted to the bemused vendor. ‘Actually, have a fiver. No, thank you,’ I said, insisting. I raced off to see what else I could find.

Suddenly I was seeing fat faces and slab serifs everywhere. In the pages of The Guardian and The Independent; on the latest musical offerings from the Cold War Kids and Paolo Nutini and in music mag Mojo; not just fat serifs, but fat italics too. If this was obesity in modern Britain, give me more of it. I returned home, tearing off the packaging of my Next Directory to find another, and as I curled up with a little light reading after a stressful day, discovered that More magazine was using the wonderful semi-serif Lola for its headlines and pull-quotes.

I started to feel better. Could I detect the beginnings of a change in typographical trends? I hoped so. I liked these 21st-century fat faces, and furthermore, they were even helping me to appreciate sans serifs again, purely because I wasn’t seeing them absolutely everywhere. I vowed to have another crack at reading Jan Tschichold’s 1928 meisterwerk The New Typography, and even went back to that offending high street giant. Cured, refreshed, I was able to take advantage of a three-for-two summer special on Bermuda shorts, with a free picnic bag thrown in. l

Simon Loxley is the author of Type: the Secret History of Letters, and editor of the St Bride Library journal, Ultrabold

Helvetica … how inoffensive and democratic, a 1970s cure-all for everyone from corporate lions through to the serious art crowd. Nowadays, it feels a bit like a jaded institution that any designer with their own personality is trying to escape from. We’ve had brief flings with quirky serifs like Clarendon, and sighed at the romance of Bell, and now we’re flocking to juicy slab serifs like Aachen or ITC Graph, which we endorsed recently for the restaurant graphics at Brown Thomas.
Chris Poulton, Director, GP Studio

For me, it’s about supplementing rather than challenging. The thing about the best sans serifs is that they’re so workmanlike, by virtue of the different weights available, which readily provide point and counterpoint. So, we keep coming back to them, whereas typefaces that can only be used as ‘decorative’ headlines are apt to become faddish, and consequently boring. But some of the slabs also have a great range of weights – Glypha, for example, or Caecilia, which we use for our in-house materials – and these are the ones that are more likely to have staying power. Richard Smith, Director, Jannuzzi Smith

As graphic designers, our job is to create and manage perception; the styling of type is about the appropriateness of the look to the message in its context. In our hyper-technological retro-culture, typefaces rapidly come in and out of fashion. Currently, there are just too many variables around to make definitive statements, and the abundance of easily accessible alphabets can be confusing to younger designers who lack an understanding of the fundamentals. However, the necessity for versatile, good-looking stalwarts won’t really change, whether slab or sans serifs, and that’s why, for instance, Lubalin and Avant Garde have been popular again over the past few years.
Trevor Johnson, Creative director, Creative Lynx

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