Notes on typeface design from the first issue of Amalgam

This is the text of a conversation with Pouya Ahmadi, intended for the first issue of his journal Amalgam, which has now sold out. Our exchange spread over many weeks, which made sections fairly self-contained. The topics for each response are
typeface design as a critical tool
conceptual and brief-driven typeface design
• speculative typeface design
reading behaviours and language
emerging trends in typeface design
Each section is about five minutes’ worth of reading. 

Pouya AhmadiFirst time we met was at TypeCon 2015 in Denver right outside the conference room after my presentation. I remember we joked about the political climate and what it means to be a Middle Eastern today (sarcastically). Flash forward… February 2017—it seems as if many of our jokes have come true. It is shocking and perhaps awakening at the same time. Are we moving in the opposite direction of what we believed was the right direction? Perhaps this is the best time to start conversations around what it means to be a typographer, educator, and above all a critical thinker at this moment in time? As designers and educators, we usually try to detach ourselves from what goes on around us when it comes to design and design education, as if they both exist in some sort of vacuum where nothing can penetrate. More specifically type design tends to be much more disconnected from the world surrounding us. Can type design engage in conversations outside of its immediate surrounding and take on more social and political responsible roles? Are there any modes of type design that reflect critical thinking not only towards the tools of production but also the context for/under which they are produced?

GL: Yes, and no.

Yes: we need to have conversations about our roles and functions, and indeed these have been happening for a few decades, and increasing exponentially in the last one and a half or so.

No: I don’t recognise this picture of typographers and educators detached from their surroundings, and for type designers even more so. On the contrary, I’d argue that all good type designers are sensitive to their context and that of their output: clients and briefs, business models and market development, the impact of technologies of typemaking, typesetting, and distributing — as well as, crucially, the cultural tone in their markets. I’d even go as far as to say that no typeface designer could afford to stay in business for long if they were not in touch with these factors.

Having said that, note two points: that within the community of typeface designers and educators these conversations (and the deliberations that necessarily precede them) may unevenly distributed and transmitted, depending on the structure of the market in each location. And, secondly, this “location” can be described geographically at a first level, but the more you move towards dematerialised typefaces served via a network (as webfonts, or embedded resources that the user does not engage with directly) this location mutates into a more complex space that combines institutional environments, activity profiles, either in addition or even in negation of geographical aspects. For example, I may have more in common in my approach towards my teaching typeface design with peers in a mature research environment halfway round the world, than with people teaching just the practice as a task-based activity.

There are two ways to approach typeface design that help this interpretation: first, seeing the doing of typeface design as a research-informed, reflective practice. This means recognising that designer is part of an interaction with a cultural context that includes previous outputs from disparate fields, and that this interaction is far more productive when done consciously (because you can’t not interact with your cultural context, even if you are unaware). Secondly, to see the discipline of typeface design as a social enterprise. This means recognising that typeface design exists within a network of professional agents (e.g. clients, agents, marketers) that serve primarily commercial objectives, and may have cultural meaning beyond the objectives of each project. (For example, a single script typeface means very little, but a distinct trend in the supply of script typefaces has an impact not only in how products and services are packaged, but on the community of hand-lettering professionals who need to develop new markets. Conversely, for the next typeface designer working on a script typeface, the body of all recent projects redefines what is a minimum viable offering in the market for script fonts (cue the assumption that a script typeface will make use of alternative glyphs to give a better impression of a hand-rendered texture).

These issues are probably less visible in the North American market, which is fairly homogeneous in terms of work across scripts (yes these happen, but overwhelmingly as OEM or branding projects, not for consumption in editorial environments). But in the rest of the world working in multiple scripts is a much more commonplace situation, and there the cultural aspects I mentioned earlier are more prominent. Especially when typefaces need to cover typographic uses and texture ranges that do not have established models, the responsibility of the designer (and the reward of a project well done) are pronounced. In such environments you can see the very tangible impact that typefaces can have. The final result still depends on the intensity and manner of use of the newer style, so there is an element of uncertainty in this process — but that just means that for some projects the stakes are significantly cultural on top of their commercial standing. (For example, how does traditionalism and modernity get expressed typographically in an environment where the market for branded is in its infancy? Or what associations does the style of letters in state institutions create for the public?)

PA: The process of designing a typeface in many cases starts with a specific goal or a brief. There are many different levels of research that are involved in this process including historical, technical, and contextual investigations. Even the self-initiated most personal projects deal with some form of research with respect to those mentioned above. Perhaps one aspect that seems to be rather challenging is the conceptual one. Or, to put it differently, how important is it for a typeface to speak to a conceptual agenda? How do we deal with concepts when it comes to typeface design? Are type design concepts generally assumed to be concerned with form or can they refer to larger issues in our societies (I’m thinking Common Sans typeface as an example)?

GL: I am not sure that the conceptual agenda you are describing exists as a separate idea. Typefaces are developed as responses to something. Usually this is an explicit brief, when a client or a project are easy to identify. Often the typeface is a response to a somewhat nebulous brief, which is the overlap of a designer’s reading of a market need, and their formal explorations. An example of the first category is “a typeface that will help a bank look less like a system for redistributing wealth upwards”; an example of the second is “I wonder what a text typeface with horizontal stress will look like”. There is always this external reference, either to explicit document needs or a stylistic space. The important thing is that both are external to the typeface shapes themselves: these conditions do not encompass any specification for how the typeforms will look. In the case of an explicit brief, the document genres and modes of use will determine the design space of the new typeface. In the case of a speculative design, it is again an imagined document genre, and the designer’s interpretation of a design space. Pretty much any new typeface project with a commercial intention falls into these two categories.

The important thing is to realise that none of these motivations require an abstract concept for their fulfilment. That is not the same as saying that none will be ascribed to a new typeface — on the contrary, abstract notions (such as novelty, originality, modernity, traditionalism) are staples of the narratives publishers use to draw attention to their offerings. In most cases these descriptions are fairly superficial and generic, and as such difficult to deny, or narrow down. Indeed, outside the critical space of education and design critique, these descriptions are accepted without much questioning: once a statement about an object of design is made, it is too much effort to unpick. The statements function to serve up associations with other typefaces, or specific uses in documents, or a connection with ideas.

For example, what do we mean by describing a new typeface as “ground-breaking”? This just means that there might not be many like it in circulation, or that we want to draw attention to one aspect of the design that is notable (and in this case less familiar). In that sense, Verdana was groundbreaking at the time of its launch, since there were only very few typefaces designed for specific rendering environments at the time — even though the individual shapes have nothing particularly original: it was the manner of responding to a brief that was worth noting. On the other hand, Fenland could be described as “ground-breaking” for its treatment of modulation, but that was just one aspect of the design; the overall arrangement of strokes and counters is conventional and predictable in the extreme (which, a propos, is why the typeface can function well).

So, my point is this: the more abstract a concept is, the more it is itself a separate product of the designer or publisher. It exists in a parallel cultural space as the typeface, with a degree of overlap, but can be discussed independently: it offers insights into how designers see their work and themselves, and how the typeface market expresses new offerings for specific audiences (clients, students, critics, other typeface designers, judges of competitions, and so on). And once you Iook at several of these, you can also get insights into how personal and corporate narratives are being constructed, maintained, and modified as the market changes. (For example, how a designer might move from a narrative of “originality” to one of “expertise” over a couple of decades in their career.)

There is one area where abstract concepts are more visible, and that is education. In these environments, students need to develop their own briefs (so the corrective influence of the client or a competent reading of the market might not exist). Students may also feel pressure to give their typefaces a strong formal identity, in order to attract attention and compete in the market of the new entrants. This may mean that a typeface may be successful in the indirect brief of “draw attention to this graduate”, but come up short in the brief of “a typeface that works well for magazine sites on phone screens”. This confusion has been enabled by digital technology, where a student project can be potentially indistinguishable technically from a commercial offering — an impossible condition in pre-DTP environments.

Lastly, you mention the matter of wider social issues. I hope I’ve made clear that there is nothing that can connect a specific set of shapes to any idea objectively: any association is a cultural convention, entirely dependant on the context of the maker and the audience, and therefore temporary by definition. So, a collection of typefaces, for example, inspired by a natural disaster, have nothing “natural-disasterly” about them, other than the narrative that surrounds them. The statement “we made this typeface as a response to XYZ event” invests the typeface with the ideas the maker and audience share about that event, and elicits the emotions that correspond to our response to that event. But package the same typeface at a later time as a response to another event, and a different set of cultural responses will be generated.

If that sounds a bit dry, it is not. If there was a one-to-one relationship between shapes and abstract notions, we could make a map of these, and typeface design would occupy a design space exactly as large as our vocabulary of ideas — no more, no less. But typeface design is fascinating exactly because the shapes themselves carry no direct association with anything: you need to engage with the cultural context at specific locations and times to interpret the typeface. And, following that, each typeface continues to have a living identity that mutates in response to the changing context. Typography is a never-ending journey of learning.

PAYou pointed out several interesting issues which I am concerned about myself both as a practitioner and educator/researcher—speculative type design being one of them. How can we best describe speculative type design? We are in the time where speculative/critical design is thriving and yet the question remains, what does that mean for the field of type design. If all type design is concerned with is form, how does critical design could be even discussed in the context of type design? Or is that perhaps a false assumption that typefaces can be critical?

GL: Your question raises four separate issues: firstly, the speculative nature of typeface design; secondly, whether typeface design practice embodies a critical element, and how that may be discussed; third, whether ”speculative“ and “critical” overlap (your use of the slash suggests you think so); and, fourth, the relationship of form to critical positions in typeface design. I’ll try to address each as clearly as I can, and again I use “document” in the widest possible sense — so, a browser engineer is as much a document-maker as an editorial designer for a magazine, as a graphic designer making a flyer.

In previous responses I emphasised the positioning of typeface design in a market of documents. Typeface designers operate through both supply and demand perspectives: they provide typefaces to meet the needs of document makers (the supply side) and try to spurn desire in document makers to use a new typeface (the demand side). Very crudely, you could see the more typographic and text-orientated applications as serving an existing and gradually evolving demand, whereas publishing display typefaces aims to spurn demand for a new style based on novelty and originality — creating new demand, either by displacing existing typefaces or inspiring new uses. The substantial market for branding typefaces with global coverage is a good example of the first case; the growth of script typefaces that displace lettering practice of the second.

Both perspectives have an element of speculation, but clearly the second perspective much more so. Winning banding projects relies heavily on professional networks and the embodiment of trust in a foundry to do a job well and on time: marketing mechanisms that ultimately have little to do with the specific form. On the other hand, the retail market emphasises the design of the typeface and its imagined uses, in a more competitive environment. In retail there is also an element of trust and risk control, but the lower investment and often the shorter shelf life of a typeface is an important factor. (An interesting hybridisation of this situation happens in webfont subscription services where document makers licence access to a whole library: there the subscription is achieved on principles of trust and risk control mostly separated from specific forms (“I’ll get a Typekit subscription, they’re bound to have something that works for me”) and in extreme competition on the basis of forms within the individual subscription, where the price filter has been eliminated.

Where is the critical typeface design in this? To be honest, I don’t think it exists. There are typeface design projects that have critical elements, by both professionals and students, but these either operate outside the market (student work) or then compete for commercial success quite independently of the critical motivations of the designer (in the case of professionals publishing such typefaces). A very good example is Alice Savoie’ Capucine, a typeface family that started as an MATD project in 2006 and was published by Process Type Foundry in 2010). The letterforms in Capucine are based on “impossible brushstrokes”, but the family was developed for listings magazines. From a critical aspect, the project is an investigation into the perceptions of style, the limits of genre, and a subversion of expectations for functional typographic environments. So, top marks for critical intention and practice. But is this of any interest to designers considering the typeface for their next project? Arguably this is not only irrelevant, it is also a distraction from the objective of doing justice to the project they’re working on.

A very good reality check for this is the discontinuity between typeface designers’ intentions (where “design as critique” is located, if it exists at all) and how document makers chose and use typefaces. Often the intended use has no relationship to the use that makes a typeface successful, and many times a typeface becomes successful because it is used against its intended use (for example a style for small text sizes used for display settings). In other words, the typeface was a good answer to a question the typeface designer was not asking at all. The designer’s speculation was misplaced, but the bet paid off in another market.

I think that we’ve answered already the third point about the overlap of ”speculative“ and “critical”: typeface design always contains an element of speculation, which varies depending on the project and the area of use it addresses. And, while it is possible for a typeface to be motivated by a critique on intention, process, or use, this is either restricted to environments like education where this is relevant, or becomes disconnected from the reception and performance of the typeface in the market.

The fourth point was about the relationship of form and critique in typeface design. At the risk of stating the obvious, since the output of the typeface design process is perceived through the rendered font, form is the essential concern of the discipline, and a denominator for any discussion. And we’ve established that form-making can be driven by straightforward considerations that have little to do with a critical engagement, like meeting a brief, or filling a perceived gap in the market. We can also extend this rationale: meeting these objectives may well require substantial research by the designers, in any number of areas: from script-specific matters, to technical solutions for required behaviours, to innovating in typeface design to respond to new reading environments. (Respective examples: what is the character set of ABC script for typography of XYZ requirements? What substitution, positioning, or other behaviours need to be implemented for the composed text to be acceptable to the relevant readers? And, what changes need to happen to existing typographic solutions to fit them on new devices?)

Research in writing, type-making and typesetting, and the history of typographic developments in any community will support and influence decisions about form across these levels of letterform shapes, combinations, and behaviour. However, this kind of research, although fundamental to good design and essential for many kinds of projects, does not imply or assume a critical approach to typeface design. Research may provide information, give guidance, and establish criteria for evaluation: these functions may well be used to ensure competence, but have little to do with originality or innovation. On the other hand, a critical approach would focus on questioning the design space defined by a typeface, and its role within its context. Then probably make use of research to inform successive actions, but always from the perspective of reflective innovation.

This last statement encapsulates the space where a critical approach to typeface design can exist, and is most appropriate: in typefaces that reposition practice within the discipline in a way that expands the typographic space for documents, enables new reading behaviours, and allows for typefaces to reflect culture as a society changes. And although it is possible for such effects to be accommodated by a shallow design process, the job is done better when we acknowledge the critical depth afforded by typeface design.

PA: You mentioned a very interesting point that I am much concerned about and that is the ability of typefaces to generate new reading behaviors and their relation to language at large. You mentioned (outside of our conversation) that today typography has been recognized (even by linguists) to be much wider than a straightforward transcription of language. I would like to ask you whether you could provide us with some examples where typefaces/typography enable new reading behaviors? Secondly, I would like to go a step even further and ask you whether you think there could be ways in which typography and more specifically type design could influence the structure of language? Or is this perhaps a false assumption and an impossible scenario?

GL: There are four observations that help us answer how typography enables new reading behaviours. (For brevity I will use “typography” to mean “typography and typeface design”, since typeface design is an contributing element to typography, and meaningless outside of it, if we are concerned with behaviours.) These perspectives are partially overlapping and largely interdependent, but are useful to separate because they allow us to use different viewpoints into typography.

The first observation is the most obvious one, and concerns behaviours that are enabled through new technology, and most obviously new devices. We’ve had over a quarter century of texts on screens of increasing resolution and range of sizes, from a simple webpage in the 1990s to the vast space described between a smartphone and a set of Bloomberg terminals, for example. The nature of a document has been drastically redefined away from historical ideas of permanence and authorship (to include documents that are created by AI only at the point of realisation, like an Amazon page). At the same time, our idea of the specific instantiations (the states that we can perceive a document in) have been exploded: we’ve gone from ideas of multiplicity that might normally consider photocopying and retyping, to documents that refresh themselves with data independently of the user (like a news feed) or in response to the user (any transactional document like an online form, for example). This means that our relationship with the information contained in a document and our use of it changes in response to these processes, and essentially separates it from any specific instance of the document — and therefore the typography of any specific instance. (This has fascinating implications for discourse in typography, some of which have been explored superbly by Matthew Lickiss, whose recent PhD on the subject I had the pleasure to co-supervise.)

In my comments above I do not refer only to screen-based documents: digital printing has expanded our notions of what constitutes a printed document. Minimal print runs have enabled access to niche audiences, redefining what is a community of readers; digital production and streamlined distribution have allowed hardcopy for use cases that traditionally would be impossible to accommodate; and content may be immutable once printed, but can vary from copy to copy in response to any number of parameters.

The second observation is also related to technology, albeit on the software side. HyperText models and applications have been around for many decades, with Apple’s HyperCard from the late 1980s a useful reference point for this discussion — and neatly timed to anticipate the transformational developments of the 1990s. For our purposes, the important shift is from self-contained volumes with linear structures and fairly stable cross-referencing mechanisms to open-ended documents with network-based structures. This shift precipitated a further redefinition of what is a document, beyond that due to the modes of rendering described above. In other words, recent technological changes have redefined the physical manifestation of documents, have complicated the semantic structures within them, and expanded the way the dimension of time applies to documents to hitherto unimaginable degree. Regardless, many of the documents that are transformed by these processes maintain connections to categories of documents that we have very long experience of. (For example, a wiki may be unthinkable in a pre-digital environment, but the structure of a single Wikipedia article is very similar to an entry from a traditional reference text.)

This point relates to my third observation: we are in a period of rapid development of entirely new document types, where no historical precedent can suggest typographic solutions. The examples are numerous and range from the mundane to the speculative: real-time chat environments, notifications, inline references and notes, and so on, all the way to augmented reality applications which are just beginning to be explored. In many cases the lack of precedent enables these kinds of documents to explore new interaction modes, and continue this re-definition of what is a document, and therefore the interaction modes around it. We are already talking about instances (or instantiations) of documents, and are gradually learning to see the definition of a document as inseparable from its state — recognising, in other words, that a document is inherently dynamic regarding its content and behaviour. This places traditional print documents at one end of a spectrum, but even in print editions the extreme is occupied only by things that were made once: there is considerable scholarship on documents across different instantiations, from manuscripts to multiple print editions for changing audiences. So, even in print, the notion of a document with a single state is an exception.

This expansion of what is a document does not only happen at the level of the network of documents (how things connect into larger sets of documents) and the level of linear narratives (what happens in real-time reading). My fourth observation regards what happens at the level of the line, with the expansion of what signs are acceptable (or desirable) within a text. The most obvious example of this are emoji, which are currently migrating from informal and ephemeral uses by younger demographics to news and market-related contexts for the middle generations of the global demographic pyramid: people who did not have significant interaction with emoji during their formative years. We can reasonably expect symbolic languages to expand, driven by the need to deal with repeated actions or objects in constrained displays (so, symbols standing in mostly for some verbs and nouns). Such developments are most likely to happen in specific environments, where the range of expressions are already established.

So, innovation happens in parallel and at different levels, where adoption is easier for the users. For example, projected directions already use a vocabulary of arrows in different scales to indicate a sequence of movements, rather than spell out “left, then right, then right again”. Currently this may appear on a separate screen in a car, and in some cases on projections on the windscreen, but we can expect it to appear in glasses operating in an AR mode. In this case, the friction of adoption is lowered by keeping constants across the modes of interaction (“seemingly the same symbols on the satnav, and the HUD, a wins and your AR-glasses” — the critical transition happened years ago, when the user was weaned off a static map onto a dynamic sequence of instructions). But the projection of directions on windscreen or your glasses is still a document of some sort, and that reading scenario something that did not exit a few years ago.

These four perspectives outline how typography interacts with technology, how documents evolve, and how visual language is enriched on the narrative level: the things we read and say. Our typographic language is constantly in flux, responding to the context of its application and the motivations of content-makers and readers. This process is, unsurprisingly, a feedback loop, so we can expect that successful innovations (like emoji) gradually get embedded in mainstream communication models. In this respect the degree of permanence and formality of a new mode of communication is critical for the strength of the feedback loop. Additionally, there may be delays, or filters that kill something off, which primarily relate to the expectations of each community of readers. these are countered by the strength of desire to make use of a new communication channel or container for meaning. So, friction from habit and convention on one side, and the desire to meet new needs (or improve on existing ones) on the other.

Again emoji and related symbolic representations offer good guidance: they are first adopted by a demographic with low friction from convention, not least because the symbols were used to convey relatively novel messages in channels with little precedent. (It is worth noting in this respect that the generation first experiencing Unicode-compliant emoji will have had no active memory of emoticons in AOL, for example, so can appropriate emoji as a “new thing” that excludes older demographics.) Place this development in a context where AR is gradually becoming more accepted, then embedded, in our interactions, and you can see how a melding of the two strands is very likely. Will we think of “emoji-rich communication in an AR environment” as a new form of language? I don’t think so, because we will be gradually expanding our understanding of the richness of visual communication to include these modes.

As an aside, we may be used to seeing an annual accession into reference dictionaries of verbal expressions that migrate from niche use into the mainstream. But we have not seen yet how reference works may integrate symbolic language into their corpuses, or even make use of them in their discourse. We know that, at some point, this will need to happen, we just don’t know yet when and how — but we can expect the rate of innovation in the use of a core set of emojis, for example, to be formalised within a few years, and therefore be required to be documented and referenced in standard reference works. At that time we should see a differentiation between “core” emoji shared by the wider section of a community, and increasingly esoteric spin-offs that will function to identify communities that need to differentiate.

PAThere is so much concern about the future (both immediate and distant), and how technology will redefine the ever-changing contexts within which we operate. In the meantime what is happening (stylistically speaking) is rather interesting. It appears as if there are some very contradicting efforts happening at the same time. There is Futuretro that celebrates the concepts of future in the past. There are various forms of Modernist- and Post-Modernist-inspired typography, design, etc. Though, none of them seem like a major movement. In your speech at ESAD Amiens titled “Helvetica Is Dead” you spoke of a possible end of an era for those who produce or consume Neo-Grotesque-inspired typefaces, mainly Helvetica (which you mentioned have major optical flaws in their design), and start of a new era. How would you best characterize these new emerging currents?

GL: A correction: I did not foretell an end to anyone! (“those who produce”), but a gradual decline in the appeal of the neo-grot genre as it is defined by Helvetica. Like most cultural declines, this will be gentle, almost imperceptible in its early phases, but eventually will accelerate. It is my view that these early phases are already underway.
There are several relevant moments:

• the dilution of the International Style as a coherent model for design in education;
• the generational change of educators to a demographic that formed key ideas in the early digital period
• the maturing and mainstreaming of postmodernism into a visually rich and accommodating eclecticism;
• the explosion of the typographic environments that typefaces need to service, both in ”things that qualify as documents” and the complexities imposed by a global, often multiscript typography;
• the saturation of the typeface design market with neo-grot variants;
• the gradual (and overdue) realisation that uniform interpolation across extreme weights (and widths) is typographically lazy design;
• the related realisation that this splurge of interpolated variants does not distinguish typeface design quality, only technical perseverance.

To these we need to add two key factors: first, the growth in the number of typeface designers, in combination with a significant lowering of the business risk for publishing a new typeface family, increases the volatility of the market. This means that there is a pressure on newer designers to explore styles in search of market distinctiveness. Second, there is a deepening recognition that the neo-grot style is a terrible model for non-Latin scripts, and places significant shortcomings on the resulting designs.
These factors generate a motivation for typeface designers to innovate in order to compete, as well as to address the more challenging typographic environments of a global audience reading mostly from screens. Earlier I said that there is pressure on newer designers to innovate. Even so, it is the more experienced typeface designers that tend to innovate meaningfully, because they tend to have their ear on the ground, and understand the market better; they also have a cache that allows then to make riskier propositions to clients, whereas less-experienced designers may offer more conservative interpretations of briefs. This is overall a fascinating characteristic of typeface design: that innovations most likely come from mature designers, not novices. This may be counter-intuitive for some, but the evidence is overwhelming.

The examples I showed at Amiens, like Ludwig Übele’s Aspen, Laura Meseguer’s Multi, and Lucas Sharp’s homonymous Grotesk (which admittedly goes a bit silly with all the variants) are not rare at all. It is easy to find offerings by pretty much any major foundry, from concepts that try to innovate while keeping as close to the genre as possible, to some quite quirky offerings. Hoefler’s Ringside, Production Type’s Boreal and Gemelli, Frere-Jones’ Mallory, Commercial Type’s Graphik and Marr Sans, Type-Together’s Iro Sans and Ebony, and of course Darden Studio’s Halyard are easy to mention from the very recent years. Look further back and there are many typefaces that presaged this shift (Kris Sowersby’s National, Eric Olson’s Seravek, Frantisek Storm’s Trivia Sans, and others…). Such typefaces blend themes from traditional grot letterform structures and elements of neo-grot patterns, essentially adding some flexibility and personality (the grot bit) in a framework that allows consistency across wide families (the neo-grot bit).

This approach presents a challenge: the neo-grot genre over-emphasises modularity and counter uniformity, in a range of weights and widths that is relatively narrow. Extend a family to the extremes of weights and widths that are common today, and you’re left with a style that has a boring lack of identity baked in. Not good for typographic applications outside a small range of weights/widths/optical sizes, and of course bad for foundries that need to publish distinctive typefaces. This is why the examples above are worth looking at: they are all from notable designers, who can tackle the challenge of bringing some identity to a low-modulation typeface that has to present uniformity of style across many weights. The better examples spin off optical sizes into separate groups of fonts, which is a solution that prioritises the conditions of typographic use, rather than surface uniformity. (I am discussing weight and optical size similarly, because there is a very clear connection between the two: the further away from a conventional “regular” in either weight direction, the more likely it is that there will only be a few letters of words set in that style, at larger sizes.)

The requirement to distinguish a typographically functional typeface is pronounced when you consider the efforts that have been put into producing freely-accessible typefaces like Noto Sans, Open Sans, and Source Sans. These families (and their modulated counterparts) establish a reasonably high base level of competence, that any commercial offerings must supersede. To make this point clear: at the time that Helvetica became a de facto branding typeface, most of the documents that people read were in highly-modulated typefaces with serifs. So, the contrast in style was overwhelming. On the other hand, nowadays these OEM sans typefaces flood every document with a texture similar to a neo-grot, and our serif typefaces tend to have lower modulation (see all the “slab with personality” typefaces of the last fifteen years, from FF Tisa onwards). Given these textures, thee is more pressure for new sans typefaces to present distinctive textures.

To close: a trend is by definition gradual, and overlapping with others. Changes take time, and happen in parallel, with different communities often operating at completely different phases. Taking snapshots of activity at any one time tells us nothing of use; looking at gradual shifts over a number of years reveals how our practice is changing.