Domaine Sans design information

Domaine was an exploration into the unpopular Latin typeface genre; Domaine Sans delves into another unpopular genre: sans serifs with contrast.

1,029 words by Kris Sowersby

Domaine was an exploration into the unpopular Latin typeface genre; Domaine Sans delves into another unpopular genre: sans serifs with contrast.

Domaine Text Light, sans serifs.

Like most type designers, I experiment with my typefaces by adding or subtracting serifs. Up until now this hasn’t been very fruitful—Feijoa Sans? National Slab?—however, Domaine Sans felt like it had promise from the start.

Breite Grotesk, Bauerschen Giesserei specimen, 1909.

The first quick version was literally Domaine Text Light with the serifs sliced off. Though it was crude, it reminded me of the smaller sizes of Breite Grotesk. I came across Breite Grotesk during the development of Founders Grotesk, and it stuck in my mind as a unique, but underexplored, grotesk subgenre. The simple addition of contrast makes it interesting and lively.

The first drawing of Optima by Hermann Zapf. Reproduced in “About Alphabets”, 1970.

Sans-serif typefaces with contrast are not very common these days. I suspect the spectre of Optima inhibits their use. I think Optima is a wonderful typeface—it’s the first cogent typeface with contrast, in my opinion—but anecdotal evidence suggests that amongst graphic designers it’s still quite divisive.

Eliza in use for the Elizabeth Horne logotype, 2003.

My first typeface was an Art Deco–inspired style: Eliza. It worked well enough as a logotype, but I failed to turn it into a convincing typeface family. I created Eliza for my mother’s retail fashion store as my final student project. The store is in my home province, Hawkes Bay, which was ravaged by an earthquake in 1931. After the earthquake, the two main cities, particularly Napier, were rebuilt in the style of the time: Art Deco. I grew up surrounded by this high-contrast lettering; I saw it as normal, and it’s fascinated me ever since.

A typical, clunky high-contrast sans: Le Polyphème from “Spécimen Général”, Deberny & Peignot, Paris, 1926.

The ’20s and ’30s saw a few notable Art Deco–ish typefaces released: Broadway, Pascal, Peignot, World Gothic, Chambord, Globe Gothic and Britannic. Though successful in its time and supposedly quite elegant, this style hasn’t translated very well into typeface design—many instances are ironically unresolved and clunky, like Le Polyphème and Le Cyclopéen.

Britannic from the Stephenson Blake specimen, 1924.

Britannic is a little different. It doesn’t feel like an Art Deco wannabe. It has clear grotesque roots, like a weird, upwardly mobile relative of the Stephenson Blake Grotesques; it is charming and surprisingly stable across a range of sizes.

A selection of high-contrast Cs illustrating a variety of terminals.

Britannic also illustrates a nice way to deal with terminals on a high-contrast sans. With low-contrast styles, like Akzidenz Grotesk, the terminals take care of themselves—chop it off and you’re done. For high-contrast styles there are, broadly, two solutions: flare out like Britannic and Optima, or taper to a hairline like Domaine Sans.

The skeleton line from Leach’s “Lettering for Advertising”, 1956.

With Domaine Sans I kept Majoor’s one form principle in mind, and imagined a heart line or skeleton running through Domaine. It’s a similar technique used by mid-twentieth-century lettering artists like Mortimer Leach to pencil a “run-through”. The hairline solution more or less suggested itself in Domaine Sans; the terminals curve out gracefully, following the line established by Domaine’s terminals.

Butterfly from Weber, reproduced in “The Encyclopaedia of Typefaces”, 1974.

I’ve been intrigued by Butterfly since the moment I saw it The Encyclopaedia of Typefaces¹ a decade ago. I’ve only seen it as a reproduction, but the elegance and simplicity—particularly the lowercase—is graceful and clean. Butterfly is technically listed under Script Types in the Encyclopaedia, even though the strokes don’t join. It was an ideal starting point for the Domaine Sans italics.

A couple of pages from Bodoni’s “Manuale Tipografico”, 1818.

I like the idea of combining a roman with a script, as opposed to the traditional pairing of a roman with an italic. It provides fertile ground for exploration. I suspect this is an approach Bodoni adopted with some of the wonderful italics and scripts in his Manuale Tipografico.

Domaine Sans Display Italic alternate swash capitals.

Thinking about the Domaine Sans italics as more of a script typeface lead to the swash caps. This was very new territory for me—designing complementary alternate swash capitals for every uppercase letter, across all weights, was quite a challenge. Even so, it was worth it. A single initial swash cap can really change the flavour of a word.

Spread from the “New York Magazine” Spring Fashion issue, 2014.

As I was finalising the typeface, New York Magazine ran a Spring Fashion issue with a beta version of Domaine Sans Display. I was surprised and delighted by the way they used it: big, elegant and graphic. When I saw the large sizes, however, I immediately realised that there needed to be a finer version with razor-thin hairlines.

Domaine Sans Display (left) compared to Domaine Sans Fine (right).

The release was put on hold while Aussie type extraordinaire Dave Foster drew a super-sharp Fine version. The hairlines are extremely thin², referencing such work as Didot’s grand romans and Bickham’s sophisticated script work. Fair warning: Domaine Sans Fine is only really useable above 60pt!

Domaine Sans follows the similar structural logic as Domaine. Both the Domaine Sans Display and Fine have exuberant detail and high contrast; whereas Domaine Sans Text is more robust and pragmatic for extended text-setting. The Display and Fine Italic styles have swash caps alternates for all uppercase letters.


1. The Encyclopaedia of Typefaces, by Jaspert, Berry & Johnson, is essential for any budding typeface designer. It is my first port of call for almost any new typeface job. It’s usually reasonably priced and readily available. I have the fourth edition.

2. For the trainspotters: 4 units on a 1000 UPM grid. The diagonals were a nightmare…

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