Founders Grotesk design information

Founders Grotesk is not a strict revival. Instead it resolves the best details from last centuries grotesks into a large family designed for modern typography.

1,125 words by Kris Sowersby

The impetus for Founders Grotesk originally came from Duncan Forbes of The International Office. We had often discussed the nature and usefulness of the classic grotesks, and the possibility of creating a new one. After trawling through my 1912 Miller & Richard specimen, he became enamoured with their series of Grotesques, particularly their capital letters.

Grotesque No.7, Miller & Richard (1912).

Founders Grotesk Light.

Grotesque No.5, Miller & Richard (1912).

Founders Grotesk Medium

Grotesque No.3, Miller & Richard (1912).

Founders Grotesk Semibold.

Grotesque No.4, Miller & Richard (1912).

Founders Grotesk Semibold.

He noted the appealing rudimentary geometry, the serpentine S, and the narrow but welcome aperture of the C and G. Even though I was aware of these styles, I hadn’t considered their possibility for contemporary interpretation. As Duncan is an excellent graphic designer, he saw potential in the Grotesques. I have learned that graphic designers see typefaces differently to type designers — it is wise to take note when their interest is piqued.

The top row is original scale, the bottom is rescaled to common size. Doric No.4, H.W. Caslon specimen book, (1919).

One of the decisions revivalists face is which size of metal type to base their design. Before digital type each point size was cut specifically, creating necessary variations in letter shapes, spacing and proportions. Even if a letterform is exactly the same shape throughout every size, ink squeeze and paper stocks would ensure distortion. The example above demonstrates the variety of a single letterform found in the H.W. Caslon Doric No.4 series.

Breite Grotesk, Corps 14, Bauerschen Giesserei specimen book, (1909).

Breite Grotesk, Corps 40, Bauerschen Giesserei specimen book, (1909).

The revival decision can be further exacerbated by groupings of seemingly unrelated fonts under a single name, like the above Breite Grotesks from the Bauerschen Giesserei foundry.

Grotesque No.3, 36pt, Miller & Richard specimen book, (1912).

Doric No.7, 42pt, H.W. Caslon specimen book, (1919).

Doric No.7, 48pt, H.W. Caslon specimen book, (1919).

Founders Grotesk Semibold.

However, Founders Grotesk is not intended as strict revival—the Miller & Richard Grotesques are simply used as a starting point.¹ Founders Grotesk is a gentle amalgamation of several fonts, resolutely designed for contemporary typographic usage. A key glyph that demonstrates the departure from strict revivalism is the R. The R in the Miller & Richard range seemed too awkward for a contemporary typeface, so the Doric No.7 series was consulted.

Revivals are a double-edged sword. You can find yourself being painted into a corner by the bad decisions of a long-dead punchcutter. I’ve found the magpie approach to be more rewarding. See Heldane and Söhne for example.

Grotesque No.4 numerals, Miller & Richard (1912).

Due to the lack of large size numerals in the general showings, the dedicated numerics section in the back of the Miller & Richard specimen proved invaluable. Note the fascinating 5, which looks amazing here, but was deemed too anachronistic for Founders Grotesk. The narrow apertures of 56 and 9 harmonise nicely with the C and G.

Grotesque No.4 Italics, Miller & Richard (1912).

The italics of the original Miller & Richard Grotesques are wonderfully slanted, they seem serious and daring at the same time. A similar slant has been designed into the Founders Grotesk italics, but there are also many key departures. For example, the spur on g tail, the protracted tail of the a, the curve on the u spur and the kink in f were all discarded for more contemporary shapes.

Grotesque No.3, Miller & Richard (1912).

Founders Grotesk Bold.

Doric No.4, H.W. Caslon (1919).

Founders Grotesk Light.

The spacing in Founders Grotesk is purposely tighter than any of the referenced typefaces. I have found that graphic designers will happily use a sans serif at all point sizes, often tracking the default spacing to suit the size. As it’s simply not possible to space a single font optimally for all point sizes, I initially thought that designers could obtain better results by opening tight spacing for text, rather than closing loose spacing for display. Well, I was wrong.

Founders Grotesk was originally designed for headlines, but upon it’s first outing — in a newspaper — it was used at text sizes and performed rather poorly. The lighter weights were serviceable at best, but far from ideal. The bolder weights veer pretty close to disaster, almost clogging up completely. Perhaps with a bit of letterspacing and better printing it would only just be passable.

IL Nº 34, (October 2011): 1. JPG render.

IL Nº 34, (October 2011): 39. JPG render.

IL Nº 34, (October 2011): 159. JPG render.

IL Nº 34, (October 2011): 181. JPG render.

IL Nº 34, (October 2011): 159. Original scan.

IL Nº 34, (October 2011): 181. Original scan.

When Fransceco Franci used Founders Grotesk (and Tiempos) for his wonderful redesign of IL the same problem surfaced: it was simply failing at text sizes with sub-optimal printing conditions. After discussing our options we decided the best fix was to make a text version of Founders Grotesk.

Founders Grotesk Regular.

Grotesque No.1, 10pt, Miller & Richard (1912).

Founders Grotesk Text Regular.

I revisited the source material for Founders Grotesk to seek guidance from the appropriate text styles. The spacing is looser, the letterforms are slightly wider, the details are more open and exaggerated. Almost everything that was too odd or “anachronistic” for the headline styles I could put back into the Text: especially the 5! At smaller text sizes these details calm down and help to service the whole. Now, thankfully, Founders Grotesk Text fixes the problems Founders Grotesk has at small sizes.

The apertures are opened for small-size legibility.

Hooked details come from Caslon’s Doric series.

The rounded underbite returns.

Exaggerated curves add flavour to text setting.

The simplified crossbar is more legible at small sizes.

Traditional grotesque quirks like Q’s tail relax the typographic atmosphere.

Open apertures are more robust and less prone to distortion at small text sizes.

A longer crossbar and open aperture on G.

Overall Founders Grotesk Text maintains the same lineage and feel as the rest of the family, but works best at text sizes. As the typography of IL demonstrates, all members of the Founders Grotesk family can now work harmoniously performing their various typographic roles: punchy headlines, delicate pull quotes, legible body copy and robust captions.

Following on from the robust Text styles, Founders Grotesk Mono rounds out the family. As the name suggests it is “monospaced”, each letter takes up exactly the same amount of horizontal space. It’s shares the same width as Pitch. For more information about monospacing, please read Pitch’s Design Information.

Sans-Serif No.5, Miller & Richard, 1912

Typographers have always found narrow widths of sans serifs extremley useful for display work. Founders Grotesk Condensed and X-Condensed are natural companions to the regular widths. They are influenced by the curiously-named Miller & Richard Sans-Serif No.5 series. Of particular note are the square inner counters that contrast nicely with the warm outer curves.

Helvetica Halbfett, Max Miedinger, (1957).

Founders Grotesk Medium.

During the development of Founders Grotesk I was made aware of the enduring qualities of Helvetica Halbfett (Medium). For display typography, the heft and weight is almost perfect. This had quite an influence on me, resulting in a close weight match to Founders Grotesk Medium. However, this is as far as the direct Helvetica influence extends. 

The initial Founders Grotesk styles were commissioned for completion for the wonderful redesign of The Weekend Herald, lead by deLuxe & Associates. It includes five weights in Roman and Italic. Founders Grotesk Condensed and X-Condensed were completed for The Daily iOS app, and Founders Grotesk Text was completed for IL magazine.

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Notes & references

Revivals are a double-edged sword. You can find yourself being painted into a corner by the bad decisions of a long-dead punchcutter. I’ve found the magpie approach to be more rewarding. See Heldane and Söhne for example.

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