Untitled Sans & Serif Design Information
20 March 2017
Individuality was once the path to personal freedom — a way to lead life on your own terms. But the terms keep getting more and more specific, making us more and more isolated. Normcore seeks the freedom that comes with non-exclusivity. It finds liberation in being nothing special, and realizes that adaptability leads to belonging. Normcore is a path to a more peaceful life.— Youth Mode: A Report on Freedom.
Post rationalisation is an open secret in the design industry. Only when a project is finished can it be written up, the messy process is delineated and everything seems to follow a logical sequence up until the final thing is unveiled, spotless and perfect.
However, I suspect the process is largely irrational for most designers. There is a point where all the input has been processed, all the shit drawings, tenuous concepts and small ideas have been thrown away and you just work towards the finish, too exhausted and distracted to even know if it’s worth anything or not. And, if you’re lucky, someone or something will come along and validate the work. This is what happened with Untitled Sans.
My good mate Duncan Forbes used National quite a bit in the early days. As he honed, evolved and rationalised his style over the years he found National too expressive. We often talked about typefaces, especially the “ideal” typeface for his work. After one of these talks, I started trimming bits off National, rationalising it, making in plainer. It’s working title was “National Plain”. However, I meandered and faltered: it was neither National nor anything else credible. So I left it alone.
A few years lapsed, and Duncan and I discussed making a typeface together — him art-directing and me drawing. I dug out National Plain to use as a starting point. For some reason I started working in a rather detached, mechanical manner. Any remaining traces of my fist in National were slowly and systematically erased. I wasn’t drawing in a “zen state”, but I certainly wasn’t actively thinking. I didn’t reference anything or cross-check like I normally do. I just… drew. It felt like making a sand mandala with grey sand. I didn’t think it would look like this — I’m not even sure I wanted it to. But this is how Untitled Sans took shape. This is what I got from starting with National and slowly erasing myself from it.
Duncan was very encouraging of the progress — but I was close to deleting the thing. So, as a bit of a joke, he tweeted a font ID request with image of the lowercase a to see what his followers would say.¹ Their guesses were quite revealing. Of course it’s an impossible task to identify an unreleased work in progress, but the reaction was informative. And, still, I was unconvinced Untitled Sans was a valid typeface.
Not that old things shouldn’t be replaced or that new things are bad, just that things which are designed to attract attention are, from the outset, going to be unsatisfactory. There are better ways to design than putting a lot of effort into making something look special. Special is generally less useful than normal, and less rewarding in the long term. Special things demand attention for the wrong reasons, interrupting potentially good atmosphere with their awkward presence.
And Fukasawa explains:
Designers generally do not think to design the “ordinary.” If anything, they live in fear of people saying their designs are “nothing special.” Of course, undeniably, people do have an unconscious everyday sense of “normal,” but rather than try to blend in, the tendency for designers is to try to create “statement” or “stimulation.” So “normal” has come to mean “unstimulating” or “boring” design.”
Their Super Normal project and philosophy helped me understand what Duncan — and other designers — were telling me during the process: that an unassuming, ordinary typeface is perfectly valid.
No Such Thing as Silence helped further crystallise my acceptance of Untitled Sans, and the wider resurgence of the neo-grotesk genre over the last decade or so. It’s the typographic equivalent of Muzak. You don’t have to think about it too hard: it’s not challenging but still enormously useful. Untitled Sans would therefore happily work in a middle-managers spreadsheet, a laminated A4 shop hours sign or an identity for an obscure Australian film festival. It asks little of the designer, there are no twists, contemporary tricks or overt historical references.
So after several years of drawing, justifying and validating another quotidian neo-grotesk I finally felt comfortable with Untitled Sans. And, naturally, I started thinking about applying the same aesthetic principles and concept to a seriffed typeface.
Thus Morison was concerned to produce a typeface — such as Times New Roman — which ‘has the merit of not looking as if it had been designed by somebody in particular – Mr Goudy for instance, who has designed a whole century of peculiar looking types…’— Robin Kinross, Modern Typography.
The old clichés about “neutral” typefaces never seem to apply to serifs, only sanserifs. Untitled Serif started as an intellectual challenge, but slowly became a practical goal. Sometimes — as a typographer — you simply want a serif that sets text well. Something that doesn’t feel fashionably new or ironically old, but a typeface that just does the job.
Most new typefaces are embedded with layers of history, aesthetic associations and cultural signifiers. Amplified by heavy doses of spin and marketing, these layers are made explicit via the inevitable “design information” or explanatory blurbs. These little stories are an accepted — and expected — part of selling and buying a typeface. Showing the old specimens that influenced it, dropping the names of long dead men and foundries lends a new typeface provenance and prestige. Coupled with the “engineering challenges” these typefaces heroically overcome — usually small printing sizes, low pixel resolution or limited horizontal/vertical space — contemporary typefaces are the complete aesthetic and technical package.
But what if you don’t have any special technical requirements, or you want to avoid specific historical connotations? What if you just need to set text with something… normal?
It’s very hard to determine what a “normal” serif is. Venetian, Garalde, Modern, Slab, sharp, blunt, long, short — each has its own place in history and aesthetic connotations. For me, the most “normal” serif genre is the old-style. In practice, this is quite a vague term. Some foundries used it to describe French Renaissance (Garamond) styles, while others used it to describe types that don’t really fit neatly into other obvious categories. But the ones I’m thinking of are those post-Caslon types that are shorn of any clear Venetian gestures or weird of-the-time reinterpretations of a style. They are the plain jobbing types that feel like they’ve settled into a groove. Over time, many hands have drawn and re-drawn these letters into comfortable, unobtrusive forms.
The best example would be Monotype’s Imprint typeface, made specifically for the The Imprint magazine in 1912. It’s based on Caslon, but with a larger x-height and regularised proportions. Imprint has neither the gestural stress of Renaissance types nor the vertical stress of the Moderns, but a subtle, gentle stress. Combined with restrained detailing, it provided an excellent model to emulate.
Untitled Serif’s proportions, contrast, weight range and serifs are as much as they can be without being any more. I wanted the details to be exactly normal, without exaggeration. I made a typeface that a designer could use without worrying whether the French Renaissance is an appropriate cultural reference, or if it’s OK to use Bodoni for text.
Text typefaces are my first love. All Untitled Serif design decisions were made while reading. After each round of changes, I embedded the updated fonts into an ePub of Orwell’s 1984 and read several chapters. If a detail stood out, I nullified it in the next round of changes. I kept doing this until it was totally comfortable to read. For me, it was a novel way to proof a typeface.
That’s right. I find that you’re a completely different person as a maker than you are as a listener.— Brian Eno
In another brazen example of post-rationalisation, it wasn’t until I read this interview that I understood exactly what I was doing. I realised I was designing for the reader, not the type designer or graphic designer. Reading your own typefaces and remaining critical is rather difficult. It’s a delicate balance. Reading the words and judging the letters requires two completely different sets of mental faculties. But the process worked: Untitled Serif is a quotidian, functional serif for text typography that I struggle to recognise as my own.
When Yanagi visited the Tokyo exhibition he commented on several exhibits. “This is beautiful”, “What’s that for?” and so on, and when he came to these bowls, he asked admiringly “Who designed these?”
1. You’ll note I replied @intloffice “Looks common, but I can't quite place it”. Common was the first name for Untitled Sans. Insert the usual complaint about “font naming being really hard”.