Untitled Sans & Serif Design Information
20 March 2017
Untitled Sans and Untitled Serif are quotidian typefaces. Untitled Sans is a plain, neogrotesk sans validated by the ideas of Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa’s Super Normal project. When Untitled Sans was nearly finished, I applied the same principles to the creation of Untitled Serif, which is drawn from the old-style genre of types: the post-Caslon, pre-Times workhorses offered by almost every metal type foundry of the time. Untitled Sans and Untitled Serif are related neither by skeleton nor a traditional aesthetic connection, but by concept only.
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.
Postrationalisation is an open secret in the design industry. Only once a project is finished does it receive a writeup, portraying the messy process as a logical sequence leading up to a spotless, perfect unveiling. I suspect, however, that for most designers it’s an irrational process. There just comes a point where all the inputs have been processed, all the terrible drawings and tenuous concepts have been thrown away, and you just work towards the finish — too fatigued to even know if it’s worth anything or not anymore. If you’re lucky, someone or something will come along to help validate the work. This is what happened with Untitled Sans.My good mate Duncan Forbes used National quite a bit in the early days of Klim. As he honed, evolved and rationalised his style over the years, he found National too formally expressive — just not plain enough. We often talked about typefaces, especially what might be the “ideal” typeface for his work. After one of these talks, I started trimming bits off National, rationalising it, making it plainer. Its working title was “National Plain”. I meandered and faltered, however; it became something that was neither National nor anything else credible. So I left it alone.
A few years later, Duncan and I discussed making a typeface together, with him art-directing and me drawing. I dug out National Plain to use as a starting point. I took a detached, mechanical approach, which was new for me: I wasn’t actively thinking; I didn’t reference anything or crosscheck like I normally would; 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 slowly, I erased any remaining traces of my “fist” in National — and Untitled Sans took shape.
While Duncan was encouraging of my progress on the typeface, I was close to deleting it altogether. As a bit of a joke, he tweeted a font ID request with an 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.)
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, by Kyle Gann, further crystallised my acceptance of Untitled Sans — and the resurgence of the neogrotesk genre over the last decade or so. Neogrotesk is the typographic equivalent of Muzak: you don’t have to think about it too hard; it’s not challenging, but still enormously useful. A neogrotesk like Untitled Sans could happily work in a manager’s spreadsheet, a laminated A4 shop hours sign or an identity for an obscure Australian film festival. It asks little of the designer, and there are no twists, contemporary tricks or overt historical references.
It took several years of drawing, justifying and validating Untitled Sans, a quotidian neogrotesk, before I was comfortable with it. The natural next step for me was to apply the same aesthetic principles to the creation of a serif typeface.
… 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 sans serifs. 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 imbued with layers of history, aesthetic associations and cultural signifiers. Amplified by heavy doses of spin and marketing, these layers are elucidated with the inevitable “design information” blurbs — an accepted (and expected) part of selling and buying a typeface. To lend a new typeface prestige, these blurbs reveal the old specimens that influenced it, and name-drop typographers and foundries long dead. They detail the “engineering challenges” the typeface has heroically overcome — usually small printing sizes, low pixel resolution or limited horizontal/vertical space. Contemporary typefaces are touted as 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… utterly normal?It’s hard to determine what a “normal” serif is. Venetian, Garalde, modern, slab, sharp, blunt, long, short — each has its own place in history, its own aesthetic associations. 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 typefaces 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 plain jobbing typefaces — over time, many hands have drawn and redrawn these letters into comfortable, unobtrusive forms.
The best example is Monotype’s Imprint typeface, made specifically for 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. The combination of Imprint’s subtle, gentle stress and its restrained detailing made it an excellent model for Untitled Serif.
Untitled Serif’s proportions, contrast, weight range and serifs are as much as they need to be without being any more. I wanted the details to be exactly normal, without exaggeration. I made a typeface that a designer can use without worrying whether the French Renaissance is an appropriate cultural reference, or if it’s OK to use Bodoni for text.I made all Untitled Serif design decisions 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 removed 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. (And enjoyable: text typefaces are my first love.)
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 postrationalisation, it wasn’t until I read this interview that I understood exactly what I was doing: I was designing for the reader, not the type or graphic designer. Reading your own typefaces and remaining critical is a delicate balance between two completely different 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?”
Upon seeing his bowls in the Tokyo Super Normal exhibition, Sori Yanagi apparently didn’t recognise them as his own work. This impressed me deeply. I tried to imagine what it would feel like to admire — but not recognise — something I had designed. This is the feeling I’m hoping for when Untitled Sans and Serif eventually make their way out into the wider world. They’re not special, they’re just normal. I don’t want to notice them, and I sincerely hope they don’t “spoil the atmosphere”.
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 that “font naming is really hard”.