TypograFriday: All Your Slab Are Belong to H&FJ

Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones, typographic superstars who positioned themselves so strategically in their field that they registered typography.com, have recently announced their third serif in two years.

While many type designers create their faces primarily out of their passions, H&FJ made their decision with market strategy in mind as well. It’s pretty clear by now that the era we’re in (and hopefully not leaving too soon) will be judged by history to be an age of slab serif. And like a pool hustler suddenly sinking shot after shot, it’s breathtaking to watch how quickly H&FJ have created three of the strongest, most fully-featured slabs on the market.

, their newest, is their foray into the type of the moment: a square-based slab. But just when I find myself absolutely loving its stylish proportions, it screams out something ultramasculine (I can see it on high priced electronics and sports magazines alike).

, which seems like it just came out, is their Clarendon. It’s explicitly designed (like Canada Type’s Clarendon Text) to work better in text settings than most clarendons, plus it has an unmatched range of weights.

And Archer, their Antique slab with cute as a button ball terminals and a large range of hairline weights, still has us drooling.

Four more of our favorite slabs that aren’t by H&FJ and that we didn’t feature in our last slabs roundup:


PMN Caecila • Before the 21st century slab rennaissance this was my favorite. And I love that most books on the Kindle are set in it, so pleasant.

Museo Slab • if Archer is too expensive, start with the free weight of Museo; the whole set is pretty affordable.

Granite • Alright so this isn’t a text face but I love it so much I’m putting it in here anyway. I’m a big fan of Gareth Hague’s sense of proportion in general; his faces have a noteworthy elegance. This extreme-contrast slab is no exception.

Neutraliser • Actually now that Vitesse is on the market, art directors at men’s magazines everywhere are find/replacing their captions paragraph style from Neutraliser to Vitesse. But in 2004, it was certainly ahead of the curve

TypograFriday: Ligatured Sans

You know ITC Avant Garde, the lame came-with-the-OS wannabe-Futura type. Designers among you probably know Avant Garde, the 1968-1971 magazine for which Herb Lubalin designed a fantastic and groundbreaking tightly kerned sans serif logotype. Lubalin expanded this all-caps logo into a rigidly geometric display and text face at ITC, where he was a cofounder. The digital version you’re familiar with is an imperfect digitization of the most uninteresting part of the original design, although the Pro version that adds back in the ligatures is now available.


Lubalin used it several times, always with the alternates and ligatures enabling incredibly tight settings, throughout the next few years, notably in U&LC magazine. And others began to use it, but not well. A few notes on its misuse from Thinking for a Living:

Tony DiSpigna, one of Lubalin’s partners and co-creator of ITC Lubalin Graph and ITC Serif Gothic, has been quoted as saying, “The first time Avant Garde was used was one of the few times it was used correctly. It’s become the most abused typeface in the world.” Ed Benguiat, one of type’s legends and a friend of Lubalin’s, commented, “The only place Avant Garde looks good is in the words Avant Garde. Everybody ruins it. They lean the letters the wrong way.” Steven Heller also noted that the”excessive number of ligatures […] were misused by designers who had no understanding of how to employ these typographic forms,” further commenting that “Avant Garde was Lubalin’s signature, and in his hands it had character; in others’ it was a flawed Futura-esque face.”

It’s been revived in the last decade quite a bit, first for music then for a certain scenester Vice ironic recapitualization of the Me-Generation?




Don’t get me wrong: I actually really like the examples above. It’s not even been that it’s been done a zillion times but after about six, it’s already been done to death. If you’re considering using Avant Garde ligatures and it’s not 1976, I ask you to reconsider. Either reference the seventies in a fresher way if that’s what you’re going for… or if what you’re liking is the interlocking ligatation of it, may we suggest a few alternatives?

Fedra Display by Typotheque, part of a megafamily that ranges from hairline to black with condensed and compressed weights.

Camera from Flat-It. Rounded and deco-style, this is quite a distance from Lubalin’s design. However it’ll still work if what you’re looking for is nested, tight lettersetting.

Sevigne by Reserves. This new face was actually the inspiration for this post. By combining Lubalinesque ligatures with the  classic proportions so popular now in typefaces like Gotham and Neutraface, and restraining it to lightweight and all caps, Reserves has put together an affordable, contemporary and altogether elegant face. It’s on special pricing right now; get it before Urban Outfitters goes and ruins it for all of us.

TypograFriday: Shahn


One of my favorite artists ever is Ben Shahn; his linework was terrific, his color sense really interesting, his sociopolitics inspirational, and his handlettering fantastic.

Above and below, a few scans from the book November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three, a Wendell Berry poem about JFK’s death which he illustrated and lettered. I’ve tried lettering with jaunty mixes of thicks and thins like this before, and let me tell you, it’s super tough to keep it from not looking totally goofy. That he set type as serious as a poem about national grieving using it is astonishing.



A few other of his pieces which incorporate his fantastic lettering:


Public Sale, 1956


Parade for Repeal, 1933


Maimonides, 1954

Teach thy tongue to say I do not know and thou shalt progress? Such a good quote.


For those of you who are font-hungry, there are (at least) two fonts on the market which are based on Shahn’s lettering: Bensfolk from Haroldsfonts and thorny tuscan Rendevous GRP from Grype. Although both are pretty nice, the supersmart Opentype version with dozens of smart contextual alternates that rotate in… is sadly yet to be made. You’ll just have to use a pen, folks.


TypograFriday: Movie Typecasting, Handlettering

The other day I got the most satisfying reaction to blogging I’ve had since Dr Bex Lewis responded to my Keep Calm post… Yves Peters cited my Gotham=Oscar Font hypothesis in his FontFeed column ScreenFonts. Which in my personal world is like getting featured in the Times or something. I mean the world of movie poster critiques is a small one, and his column is the top of the heap.

Ok, enough self-congratulations. In the vein of movie poster critique, there’s one type trick poster designers use that says “hey Owen you will probably like this movie film!” I speak of hand-rendered type and how it signifies indie quirky romance.

As this is no new observation, I thought I’d at least add some scientific method to my entry into the field. I’ve arranged dozens of these below, in chronological order (sorry about the small size: I guarantee a larger version is only a google search away). This list isn’t complete – though I would love to hear what I have missed so I can make a more complete one – and starts in the 80s, as before that handlettering was commonplace, signifying little more than the technology and style of the time (the exceptional Pablo Ferro and Saul Bass will have to wait for a later typecasting column).

I think it’s pretty clear that while the early adopters of the strategy were authentically unique handcrafted personal sorts of films, as time goes on its become as hardened and codified a strategy as “big red text for summer-dumber comedy.”

Some progenitors:

My read is, the handlettering in the first signify wacky and naive, in the middle dangerous and aggressively anti-normal, and in the last communitarian and personal. None of which is exactly indie-quirky yet, but they circle around the same ur-ideas.

The beginning of the trend:

Everyone dates the demise of our neighborhood from the suicides of the Lisbon girls…I personally date the handlettered=indie trend with Geoff McFettridge’s handlettering on the poster — and more importantly titles — of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. Referring less to previous cinematic examples than to the lettering teenagers scribble in their notebooks, the trend was initially conflated with indie movies about teenagers.

The Royal Tenenbaums I am including here isn’t the actual poster but Eric Chase Anderson’s Criterion cover, so it doesn’t really count: however both Wes Anderson’s deliberate and fetishistic use of Futura and his use of his brother’s naive-quirky drawings are spices that went into the recipe that would make up the eventual trend.

With Napoleon Dynamite‘s title sequence with type lettered in ketchup & mustard (by Pablo Ferro, establishing the lineage back to Dr Strangelove!) and then some of the quirkiest characters and plot ever filmed, the basic model for what constituted a handlettered poster was well underway. A smattering of indie-juvenalia films over the next few years used the technique, then Juno, which though it was drawing heavily on Napoleon Dynamite, nonetheless entered a few more ingredients into the mix. Outline or outline/shaded handdrawn sans serif caps, collaged crafty elements (in the titles), and a restructuring of what handlettering means: not just indie or just indie/teen, but indie romance – and of course, a trend whose parents are Napoleon Dynamite and Juno is quirky writ large.

The typecasting of handlettering in full effect

Here’s just six of many of the movies from the last two or three years that have used the typographic formula as shorthand. Note that they are all indie romantic comedies: they no longer have to involve adolescents, but gone are the dramas or stories of families. Not only are they all handlettering but they’re all outlined sans serifs, and four out of six of them involve torn paper/pen drawing/collage elements.

I’m not saying that these are bad or even formulaic films – each is genuinely an indie movie doing its own thing – only that they communicate to their potential audience at an immediate level, right from the type choice, this is going to be a film for this audience. For every person like me who saw Away We Go in part because the Juno-titles meet desaturated-Peter-Max with Juno type poster clearly communicated a witty and probably bittersweet sort of romance, I bet there were some who turned away from it, reading correctly the same signifiers and determining they were in the mood for something more saccharine.

Of all the typecasting trends, I don’t mind this one. Often they have really nice lettering, and the shortcut to my sensibilities is appreciated. I will only come to distrust it when a standard rom-com comes delivered in this package.

The other typecasting: Handlettering as Raw Earnest Imagination


There is a split trend in which handlettering is being used in movie posters – generally speaking neither outlined nor shadowed, but monoline letters. In these cases the letters indicate not quirky or romantic or even funny, but raw nerves, personal earnestness and unfettered imagination of childhood, whether literal childhood like Max’s in Where the Wild Things Are or the magical place Spike Jonze and the artists profiled in Beautiful Losers want to access in their creative art.

Where Juno and Napoleon Dynamite birthed the main trend, this secondary trend was born out of the cult TV show Freaks and Geeks (from the same year as The Virgin Suicides), The Squid and the Whale, and the visual art of cultural-artist handletters like Raymond Pettibon, Ed Fella, Wayne White and Barry McGee. In both of the above movies, the lettering is by Geoff McFetridge, the guy who arguably started the current trend with The Virgin Suicides and probably the single most influential letterer on this sub-trend.

I have more thoughts to write but need to close for the night; I will followup next week. Please do let me know some posters I have forgotten, and other sub-trends and analysis you’d like to add.

TypograFriday: Fonts of 2009

We’re a little late to the party here but the last month and a half has been a busy one. Here we are, weeks into 2010, finally getting around to bidding adieu to 2009’s year in type. Here’s some of our favorite typefaces released last year – please click through for larger more interactive samples:

Mark Simonson’s Mostra was on my watchlist back when it was an all-caps display face a la AM Cassandre with a few weights and stylistic alternates. Mostra Nueva adds several more weights as well as lowercase, making it a useful contender that one can set shorter text in as well as display type. I often find retro letterforms like those curved-line “s” distracting or inappropriate: for me a type is profoundly better when it offers the standard forms as options as well.

Underware makes our day with every release. Liza Pro, a lively upright brush script is perhaps their best yet. The caps version plays great with the script and the jauntiness of the whole thing is as right-on as House’s releases.

Some people hated Mrs. Eaves, Licko’s mid-nineties Baskerville with a zillion ligatures. We really liked it, though over time it sort of faded from our hearts. However, Mr. Eaves, the sans companions, are fantastic: the “sans” form is like Gill but with fewer awkward spots (and more resolved heavy weights and italics) while the “modern” version changes out some details to become a warmer Futura. Both are well-proportioned and quite beautiful.

It’s funny to think of type as commerce, but on some level the idea of making narrow and condensed forms of Gotham is as clearly a good idea as making a sequel to a Hollywood blockbuster. Gotham has been used all over the place in the last few years, and extending its range by making more condensed versions will only heighten its ubiquity. The narrow in particular I think we’ll see a lot of in 2010.

While the standard forms of Catacumba Pro are interesting and charming in a decidedly pre-digital way, the floriateed/tuscaned display version really shines. It’s so expressive and unusual I have found myself stealing its forked tongue serifing for type in my sketchbook.

Although it was released in 2009, Eloquent is a revival of a late 60s ad typeface. Given the enduring contemporary trends (mostly in music/culture) for retro swash ITC and, say, Avant Garde Ligatures + the Si Scott et al maximalist hyperswashiness, it’s not surprising this would be revived in (or feel so at home in) 2009.

You know we love Jessica Hische. Buttermilk is only her first foray into commercial typemaking, but we hope not the last. She’s an ace with the letters, for sure.

We also love slab serifs and are always on the lookout for more really fine examples. We only sometimes love reversed stress type (Ben Shahn did some fantastic ones) – generally speaking they’re not fit for consumption outside of circusy/western posters. Where Trilby differs from the PT Barnums of the world however is that its stress proportion is subtle and very considered: the balance of form and counterform in the face are as beautiful as Caecilla or Clarendon.

This sample doesn’t do it justice. A very legible face with fantastic sharp curves and bracketed serifs, Vesper is like faves Vendetta and Freight Micro but with a more calligraphic basis.

Like the titles of Dr. Strangelove, and more current films like Where the Wild Things Are, Hannah is handlettering in a confident monoline. Charmingly, it comes in three degrees of compression, which mix and match to great effect.

2009 was the year I learned how to write pointed pen (copperplate) calligraphy. In the course of that class, I was surprised to see that, while there are dozens of digital models of the form, there are few that are anything but stiffly mechanistic. Libelle corrects that lack; with plenty of contextual alternates plus a very warm flowing line, it feels more like what I went into that class to learn than anything I have seen on a computer screen.

(texts from Time’s list of top 10 Animal Stories of 2009 except Libelle’s — dang LinoType doesn’t have a previewer)

TypograFriday: Neon Boneyard

Check out these amazing images Pam Sattler from her visit to The Neon Museum in Las Vegas.

Continue reading TypograFriday: Neon Boneyard

TypograFriday: Fraktur, Part 3

Because you demanded it: the third and final section of me talking about blackletter incessantly! I hereby promise a moratorium until at least January! In this section, finally, 10 great contemporary experimental hybrids that incorporate elements from this traditional calligraphic form with roman shapes to awesome effect.


Credits and commentary after the jump.
Continue reading TypograFriday: Fraktur, Part 3

TypograFriday: Fraktur, part 2

Last typografriday I shared with you my obsession for blackletter type; this week I promised I’d give you some context. Not that long ago, I was someone, much like most of you, who associated blackletter’s heavy strokes and barbed finials with Nazis, gangs, metal bands, rap and newspaper mastheads. How did I get from from there to here? I’ll share some of my path. But after the jump.


Continue reading TypograFriday: Fraktur, part 2

TypograFriday: Fraktur, Part One

So, I’ve been obsessed with blackletter type for years, and putting off blogging about it for who knows how many TypograFridays. Before I start in on, “what exactly is fraktur/blackletter”— that’ll be part two! — I thought I’d show you a few of the projects I have used it on recently as a means of showing how obsessed I’ve become (click here if you can’t wait until next week to find out a little more history).


It started when, for a book arts class in 2007, I made a short book about blackletter, sort of a rambling discursive monologue about its contemporary use and non-use: blaming the Third Reich for why Gutenberg’s beautiful type has now been reduced to being used only for certificates and death metal, setting some of On the Road in it, analyzing its form (“arrows pointing heavenward and to the ground at once. Its dark strokes are heavy but because of its stilletto heels it still manages to float,” &c.), discussing contemporary attempts at revival, recounting my nervousness that I’ll land on an FBI watchlist when I looked for the verboten Nazi fraktur/roman hybrid ‘jackbook grotesques’ online, and so forth.

This year, I’ve hand-drawn blackletter for three projects: it’s apparently my new favorite thing. Most recently, our newest Christmas card uses hand-drawn blackletter that fuses heavy metal pointiness and spurs with classic fraktur shapes and interweaves it with a black scroll studded with lettering for something which leans slightly more toward dangerous than traditional. It may be my favorite card yet; we’re really happy with this one.

Continue reading TypograFriday: Fraktur, Part One

TypograFriday: Meet Mr. Eaves


We’re pretty excited about Emigre’s latest font release, Mr. Eaves — designed by Zuzana Licko to be the sans serif companion to her super popular Mrs. Eaves. It comes in a “sans” and a “modern” — the former like a warmer, quirkier Gill Sans and the latter geometricizing out some of the humanism (double-storey “a” and “g,” tailed “l”) and approaching Avenir or Neutra Text. They both have delicious italics, small caps and a heavy weight which has no correspondence in Mrs. Eaves (and which one hopes will help displace the frankly hideous Gill Sans Ultra Bold).


Continue reading TypograFriday: Meet Mr. Eaves

Blog Widget by LinkWithin