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Designer's Toolbox - February 2009

Typographic insights from Steve Matteson


Sans Pointy Things – Part 2

Sans Pointy Things – Part 1 PDF  - Download PDF   |   Return to Designer's Toolbox

Welcome back to the Toolbox. Last month I talked about a way to organize your sans serif tool inventory. Since fonts carry a subtle graphic voice it’s useful to understand what each of these tools is best for conveying. Just as a doctor won’t use a bone saw to remove a splinter, a designer needs to pick the right tool for the job.

This month I’ll cover one group of sans serif tools called the Geometrics. These deceptively simple designs consist of rational, constructed forms giving the reader a sense of simplicity yet very regimented form. Logo designers love this genre for the circular, square, and triangular shapes that lend themselves to manipulation and simple arrangements. Futura has been identified with Volkswagen since the original Beetle advertisements in the 1960’s. Avenir is now Quark’s corporate typeface. Both typefaces echo the circles within their logos.

While Avenir and Futura are both from the same genre they do tend to offer a slightly different message. The high degree of refinement in Avenir’s shapes and the regularity of its proportions lends a cool, mechanical, no nonsense tone. Futura’s quirks (very tall ascenders, irregular bars on t and f, and ‘high waisted’ s) give it a slightly more approachable feel.

But are the O’s in Geometric typefaces really circles? A close look at Geometric typefaces reveals that they are not nearly as simple as an assortment of overlapping geometric shapes. Optical compensations were made by the type designers to give the effect of geometry by actually reducing the geometry!





The slight adjustments on these magenta letter O’s (Twentieth Century Medium left; Avenir right) indicate the optical adjustments required to make a letter look like an actual circle. In order to appear mono linear, the shape actually needs to have a slight variance in line weight. The left and right sides of the arc are thickened in order to look the same thickness as the top and bottom.

Another common attribute of this genre is the single story letter a. The danger, of course, is the possibility of mistaking a for o in text. Discretion should be used in choosing this stye of letter since extensive text can become difficult to read.

Finally, as with all sans serif typefaces, care must be taken to provide ample leading (interline spacing). The absence of serifs which help guide the reader along a line of text means the added white space will need to do the job. Sans serifs also tend to have taller lowercase letters, further increasing the need for white space. The sample columns at left illustrate the effect. The default leading (10pt) is too compact for extended reading.

So use the not-so-geometric sans serif fonts for projects which require a contemporary, simple effect and use extra white space to aid your readers. See you next month as we look at the Industrial Age and the rise of the next genre: the Grotesque Sans.



Steve Matteson





Steve Matteson
Type Design Director, Ascender Corp.

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