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Lately it seems that every new typeface is either a sans serif or a script. What ever happened to the serif? How many OpenType script fonts with hundreds of alternate characters can we possibly use? Do we really need yet another humanistic, calligraphic, geometric or quasi–industrial strength sans serif typeface?

It wasn’t that long ago that serif typefaces were the alpha animal of the typographic world. They not only dominated sans serifs, but also outnumbered them by a long shot. OK, you have to go back to the early years of desktop design, but, as typographic history goes, it’s not that long a trip.

Where did all the stalwart, straightforward—or even quirky and charmingly fancy—serif typefaces go? Can new serif typefaces find a home in a world dominated by serif-less fonts? Are graphic designers doomed to a world without serifs?

Of course not. Serifs are here to stay. In fact, more and more designers are making typefaces with feet. I’ve found a gaggle of new serif typefaces that are bucking the trends: slab serifs, glyphics, didones and old styles.

Ryan Arruda, who curates, plans and executes all of Fonts.com’s quarterly promotions—and who has probably seen more new typefaces than anyone—has a couple of theories about why serif typefaces are making a comeback. “The visual attributes that give serif typefaces their dignified air were the first to be lost in low-resolution screen environments as type transitioned into a digital landscape,” he explains. “Now that high-resolution displays are proliferating, we may be reaching a form of parity for serifs between the printed page and screen. Granted, you’ll always have your typographic purists, but serif designs are definitely having an easier time showing off the subtleties that give them life.”

The soft terminals, slightly condensed proportions and modest x-height of Jorge Cisternas’s Decour give the slab serif design uncommon elegance—and a hint of art deco allure.

Arruda also thinks that something very untechnical might be playing a part. “The increased interest in the serif is akin to the resurgence of vinyl among both veteran and burgeoning audiophiles—part ideology, part nostalgia and part sheer joy of discovery by a new generation of practitioners.”

As with most successful typeface designers, Jorge Cisternas, a collaborator at Latinotype, creates new typefaces with the end user in mind. When asked why he thinks graphic and interactive designers should consider using serif typefaces, Cisternas answers, “Function and personality are vital when it comes to these choices. Serif typefaces are ideal for use in long texts and, at the same time, give a design more expressivity.”
His Decour family grew out of a love of architecture and art deco design—and type-design savvy. “I’ve seen many typefaces in art deco style that have too much ornamentation and lack versatility,” Cisternas says. “This is what inspired me to design an elegant, slender and at the same time functional typeface for use in text and display sizes.”

The completed slab serif family has seven weights of normal and condensed roman designs, each with a corresponding italic. Complementing these are fourteen “soft” designs. A modest lowercase x-height, relatively condensed capitals, and characters like the A and E give Decour its art deco demeanor. Although it’s a slab serif, which is normally a square-jawed design, Cisternas succeeded in giving Decour a definite quality of elegance.

Serif typefaces challenge designers to harness diverse influences. “We like to explore and go outside of our design comfort zone,” says Veronika Burian, co-founder of TypeTogether with her design partner José Scaglione. “This forces us to dive into research, and it helps us keep a flexible mind. The Abril family was the first project where we tackled the issue of multiplatform and multi­media publishing.”

Designed for editorial use in print newspapers and magazines, as well as digital media, Abril is a typeface family of two worlds. Abril Display takes its inspiration from the elegant didones of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and Abril Text has its foundation in 19th-century slab serif and Scotch Roman typefaces. Although based on the same shapes and proportions, the two designs serve two very different purposes. “We originally sketched the display versions of Abril and started playing with the concept of removing contrast in order to achieve a text version that would be halfway between a slab serif and a Scotch Roman typeface,” says Burian. “After our initial tests, we realized that the results were not ideal when compared with other newspaper typefaces like Utopia and Nimrod. We concluded that some more reengineering and, more important, some changes in proportions were necessary if Abril was to compete head-to-head with the established workhorses.”

Although most typeface design is a solo process, Burian and Scaglione share the task in perfect harmony. “First, we discuss the idea and design direction we want to explore,” Burian explains. “Then, we both draw sketches using only a few control characters. Finally, we discuss the results. Once we agree on the DNA of the new typeface, we split the work and give each other feedback—or sometimes, we swap responsibilities.”

Like Abril, Jakob Runge’s FF Franziska is also a design with a dual personality. According to Runge, “The concept was to make it a hybrid, to meld the best of two type styles into one great typeface. I took a Renaissance calligraphic skeleton to give the design humanistic—and highly legible—character shapes. This was then covered by a symmetrical neoclassical stroke thickness.”

When Jakob Runge’s FF Franziska is enlarged, you can see the influence of calligraphic lettering and its wealth of subtle details.

Runge drew asymmetrical serifs, sheared ball terminals and rounded the vertical serifs on characters like the s, z, E and F. His goal was to give the design an edgy softness. “FF Franziska combines different, sometimes oxymoronic, design traits,” he says. “Some, you do not see in text sizes, where the design looks soft and gentle. As point sizes increase, however, the edgy quality of the design becomes apparent.” 

To optimize legibility at smaller sizes, FF Franziska has a robust x-height, and in the tradition of humanistic typefaces, the caps are shorter than the lowercase descenders. The italic designs are lively, serving as a counterpoint to the more sedate roman designs.

At first, Ben Jones, Monotype Studio type designer in London, wasn’t inspired to design Joanna Nova—but he became excited once he began working on the design. (Full disclosure: Monotype is one of my clients.) “I was asked to take a look at Joanna to polish it up a little,” he recalls. “I hadn’t really given the type­face much attention. It was only after I started working with it for a while that I realized Joanna is actually a fantastic typeface. It contains remarkably original design ideas that lend themselves to both text and display copy.”

The new family is based extensively on Eric Gill’s Joanna—a typeface that has been called one of his most engaging designs—but brings the slab serif typeface into the 21st century. Every glyph has been redrawn using a variety of reference sources, including Gill’s original sketches from 1928 when he moved his print shop from Wales to Pigotts in Buckinghamshire, England, and the copper patterns used in Joanna’s initial production as a font of metal type in 1930.

Although one of the most distinctive aspects of the original Joanna is the italic design, in the current versions on the market, many of the characters are much more condensed than the originals, Jones notes in his research. To return to its roots, the italics in Joanna Nova have been reworked to be closer to the original widths drawn by Gill.

The large x-height, open counters and forthright serifs of Mike Abbink’s Brando make just about any copy easy to read.

The end result is a completely reimagined design. “Part of the process actually involved going backward, returning to Eric Gill’s originals and reinstating some of the elements that were lost,” explains Jones. “There were, of course, steps taken to ensure that the typeface met the needs of a contemporary audience. Most obviously, the number of weights was increased, and display weights were added to allow for a much greater range of typographic applications than previously suitable.”

Mike Abbink’s Brando family grew out of just a few letters in a logo design. “Brando was initially a concept for a bank rebranding project,” he recalls. “I was inspired by a classic serif style, but I wanted to modernize it some. As part of that exploration, I also began to sketch out how a typeface might accompany the logo.”

The typeface, however, gathered dust on Abbink’s hard drive for several years before he stumbled across it again. “It caught my attention, but this time, I thought I would make it more of a text face but still try to keep some of the original characteristics,” he recalls. “This is where the style of the serifs—rounded corners and blunted terminals—came from.”

The design grew from digital sketches into a family of eight roman weights, each with a harmonizing italic design. Although Brando has clear humanist proportions, it also enjoys the commanding power of more stalwart Egyptian overtones. Brando’s light weights are elegant slab-serif designs with open shapes, whereas the middle weights have more stroke contrast, which creates an even texture in text. The boldest weights are hearty designs suited to larger sizes.  

“The tools for making type are now more available than they ever have been,” says Arruda. “The more folks who are able to participate in type design, the more opportunity there is for serif designs to be born. Whether you’re a dyed-in-the-wool fan of serifs or sans serifs, it’s a great time for type.”

Even the subtleties of well-known sans serifs like Gotham, Helvetica and Univers are lost on screen at any size much below 12-point—and to many, even in print at modest text sizes. But print or view any of the serif typefaces I’ve profiled at just about any size, and they will stand out as distinctively legible, charming and perfectly capable of doing the job. Although sans serif type­faces have clearly proven their worth, new serifs offer designers a larger arsenal of varieties and possibilities. ca

Allan Haley is a storyteller and a consultant with expertise in fonts, font technology, type and typographic communication. He held the position of director of words and letters at Monotype for fifteen years and has six books and hundreds of articles to his credit. He is a past president of the Type Directors Club and was executive vice president of International Typeface Corporation. 


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