More Fontology

Avant Garde


Clean and conspicuous, Avant Garde is a great headline typeface. In text it is a large type, which means you can use smaller point sizes and still remain legible. The “roundness” of the characters stands it apart from many other san serif styles.

History of Avant Garde
Herb Lubalin and Tom Carnase designed Avant Garde around 1968. It was based on Lubalin’s logo for Avant Garde magazine. The original face was all uppercase. Avant Garde was the first typeface released by ITC when the company was founded in 1970. Next to being used in all types of art publications, Avant Garde was a classic in ’70s advertising design.

Gill Sans


In 1926 Eric Gill entered the war. He didn’t know he was entering a war. He was just painting a sign for a friend’s bookshop in Bristol. But ever since Gutenberg invented that whole movable type thing, the British had developed a serious font inferiority complex, and those pesky Germans were at it again. In the late 1920s Erbar, Futura and Kabel were developed in Germany and Britain needed a font to fight them. Gill Sans was there man. Gill started with the hand painted lettering he used for the bookshop to build his new font, and Gill Sans was released in 1928.

It was instantly successful, becoming the standard typeface of the British Railway System. Today, it is used by Penguin Books for their paperback jacket designs and by the Church of England for their Common Worship service books, it is the official typeface of the Spanish Government and has been adopted by Saab Automobile for its advertising and marketing communications. It is even used for the iconic call letters of the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation).

But it is not your usual sans serif font. The uppercase letters are based on Roman capitals, but Roman capitals have serifs. The lowercase letters are modeled on fonts like Caslon and Baskerville, but those, too, are serif fonts. Some characters, like the lowercase “a”, have serifs, and some letters are not even consistent across different weights of the typeface. All the literature calls these anomalies “humanist” traits, which I believe can be translated, “We’re humans so we can do anything we want regardless of the rules because we’re in charge.”

For designers, though, Gill Sans offers a nice alternative to more mechanical sans serif fonts like Futura and Univers. And that’s what we are always looking for, really, alternatives. Different ways of delivering the message, of winning the war with all those other messages.



Optima is a hybrid between a serif and sans serif font. Wikipedia classifies it as “humanist”. In font-speak, I guess that means it is a sans serif face with an anything goes attitude.

In the real world it works like a sans serif with a little flair. The ends of the letters are a little wider than the rest of the stroke and some letters use different stroke weights, like the “A” and the “M”, which reflects a classic Roman model. For us simple users it means we can get the legibility of a strong sans serif font and add a dash of character to the look. The only tricky part of using Optima is that the character widths vary significantly and custom kerning, especially in headlines, is usually required.

Optima was originally design by Hermann Zapf in the early 1950s. It has gone through several redesigns which really just added different weights to the basic Regular, Bold, Black and Italic variations. It is the font used for all the names of the fallen on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and is the official branding typeface for companies like Estée Lauder and Astin Martin (and if it is cool enough for James Bond’s car, it must be okay).

I am not usually a fan of hybrid fonts, kind of like I’m not a fan of hybrid cars, but Optima is a good choice when I’m looking for a softer feel. Chances are optima(l) it will find its way into my work again soon.



There is a case (get it) to be made that Helvetica is the most used font in the world. It is a standard font in Microsoft and most other desktop publishing software. It is used extensively on signs and billboards, in business correspondence and marketing materials, and just about any medium where words are printed. FontShop and many other type houses rate Helvetica as the #1 font of all time.

But why?

Helvetica as we know it has only been around since the 1960s. It was originally developed in 1957 by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann and named Neue Haas Grotesk at the time, to compete with some popular Swiss font named Akzidenz-Grotesk. The name was changed to Helvetica in 1960. In 1983 it was updated as Helvetica Neue. That is the version I prefer to use. In 2007, there was apparently a big to-do 50th Anniversary celebration for Helvetica with contests for the best use of the font and even a feature documentary released that year. That’s not normal for a font.

I don’t know why.

But I can tell you why I like Helvetica. It’s clean, the ascenders and descender and cross marks and line weights and character widths are all regular, with little or no variation. And it’s complete. There is every imaginable subset, from regular to condensed to compressed to extended, and style, including light, book, medium, bold, heavy, black and extra black. It may not have the subtleties or roundness of some other sans serif fonts, but t’s a durable, universally recognized font that can be used with a light touch or for an in your face headline.

So, use it, even if it’s just for the Hel(vetica) of it.


This is a big, fat, in-your-face font, full of slashed superhero characters and villainous curves. The good versus evil dichotomy can be seen in it’s powerful, nostalgic construction and it’s use for something so treacherous as Obama campaign materials.

It is a new font, developed in 2000 by American type designer Tobias Frere-Jones and released in 2002. The lettering that inspired this typeface originated from the style of 1920’s era san-serif fonts. It’s new take on these classic styles has fueled it’s quick rise in popularity, and it can be seen in advertising materials for everything from Coca-Cola to the Saturday Night Live show.

Is Gotham good or is Gotham bad? You decide, but it is rising.


This is my favorite serif font. The serifs are heavy enough to stand up well in small printed text. There is also a uniqueness to the characters, especially in the italic, in the descenders and roundness that distinguishes it from most commonly used serif fonts.

When I researched it, I liked the font even more. It was designed in 1967 by Jan Tschichold, but is based on types by Claude Garamond from the 16th century and named after a printer of the period, Jacques Sabon. That deriving something new out of something old is appealing to me. To seal the deal, some of the first printed materials to use Sabon was the Washburn College Bible in 1973 and the 1979 Book of Common Prayer for the Episcopal Church. That ecclesiastical connection is also interesting. After all, if it’s good enough for the Bible, it should be good enough for my clients.


If you are looking for a regular looking type with just enough quirks to keep your interest, Futura may be your man. It’s actually the precision of the face that provides the quirkiness – the roundness of the O and the sharp points of the V or M are just the graphic feel you may need.

History of Futura:
Commissioned by the Bauer type foundry, Futura was commercially released in 1927. It is a geometric sans-serif typeface designed by Paul Renner. It is derived from simple geometric forms (near-perfect circles, triangles and squares) and is based on strokes of near-even weight, which are low in contrast. In designing Futura, Renner avoided the decorative, eliminating non-essential elements. The lowercase has tall ascenders, which rise above the cap line. The uppercase characters present proportions similar to those of classical Roman capitals.

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