Our Favorite Typefaces of 2012

fonts-of-the-year-2012I’ll be honest. When December rolls around and I ask a group of smart, articulate font users and makers to each select their favorite release of the year, not everyone rushes back with their pick. And when they do, they don’t always have much to say about it. Some years are stronger than others. 2012 was a strong year. The rich diversity in new type design has never been so evident.

I got so many responses this time around, many with texts that were longer and more in-depth than ever before, that I admittedly fell behind in the editing and production of the list. I hope you’ll find it to be worth the wait.

If you need an entry point, might I suggest:

Matthew Butterick’s review of Eskapade, in which he explains the difference between originality and surprise;

Sébastien Morlighem on the unusual stencil family that is Bery;

Indra Kupferschmid on Stan, with history on the unusual designs that inspired it;

Eben Sorkin on Turnip, Typographica’s new text face;

Catherine Griffiths, our newest contributor, on FF ThreeSix;

Florian Hardwig, who offers not only praise, but a bit of critique for Axia;

Shoko Mugikura and Tim Ahrens on the complex beauty of Quintet;

or Patric King’s “cocaine-and-vodka” take on Xtreem, dripping with references to ’80s pop culture.

Brief Thoughts on the State of Type

For the font market, 2012 was a year in which burgeoning trends matured into permanent shifts.

The most obvious example of lasting change is in type for the web. Professional webfonts were available in 2011 — primarily via services hosting previously released font families — but buyers can now expect most new fonts to be issued in both desktop and web formats. And some typefaces, like Turnip RE and JAF Bernini Sans, were designed from the start with screen performance in mind. (Unfortunately, mobile publishing is still left behind, as phone and tablet developers struggle to find clear licensing options for embedding fonts in apps. While there are some exceptions, most buyers still need to contact foundries for this kind of license. Look for this to evolve in 2013.)

The independent foundry has also cemented its place as the new foundation of the industry. Most of this year’s selections are from very small shops, several of which are entirely new to the market. It’s also significant that, in addition to offering their fonts through retailers like FontShop, MyFonts, and the newly revived Fonts.com, most of these indie foundries now sell directly to customers through their own sites. In some cases they have eschewed outside distribution altogether. The “majors” have not simply laid down, however. Monotype, Linotype, Font Bureau, FontFont, and H&FJ are all represented in this year’s list, each with releases that are remarkably characteristic of their respective brands.

Stylistically, no single classification or genre dominated the selections this year. This is a good thing. It indicates that me-too-ism is limited and that designers are open to a variety of styles. If you cast your net wide across all areas of graphic design, that trend for diversity is confirmed by today’s practical typography, too. Speaking of Fonts In Use, we are now adding links to that site from Typographica reviews, so you can see how the typefaces perform in the real world.

There are plenty of open questions about how fonts are marketed these days, but I am very optimistic about the proficiency and creativity of type design as a whole. The Golden Age of Type lives on, and it’s growing up.

Thanks to Chris Hamamoto for his continual design and dev prowess. Tânia Raposo also joined the team this year, designing many of the specimen images that represent the selections (now double-density for Retina-level displays). I’m also very grateful to Tamye Riggs for copyediting help, to Laura Serra for production assistance, and all the contributors for their insightful reviews.

The “Type of 2012” title graphic features Stan, Signalist, Trio Grotesk, and Bery Tuscan.

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Trio Grotesk

I’m a sucker for certain old typeface and lettering styles (big surprise). There is something charming about the straightforward letter drawing practiced by earlier generations when what was called for was a “plain” style. There was a correct way to draw such letters: Simple skeletons with a minimum of style.

When they were freshly made, they probably did look very plain. But lack of style is an illusion. There’s no getting away from it. Tastes change and, as time passes, what was once seen as neutral becomes pegged to a particular moment in time and takes on the patina of history.

Trio Grotesk is Florian Schick‘s revival of Kaart Antieke (1909), a face that I’m sure was intended as a plain type to be used for very ordinary purposes. Its wide proportions and generous spacing would make it a good choice for small sizes. The caps remind me of American faces like Sackers Gothic and Copperplate Gothic, but the lowercase letters have more of a European feel, reminiscent of the typefaces of Jakob Erbar and the tiny lettering on old cameras and watches.

With the inclusion of useful features like small caps, dingbats, and different figure styles, it looks like it would be fun font family to use. As a type designer, I don’t get to use fonts as much as I used to. Trio Grotesk makes me wish I were still an art director.

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Pelican Covers of the 1960s

Very much a hey, look at this post, this. I’ve just seen a link to this collection on Things Magazine of Pelican Books covers for the 1960s (and each decade they were published). It’s interesting to see how the template developed along with the Penguin series until it all got a bit chaotic in the late ’70s and was discontinued in the 1980s. Joe Kral also maintains a collection of Penguin and Pelican covers on Flickr.

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Open Architecture Manifesto at Adhocracy

A couple of years ago I wrote about Kuka, the RobotLab project built to write the entire Martin Luther bible onto a long roll of paper. The robot emulates the calligraphic style replicated in the Schwabacher blackletter typeface, writing it using a pen as a (particularly neat and tireless) human might. It’s quite a lovely thing*.

I was reminded of it when I saw this project by Walter Nicolino and Carlo Ratti (of Carlo Ratti Associati). They’ve designed and built a suspended plotter to write the contents of the Open Architecture Manifesto page on Wikipedia onto a wall at the Adhocracy exhibition at the Istanbul Design Biennial. As the text on Wikipedia is updated the robot erases and rewrites the document on the wall at the exhibition.

The comparison between the two projects is perhaps obvious, that one is reproducing a historical, unchanging document, while the other reproduces a brand new, constantly-updating and ephemeral one. Indeed until the manifesto was published in Domus magazine (whose editor Joseph Grima is curator of the biennial) the article kept being deleted by Wikipedia editors.

I’m especially interested how the plotter is reproducing the text. The typeface could be Times, but the generous amount of ink the fat nib of the plotter pen puts down, and the way it outlines the characters, makes it hard to tell exactly. Also, looking at the video the output is a serif face but part of the processing (in Processing) looks like it uses something more like Verdana or Tahoma. Could be that different parts of the text are in different faces of course. Curious.

* Though some people saw it as blasphemy and a sign of the imminent demise of humanity, the Earth, and the entire universe. I had some interesting emails.

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Geometrical Psychology

I had been searching for something geometry-related when I found the Euclid book in the last post so when I found the Public Domain Review I wondered if they had anything else about the subject. Turns out they do, and I found this fascinating and somewhat bonkers book from 1887, Geometrical Psychology. Nothing to do with what I was looking for, but it has some remarkable illustrations in it where the author attempts to diagram the evolution of human consciousness. Some of my favourites:

The back of the book also has several pages of adverts for other works available from the publisher, and just the titles alone are fun to read through. Some of my favourites again:

Lunacy, drugs and booze! I’d imagine this was a rather popular set of publications.

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The First Six Books of The Elements of Euclid

A series of unsuccessful (and unrelated) searches led to the happy result of finding this book (and the site it’s on). The Public Domain Review is a fascinating collection of articles about (and a collection of) out-of-copyright texts, images and films, and somehow I’d never seen it before.

I’d seen a page from the book and thought it to be something quite modern, something produced by some later follower of De Stijl or Bauhaus (something the Public Domain Review also comments on), but it is in fact from 1847. Not something you’d associate with early Victorian publishing at all. It’s a remarkable book, and thinking back to when I first learned geometry I wondered if something like this would have helped. In all honesty (and of course entirely my opinion) I can’t say it would. The pages are a visual delight but they compel the learner not only to learn the concepts and mathematical language but a whole new graphical one too. From my memories of Euclid you need a good guiding commentary (or a good teacher, or both) rather than a new translation to help you make the necessary connections and learn the principles well.

The long-s characters and the ornamented capitals are a clue to the age of the book, but the diagrams appear very modern.

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Typographic Rhythm

Something I found the other week and caught my eye, a project by Jonathan Puckey to convey some of the aspects of handwriting, namely speed, into typographic weight. I like the idea, I remember having a pub conversation along similar lines many years ago. It was after a fairly difficult day and the old problem of conveying tone or mood in emails came up. A friend suggested a keyboard with pressure-sensitive keys and software that varied the size, weight, and perhaps even the style of the text depending on your typing speed and the force you were typing with.

The possibilities are still interesting (which is why this caught my eye) and might be an entertaining set of dimensions to add to OpenType. I guess you’d have to be careful with the calibration—some people type as if there are bankers hiding under the keys—otherwise you’d be known as “the shouty one” based on nothing but your emails.

Image via Jonathan Puckey‘s site. Also check out his Lettering Tool. Sadly it’s not available to download.

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