Hans Eduard Meier Passes Away At Age 91

Like I mentioned in my announcement of the TDC Medal 2014 for contemporary type design powerhouse David Berlow, mid-July was a week of both celebration and sadness in the world of type design and typography. On Tuesday, July 15 Swiss type designer Hans Eduard Meier passed away peacefully, aged 91. If his name doesn’t immediately ring a bell, the name of his typeface certainly will be familiar. Syntax is one of the best-known sans serif typefaces. Even more, I would like to make a case for it being the first true humanist sans, a genre that reached new heights of popularity around the turn of the millennium (and is still going strong) with the appearance on the market of early FontFonts like FF Meta and FF Scala Sans. Meier’s passion for typeface design spanned over 60 years, during which he witnessed radical changes in type technology.

Comparison between Helvetica (Neue Haas Grotesk) and Univers, classic grotesque designs, and Syntax, H.E. Meier’s humanist design.

Meier’s career in type started when he took an apprenticeship as a compositor in his native Horgen from 1939 to 1942 after graduating from high school. This experience led him to enroll in the School of Applied Arts (now School of Art and Design) in Zurich the following year. Other notable students were Adrian Frutiger, Josef Müller-Brockmann, Emil Ruder, Jean Widmer, … Meier attended the typesetting class with Karl Sternbauer in the first semester, which were followed by two semesters in the specialized typography class taught by Alfred Willimann, a major figure in calligraphy in Switzerland. After finishing the one-semester preparatory course, Meier graduated from the consecutive one-semester class for Graphic Design with Ernst Keller, a renowned graphic artist in Switzerland active from the interbellum until the ’50s. Meier’s first job after university was designer for the magazine Du from 1946 to 1948. He subsequently moved to Paris where he worked as a graphic designer, among others for the UNESCO. On invitation by his former professor Alfred Willimann – whom Meier felt he owed his career to – he returned to his alma mater in Zurich in 1950. He taught letter design and art for over 30 years, until his retirement in 1986. He was known by his students under the nickname “Type-Meier”.

Comparison between Gill Sans, a humanist sans serif with an architectural structure, and Syntax, H.E. Meier’s humanist sans serif with a gestural structure.

Parallel to his teaching job Meier did freelance contract work for the industry. Amongst others he created posters for the concert hall Tonhalle Zürich and Kunsthaus Zürich, the Museum for Modern Art in Zurich. He also created the famous logo for the Liechtenstein-based global company Hilti. In 1959 Meier published the trilingual educational booklet Die Schriftentwicklung / The Development of script and type / Le Développement des caractères, which had its eleventh edition in 1994. 1978 saw him branch out in public speaking, with numerous lectures about type and typography in the USA and Canada, Germany, and his native Switzerland. He lectured digital typeface design at the Department of Computer Systems at ETH Zurich from 1984 to 1992, and at the Department of Graphic Design at the School of Art and Design of the Zurich University of the Arts. Last year Meier returned to his hometown of Horgen where he worked until his death.

Syntax specimen (designed with Syntax Next)

Hans Eduard Meier is best known for his seminal humanist sans Syntax. Developed between 1955 and 1972, the typeface became one of the world’s most prominent sans serifs. While his contemporaries Adrian Frutiger with Univers, and the duo Hoffmann/Miedinger with Neue Haas Grotesk (later rechristened as Helvetica) continued the grotesque tradition, Meier took a radically different route. He sought inspiration in the types of the Renaissance. According to David Quay, Meier revealed in a conversation during ATypI in Paris, 1989, that Syntax’ design was inspired by Sabon, designed by Jan Tschichold. In my opinion Syntax is the first “true” humanist sans. Not to diminish the towering achievement of Eric Gill, the (apparent) absence of stress and the architectural structure of the characters betray that Gill Sans – which predates Syntax by thirty years – is the work of a letter carver. Syntax however has noticeable stroke modulation, fluid letter forms and an almost imperceptible 1° slope that echo the gestural quality of handwritten letters – all the characteristics of a humanist design. This humanist approach would inform all of Meier’s subsequent type designs. Syntax is characterised by an exceptional clarity and readability, and has a warm, friendly personality. The angled endings on diagonal strokes give the face a lively appearance. In keeping with its origins as a sans serif interpretation of Renaissance faces, only the regular weight Syntax Roman has an accompanying italic. Rather surprisingly this is a slanted roman, not a true italic design.

Syntax Next

The initial letter drawings for Syntax were made between 1955 and 1959; first with a brush, then gradually refining the shapes to achieve optically linear stroke widths and a formal appearance. The final artwork was drafted in 1964. The Stempel Type Foundry issued Syntax as metal type from 1968 to 1972, followed by its release for photo composition. Jan Tschichold was full of praise: “… excellent, very easy to read, well designed: better than the related Gill Sans”. The enduring quality of Syntax made it transition to digital technology in 1989, when the Adobe version saw the addition of the two boldest weights Black and Ultra Black.

The other members of the Syntax super family

Once it had entered the digital realm Syntax expanded step by step into a type system. Hans Eduard Meier never relinquished control over his creation. The re-release and expansion was completely developed on the computer of the septuagenerian, from design to screen optimisation. Syntax Letter, a narrower, more calligraphic design with script-like outstrokes joined the family in 1992. Syntax Lapidar (Text & Display) from 1995 were Meier’s forays into antique Roman lapidary script. The original Syntax was digitised a second time in 1997 and augmented with Syntax Serif in 1999. The last member of the super family was Syntax Serif Lapidar (Text & Display) in 2001. In 2000 Syntax Next was released with a more rationalised weight progression, and italics for all the weights. Because Meier believed the original designs for Syntax were not longer satisfactory, he revised them entirely. He considered the new Syntax Next to be the ultimate version of his humanist sans.

Some other typefaces by H.E. Meier

The expansion of the Syntax type system was only one aspect of Hans Eduard Meier’s increased output once he started working on the computer. A collaboration with the Computer Systems Institute generated Barbedor in 1984, ITC Syndor in 1986, Oberon Serif in 1992 and Elysa in 2002. Besides his commercially available typefaces, Meier created bespoke typefaces too. His SNB-Alphabet (abbreviation for Swiss National Bank) features on the current Swiss Bank notes. Meier also is considered the father of Swiss cursive writing, having designed ABC Basisschrift and ABC Schulschrift, developed to aid children in Swiss primary schools to learn how to read and write.

Upon his passing, his pupil and companion Beat Stamm sent around an e-mail saying “This past Tuesday Hans Eduard Meier passed away peacefully. I’ll fondly remember Hans’ humorous yet patient way to teach me the basics of typography. Rest in Peace, Hans.”