An appreciation for all types

MIT showcases fonts of young Swiss designers

Template Woodcut, designed by David Keshavjee and Julien Tavelli, is blocky, and fractured, with an 8 that features two overlapping circles. Template Woodcut, designed by David Keshavjee and Julien Tavelli, is blocky, and fractured, with an 8 that features two overlapping circles. (Judith M. Daniels/MIT Museum)
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / December 28, 2010

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Consider Helvetica, the humble font designed in 1957 by Swiss designer Max Miedinger with help from Eduard Hoffmann. It was based on a German typeface of the late 19th century, Akzidenz-Grotesk, the first sans-serif font to catch on.

Miedinger set out to streamline Akzidenz-Grotesk. His agenda was typically mid-20th-century modernist: Create a type with clarity, so clean that it would not influence a reader’s perceptions of the text. Calligraphic curlicues broadcast a certain baroque formality. Helvetica aimed to be transparent in its utility.

Helvetica became a giant among fonts. Even today, when new fonts are as common and disposable as tissues, the eminently readable Helvetica remains a typographical stalwart.

“Types We Can Make,’’ an exhibition of recently developed fonts, stands on Helvetica’s unfussy shoulders. The fonts on view in the MIT Museum’s Compton Gallery, by Swiss designers affiliated with the University of Art and Design of Lausanne, Switzerland (ECAL), are not all utilitarian sans-serif types. Some are frilly. Some are positively wacky. But they all lean into aesthetics typical of Swiss design as exemplified by Helvetica (the Latin word for “Swiss’’): exacting and verging on mathematical. White space plays as pivotal a role as curves, stems, and serifs. And, although forward-looking, the Swiss designers are always mindful of tradition.

While the content of “Types We Can Make’’ is fascinating, the exhibition design leaves something to be desired — it’s a show that makes a better book, if you opt to purchase the catalog instead. Fonts are displayed on corrugated cardboard sandwich boards a shade above waist height, better suited to a child’s viewing than an adult’s. Each has a little clip-on text that names its maker and describes its origin. Scattered amid all those alphabets are movie posters, magazine covers, ads, and corporate logos in which the fonts are used. There’s an informative video about type design, but the show is a bit of an insider’s guide. For those who are not type geeks, more basic education would come in handy: a hands-on computer type-design program, say, and a chart contrasting similar fonts.

I’m a typographical neophyte, so to me one font looks a lot like the next. But if you explain why Replica is different from Theinhardt Grotesk, then I’ll develop a discerning eye. They’re both seamless sans-serif fonts. Replica, designed by Dimitri Bruni and Manuel Krebs, is a grid-based font, accompanying text tells us, and the bevels at the end of the stems reveal the grid’s structure. A helpful graphic has characters playing over a grid, and you see how the tip of a “y’’ forms a right angle, drawing the angled line out into an arrow.

Theinhardt Grotesk (in font lingo, “grotesk’’ denotes sans-serif, not some gothic or monstrous twist to the type) was designed by François Rappo, head of ECAL’s graphic design department and co-curator of this show. It nods to 19th-century punch cutter Ferdinand Theinhardt, we’re told, whose foundry produced the earliest sans-serif types, but also makes reference to 1960s-era types. Theinhardt Grotesk’s “J,’’ “C,’’ and “Q’’ are blunter than Replica’s, but the stems on the lowercase letters bend elegantly at the end, whereas Replica’s stems are straight and utilitarian.

What does it matter? A great deal. Type conveys ideas and emotion. Template Woodcut, designed by David Keshavjee and Julien Tavelli, is blocky, fractured, stuttering. In the “S,’’ two half circles cut into one another. The “8’’ features two crowded, overlapping circles. The font is squat but arty; it brings to mind a scruffy, intense art student with coffee and cigarettes on his breath, arguing over theory.

Technology has changed the art of the font. Today, software makes type design simple. Corporations demand custom types for branding. There are a million nuances of design, and just as many fonts out there — so many that we may be numbed to how they affect us. But canny marketers tune in. Cargo is a bold headline font designed by Gilles Gavillet and David Rust; it’s distinguished by unusually curved stencil cuts. Some will recognize it as the typeface used for the logotype of Jay-Z’s entertainment company, Roc Nation.

In the tradition of Helvetica, I’ve focused on sans-serif fonts, but the show has several serif styles, as well, including Rappo’s almost flowery New Fournier BP, based on the work of 18th-century French typographer Pierre Simon Fournier, but digitally updated. Then there’s Philipp Herrmann’s forceful font, Piek, designed after the spade on traditional playing cards.

My favorite of the bunch is GLK Pointer, designed by Jeremy Schorderet from elements of a dismantled Mercedes Benz logo. It’s round and pointy, as you might expect; the “A’’ is a circle propped up like an easel by two legs. The “P’’ is as impertinent as a cone bra. I wouldn’t want to read a book printed in GLK Pointer, but for ad copy, it’s sharp, nervy, and hopped up. Brimming with attitude, it’s the opposite of the demure, nearly transparent Helvetica. And while GLK Pointer almost certainly will never gain Helvetica’s traction, it’s gratifying, amid the many utilitarian fonts in this show with their shades of differences, to see an upstart.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at

TYPES WE CAN MAKE At: MIT Museum Compton Gallery, 77 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, through Feb. 20. 617-258-9106,