Type Trends: Erbar ‘a’

This series is where I point out prominent trends and undercurrents in type and the lettering arts, typography, and graphic design. Up until now I’ve more or less stuck to my own narrative that design is taking a more relatable, personable approach to creating relationships between design clients and their customers. Turning the page now to cover trends I see in type design, I’ll focus more on pointing out the trends, and perhaps do my worst to come up with some sort of cogent explanation or rationale for why designers make the decisions they do, but I would invite the reader to exercise skepticism over any conclusions I put forward. This isn’t design history canon, just me calling it like I see it.

The a above I’m calling the Erbar a. Though it predates Jakob Erbar, he seems to show the most commitment to it. Rudolf Koch’s Kabel includes it. Paul Renner’s early drawings of Futura have it too, as an alternate. I’m referring to the geometric double-story a with a near-round or elliptical bowl. The above illustrates left to right a progression toward a rationalized geometric sans, each keeping its own elliptical bowl. And while this could perhaps fit into a meatier edition of Type Trends called “Faces with Jarring Character Constructions,” I’m happy to merely raise the point that these ‘Erbar as are something I’m seeing more and more of lately.

Just a little history: Jacob Erbar’s 1927 self-titled work, published by Ludwig and Mayer constitutes what we consider today the first geometric sans typeface. There’s evidence to suggest that at the time, the construction of his a wasn’t so out of the ordinary given its prevalence in signage, etc., but now I think it’s safe to say it’s uncommon.

Latching on to the newness of the uncommon are a number of type designers, many of whom distribute their faces exclusively or don’t offer them as retail products, who incorporate this character construction as a way of setting their faces apart, or merely because they find it fits.

Verena Gerlach & Ole Schäfer’s FF City Street series, 2000, is a faithful digitization of street signage alphabets from 1930s Berlin. As Jack Mohr notes in the comments below, ‘West Berlin’ would not have the same meaning to Berliners then as it has now, therefore the fonts are named after the place their source material survived, West Berlin.

Aldo Novarese’s Recta, 1958. (2011 revival by Patrick Griffin)

Mark Simonson’s Proxima Sans, 1994, & Proxima Nova, 2005.

Berton Hasebe’s Platform, 2010.

Kris Sowersby’s Metric & Calibre, 2012.

Sindre Bremnes’s Telefon, unreleased, Monokrom Type Foundry. Photo by Frode Bo Helland, 2012. Telefon began from the lettering of architect Georg Fredrik Fasting. (Update: FontShop now carries Monokrom’s library, including the above Telefon.)

Eric Olson’s Colfax, 2012, Bryant, 2005.

Seeing them all I find the Erbar a construction to be a nice quirk, that when used in conjunction with a strict adherence to geometric ideals adds character and maybe even a bit of age to one’s face. Not age that tires, but that takes you back—like encountering the familiar face of an old friend. Let me know in the comments where else you’re seeing this. I’m interested.

(Update: A few I missed/Thanks for your comments: Jason Castle’s Sonrisa, 2011, is a contrasty (with the exception of its thinnest weight) condensed display face based on Erbar’s Koloss. Rudolf Koch’s Kabel, 1928—How on earth did I just skip over this? Allesandro Butti’s Semplicità, 1930, (2011 revivial by Patrick Griffin) features several spurless characters, including the a in question. Tomas Brousil’s NudistaKulturista, 2009 & Purista, 2007, each a stylistic/structural variation on a theme that employs the Erbar a. Lastly, Hoefler & Frere-Jones’s Verlag, 2006, just barely makes it onto this list given the counter shape of the bowl. Also, thanks Nick Sherman for pointing out that a more objective way of identifying the letter construction is by looking at the angle of the top join of the bowl. It’s for this reason mainly, and because they’re not geometric sanses, that I didn’t include faces like H&FJ’s Gotham, MVB’s Sweet Sans, or Hendrik Weber’s Edward. Also thanks Joe Clark for pointing out our publishing platform’s knack for turning quotes upside down.)

8 Comments

  1. Richard Taylor
    Posted November 15, 2012 at 8:00 PM | Permalink

    Nice idea for a piece. I’d have liked to see a bit more historical detail — a date or two wouldn’t have gone amiss.

    Other examples which spring to mind:
    Kabel
    Nudista by Suitcase
    Semplicita, like Recta an Italian revival by Canada Type

    (Semplicita is known as the ‘Italian Futura’, while Recta is the ‘Italian Helvetica’ — both fonts feature an ‘Erbar’ /a/, unlike their more famous German/Swiss counterparts.)

  2. Gabriel
    Posted November 16, 2012 at 12:06 AM | Permalink

    Brilliant observation. I’d love to explore some of the pre-Erbar types further. Verena and platform “a” are works of art

  3. Posted November 16, 2012 at 8:15 AM | Permalink

    Glad to see you making a formal identification of this trend, David. I’ve similarly noticed an increased presence of this rotund form, and have been referring to it as the “potbelly a”.

    As you pointed out, there are a notable batch of newer typefaces that incorporate this form, but I also think an increased *usage* of such typefaces is just as responsible for its recent prominence. In particular, I’ve noticed it more and more in the realm of art books that employ what some people refer to as an “anti-design” style (see trendlist.org for examples). It’s hard to say whether the new usage is due to more typefaces with the form being released, or the other way around. I guess it’s a bit of a chicken vs. egg situation.

    In addition to the round shape of the bowl (and its counter) that you mentioned, another indicator to look for that is less subjective is the angle at which the upper stroke of the bowl meets the vertical stem. That angle is notably acute in all of the examples I can think of, certainly in the examples you’ve shown here.

  4. Lucas Sharp
    Posted November 16, 2012 at 8:53 AM | Permalink

    Thats a good point Nick, I think the definitive aspect of this particular move is the acuteness of that angle which is a byproduct of an overall symmetry along the horizontal axis of the bowl. Without that acuteness, you endup with something more like the Gotham a.

    The “Erbar a” is awesome cause you can have a 2-story a as well as a perfect bowl shape to rhyme with your b,d,p, q, & etc. – works great in geo sans! Platform is dope!

  5. Posted November 16, 2012 at 1:12 PM | Permalink

    There was no “West Berlin” street sign typography in 1930. East and West Berlin are results of WWII, which is when the west kept the highly legible typography while the east turned to a very difficult condensed type. As most street signs were unchanged after the reunification, the typography is a good indicator to tell on which side of Berlin you are.

  6. Posted November 16, 2012 at 8:02 PM | Permalink

    Add Verlag to the list…

  7. Frode Bo Helland
    Posted November 18, 2012 at 12:12 PM | Permalink

    Even though I took the image, Telefon is designed by Sindre Bremnes.

  8. Posted November 18, 2012 at 12:36 PM | Permalink

    Thank you for mentioning Telefon. It will very soon be released. It has to be said, though, that the lower case has nothing at all to do with Fasting’s lettering, but designed by me. It is however influenced by Jakob Erbar’s grotesque and to some extent by Oslo’s old street signs.

    Sindre Bremnes, Monokrom

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