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 a’s 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.
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.)
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 Nudista, Kulturista, 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.)