A case for Univers
In connection with my work, I am often asked why I prefer Univers not only to serif typefaces but also to other sans serifs such as Futura, Gill, or Helvetica.
My own preference for Univers begins with its still-contemporary form and its comprehensive series of fonts. In the early 20th century, the vehement and animated debate between proponents and opponents of the then new sans serif type required typographers to take a stand for one side or the other. Today, the issue of serifs versus sans serif is no longer of aesthetic relevance or ideological interest: the decision to use one face or the other is better made on the basis of functionality and appropriateness.
Traditionalists argue that serif type is more readable than sans serif. While this may be so with lengthy text, readability is in most cases less a function of the presence of serifs in the typeface than of other factors: namely type size, weight, and slant; line length and interline space; paper, printing, and reading conditions. In fact, the most important determinant of legibility (clarity and efficiency in reading) and readability (pleasure and interest in reading) is not the particular typeface but the arrangement and structure of information.
Throughout my professional career, I have worked with many sans serif typefaces; among them all I have found Univers uniquely versatile. Univers has neither the rigid forms of Helvetica nor the geometric constructions of Futura; unlike Gill and many other sans serif faces it comprises a series complete in terms of weights as well as widths. Univers, moreover, is quietly refined in its visual details; nothing extraneous detracts from the essential form of individual letters. The upper case letters, which are only slightly heavier than lower “read” distinctly but unobtrusively in lengthy texts.
Univers was created in the early 1950s by Adrian Frutiger, a Swiss type designer with a profound knowledge of the history of type and print technology. The first typeface ever conceived as a complete series, the original Univers series consists of 21 fonts, with Univers 55 serving as the primary font from which the other 20 were developed. Univers 55 manifests all the characteristics of a good text typeface. Its large x-height with short ascenders and descenders makes the font compact yet readable in small point sizes.
Univers was designed as a matrix with 55 at the center: to the left are expanded fonts, to the right condensed; above light, below bold. A two-digit number identifies each font. The first digit indicates weight, the second slant; roman is indicated by odd numbers, italics by even. Inherent in this matrix of 21 fonts are countless possibilities for visual contrast in typographic design.
Since the introduction of desktop publishing, several Univers fonts were deliberately altered in their conversion to digital form by software manufacturers. In particular, the desktop versions of Univers 47, 57, and 67 are considerably wider than their originals, consequently weakening the contrasts between different widths. Nevertheless, Univers remains, in my opinion, unequalled for its completeness, versatility, and aesthetic distinction. Especially in the late 20th century when novelty is unhesitatingly embraced and typefaces can be created on a whim, it is hard to imagine a typeface so thoroughly conceived and executed as Univers.
Univers, of course, is not the only typeface suitable for use in typographic design. Variety is necessary – and desirable. Choosing a typeface is a process of elimination based on whether the macro- and microaesthetic qualities of the typeface are appropriate to the purpose of the communication and its context of use. Even after carefully considering all of these factors, though, a number of typefaces might be suitable for any given problem. Ultimately, the final choice of typeface is a question of personal preference and taste.
All typefaces serve fundamentally the same purpose: to communicate. The purpose behind the communication – for example, to inform, to entertain, or to persuade – is expressed, in part, by the typeface chosen. As the communication objectives change, so might the typeface.
Depending on its context of use, different criteria must be applied when selecting a typeface. When used in display size on a poster, typefaces are evaluated on purely aesthetic criteria: how the qualities of the letterforms, in that particular size, interact for that particular set of words. When used for continuous text, both aesthetic and functional criteria come into play. Legibility then becomes the key consideration.
The criteria of legibility require that extra attention be paid to the specific letterforms of the typeface. Reading is a dynamic process in which all letterforms have equal value: each letterform must integrate unobtrusively into the flow of words. Because letterforms with too much individuality and character distract the reader, a typeface with too many idiosyncrasies or unusual letterforms will, most likely, not work for continuous text. Typefaces that appear more legible than others share certain characteristics such as harmony, simplicity, and dignity, qualities that are difficult to determine and quantify.
On the macroaesthetic level, a typeface is evaluated on the form and counter form of its letters, their combination in words, and the relative size of its upper and lower case. Microaesthetically, the focus is on the tapering of curves, the connection of strokes, the form of serifs, and the proportions of ascenders and descenders. In financial communications, for instance, the form of the numerals may determine the choice of a particular typeface. All of these subtle nuances in the design of letterforms contribute to the reason for preferring one typeface to another.
A typeface should always be evaluated in the size, type of composition, and, if possible, the color it is to be used in. A single-line type specimen is insufficient to determine the suitability of a typeface. For the same reason, it is impossible to judge typographic design based on a sketch, which does not show the nuances of letterform details, size, interline space and line breaks. One of the benefits of computer technology is that it allows easy examination of these details while the project is still in the development phase.
The immense number of available typefaces tempts designers to use type style as a crutch. Typeface itself, they assume, will rescue a weak and flaw-ridden design; conversely, a bad typeface will be blamed for a poor solution. Good typographic design depends less on the chosen typeface than on arrangement, size, line length, letter, word and interline space.
Mediocre typography is caused mainly by confusion and incompetence in working with these variables, not bad typefaces. Using a novelty typeface will not save poor typographic design any more than a classic typeface will. With skill and imagination, an unusual typeface can indeed yield interesting results; still, it is better in the end to use a limited selection of proven typefaces diligently and with intelligence than to rely on novelty faces that inevitably lead to results that soon look dated.
First published in Typography: Macro- and Microaesthetics, 1998