Monday, January 4, 2010

Stroke and Background play to create Type (Gerard Unger)

Thirty years of Gerard Unger's highly legible text and display typefaces can now be seen together on his new Web site. (
Written by
John D. Berry on February 9, 2003

Gerard Unger's typeface designs have added both style and legibility to any number of publications. Until now, however, his influence has been less obvious than it might be, because his work is scattered in so many places. The debut of his own Web site concentrates examples of all of his work in one place, making it easier to see both the forest and the trees. It's also a well-designed site with a lot of useful information.

Type for Everyday Use
Unger's best-known typefaces are probably Swift (1985), Amerigo (1986), and Flora (1984). His newspaper face Gulliver (1993) is familiar to millions of readers, as it's the typeface used in both "USA Today" and several European newspapers; but newspaper readers seldom know the name of the typeface they're reading, and Gulliver is not generally available except to large publishing houses. If you live in the Netherlands, you probably see Unger's letters almost every day; he has designed typefaces for the signage systems of both the Dutch highways and the Amsterdam metro.

One of Unger's type designs is used on road signage in the Netherlands.
Most of Unger's type designs, however, are text faces, even if many of them will also work at display sizes. They tend to combine well with each other; he has designed sans serif type families that complement his serif families (
Oranda with Amerigo, for instance, or Praxis with Demos), but even the less obviously related faces of his seem to work together. With their similar treatment of strokes, Unger's typeface Swift harmonizes remarkably well with this Chinese typeface. He has updated some of his earlier type designs, which were created for cruder digital typesetting systems or for use on lower-quality paper: Demos (1976) was redigitized and revised in 2001 for the German government, and Swift (1985) has been upgraded to a new version, Swift 2.0.
Unger has always worked with the constraints of technology in mind, and he is quite articulate about how and why he created particular features of his typefaces. One of the first typefaces he designed was called
"This type for signage on the Amsterdam metro," says Unger, "was designed in collaboration with a workgroup led by Pieter Brattinga. As a fair proportion of the signs are illuminated from within, using fluorescent tubes, the principles of optics were taken as the basis for the design. Whatever form an opening has -- triangular, square or polygonal -- the light shining through it onto a surface always tends to form a circle. M.O.L. is rounded throughout as a device to make illuminated lettering more even and legible. This was the first type design in which I started experimenting with the counters of letters (the spaces within the letters) by making them larger as a way of improving legibility."
Unger's playfulness is evident in this footnote to the description of M.O.L.: "Mol is the Dutch word for a mole. The workgroup had come up with the idea of a mole as a mascot for the new underground railway. Outside every station in the city there would be a giant molehill with a mole pointing the way to the entrance with his nose. The idea was torpedoed by the city authorities, but we let it live on in the name of the typeface."

The Thick and Thin of It
Unger's typefaces are distinctive. Even when he designs very different kinds of letters, the forms tend to bear a family resemblance to each other. Most of his typefaces are upright and sturdy; even the most refined could be described as typographic workhorses. This is squarely in the tradition of Dutch type design, which gave us many of the useful text typefaces of the 17th century -- and many of the useful text faces of the late 20th. As he notes in talking about M.O.L., Unger pays careful attention to the spaces within each letter and to the spaces between letters. The interplay of stroke and background is integral to type design -- quite consciously so in the work of Gerard Unger.
But Unger's fascination with that interplay also shows up in the form of the strokes he draws to make each letter. His strokes tend to come to points, not only at the ends of serifs but where one stroke meets another within a letter. This gives a sparkle and liveliness to the letters when they're set large, and makes it especially easy to distinguish different forms when they're set small in text. Sometimes the joins between strokes get so thin that they almost seem to disappear. He has experimented with this phenomenon to see how much can be taken away and still be legible; the font that he created for
FontShop's Fuse 2, called Decoder (1992), uses bits and pieces of his typeface Amerigo to make a pattern of shapes that pushes the limits of what can comfortably be read. Unger deconstructed one of his own type designs to see how much of legibility is just a matter of suggestion.

All the Type that's Fit for News
Several of Unger's typefaces have been designed as text faces for newspapers. As a result (or perhaps as a cause), he has given a great deal of thought to what makes a typeface readable in that unforgiving format. In discussing his recent design Coranto (2000), he notes:
"Over the past twenty-five years newspaper production has seen spectacular improvements in paper and print quality, the introduction of colour printing, and vastly better register. These changes have gone almost unnoticed, having been largely overshadowed by the arrival of the Internet. For text type the newspaper is no longer an environment in which survival is the chief assignment. Today, newspapers are not merely a matter of cheap grey paper, thin ink and super-fast rotary printing, and type design no longer has to focus on surviving the mechanical technology and providing elementary legibility. Now there is also room to create an ambience, to give a paper a clearer identity of its own; there is scope for precision and refinement. One consequence of this is that newspaper designers can now look beyond the traditional group of newsfaces. (Conversely, a newsface can be used outside the newspaper - not an uncommon occurrence.)"
The same typeface can be used in very different ways, to different effect. As Unger himself has pointed out in talks at design conferences, his typeface Gulliver appears quite different in "USA Today" and in a contemporary German newspaper that also uses it as its text face. The American paper squashes the letters together, both vertically and horizontally, while the German paper gives them even more breathing room than Unger originally built into the fonts. In describing these two cases, Unger is diplomatically noncommittal about which one he prefers.
Fonts of the Eternal CityAmong Unger's most recent type designs are two that he developed as signage typefaces for the Jubilee Year in Rome (2000):
Capitolium and Vesta.

Gerard Unger designed Capitolium for a system of signage in Rome for the Jubilee Year (2000).
He showed both typefaces and
talked about the process of developing them when he spoke at the ATypI conference in Rome last year; ironically, the attendees of the conference could not go out and see his letters in use, because the exigencies of time and bureaucracy meant that they never got used. Unger had the foresight, however, to insist that the rights to the designs revert to him after the Jubilee year, so the two type families are now available directly from their designer.

Gerard Unger's Web site is not only a commercial source of well-designed fonts, it is a wealth of information on type design in general and his own designs in particular. (And I haven't even touched on his graphic design, or his teaching.) Whether you intend to shop for new fonts or just to browse, this is a site well worth your time.

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