Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Love at first type

It's often said that Helvetica, that typeface we all know and (mostly) love, that defined mid-century modernism in typography and has been used profusely ever since its release in 1957, was inspired directly by one earlier font, Akzidenz Grotesk, a round and characteristic sans-serif designed by G√ľnter Gehard Lange of the H. Berthold type foundry. Recently I downloaded several weights of Akzidenz Grotesk (a name not too dissimilar to Helvetica's original title of 'Die Neue Haas Grotesk' - yet more similarities), and it's really got me thinking about where Akzidenz fits into the range of sans-serifs we use today, despite being so old. According to typographic standards, it's a grotesque sans (and Helvetica is a neo-grotesque), but there's a lot more to Akzidenz than that.

It's not used commercially as much as, say, Helvetica or Univers, but it still appears here and there. For example, the American Red Cross use it in their graphic identity, and I also noticed it absent-mindedly in my garden, on the packaging of Homebase compost:


Looks nice, doesn't it? It doesn't have those horizontal terminals, those rational restraints of Helvetica, let alone the squarish forms of Univers. It's a little freer and a little more natural, though not humanist. In fact, it's damn near my concept of a 'modern sans serif' that I mentioned a few posts back. It's got the right capital R-form and has a petite look, but maybe doesn't quite compare to the contemporary stylings of Gotham. Even still, to see this font used is incredible in 2011. Why? Because it was designed in 1898. That's like designing a modern department store and using pre-Thonet wooden furniture. It's amazing how type, in contrast to furniture, can last for so long - because it's not a physical thing. So long as you can keep hold of the dimensions in one form or another, that typeface can be preserved. Another thing the continued use of Akzidenz tells us is that when your teacher tells you 'sans serifs are modern', they're talking out of their rear end, or some other unpleasant orifice. If their definition of 'modern' is 'in the past century', then they're still wrong. Akzidenz goes incredibly far back.

Using Akzidenz in a modern media, a website, where its boldness is used to give a modernist edge. Photos © people off Google Images, website design © yours truly.

The interesting thing about Akzidenz Grotesk is how modern-looking it is. It has that modernist touch a lot more than Univers (many would disagree but this is my opinion), yet predates both Univers and Helvetica by almost fifty years. Sans-serifs began as industrial designs, such as DIN, created to standardise type, especially in Germany (DIN is in fact named after the German standards institute who commissioned it). DIN was constantly reinvented and redesigned throughout the early 20th century, even during WWII, as a rational and functional alternative to black letter script that could be found across the country. This was a late part of Germany's industrialisation, its move from the Germany of the 19th century to a new, forward-thinking country of technology and standardisation.

Though also being German, I think Akzidenz holds a lot of different values to DIN. They were developed for different purposes, almost opposite purposes. DIN was created to replace serif and script types in practical uses (such as engineering diagrams and railway signage), building letterforms from repeating geometric shapes (rational angles, perfect circles, arcs, etc) in search of the appropriate typographic system. Akzidenz, however, has more character and lacks those restrictions. It's more experimental and the letters differ more from each other than the almost dull regularity of DIN or the visibly squarish forms of Univers. And why? Because it was such an early sans serif. It's practically a serif font, but with the serifs chopped off and personalisations added. Wikipedia dutifully informs me it was based off Walbaum and - get this - Didot. No wonder I like it so much. Any sans-serif taking inspiration from the trendsetting face Didot gets my vote, and if that same font inspired Helvetica, it's surely love at first type.

But I'm not saying Akzidenz is perfect. It certainly isn't, and like Helvetica certain glyphs show its age and its inspiration quite obviously. Akzidenz's numbers are the real giveaway - the archaic serif remnant hanging from the top bar of the 7, the nearly-closed calligraphic counters in the 2 and 5 and (elsewhere in the font) the flared terminals. It's these kinds of unique features that Univers eradicated, prompting many to call it a 'true modern typeface'. Me? I think it's a true functionalist typeface, it has that DIN look to it, unlike Helvetica which has enough style for me to consider it modern [-ist]. Univers reminds me too much of Eurostile, an unusable font for anything other than futuristic titling.

Ignoring DIN (that'll have to wait for another post), I like to think of the three grotesque sans-serif heavyweights of the 20th century (sans Gill Sans, which I think of as humanist) as representative of furniture design styles. They may not coincide chronologically with the furniture, but they hold a similar design intention and style.


Univers is certainly something Bauhaus, it has that German functionalist edge to it. But to me it's imperfect, and it has a futuristic side too. It can only be really appreciated if you see its squarish forms as representative of that utilitarian ideal of the future, like DIN but a little sharper. And for that reason, it's Marcel Breuer's bentmetal 'Wassily' Chair.

As for Akzidenz Grotesk, for me it holds a little too much character for a Bauhaus piece. It's a 'modern' redesigning of an older design - Didot and Walbaum. And what classic chair design of the early 20th century was based off older designs? Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's 'Barcelona' chair, designed for the German Pavilion at the world expo in - you got it - Barcelona. Mies van der Rohe wanted to design something that reflected the ancient stylings of the city and that's where that distinctive leg shape came from. It also has that edge of luxury, of not just being a purely functional piece - and I think Akzidenz has that too.

It's near impossible to pin down Helvetica into a piece of furniture - it means so much to so many. It's totally flexible, as fifty years of use in graphic design has shown us, but when I imagine Helvetica I imagine classic Swiss modernism, those glorious exciting posters of the 40s that made such an impact on the world of graphic design. So who better to show Swiss mid-century design than Le Corbusier? He may not always be my favourite designer (I can't get the hideous image of his chaise longue in cow hide out of my head), but I think his LC2 chair is appropriate for Helvetica. It wears it functionalism in plain sight - that bentmetal tubing framework - but it still manages to look classy and contemporary, without showing too much subjective character. And that, to me, is Helvetica.


I have a bunch more stuff to talk about re: Akzidenz Grotesk, with a load of analysis diagrams, but they'll have to wait for another post because this is enough for now. Two posts on one font? We haven't had something like that since Helvetica itself!

Though you may have skim-read the post and those scarily obsessive typographic bits, I feel a real need to show Akzidenz Grotesk to everyone and let them know where Helvetica came from. Akzidenz played a big part in modernism, and still is affecting graphic design today, way back from 1898. What a font.

~John

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