In a culture that puts such a high value, both artistic and moral, on originality, type design has become particularly tricky.
On the one hand, everybody involved is aware of the limited freedom in the design of functional typefaces: stray away too far from convention and readability/usability evaporates. On the other, heated discussions arise over details as seemingly futile as the shape of a serif: should a designer ask for permission from the (perceived) first user of, say, asymmetrical wedge-shaped serifs when she’d like to try ’em too?
The simpler a typeface’s basic structure, the more difficult it becomes to introduce a degree of originality while still maintaining the overall feeling of normality that seems to be a condition of a (text) face’s success. The multi-purpose sans serif is a case in point. If we use Frutiger as a touchstone of some kind, that sly mutation of Univers, which in turn was a polished version of late nineteenth-century jobbing faces, then the tree structure of possible derivatives of that model is now almost completely plastered with subtly different varieties. Before long, type designers will have no room whatsoever to enter that area without treading on a colleague’s sensitive toes.
Assuming, as I do, that sans is what will be used for more and more text settings – how can progress be achieved? How can letterforms express a contemporary attitude without giving up ease of use or that elusive quality called modesty? Is there any more mileage in the quest for some kind of hyper-neutral über-Helvetica? Can we get something new out of deriving yet another humanist sans from yet another contemporary renaissance-style font family?
When embarking on the Agile project, Swiss-born Edgar Walthert decided to go where few designers, if any at all, had gone before. In order to achieve that, he designed his family from the inside out, the way one might conceive an experimental dance performance: not by taking existing solutions and trying to modify or interpolate them, or mash them up, but by improvising possible shapes and gradually refine the results. Walthert was looking for something between the clean, technical typefaces of the post-Frutiger variety, and the popular genre of hand-written faces – friendly but often messy. What he came up with was a family that is informed by his time at KABK Type]Media, and working as an assistant to Luc(as) de Groot, without showing clear traces of the style and approach usually associated with “The Hague”. If the idea of handwriting was at the core of Walthert’s initial experiments, the resulting family hardly shows it: it is very much a printing typeface – precise, clean and almost monolinear, yet lively and pleasant all the same. Moreover, as no character was derived mechanically from others and all were individually drawn, there is an almost imperceptible irregularity about the fonts that adds to their sense of effortless suppleness.
Working at Lucasfonts did leave its mark on Walthert’s approach of a maximalist family structure. For the demanding user, Agile is one of those faces that cover virtually all possible uses. Its many figure styles and ready-made fractions are well drawn and practical; its extreme weights, from Hairline to Fat, make for wicked headlines. In addition, thanks to a smart use of Stylistic Sets it provides the user with possibilities to customize the overall text image, by choosing alternate shapes for ‘a’, ‘g’, ‘k’, ‘y’, and more.
Jan Middendorp is an independent researcher, writer and designer based in Berlin. His books include “Dutch Type”, “Type Navigator” (with TwoPoints.Net) and “Shaping Text”. He teaches at Berlin’s Weißensee college and Antwerp’s Plantin Institute.