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Typeface Review

Axia

Reviewed by Florian Hardwig on March 13, 2013

I’m in love with this ‘n’! Pause for a moment and dwell on its beauty. It was made by Sibylle Hagmann, best known for the superfamilies Cholla and Odile/Elido. This ‘n’ is from Hagmann’s most recent typeface, Axia, published on her own Kontour label late in December (and nearly overlooked during the end-of-year bustle). Missing this typeface would have been a shame, for Axia is more than just another square sans.

One central aspect of typeface design is how shoulders are treated. Do curves flow smoothly into stems, or do they meet at an angle? According to Tim Ahrens, this question is almost as defining as the presence of serifs. In order to prevent dark spots, arches are usually tapered. Gerard Unger has made acutely attenuated shoulders his trademark. Hans Reichel’s famous “spurless” designs are another extreme solution to the same challenge.

In designing Axia, Hagmann took a different approach, one that is refreshingly reckless: when a curve reaches its zenith, it kinks sharply and shears toward the stem. This treatment is applied to all letters where rounds and verticals join. It is particularly interesting to see how ‘b’/‘d’ and ‘p’/‘q’ are handled: the “sloped eyebrows” lend the face a stern look. Angular rigor shines through in other details, too. While I like the ‘B’, I find the chamfered top of the ‘t’ and the double-bent ‘J’ a little mannered.

When looking at many releases, I have no idea how the fonts might possibly be used. Not so with Axia, which has a pronounced modernist architectural feel. It’s easy to imagine this typeface applied in the arts, industrial design, and related fields. No wonder — Axia started out as a custom design for the Rice School of Architecture in Houston, Texas. Its shapes are robust enough to be placed on top of photographs, be it for posters or covers. At the same time, they are sufficiently sapid to be looked at — especially in the two fancy stencil cuts — e.g., in exhibition signage.

Axia is constructed and technoid, but not in a naïve or reduced way. Although obviously not made for immersive reading, Axia can also be used for text sizes. Ascenders project above cap height; the ‘g’ is double storied; oldstyle figures are the default. Axia is a text face with character — suitable not for novels, but for catalogs or brochures. As an extraordinary feature, all its styles share the same metrics. The italics are neither too compact nor too inclined. This renders the family ideal for multilingual publications: columns in different languages could be distinguished by using different styles, which will always take up an equal amount of space.

Axia’s uncompromising design execution, with its squarish and rather open forms, leads to some obtrusive glyphs like the oldstyle ‘3’ and ‘9’ with their heavy bottoms. The ‘ß’ (eszett) is too dogmatic for my taste. The designer insisted on accentuating the derivation from ‘ſ’ (long s) plus ‘s’, thereby accepting the resulting wide and complex glyph. At 660 glyphs per weight, Axia covers a considerable range of languages, but some of Axia’s diacritics appear off-center. Another bone of contention is the unorthodox placement of bridges in Axia Stencil.

Don’t let these small criticisms overshadow Axia’s many good aspects. This is a well-produced and full-featured family, including small caps for all styles (except the stencils); case-sensitive alternates; and a complete set of figures, including small cap figures. Incidentally, Hagmann solved the quote mark dilemma. Americans sometimes want their quotation marks top heavy, while Europeans prefer a consistent angle (see this discussion). Axia includes the mirrored American flavor as a stylistic alternate.

You can have a closer look at Axia and its features on the new Kontour website, which launched simultaneously with this remarkable typeface.

Florian Hardwig is a full-time typographer, part-time lecturer, and occasional type writer. With his Berlin-based studio he shapes books, websites and other publications. Florian regularly contributes to Fonts In Use and the German MyFonts.de blog.

5 Comments

  1. Hrant says:

    I’m fascinated by the fact that Axia is 100% uniwidth (i.e. any given character is the same set-width in any style). I used to be sure that’s not possible without overly compromising the very light and very dark weights… So do you think it’s working here? That would be a highly encouraging precedent.

    BTW, I don’t get the “ideal for multilingual publications” bit. Could you explain that?

  2. Imagine a Swiss publication in French, German and Italian. If you don’t want to rely on layout alone to differentiate the various languages (and can’t afford spot colors), it can be handy to use a different typeface style for each.

    Usually, an Italic is more space-saving, while a Bold runs wider. For longer texts, one can take advantage of these differences by balancing the otherwise diverging text lengths against each other (German has a higher character count than, say, Italian).

    But in art catalogues, there are often very short text bits, with content that is repeated identically or almost identically across the languages – think of image captions, credits, CVs, lists. Sometimes it would be nice if a title or name in Bold shared the exact same set width with its Regular (or Italic) equivalent in the line below (or the column next to it). This is where Axia’s special feature comes into play. I know, it’s anal.

    Axia’s Bold and Italic are serviceable not so much for classic emphasis – the Bold is rather a Semibold, and the Italic’s slope is not very pronounced. What sounds like a disadvantage can be of benefit, too: for the same reasons, these styles can be employed in their own right.

  3. Hrant says:

    Lightish Bold? Gently-inclined Italic? Those aren’t bugs — those are features!

  4. Love the stencils!

  5. Axia’s stencils are quite special indeed, and some of the intermittent letterforms are wonderful eyecatchers. As I hinted at in the review, I am not convinced by the arty placement of the bridges, though. While the open-bowled ‘b’ almost looks unstencilled, the ‘s’ unnecessarily is interrupted twice. The ‘g’ has four gaps where two would have sufficed. The design of the ‘f’ ligatures is again a case of dogma: Flaunting an explicitly ligated form was ruled more important than having a pleasing understated glyph. The weirdest thing is the bridgeless counter of ‘e’.

    I realize that stencily fonts hardly ever are applied as actual stencils, and thus don’t need to adhere to such technical limitations. Still, I’d prefer a Stencil that has the potential to work as such. Maybe I am too conservative here. With Puncho and the Bery series, Fred Smeijers proved that it is possible to do startling and fascinating Stencils within the traditional boundaries of the genre.

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Typographica is a review of typefaces and type books, with occasional commentary on fonts and typographic design. Edited by Stephen Coles and designed by Chris Hamamoto. Founded in 2002 by Joshua Lurie-Terrell. Relaunched in 2009 by Coles and Hamamoto.

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