Eksell Display weights

Typeface Review

Eksell Display

Reviewed by Paul Shaw on May 9, 2016

Eksell Display is an odd font in more ways than one.

Some of its letters are decidedly strange, but so also are its origins and its reason for being. The design is based on an alphabet — not a typeface — that Olle Eksell, a modernist Swedish designer, drew in 1962.

Söderström has done little more than digitize the letters and fill out the basic contemporary character set (e.g., adding accented characters, punctuation, etc.). To make the font more versatile there are three optical sizes (Small, Medium, and Large) — though all are for display — and to make it more salable there is a stencil version. The latter is the only place where Söderström has inserted himself into the design. In general, he has taken a respectful, hands-off approach to Eksell’s original letters. At least this is what can be inferred, since neither the origins nor the development process of Eksell Display are discussed on the Letters from Sweden website.

I bring up this point because Eksell Display has some letters that stand out immediately, most notably ‘g’ but also the ‘a, f, r, t, y’. Either you like them or you don’t, all depending upon your aesthetic taste and background in letters. I find them inconsistent and thus grating. Yet, the consistency of other letters (most notably the ‘O’ group) equally irritates me. I keep wanting to push the ‘O’ and ‘o’ to the right so that they don’t roll over. Essentially, Eksell Display is a typeface that makes me want to get out my pencil and redraw many of its letters. Some of the letters that are annoy­ing as part of an alphabet or typeface, such as the ‘g’ and ‘y’, are charming on their own. In short, these letters look like the work of a graphic designer (with­out any deep skill in lettering), not a type designer.

And here is where Söderström’s respectful approach to Olle Eksell’s alphabet is a liability. I keep wondering what he might have achieved if he had been more willing to take the intriguing aspects of the letters and incorporate them into a more homogeneous and coherent design. Get rid of the tilted axis of the round letters, throw out the droopy arm of ‘r’ (and the similar shape in ‘c’ and ‘5’), find a more satisfying termination for ‘f’ and ‘t’ — but keep the ‘g’, ‘y’, and the distinctive ‘2’. As it is now, Eksell Display is too eager to show how original it is, when a more subdued approach would have been both more functional and more powerful.

Of course, I realize that Söderström may have had his hands tied in making a digital incarnation of Eksell’s alphabet due to moral-rights issues. Although the foundry site does not explicitly say it, the typeface appears to have been designed for use on “The Official Website of the Legendary Swedish Designer Olle Eksell (1918–2007)” (as the splash page grandiosely proclaims). It appears there for headers; in small doses it is less offensive than when seen in the sample texts of the foundry’s promotional PDF.

The Olle Eksell website has a shop that sells three prints of the “alphabet” (uppercase, lowercase, or an overlapping display of the stencil version) but, oddly enough, not the Eksell Display font. Eksell may be legendary, but the font isn’t.

I chose Eksell Display as a “favorite of 2015” because it was by Olle Eksell, a modernist designer who is virtually unknown in the United States, and because it was a revival. I am fascinated by the myriad challenges that revivals of lettering and typefaces present. Flawed attempts — like this one — are as informative as successes.

Paul Shaw is a designer and a design historian. He is author of the book Helvetica and the New York City Subway System and editor of Codex.

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