There are many ways to organize typefaces. Some invent impossible classifications, others simply divide everything in two buckets: text “faces” and display “fonts”. Another way is to define a typeface by its function. With this in mind, Equity is the surprise of 2011.
Often, surprises come from the youth, the products of the fabulous courses dedicated to typeface design, with their small details and special finishes. I like to spot the influences and references in the work of a new generation. But such typefaces are often for the eyes of other typeface designers. Their main function is as a tool for learning typeface design. This doesn’t mean this sort of design is bad, just that the work exists primarily for the judgement of one’s peers.
Matthew Butterick is not one of these type designers. His work in the field began long ago. (If I recall correctly, when at Font Bureau in the ’90s he wrote a small program called Rotisserie to help copy spacing values from capitals to small caps and so on.) Later, his life pushed him in various directions, from web design to yoga to law. For 15 years he was outside the type world. But typeface design never leaves your blood. The details, the methods, the peculiar habits are always a part of your brain. His 2010 book, “Typography for Lawyers” was the first sign of his incurable typoholism. As an attorney, Butterick was constantly confronted with the mediocre typography of the law world. A professional with feet in both worlds, he was in an ideal position to design a typeface for a very specific use: “a sixty-page brief for the United States Supreme Court, or a two-line confirmation of a client meeting tapped out in an airport terminal”, as he explains on his website. “As a typographer, writer, and lawyer, Equity is a font I always wanted for my own work. Now that it’s here, I find it indispensable.”
Equity is a typeface with the good intention of being read and to serve the content of legal documents. It’s also a typeface born from the wonderful Ehrhardt, a Morisonian kind of typeface, a cousin of Times, and a typeface that I enjoyed reading in the University of Reading’s “Typographic Matters” or the earlier editions of “Modern Typography”. The digital Ehrhardt isn’t as good as the metal version, of course, but it has a narrow darkness and passive style that suits reading, serving a purpose a bit like Georgia serves for the web. Simple and effective, Equity is made for a precise subject, and that’s what makes it so appealing.
My intention, from the first line of this text, wasn’t to describe the typeface — the clever proposal of grades, the nicely set specimens, the well considered punctuation — as his specimen explains these features better than I could, but to try to capture the feeling I got the moment I opened the PDFs. Again, Butterick’s own words articulate it best: “Weirdly, I feel like a better, more confident type designer now, even though I haven’t done it in so long. Working with type as a web designer and as a writer has helped me better appreciate how type works. When I draw a comma on the screen, I can now visualize the path that comma will travel on its way out into the world. Type is the beginning, not the end.”
If, as Butterick says, “‘Good typography’ is typography that serves the needs of the document,” Equity is a very good typeface.