Like a taste you can’t quite place, Neutral is there, in the mix, supporting the main flavors in your design dish. You know it’s there — a typeface can’t not be there — and it seems familiar, but… you can’t put your finger on it.
Kai Bernau’s Neutral is an “attempt to create a typeface that is free of all connotations or associations that could distract a reader from the text”. A typeface that doesn’t call attention to itself. A true crystal goblet. It’s an average typeface in every sense of the word, and that’s the whole point.
Bernau based his design on Plato’s doctrine of Ideas, which posits that there are perfect, abstract, intangible archetypes representing every kind of object in the physical world. According to Plato, this is why, when we look at many different kinds of things, for instance individual chairs, we still recognize them all as the same kind of thing: “a chair”. Neutral is Bernau’s attempt to design a typeface that represents the Platonic ideal of a “timeless sans serif”, the same class of objects that typefaces such as Helvetica, Frutiger, and Franklin Gothic might fit into.
To make the actual typeface, Bernau took measurements from a number of different typefaces of that class; measurements like the ratio of cap height to x-height, the roundness of the ‘o’, and the stroke-end angle at the top of the ‘f’. From an average of those parameters, Bernau filled in the gaps with his own design.
I first heard about this typeface when I was a masters student in the Type and Media program at The Royal Academy of Art in The Hague (KABK). Neutral started life as Bernau’s 2005 thesis project for his BA from KABK — not for his Type and Media masters degree (that’s the immensely popular Lyon, released by Commercial Type in 2010), but for his undergraduate thesis. Since then, Bernau has reconstructed it almost completely (as anybody would do for any typeface they made as an undergrad); as a result, this Neutral is even more versatile. Most notably, I am pleased with the effort Typotheque took to extensively TrueType hint it for text on the screen — at this writing, one of only four families they’ve bestowed with that honor.
I feel silly emoting about a typeface that is so resolutely passive, but I love Neutral. The idea is not an easy one, but Bernau executed it deftly, and I think it succeeds. With a full set of figures, alternate characters, and three weights, Neutral is a compact but useful family. I wouldn’t expect anything less from Bernau and Typotheque. I fully anticipate that Neutral will get a lot of use… but it will take a sharp eye to notice it if it does.
Colin M. Ford is an alumnus of the Type and Media program at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague (KABK). He now lives in New York and works for Hoefler & Co. as a typeface designer.