What are serifs? When I first started looking at type, I thought of serifs as decorative additions to letters, intended to lend some finish and distinctiveness to the design. After more careful consideration, I came to view my initial impression as naive.
Serifs play a vital role in establishing what is called the “color” of a typeface: they facilitate a pleasing distribution of blackness in otherwise light areas. I recognized that even the typical shapes of serifs, which initially seemed like arbitrary ornament, had a functional logic: the arm of the r in Caslon blooms into a teardrop because that’s an efficient way of bringing darkness to the lightweight right side of the letter; the funny beaks at the top and bottom of Bodoni’s S solve the problem of adding color to the curved terminals of a glyph that is otherwise dark only in the middle.
Rui Abreu’s Pathos promotes serifs as a design element by enlarging them beyond “normal” bounds. Given what I’ve just said about serifs being practical rather than expressive, such a strategy might sound like a disaster. But Abreu has a sophisticated understanding of typographic color, and he has adjusted his letters to maintain color and balance even with the ungainly attachments. The result is the best kind of experimental type design: one that begins with an unexpected premise but that uses sound typographical design sense to make that premise functional.
The point of departure for Pathos is a monoline slab-serif structure — the equality of weight between stroke and serif being necessary for the typeface’s playfulness. While the exaggerated horizontal serifs lend a chunkiness, the vertical serifs are where things get really interesting. There, the glyph structures lean and readjust to make way for the outsize serifs. For example, the apertures of the lowercase s do not get closed off by the serifs, because the whole letter has been skewed to accommodate them. The top of the regular a leans the other way, so that the serif on its hood similarly does not run into the bowl. These adjustments preserve even color, but also lend a very appealing energy, with leaning and skewing forms contributing dynamism, even as the bottom horizontal serifs firmly reassert the baseline.
In the case of some glyphs, the accommodation feels effortful. The r in particular catches my eye, and I wonder: if its arm serif has to droop that low, should the glyph itself also be a touch wider? How to terminate the diagonal legs of K, R, and k is another conundrum, as extended serifs there would reach well beyond the bounds of the letter. Abreu left them serifless, rightly sacrificing consistent treatment for workable spacing. The angular t of the regular, though a little odd in isolation, works well in context. The E, especially in the lightest weight, seems bananas — but in a likable way.
Though not a monospaced design, Pathos evokes typewriter fonts. I think that may be because we’re familiar with chunky serifs on letters like i, l, and r in typewriter faces, there used to compensate for the necessity of uniform advance width. Even beyond the serif effects, Pathos’s characters tend toward more regularized widths (the M, for example, being not that much wider than the J), which strikes me as an appropriate design decision.
It is said — probably more often than it is true — that some type designs work well both big and small. But it really is the case with Pathos. And that is because what makes it funky and interesting at large sizes — the way it adjusts to ungainly serifs — is exactly what makes it functional and pleasing at small sizes. What excites me most about Pathos is not that it starts from a novel proposition, but that it works out the consequences of that proposition so smartly.
Craig Eliason is a professor in the art history department at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. His research focuses on the history of type design. He also designs typefaces, some of which have been released by his foundry, Teeline Fonts.