Typeface Review

Black Mamba Venom

Reviewed by Nóra Békés on December 22, 2020

In an alternate universe, where typefaces are reptiles and designers’ computers are secret laboratories for genetic modification, the Black Mamba is a finely orchestrated accident of interbreeding. Its bite to the graphic designer may result in dangerous conditions like awakened typographic consciousness, beautifully dissonant compositions, or increased experimental attitudes.

The all-caps display typeface Black Mamba Venom from the Lab department of Swiss Typefaces is indeed a remarkable blend. Two members of the SangBleu superfamily from opposite ends of the spectrum volunteered for the fusion. On one hand is SangBleu Sunrise Air, a hairline sans serif; on the other is SangBleu Empire Bold, a high-contrast serif in the Didot tradition. These two form the core of the typeface; as a side note, this also attests to the careful engineering of the SangBleu family, which allows even these apparent mismatches to fit together smoothly.

But this is only the start of the adventure! Liudmila Bredikhina has drawn a set of new characters based on the concept of a glitchy merging of the two typefaces, resulting in energetic serpentine shapes and an excitingly cacophonic text image.

In the medieval scriptural tradition, a wide variety of ornamented initials and pen flourishes were responsible for a diverse text image, creating dynamics on the page and waymarks in the content. Initials and ornaments were translated into the movable type canon, and fonts were regularly complemented with swashed characters that gave typesetters the chance to “spice up” their layouts with purely typographic tools.

While swashed characters are often found in revivals and contemporary typefaces, they are rarely used in actual typographic designs. Maybe because of their (overly) traditional looks? Or because they are tucked away at the end of the glyph set? Either way, Black Mamba seems to be a cure for this issue. Even though it was never intended to be a revival, it is one, in the conceptual sense. It brings back the idea of using pure typography as a means of emphasis, as a point of orientation, and as a narrative tool in the layout. With its brave contemporary shapes, Black Mamba is a ready-to-use set of special characters for the present-day designer who is not afraid of its out-of-the-box forms.

Positioning Black Mamba outside of the SangBleu family is nothing if not smart. The special characters could have been hidden in the family as stylistic alternates, or perhaps as an extra weight. But let’s be honest: with so much personality, our snake could never have remained a prisoner of these frameworks. Now it stands apart, making a statement and demanding attention.

Although it works perfectly as a supplement to the SangBleu family, it is a font-creature in its own right, and, more than that, an intriguing design tool with the potential to release experimental energies in typography. I hope to see Black Mamba Venom injected in future designs that are unafraid to explore its possibilities — from grim to graceful, kitschy to classy.

Nóra Békés is a visual storyteller and researcher. She studied graphic design at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. Currently she works at her Rotterdam-based one-woman studio. In her applied work, she focuses on typography, print design, and exhibition design. Her autonomous work is based on archive research and its (re)interpretation in a contemporary context. With Céline Hurka, she published Reviving Type (2019).

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