Fern fonts specimen

Typeface Review

Fern

Reviewed by Agyei Archer on December 16, 2019

Venetian Oldstyle types are ubiquitous: they constantly crop up in books, and their familiar forms help ground readers by evoking warmth, delightful expression, and historic authenticity.

This classification is an important part of the typographic canon, not least because it signaled an aesthetic shift from the Carolingian miniscule. And, just as Jenson forged a path for a new kind of expression, I think David Jonathan Ross’ Fern makes similarly new moves as a web-first take on a beloved classic.

Of course, there are examples of this referential style that shine, like Adobe Jenson and Alexandra Korolkova’s Leksa, but I don’t think it’s too extreme to say that neither of those faces performs as well at a small size on a non-retina screen as Fern does. Where centuries-old models often find their beauty in subtleties, Fern’s sizing accomodations really exaggerate some of the design features that must have made this calligraphic, gestural style so popular in the first place.

The result is screen type that remains true to form and indeed thrives at small sizes. Students of contrast dynamics will delight in Fern’s purposefully super-stressed diagonals, and will find clear evidence of the pen’s gesture and influence in the lowercase Regular e’s confident crossbar exit stroke, the sprawling Bold italic ampersand, or the uppercase R’s leg, which just barely encroaches on the glyph’s bowl. The texture is as lively and filled with nuance as you’d expect on paper — but on screen, can you dig it? Those who make type know how difficult an accomplishment this can be.

DJR is a master of exploring designspaces. His willingness to experiment manifests itself in the way he pushes typefaces past expected usage: whether it’s his super-heavy take on De Vinne that exists somewhere beyond the design’s theoretical limits, or Fern, a calligraphically inspired typeface that performs robustly at tiny sizes while retaining style, gesture, and intention. This is already no small feat in print — on screen, it’s a special pleasure to behold.

Agyei Archer is a designer from Trinidad and Tobago who works with graphics, type, and code. He studied visual communications at the University of Trinidad and Tobago, and typeface design at Cooper Union. His interests include language, culture, and technology, especially as they relate to the Caribbean.

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