The star of Typographics 2019 wasn’t Matthew Carter, or Armin Vit, or any of the other speakers who took the stage that summer in Cooper Union’s Great Hall. In my opinion, the star was Obviously, the quietly loud sans serif family from James Edmondson’s OH no Type Company.
I think I first fell in love with Obviously while I was standing in front of a six-foot-tall version of it, struggling to frame a selfie. Because it was blown up so big, I could see it wasn’t just another heavily interpolated, meet-every-need sans family. In the hands of a less attuned designer, Obviously would be quite dull. Edmondson has the instincts to make something quite tame (by Eckmannpsych and Cheee standards) come alive in his hands.
The family operates at a scale similar to Helvetica, Univers, or Druk, but where other large families of the genre go right, Obviously goes left. Where there are usually pin-straight lines, perfect geometry, and predictable interpolation, Obviously responds with bold, flared strokes, confident asymmetrical curves, and surprises in each area of the design space.
Typographics’ designer, Nick Sherman, deftly deployed Obviously with such ubiquity across the festival’s materials (from the aforementioned six-foot letters, through its website and bumper graphics, down to the attendees’ name tags) that its utility was…obvious. Thanks to its variable font capabilities (or its ninety-six static styles, if that’s your cup of tea), Obviously is able to stretch and squish into just about any space you give it while maintaining its unmistakable character.
Obviously gets that highly malleable trait from its origins. Based on iconic postcard lettering, it quickly diverged from its source. An encounter with sign painter John Downer convinced Edmondson to add a brush-based bounce that has become something of a trademark for his studio. Distressed and distorted vinyl lettering from San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood was the final ingredient Edmondson added to the mix.
Optimizing for space is something that all three of these influences have in common: postcard lettering needs to fit the same dimensions whether or not it is coming from Erie or Chattanooga; sign-painted letters are often carefully laid out before being drawn to fit the space; and vinyl letters are often squished and stretched to fit the awning of whatever shop front they were cursed to sit upon. All three are also distinctly American.
Owing to its influences, both adroit and gauche, Obviously sits at the crossroads of American vernacular typography. It is in this place that the family finds its voice: Obviously is sign-painted flair at an industrial scale.