No Serif without Sans

Luciano Perondi and Riccardo Olocco have designed Sole Sans, the new sans created to accompany Sole Serif. Interview by Massimo Gonzato

Why is it called Sole Sans?

Luciano Perondi — Cast Foundry was commissioned by Il Sole 24 Ore for part of the restyling of the Confindustria daily, to accompany Sole Serif, a book typeface I designed in 2010 for the same newspaper.

Riccardo Olocco — Last year we tweaked Sole Serif and then put it on the market. We recently got a commission for The Observer (Guardian Media Group) and it immediately caught the attention of the staff at Eye magazine. Later on, from issue N° 11 it was used by Pulp (a publication of the Fedrigoni Group in Italian/English and French/Spanish editions).   

Where did the request for collaboration come from?

LP — The request came directly from the editorial staff of Il Sole 24 Ore, from the art director Francesco Narracci; and with him back in 2010, when I was working on the Serif with Luca Pitoni, we chose the name for the type. With Sergio Juan, the designer in charge of restyling the newspaper, I had already worked on the project for the typefaces of Corriere della Sera, together with Andrea Braccaloni of Leftloft.

Is the typeface meant just for paper?

LP — Sole Sans was designed mainly for paper, but with the prospect of using it for the web too.

RO — The technological limitations between one support and another have now disappeared, as Gerard Unger agrees.

Was there a brief, a specific request of any kind?

LP— As a client a newspaper is obviously very sensitive to typographical problems. Moreover, being an economical/financial paper, the type had to be a workhorse, suitable for really small diagrams, graphics and tables, but at the same time with enough personality for headlines. And it had to go well with the Serif, with its rather bookish look.

RO— The client asked for a compressed version for tables, lists and so on. At the explicit request of the design team we pushed ourselves to create an extreme, almost excessively compressed version which in some weights is 40% less than the regular. In this kind of family (sans with condensed versions), usually the condensed/compressed versions are used for headlines, or in any case for large text, but in our case the compressed form was for small text, usually smaller than the text set with the regular type. This forced us to make some design decisions that might seem bizarre at first glance, and which we decided to emphasise. For instance, contrary to the norm for typefaces of this kind, we widened the apertures of the compressed version of a, c, e etc. much more than in the standard version.

How did you go about the work?

LP — Three of us did the bulk of it: Riccardo and I established the style and then we divided the production tasks among us and Daniele Capo.

RO — I focused mainly on the letters and Luciano on the numbers. Once we had established the masters (six letters and six numbers) we brought in other designers to complete the glyph list. Daniele was one of them and besides design work he was also involved in the production (OpenType features, generation of fonts), which had to meet the needs of the layout software the paper uses. Igino Marini had the job of refining the spacing and doing the kerning.

LP — The advantage of several people working together is that you have more ideas and references and you can continuously check the work as it goes along. In this way we often changed our minds, with one person reworking someone else’s idea. So we actually improved the type, making it more consistent and technically efficient. The downside is that coordination becomes more difficult, because each person has a different workflow and everyone has their own tastes and design method: some are better at curves, some at lowercase, some at numbers, and so on. But that’s precisely what allows us to have greater control over the finished product and achieve greater ‘maturity’ in the design.

Where did you start from, what typefaces inspired you?

LP — We started from the client’s brief to design a sans to accompany Sole Serif. Serif harks back to the renaissance typefaces of Francesco Griffo, suitably adapted to everyday use: small body sizes and low-contrast printing, adaptability to the web etc. To preserve the Aldine inspiration, which is still vaguely visible, counters were designed as big as possibile, apertures were widened, and so on. With Sole Sans we applied a similar procedure, but we took our inspiration from the sanserif lettering of English eighteenth-century neoclassical architects like George Dance the younger and from some of the first nineteenth-century sanserif types; we also used Pierpont’s Monotype Grotesque as a reference – although it dates from the 1920s it still has some characteristics of the early grotesques.

RO — Our aim was not the revival of a specific typeface. We were inspired by the early English nineteenth-century sans, like the one designed by the Caslon Foundry (1816, the first known), those of Thorowgood (1832) and Figgins (1833, perhaps the first small-body sans ever cut). All these faces show uppercase only, rather crude and heavy, with ungainly curves that seem to be produced by a blunt tool. The strokes have a certain contrast and in general the letters seem to be drawn with a certain hesitation. We were interested in their ‘brutal’ look, inspired by the very plain Greek or Republican-era Roman inscriptions. We deliberately ignored the German sanserifs of the late nineteenth century, which are inspired by machines and mechanisation; we eschewed the monotonous perfection of industrial production – characteristics informing the evolution of sanserifs which, through Helvetica, have guided graphic choice for the past 60 years. In designing Sole Sans we also kept an eye on some popular sanserifs produced later, in the early twentieth century: these included Monotype Grotesque (in particular the Bold Extended 150) and Times Gothic, which has that rustic look typical of wood type. Ultimately, as you can see, the typefaces we chose as our starting point are all a bit ‘rough’, their main trait is a certain primitivism unaffected by mechanisation.

LP — We thought this stylistic choice matched the design of Sole Serif, even though the two types are very different from the formal standpoint: where Serif has a an inclined axis, Sans has a vertical one, where Serif has wide apertures, in Sans these are reduced etc. As in Sole Serif, we have tried to maintain a formal coherence and to introduce a series of variables that satisfy precise functional criteria: big counters and tapering of shoulders as they meet stems.

For example, in the bowls of letters such as p, b, d and q we worked on the contrasts at the junctions, so the overall width of the glyph is reduced, while maintaining a ‘round’ and uncompressed appearance. The typeface presents different solutions of this kind.

What distinguishes Sole Sans from most of the recent and older sanserifs that preceded it?

LP — Compared with the contemporary fashion for grotesques, our intention was a ‘neoclassical’ design, in contrast to the heavily geometric style that has been in vogue for some years: the curves of Sole Sans aim for strong homogeneity and continuity. We tried to ensure that thicknesses of the curves changed as little as possible, and always imperceptibly, to obtain a design without any apparent interruption of continuity; another reason for this was to match the design of Sole Serif, which has a similar tension in the curves. The horizontal proportions of the letters are not entirely grotesque and certainly not Roman, but neither are they homogeneous as in a Helvetica; some letters are larger and rounder and others are narrower. This could also be a favourable factor for reading, as it relates to the theme of pattern irregularity.

RO — Because of the tension of its curves and its rather ‘unmodular’ design, in the sense that the details are often treated somewhat inconsistently, giving the type an organic look (a rarity with digital typefaces), Sole Serif would appear to have required a ‘humanistic’ accompanying sanserif. But to us this seemed a choice that was too obvious and we decided to take the opposite direction: nineteenth century, modern characters, reduced apertures etc. Contrast at the junctions between arches and stems is a feature we found in some of the typefaces we took into consideration, and we decided to replicate this in Sole Sans. We think it’s one of those details that contribute to its ‘brutal’ and primitive look.

Besides the tapering of shoulders as they meet stems the typeface shows a certain contrast of thick and thin strokes and somehow this makes for a more organic look, perhaps because the (optical) uniformity of the thicknesses immediately reminds us of the basic geometric shapes.

How did you tackle the italic?

RO — The italic is a slanted roman, in perfect harmony with twentieth century sanserifs, but we decided to use the italic forms of a, f and g.

Were you guided by any theories of readability?

LP —  In general we avoided designing types that are too regular, so as not to create patterns that are themselves too regular. The reason behind this – as suggested by the works of Ann Treisman and Arnold J. Wilkins, especially for numbers – is that typefaces can make very regular patterns of vertical and horizontal lines that interfere with reading. In fact, according to research by Wilkins, the oxygen consumption of some areas of the brain during the observation of a regular pattern is much greater than normal; furthermore Treisman has highlighted how irregularities in an irregular pattern are less noticeable than in a regular pattern.

Obviously there is no scientific proof (yet) that this impacts significantly on the reading of a newspaper, but we thought it was appropriate to work with this in mind, in as much as it is a very promising line of research and intuitively seems to respond very well to the historical evolution of type.

Which aspects of type design can help make a pattern that is not too regular?

LP —  Traditionally, characters present a sort of slanted ‘axis’ of contrasts, which can be traced back to the calligraphic origins of the letters. It has been observed that between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries this axis became increasingly less regular within the same character, responding, we suppose, to an ergonomic process. This phenomenon, which is quite evident even on superficial observation, is mentioned in the literature by authors such as Smeijers, Bringhurst and Chappell, but it has never been accurately measured and correlated with actual reading performance. In the same historical period, in addition to axis variations, the lowercase letters also present inconsistent proportions. I have been working on these aspects of design for some time and I have planned some specific research on the irregularity of patterns applied to letters.

How was all this applied to Sole Sans?

LP —  Since it is not possible to apply variations to the axis because the type does not have obvious contrasts, to apply Wilkins and Treisman to Sole Sans meant changing the proportions of the widths of the letters, which are less regular than, say, Helvetica: the difference in compression between an ‘n’ and an ‘o’ or between an ‘R’ and an ‘O’ are much more evident than in a grotesque of the German-Swiss tradition.

For the numbers, having to use a very narrow character in monospaced tables, we worked on the form; in fact shapes that were too regular and similar would have formed a geometric pattern that would probably have interfered with reading, to some extent. For this reason the shapes of the numbers of Sole Sans are very asymmetric and very different from each other. As far as numbers are concerned, the most obvious ‘anomalies’ are confined to the compressed version for tabular work, while in the type for running text more traditional numbers have been used, but without entirely giving up small asymmetries and unorthodox stylistic choices, like the asymmetric figure 8.