Swordfish Regular

Hi, I’m Swordfish!

Swordfish by Giulio Galli

Swordfish is an all-caps geometric sans for display, branding and titling. Inspiration for its design came from 1920s and 30s avant-garde typefaces and jazz record covers of the 40s and 50s

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Swordfish: the jumping sans

Designed by Giulio Galli, Swordfish is a contemporary take on the geometric sanserifs of the avant-garde era and their 1970s successors.

Where does Swordfish come from? 

Swordfish unites two 20th-century typeface trends: geometric letterforms of varied proportions and ‘jumping baselines’, typical of early jazz album covers.

What are the geometric sanserifs you refer to?

Typefaces and letterforms made out of circles and straight lines that were very fashionable during the 1920s and 30s. This style of lettering normally meant strokes of equal thickness and extremely varied proportions – usually narrow letters contrasting with a wide and perfectly circular O. 

Examples of typefaces with varied proportions: ‘HOTEL’: typeface unknown; ‘COIFFEUR’: Plaza by Alan Meeks (ITC, 1975); ‘TRANSPORT’: Premiere Lightline by Colin Brignall (Letraset, 1969); ‘HAHN’: probably hand-drawn, ca. 1930.

Guido Modiano’s Triennale (Fonderia Reggiani, 1933) is one of the few faces of the 1930s that fits snugly into this category. However, faces such as Jakob Erbar’s Erbar-Grotesk (Ludwig & Mayer, 1926), Paul Renner’s Futura (Bauer, 1927) and Rudolph Koch’s Kabel (Klingspor, 1927) paved the way towards this trend. Besides type, this style was frequently hand drawn for Art Deco lithographic posters and other ephemera of the 1920s and 30s. 

From left to right: lithographic posters by Charles Villot (ca. 1935) and André Wilquin (ca. 1930).
Luggage label (1940s) for Galle Face Hotel, Sri Lanka, designer unknown.
Luggage labels of Le Grand Hotel, Paris, and Hotel de Rivoli, Nice. Both from the 1920s.

Curiously, the term ‘Art Deco’ didn’t become popular until the end of the 1960s and the style returned in the 1970s with many typeface revivals. These were designed and produced as phototype or transfer lettering especially in the UK and the USA. Well worth mentioning are Colin Brignall’s Premiere Lightline (Letraset, 1969), Tom Carnase’s and Herb Lubalin’s ITC Busorama (International Typeface Corporation, 1970) and Alan Meeks’ ITC Plaza (ITC, 1975).

What can you tell us about the ‘jumping baseline’?

Rather than aligning on the baseline, the letters bounce up and down. Some dip below the baseline and others jump above it. This was a feature that became fashionable for jazz and bebop records in the 1950s when recording companies first started having their record sleeves designed and illustrated, and a few artists came up with this peculiar design idea. 

Album covers designed by Paul Bacon for Thelonious in action (1958) and The Incomparable Jelly Roll Morton (1956). New sounds in modern music (1951), designer unknown.

Wow! This is an interesting story.

Until the end of the 1930s, records were packed in brown paper or cardboard sleeves. In 1938 Columbia Records hired its first art director, Alex Steinweiss, who started the tradition of illustrated album covers that we are all used to. Besides Steinweiss and Columbia Records, recording companies such as Blue Note, Savoy, RCA, Riverside and designers like David Stone Martin, Jim Flora, and Paul Bacon were also involved.

Album cover for Congas and Rumbas (1942), designed by Alex Steinweiss.
Album covers for San Francisco Suite (1957), designed by Paul Bacon; Urso and Brookmeyer (1951), designer unknown; Blue Lester (1956), designer unknown.

Before album covers came in, sheet music covers were designed by artists. 

Yes indeed. Steinweiss carried album covers into pop culture, but his pioneering work didn’t start from scratch. Artistic sheet music covers go back to the late 18th century, and they evolved fruitfully on both sides of the Atlantic until long-playing records took over. So it’s no surprise that in the 1920s, when the avant-garde letterforms discussed here became fashionable, they were seen in this peculiar art form and not just posters and other printed items. The surrealist painter René Magritte designed sheet music covers with avant-garde letterforms, and jumping baselines appeared occasionally in these artworks. And considering the need to communicate the ‘liveliness’ of the music offered, this is not at all surprising. 

Sheet music covers with geometric letters of various proportions.
Sheet music cover with variously proportioned geometric letters and a jumping baseline at the top.

Why did you call it Swordfish?

First, it’s my way to pay tribute to jazz culture. This name recalls one of my favourite albums, Tom Waits’ first self-produced album Swordfishtrombones – music with the peculiar sound of his ‘junkyard orchestra’ that opened up a new chapter in raw experimental rock.

Moreover, swordfish (Xiphias gladius) can swim in very deep waters but can also be seen jumping above the waves. So, we thought this name would work well to communicate the jumping-baseline feature of my typeface.

Album cover for Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones (1983) designed by Micheal A. Russ and Tom Waits.

What uses would you recommend for Swordfish?

With Open Type features such as the jumping baseline, a set of swashed capitals, and many very desirable ligatures including small nested letters, Swordfish is good for a lot of display applications: signs, posters, menus, and – of course – album covers. 

Character set



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