Nationality and Type design
Set in Neue Helvetica + Antique Olive

Nationality does not apply easily to type and culture, as Yvonne Schwemer Scheddin1 has said: ‘The concept of “nation” is political, whereas script is connected directly to language and its geographic linguistic areas.’

A couple of centuries ago, languages, scripts and the typefaces which represented them were intrinsically related to each other. Earlier Roman capitals became the typographic system dedicated to monumental inscriptions during the Roman Empire, and later the Carolingian minuscule was adopted as the official script for all of the Charlemagne Empire. In Ireland, the Semi Uncial, as we can see from the Book of Kells, was in use. Unlike in our globalized world, during the early days of civilisation, there was no easy way of communication between the various parts of the world. Then, it happened mostly through trade and war. Later, during the Renaissance, and in the early days of printing, when the main language in Europe was mostly Latin, books were set with local typefaces and exported along the invention of printing. The mixing of type cultures probably started during the 16th century, in Venice, Italy. Aldus Manutius registered his narrow and economical Italic typeface design for small books when his competitors at that time used less economical roman typefaces. Two years later, in Lyon, France, the first copies of the Manutius book, including a recut of his registered Italic, came out. Two decades after that, de Tournes, Estienne and others combined this Italic with their roman, to create an even more complete type family.

Roman inscriptions
Roman capitals, Roma.

Alde Manuce Italic
Aldus Manutius book (probably Virgil) set on the first italic cut by Francesco Griffo, The Grolier Club.

Roman and Italic
Garamond Roman and Granjon Italic used together, Plantin Museum.

Romain du roi
Grid created by commission Jeaugon for the Romain du roi.

The period in the history of western typography which followed can be understood as the period of an exchange of influences between masters from different countries. Two examples of this are the Englishman Baskerville’s influence on the Italian Bodoni and that of the Frenchman Didot on the Englishman Bulmer. This game of influence became standardised around the 17th century when all of the arts were analysed and published in large ‘Encyclopedias:’ Type design was included, and projects appeared, directly connected to the intellectual needs of the period, such the Romain du Roi conducted by the ‘commission Bignon’ (1693–1718), which resulted in an official typeface being cut for the Imprimerie Royale in France.

Typefaces as a tool to market new products

During the early years of industrialisation, typefaces used in large sizes became a tool to market new products. Meaning that they became more than just a tool to print ideas and thinking – their design and style began to be dictated by function, as with Egyptian typefaces. This term was used to describe heavy titling faces, generally with large serifs or simply without any, not because Fat faces came from Egypt but simply because of a fascination with Antiquity in all things related to the arts and architecture. A little later, in France, Louis Perrin finally decided to cut (1846) a set of ‘Caractères Augustaux’ for the composition of a book on the subject of Roman Inscriptions in Lyon because he disliked the association of Didot types with the subject.

Reverting to the roots helped to define the recent ideas on type culture and type connotation. What is interesting about these ideas is that they became more clearly defined when humans succeeded in building the tools of their “destruction” through the globalisation of cultural exchange.

During the 20th century, the emergent Universalism became a clearer concept. It is still a fundamental reference in the teaching of graphic design and typography in contrast to expressionism which, from Art Nouveau to the vernacular styles of the western world, can’t be ruled by definition. The Avant Garde and Swiss typographic waves of rationalism which, taking their roots from the 17th century Romain Du Roi, desire “neutral” expression (we know that neutral is subjective too), constructed, rational and grid based typefaces to combine with an ideal universal machine which can cross cultural borders, are Utopian: in the sense, that at the same time, the business world is seeking branding solutions for unique products they want to sell across these invisible borders.

Over the second half of the 20th century, many exponents of the international style shared the belief that only a few typefaces met their requirements. Univers designed in 1957 by Adrian Frutiger, appeared in answer to the request for large multi-purpose typefamilies. Ladislas Mandel, who was at the head of the Frutiger studio at Deberny et Peignot, wrote later2 about it: ‘[typographers] confused modular architecture with type design, and they removed all handwriting references which reflect cultural roots… they switched to the nudity of the sans serifs without savour… and made up to 20 alternatives and more from a unique basic form, as a pretence at answering all the needs of typography.’

Univers artworks, 1953
Univers letterforms by Adrian Frutiger in 1953, from Typographische Monatsblätter 5, 1957.

Univers New Devenagari, 1970
Univers New Devenagari by Adrian Frutiger in 1970, from Type Sign Symbol, 1980.

While Univers can be put in the basket of rationalised typefaces, Adrian Frutiger showed us that, with all the typefaces that he designed after Univers, sharing a similar style, they have become a sort of brand. What Sebastian Carter3 wrote: ‘We should welcome typographic variety as the natural consequence of human creativity,’ can be applied to Univers. If we try to go further on the subjective analysis of the Frutiger style we can perhaps say that his style came from his background in Switzerland, where at a minimum three languages need to be take in to account when you design typefaces. So, it sounds natural, because of his cultural background, that he designed quite universal typefaces (in the 50’s sense). So, what was adopted by the international style movement as the ideal and universal typeface is, in fact, just the style of its designer, which varied with all the beautiful typefaces he has designed during a long and rich career. Frutiger himself countered what is considered universal with his design of New Devenagari (around 1970). This new typeface was in fact the traditional Devenagari writing system based on the broad edge pen adapted to the Univers modular typeface system. The result, a beautiful and clear expression of modernity as Univers was for our western eyes (in the 50’s), never reached popularity in India, probably because it was seen as a foreign western representation of local Indian culture and, especially, not as the universal design we see from our side.

The global typographic interaction in the western world

Nothing can be considered universal, especially not typefaces. But, the global interaction in the western world is such that probably any typeface designed for latin script is now considered universal by western readers. In today’s world, what is considered culturally referenced is more likely to be the effect of branding communication, corporate identity than of real cultural roots. Just take a comment by Erik Spiekermann4 – ‘Writing this, as I do in my native federal Republic of Germany, I often wonder why Helvetica hasn’t long since been renamed Teutonica. Every decent law-abiding German company and institution specifies this, the Federal Face, for its corporate image’ – written a couple of years before he designed and published his FF Meta (1991) which has become today’s ‘Federal’ face of Germany… He probably refers mainly, not to the rich cultural heritage of Germany, but simply to corporate identity.

The Neue Haas Grotesk Helvetica
The Neue Haas Grotesk Helvetica specimen. The Herb Lubalin Study Center.

Rhyme and reason, by Erik Spiekermann
Rhyme and reason, by Erik Spiekermann. Berthold, 1982-7.

Antique Olive Specimen
Antique Olive specimen, Fonderie Olive.

Still, Helvetica can be seen as ‘Swiss’ because of its origins and by extension German, during the 70’s and 80‘s to foreigners. Just as Gill Sans is obviously seen as English. Erik Spiekermann, during his amazing lectures around the world – when he likes making analogies and jokes to explain what defines good typography – always refers to “olives” when he refers to French type, quoting Roger Excoffon’s work as the perfect example of olive design with his Antique Olive! Whilst we understand his analogy, the word Olive as used in Antique Olive name doesn’t come from the olives of Provence but from the name of the foundry in Marseille which published Excoffon’s typefaces, Fonderie Olive. Spiekermann wrote also5 ‘what looks totally unacceptable to a North American reader will please the French reader at breakfast, while an Italian might find a German daily paper too monotonous. Of course, it’s not only type or layout that distinguishes newspapers, it is also the combination of words.’

Nowadays, type designers do use local cultural roots to build new typefaces but, at the same time, they are much influenced by each other via their immediate exchange of ideas through the global network. Such so called “local cultural roots” can be understood to be achieving more of an individual ‘manière d’être’ than a representation of a collective way of life based on local cultural habits. To take some recent examples: House Industries (USA) have long used typographic archetypes as fuel for their new designs, from their earlier Tiki Type, which used the 60’s graphic design style from the Pacific Islands, to their pure invention of a man who never existed (2000), René Albert Chalet, a Swiss fashion designer who lived in France and designed what was considered to be a ‘universal’ sans serif at the time, but clearly seen as a 60’s–70’s style of type today. We can also read, within a typeface specimen from Jeremy Tankard (United Kingdom), that his Bliss (1996) is ‘A modern day English typeface’ and ‘stylistically it was intended to create the first commercial typeface with an English feel since Gill Sans.’ Myself, with my Art Deco typeface Anisette, I simply used the name of a typical French drink with the intention of giving French appeal to the American market for the launch of the typeface by Font Bureau (USA) in 1996.

Bliss specimen
Bliss specimen, Jeremy tankard Typography, 1996.

Anisette specimen
Anisette specimen, Typofonderie, 1996.

The lesson of this is that today’s typeface designers, understanding that the world is now global, naturally try through their own ideas to be different from each other. They know also that, despite all of their dreams, a perfect universal typeface which suits all situations and cultures doesn’t exist, and that, hopefully, each graphic design job needs a particular typeface which suits the local culture, the client’s wishes, or ‘branding’ considerations. Type designers like to build stories around the typefaces they design because it helps them to create a world which reflects their own dreams.

Jean François Porchez
all rights reserved, November 2004. Originally published in An A-Z of Type Designers, Neil Macmillan. Yale University Press, 2006. Revision and translation to French in March 2014. Photos from the Typofonderie archives.


Aldus Manuce
Louis Perrin
Deberny et Peignot
Erik Spiekermann
House Industries
Jeremy Tankard


1 Yvonne Schwemer Scheddin, Broken Images: Blackletter between faith and mysticism in Blackletter: Type and national identity, The Herb Lubalin study center of design and typography, 1998.

2 Ladislas Mandel, Écriture, Miroir des hommes et des sociétés, Atelier Perrousseaux Éditeur, 1998.

3 Sebastian Carter, Twentieth Century type designers, Lund Humphries, London, 1989.

4 Erik Spiekermann, Rhymne & Reason, A typographical novel, H. Berthold AG, Berlin, 1987.

5 Erik Spiekermann & E. M. Ginger, Stop Stealing Sheep & find out how type works, Adobe Press, Mountain View, 1993.