Type Gallery – Avenir

Linotype interviewed Adrian Frutiger and asked him about the reasons for the new design of Avenir® and its special characteristics and potential uses.

 Adrian Frutiger

What are the reasons for designing a new sans serif?

Looking back on more than 40 years of concern with sans serif typefaces, I felt an obligation to design a linear style of sans serif, in the tradition of Erbar™, Futura®, and to a lesser extent Gill Sans®. These have purely constructed characters from which the element of a handwriting movement has been removed. Obviously this could not be an outstanding new creation, but I have tried to make use of the experience and stylistic developments of the 20th century in order to work out an independent alphabet meeting modern typographical needs.
Even though Avenir can be classified as a constructivist typeface, it does not have a purely geometric and linear drawing. The vertical stroke lengths have been reduced in order to make text setting more legible, on the well-established grounds that the human eye takes in horizontals more easily than verticals and tends to grasp the meaning of a line in a horizontal sweep.

How did these principles influence the design of individual characters?

The vertical strokes are thicker than the horizontals and the o is not a perfect circle. Absolutely linear characters are difficult to read in continuous text and purely geometrical letters do not unite harmoniously to form the word-images that we read. Another factor in legibility is the difference in weight between up-strokes and down-strokes, based on the familiarity of roman typestyles, which in turn owe much of their form to the calligraphy of the Middle Ages. For this reason the up-strokes of capital A, K, V, W and so on are noticeably thinner than the down-strokes.
Unlike such strictly constructivist faces as Futura®, for example, the junction points of oblique-line characters such as A, V, W, Z have been flattened off. Pointed ends may look well in display sizes but they have the effect of shortening the characters in text sizes.
In the lower-case alphabet, I have chosen the simple sans serif form of g but kept to the roman tradition in the form of the a, because the rounded ’a’ as used in Futura® hinders the legibility of text through its similarity to b, d, p and q. Also for reasons of text legibility, the letters f, r and t have been kept relatively broad, allowing more white space on either side than is usually the case with a sans serif.

How have you treated the bold and italic versons?

There is no separate italic design, for the simple reason that the sloped version of a constructivist typeface is produced on purely mathematical principles. Modern typesetting equipment does this for the user by computer control, which is in any case essential for the adaption of the o to an oval form. An angle of slope between 11° and 13° is recommended for the electronic italicisation of Avenir™.
In designing the various weights, I took due account of the modern preference for thinner and finer typefaces. The four basic weights of Avenir™ are Light (35), Book (45), Roman (55) and Medium (65). These are all intended for text setting and it is hoped that their close gradation will enable the designer or typographer to apply greater subtlety of treatment to the page of text or advertisement.
There are also Heavy and Black versions but no Extra-bold or Ultra-bold, as these could not be designed in a constructivist style without making a lot of unattractive compromises in letters such as a, e, and s.

How does Avenir™ meet the needs of modern typography?

Since the early 1950s there have been three waves of sans serif style. At first, a revival of Victorian sans serif or Grotesque typefaces replaced the outmoded Bauhaus style. The 19th century faces were the most modelled form of sans and the nearest to roman, with their varying stroke thicknesses. Then came the more or less modelled typeface families such as Helvetica™ and Univers™ with their many variations. These have made sans serif acceptable as a second text face to roman, practically everywhere except in literary books and newspaper editorial.
Today there is a new appreciation of the linear style of sans, in harmony with a softer and more subtle mode of expression. With increasing emphasis on pictures as the main element and the use of mixed background tints, the graphic designer wants a more refined sans serif typeface with less color, giving something of the effect of an inscription. The general replacement of the pen-nib by the ballpoint and the felt pen has also had an influence here.
Constructivist typefaces such as Futura® and Gill have therefore come back into fashion, but most of the new faces in this style have been limited to display uses and are difficult to read in long texts.
Avenir™ is intended to be nothing more nor less than a clear and clean representation of modern typographical trends, giving the designer a typeface which is strictly modern and at the same time humane, ie suitable refined and elegant for use in texts of any length.

(Adrian Frutiger’s comments have been translated and edited by Andrew Bluhm.)