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Univers 1957 Adrian Frutiger

Clockwise from bottom left: Stamps designed by K. W채lti and Adrian Frutiger for the Swiss post in 1998, 2005 an 2005. Adrian Frutiger at work in his studio.

Meet Adrian Frutiger Born in 1928, Adrian Frutiger is one of the most important type designers to emerge since World War II. After studying type design in Zurich Frutiger moved to Paris where he opened his own studio in 1961 and later taught for many years at both the Ecole Estienne and Ecole Nationale SupĂŠrieure des Arts DĂŠcoratifs. Though Adrian Frutiger is the designer of many important typefaces he is most famous for the design of Univers and Frutiger. While Frutiger has said that all his typefaces have Univers as their skeleton, when he was comissioned to design a face for the Charles de Gaulle Airport at Roissy in 1968 he felt that Univers looked dated. Frutiger needed to design a typeface that would be legible both from afar and from practically any angle to accomodate the travelers moving through the airpost. The result of his efforts Roissy, a humanistic sans serif that has been compared to Gill and Johnston types. The typrface was completed and installed in the airport in 1975, and the following year in 1976 the Mergenthaler Linotype released Roissy under the name we know it as now, Frutiger.


Beyond Univers and his airport typeface Frutiger, Adrian

with positive and negative space that he called “Forms

Frutiger has also created a broad range of other faces in-

and Counterforms.� These images show that Frutiger had

cluding a typeface specifically designed for optical char-

mastered the consideration of positive and negative space,

acter recognition called OCR-B. Frutiger embraced new

something that also shows through in his beautiful sans

technology and used it to his advantage in the design of

serif typefaces. Frutiger would also designed a watchface

faces like Centennial, a modern face whose fine serifs were

for the luxury watch manufacturer Ventura. For the watch

made possible by recent improvements in definition.

Frutiger created a special font called Ventura with numerals

Never one to conform to past standards, in 1982 Frutiger

designed for ultimate clarity.

created an original typeface called Breughel that is com-

In both his type design and his other projects Adrian

prised almost entirely of curves and impossible to fit into

Frutiger displays an incredible mastery of form, shape

any existing type category. A few years earlier his typeface

and color. Truly one of our century’s great type designers

Iridium demonstrated that classical modern faces were

Adrian Frutiger is still alive and well, living in Switzerland

neither outdated nor the cause of legibility problems as

near Bern.

many believed. Frutiger himself learned to read with gothic characters and as a result he was always skeptical about legibility theories as he saw legibility as a matter of habit. Beyond designing type Frutiger also created a number of drawing and mixed-media compositions that experimented 2

Counter-clockwise from left: A page from Frutiger’s “Form and Counterform”, Frutiger typefeace in use at the Charles de Gaulle Airport. Opposite: Adrian Frutiger in his studio.


Clockwise from left: Experimental composition by Fridolin M端ller 1966, Univers poster by Remy Peignot 1960, Poster using Univers by Walter Breker 1960. Opposite: Poster using Univers by Hans Michel, 1963


The Characteristics of Univers To achieve the goal of an expansive, integrated type family,

While Frutiger’s goal was to make letters that fit together

designers must be sensitive to the nuances of each letter-

so flawlessly that the assemblage formed a new satisfying

form while simultaneously considering the overall system.

gestalt, he also deemed it important that individual letter-

In the case of Univers, this sophisticated approach to type family design is supported by a well-considered set of typographical characters. Inspired by his study of the limitations of existing sans serifs, Frutiger began with the

forms remain distinct from one another. “Built up from a geometric basis, the lines must play freely,” Frutiger wrote, “so that the individuals find their own expression and join together in a cohesive structure in word, line, and page.”

assumption that “a purely geometric character is unacceptable in the long run” and pointed out that “an O represented by a perfect circle strikes us as shapeless and has a disturbing effect on the word as a whole.” Frutiger’s decision to use different stroke thicknesses for the horizontal, diagonals, and verticals was a response to his assessment of visual discrepancies in other typefaces. It is also no coincidence that Frutiger’s interest in creating a functional and efficient type family followed well-documented scientific research done in the 1930s and ‘40s on the mechanics of eye movement during reading. 5

To maintain the integrity of each letterform, careful optical adjustments were made based on the current knowledge of the principles of perception. All of these innovations contributed to the overall harmony among letters, allowing for a smooth line flow. A larger x-height was chosen to provide greater legibility, addressing the concern that sans-serif type was more difficult to read than serif type.

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.


The effects of the increased x-height are especially apparent at reduced point sizes. On the right BodoniMT and Univers are set at the same point size- which do you find easier to read?


Zonhg By overlapping a Z and a T of the same point size, variation in stroke thickness becomes apparent.

The c is smaller than the o because in open letters the white space achieves greater penetration into the form, thereby appearing larger.

The n is slightly larger than the u because white entering a letterform from the top appears more active than white entering from the bottom.

Ascenders and descenders were shortened in comparison with existing typographic norms, and x-heights were increased. Here, Univers is shown in black, Helvetica Neue in outline.


a Frutiger by Adrian Frutiger, 1976


Above: A page from Linotype’s Frutiger Specimen, Frutiger in use on Swedish road signs.

Adrian Frutiger said that all of his typefaces have Univers at there core, and this is evident in his famous airport typeface Frutiger. By comparing one of Frutigers characteristic letters, the a, to Univers you can see that Frutiger has the same teardrop counter and two-story design as the Univers a.


The x-heigth of Helvetica, shown in black, is actually slightly larger than the x-height of Univers, shown in grey.

gg Gill Sans by Eric Gill, 1927

Gill Sans is known for its distinctive g, seen here on the right. By comparisoin the Univers g has a much larger bowl and an unconnected tail that makes the Univers g look more open than the Gill Sans g.

Just as Frutiger is used on signs in Sweden, Gill Sans is the standard typeface used on British Railway signs. Right: A page from the British Railway’s standard signage manual showing Gill Sans.

aa x x The Gill Sans a has a smaller counterform than the Univers a and the counter in the Gill Sans a is also more severe with a line on the right side of the counter in contrast to the soft rounded counter of Univers.

The x-heigth of Gill Sans, shown in black, is only slightly smaller than the x-height of Univers, shown in grey


Futura by Paul Renner, 1932

Ca t s o

Above: A page from Futura’s type specimen book. Below: The cover of a Futura Specimen book.

The forms of Futura, like the counter in the a, are based on stark geometric shapes contrasting Univers’ more organic shapes like a teardrop counter in the a. The stroke weight of Futura is much less varied than the stroke weight of Univers, as demonstrated by the comparison of lowercase ts.

Adrian Frutiger believed that absolute geometric shapes, like the perfectly circular o in Futura, confused readers. He designed a more oval-shaped o for Univers, shown in outline over Futura.



Futura has a lower x-height than Univers, this demonstrates the changes Frutiger made in attempts to create a new, more legible san serif font.

Neue Helvetica Linotype, 1983


Below: The cover of a Helvetica type specimen book, a page from Helvetica’s type specimen book.

There are a number of interesting differences between Univers, shown in grey, and Helvetica, shown in black. The tail of the Q in Univers is more organic and curved than the geometric tail of Helvetica’s Q, but the leg on Helvetica’s R is more curved and varied than the leg on the R in Univers.


The x-heigth of Helvetica, shown in black, is actually slightly larger than the x-height of Univers, shown in grey.


References: 1. Pincus W. Jaspert, The Encyclopedia of Typefaces. (Poole, Dorset: Blandford Press, 1983) 69-70 2. Alexander S. Lawson, Anatomy of a Typeface (Boston: D.R. Godine, 1990), 304. 3. Jennifer Gibson, Revival of the Fittest: Digital Versions of Classic Typefaces (New York: RC Publications) 4. Ibid, 173 5. Liontype Library GmbH, Available at Accessed Nov. 1, 2005

Bibliography: 1. Blackwell, Lewis. 20th Century Type. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. 2. Kunz, Willi. Typography: Macro and Microaesthetics. Sulgen: Verlag Niggi AG, 2000 3. Carter, Sebastian. Twentieth Century Type Designers. Great Britain: Lund Humphries, 2002. 4. Revival of the Fittest: Digital Versions of Classic Typefaces, Essays by Carolyn Annad et all, edited by Philip B Meggs and Roy McKelvey, New York: RC Publications, 2000.


This book was designed and printed by Eden Lewis at the Sam Fox School of Design during Typography I in the spring of 2013. The book is set using: Univers, Frutiger, Gill Sans, Neue Helvetica, and BodoniMT. It was printed on the Core2 printer in the basement studio.

A Brief History of the Univers  
A Brief History of the Univers  

A brief history of the typeface Univers.