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Breaking Univers An Examination of Typographic Dissection

Jasper Jon Crocker

Table of Contents

Introduction 5

Reductive Process 9

Univers Minus 33

Iconic Dissection 10

The Excess 34

Ambiguous Dissection 20

The Weights 38

Shape Dissection 28

Exploration 45 Cut 48 Cover 52 Blur 56 Corrupt 62 Pattern 66

Conclusion 70

Univers is a simple font of subtlety and flawless execution. This elegant san-serif boasts a massive family and has weathered the test of time. Despite its success, it is far from perfect. The beauty of life is that everything is subjective and nothing can be objectively called perfect. Instead of taking this as an insurmountable or trivializing fact, it can be freeing to your creativity. No matter how objective, well respected, or developed something may be, there is always a place for experimentation and growth. Everything is either growing or dying. This is how the world works and this is how design works. Nothing remains static forever. Typefaces are continually redrawn, styles and innovations grow and fade, designers are iconized and forgotten. This book was made out of love for Adrian Frutiger’s Univers. By process of dissection, I considered the font’s fundamental makeup and use it as a foundation for discovery. This book takes an analytical approach when dealing with studies and processes. Through reductive and additive methods, I break the font down to its fundamentals and build up through creative studies. The mind is a flexible and responsive tool with the phenomenal ability to take great departures of abstraction. I present my view of language; a beautiful, perhaps novel, understanding of our most indelible form of communication: typography.

“Typography has one plain duty before it and that is to convey information in writing. No argument or consideration can absolve typography from this duty. A printed work which cannot be read becomes a product without purpose.� Emil Ruder


T h e R e d ucti v e P r o c e ss

Reduction is the study of true form. It is only when we remove everything that surrounds our subject that we begin to understand what we are truly examining. The signature of each letter is revealed. In each form, the slightest hint of a curve or the particular height of a point, is all that is necessary convey the letter. Univers 55 can be reduced in many ways, some of which leave legibility intact and others which subvert and obfuscate meaning. This Section will go deep into reducing the forms by three different methods which I have categorized as Iconic, Ambiguous and Shape dissection.


I c o nic Diss e cti o n Each letter of the Univers typeface

families. The thirteen remaining

can be reduced to a certain point

characters are talked about on their

and remain legible. I pushed each

own or in pairs. Each letter here is

letter to the verge of abstraction

considered in respect to readability

both vertically and horizontally from

out of context. Studies can be far

all sides, looking for the most legible

more reductive when the context of

partition of each letter. Where I

words is there to add consistency.

needed to leave part of a stroke, I

I examine context in later sections.

left enough to retain consistent line weight. Through numerous studies considering how best to dissect the forms, I found a number of patterns and considerations for the legibility of each letter. I have put half the alphabet into three very distinctive

The Bowl Family Reductions of b, d, p & q look similar to each other. These four letters are essentially just mirrors of one vector form. The bowl family holds on to its legibility if the taper and joint to the stem are retained, suggesting the projected trajectory of the bowl. If reduced vertically, their forms will instantly blend in with each other. Their definition comes from the interaction between the bowl and the ascender or descender.

The Shoulder Family

The Toppers and Tails

I classify m, n, h & u as the shoulder

The third set is iconized by toppers

family. These letters work on the

and tails. Each has a distinctive

opposite axis from the bowl family,

terminal, unique to that particular

keeping legibility with horizontal

letter. Technically, the topper of the

retention. The shoulder and taper are

r could be mistaken for the joint

iconic of these forms. In conjunction

of a letter m or n, however, in and

with the direction of the bowl and the

out of context, its first read is r.

number of counters, the legibility of

The f is technically unique without

each letter becomes very clear, even

the crossbar, but only someone

when out of context.

who knew the shapes of Univers intimately would be able to conclude that this form was indeed an f.

c is distinguished by a gap; by an absence, not a form.

Unique Apertures

Only Verticals

The Diagonals

The Hardest Circles

The letter a and the e have a similar

These are the verticals. The letter l

The diagonal angles of the letters

c is the hardest letter to reduce and

aperture halfway up the x-height.

(el) has no real iconic part since half

v and w are enough to understand

retain legibility. Its only unique form

These two are some of the most

the alphabet uses the vertical as a

their meaning. Our brain is able to

is its aperture. The conclusion of the

easily distinguished letters in the

backbone. Its solidarity is its only

connect points and follow paths very

curve is the letter’s best signifier.

alphabet. They also happen to be

distinguishing factor. Since the letter

well and has no problem seeing the

The solution is to make the aperture

two of the most common letters

i is essentially the letter l (el) with a

trajectory of these lines. The top or

look characteristic of the letter and

which is far from a coincidence.

chunk missing, the gap is necessary

the bottom of each of these letters

not like a stroke, cut for the sake of

for the form’s legibility.

signifies them clearly.

reduction. The letter o requires its top for legibility and the more it is reduced, the more readability fades.


Unique and Common

Unique and Uncommon

The Outsider

s is always an s. Almost any part of

The x is a picky letter. It only needs a

z is the only letter in Univers that

the form can signify the letter. The

small portion to be a unique shape,

has two horizontal crossbars and

suggestion of two stories of curves

but our mind doesn’t recognize with

the only one with a crossbar on

iconizes it quickly. It is an extremely

less than a hint at all four angles. The

the bottom of the x-height. Despite

unique letter in the alphabet and

image of the cross is what makes it

its unique and unused properties,

as a common letter seen in writing,

an x, not its legs and arms.

it easily becomes illegible to the human mind, perhaps because of

it is quickly recognized.

how rarely it appears in writing. It is strained by any reduction.


Testing Possibilities Here I reduced the letters as much as I could without losing legibility or stroke consistency. In general, typography is read by scanning the tops of the letters. Most text could be cropped in half horizontally and your mind could read it successfully. However, many letters are unique by their bottom halves or sides. It is only context that would make their tops read clearly.


Increasing Reduction Legibility diminishes as the content of the form disappears. Even so, our mind is able to read things that are, for all intensive purposes, not there. Slowly removing more and more of each letter leaves me with the point of abstraction, when the letter loses meaning. This point of abstraction varies on an individual basis. Most people find that legibility of the letters drops off somewhere between the words ‘jumped’ & ‘lazy.’

Iconic to Ambiguous Don’t get frustrated with the legibility of this line. You are not suppose to be able to read it. The means of dissection slowly changes as the sentence progresses. I started by drawing from the iconic pieces of this section and then move towards ambiguous forms that I discuss in the next section.


The Second Layer Iconic dissection needs no second layer to convey meaning. Each letter holds it meaning successfully. This makes any additions simply embellishment. This secondary layer can choose to enhance or diminish the legibility based on its interactions with the reduced forms. Since the mind is intent on navigating meaning, it will recognize the superfluous nature of the second level and try to ignore its contributions.

A m bi g u o us Diss e cti o n Ambiguous forms are the reductions

be left pondering the meaningless

which could be mistaken for a great

forms. Ambiguous dissection works

number of different letters. The

on the opposite assumptions from

ambiguous letter forms are useful

Iconic dissection. In my breakdown,

for many illustrative typographic

I grouped the similar forms, reducing

experiments. No form of dissection

the letters to bowls and verticals

pushes illegibility so far. The shapes

that appear consistently throughout

are a hungry foundation, waiting for

Univers. The families of shapes

additional layers of enhancement to

that have emerged are similar letter

divulge meaning. It is necessary to

groups found in the Iconic section.

work additively with these shapes if legibility is the intended goal of the process. Otherwise your viewer will

The Bowls

The Verticals

b, d, g, p & q each have similar

Most of Univers has verticals of

bowls that, when the letters are

varying length. Taking the top

disconnected from their ascenders

off of m, n, f & i leaves you with

and descenders, completely

indistinguishable forms. The

lose legibility and they become

verticals are the framework –


backbone, if you will – of the font.

The lowercase a of Univers is surprisingly unique. It has the only bowl that is smaller vertically than the x-height.



Two Tees

Like I mentioned in the Iconic

h, m, n & r have joints of great

The t & f share the same form with

section, the s is a truly unique

similarity. When reduced, each

delineation only in their toppers and

letter. If you remove its middle,

of them can look like the r. Even

tails. The curvature of the bottom

however, it can look similar to

among these forms, the r is still

of the t references the traditional

the form of the o and e.

distinguished by the severity of

form of the handwritten letter

the taper and a flare in the top

and distinguishes both the top and

of the stem.

bottom of the t from the f.



The Ending

v & w are made up of the same

The final three letters of the Univers

diagonals. By removing the forward

alphabet are surprisingly unique.

leaning diagonals, meaning and

The quirky diagonals of the x & y

distinction are lost. Removing the

make them distinguished but not

backwards leaning diagonals has

recognizable. Their idiosyncrasies

the same effect.

make them peculiar in relationship to the rest of the typeface which is made of fluid lines.


The Second Layer Ambiguous dissection requires

ambiguous shapes act as a shell

into one unified shape that is rather

a secondary layer of information

upon which the typographer can

unmistakable. Even knowing what

in order for legibility to emerge.

imbue meaning. Subtle hints can

it says, the first half of ambiguous is

Depending on how the additions

easily reveal what the letters have

very hard to see, yet with just a few

form and play with the pieces of

lost. Consider the u above. The

hairline strokes, the letters emerge

Univers they can either transform

angled line does not resemble the

without any struggle.

it into something quite legible or

curve that was once there yet it

obliterate meaning entirely. The

unites the verticals and binds them

S h ap e Diss e cti o n With shape dissection the letters

form. It becomes a new object to be

are changed entirely. Through iconic

analyzed and considered without

dissection the letters popped out.

prior assumptions of what the form

With ambiguous dissection the

may be intended to represent.

letters were unified into generalized

These remaining shapes become

forms. Now the forms are broken

hieroglyphic in nature. They take

into new shapes, reductive pieces of

on a life of their own as an other

their former selves. When a letter’s

worldly adulteration of language.

shape is unrecognizable we look at it differently from that of ambiguous

Shapes of Strokes With shape based dissection, the letters are changed entirely. Isolating strokes and subverting the joints and connections of the form can leave reductive forms that seem unconnected to expected letters.

Pattern and Texture Despite inevitable overlap between shape and ambiguous dissection, these forms stand free of meaning. For textural purposes this style is an excellent means of dissection. In the previous two styles, the reader would spend time struggling to see meaning in the shapes. Here, value can result from the elegance of the forms rather than seeking a message that will never be revealed.


C r e atin g U ni v e rs Minus

Based on my analysis of dissection I put what I had learned of each letter’s signifier into building a working reduction of the Univers Family. Univers Minus is my best reduction of the typeface that still retains legibility. Taking away more than half of each letter, I had to solve a myriad of problems. My final result is four weights and styles of the typeface. This is meant to impress the remarkable nature of the legible forms. I did not even expect my results to work quite so well as they did. So here you are, Univers Minus.



Difficulties The bowl family proved to be the most difficult. It is only through the relationship between the bowl and the stem that they are differentiated from each other. I had to create a system that would allude to the ascender or descender yet also not sacrifice the full shape of the bowl.

Removing Excess In examination of each form I had to determine which parts were truly necessary for legibility. Unlike my discussion of Iconic form, I was blessed with value of context. Some forms lose a majority of their substance and certain letters can fall short of singular legibility. In context even the most difficult letters like c & z can prove little hinderance to a word’s success.


Univers Minus 55 This is my final reduction of Univers

appear as a word break. The letter a

Besides these letters and the bowl

Minus in its regular weight of 55.

turned out to be particularly curious.

family, the alphabet reduced quite

By design, I was determined that I

Here, once again, I was forced to

naturally. Most of the letters read

would not distort the letters to meet

break the consistency of process

immediately, even alone. Only one

my needs. No bowl is compressed

to achieve consistency of form. The

letter causes trouble as a result of

or intersection moved. However, in

letter a is the only letter which goes

its commonality and ambiguous

order to keep each letter as a unified

to the ascender height that does not

reduction. The letter o has only one

shape, I had to bring the two halves

in the original font.

logical way to reduction and that is

of the letter w together. Without

As always, c is the letter with the

to leave as much of it, from the top

the change, the shapes would read

least legibility. Looking like a reduced

down, as possible. Put the letter o

as two of the letter v and would

piece borrowed from fifteen other

between d & g and you may read

have more space within itself than

letters, it relies heavily on context in

‘day’ instead of ‘dog.’

between any two letters, making it

order to not be misunderstood,

Univers Minus 45 This lightweight is marginally more legible than 55. Its thin lines leave the letters with more counter space and optically longer lines.


Univers Minus 47 The condensed weight held no real trouble, though any weight which puts more emphasis on verticality is bound to have some impact on legibility.


Univers Minus 73 My means of reduction translated naturally into a black weight of Univers. Letters like g, x & y thrived in their loss of counters. Legibility remains solid if it has not increased.


E x pl o rati o n

The following section is a collection of the studies and type treatments that I have been working on in conjunction with my dissections. They address means of creating and subverting legibility and test a myriad of potential treatments. My focus was on pushing the line between legibility and illegibility, finding that sweet spot where the reader is surprised at the ease with which their mind comprehends meaning. Some studies meet this goal better than others but all work from the base of Univers 55. Many of these studies have influenced my dissections and were completed before sections 1 & 2. Consider this the exploratory foundation for my deductions.


C ut

With these studies I left behind

letter’s integrity. I found that in

all the restrictions of Section 1 on

many cases, conclusions

dissection. As I have said before,

of verticals were enough to relay

much of successful reduction relies

meaning. Our mind makes the

on hinting at the forms you

connections between slices, like

have removed. Here I have used

connecting the dots.

the negative space to retain the



Cov e r

I considered what happens when you replace large portions of letter forms with consistent obstructions. Removing counters leaves the simple yet untarnished silhouettes of the font's expected form.


Here I replaced a majority of each letter with circles. The legibility remains extremely clear even when a circle replaces a straight line. Consider the m & n. They are both remarkably legible. Our mind sees the black form holistically and excludes whatever isn’t expected.

Building with triangles posed a

yet context makes it clear. Even

difficult challenge. The font retains

forms that are simply a triangle - c,

legibility because of consistency.

o & v - become clear. Systems are

Our mind quickly adapts to the new

key to the success of any typeface

system and begins to understand

and this is just as true when lettering.

what to expect. Alone, the letters are too abstract to be understood,

B lur

Blurring letters allows for a wide variety of forms not seen in more rigid means of study. More than focusing on the legibility of letters and pushing contextual need, I spent time working on the elegance of distorting and accentuating curves and verticals. The more successful studies came out of a unified merger of blurred form and vector shape.

Using smoke as a tool resulted in some very beautiful outcomes. I expected my words would be at the mercy of the smoke forms but with only minor adjustments, I was able to hint at the missing forms and make the type quite legible.

C o rrupt

Corrupting Univers was as much about engaging the letter forms with unexpected processes as it was about reducing legibility. These studies took into account what the reader expects to see and what will surprise with novelty of form.

Implied by the word, my corruption studies looked to data corruption for inspiration. Creating texture as the letters sway between solid form and abstraction.


I spent a lot of time in this study working with my ambiguous dissections, seeing how little I needed to add for meaning to shine through. Abolish only reads as a result of a few well placed circles. Consider the s. The shape is new and unique yet through the word’s context the s is clearly visible. 63

Patt e rn

By digitally scanning calligraphy

within the restrictions of the letters’

and creating swatches from the

original outlines, the original

words, I made textural elements that

shapes are organically subtracted

naturally distress the solidity of

from, leaving a range of legibility

the letters. By placing the pattern

that is easily manipulated.

Since the secondary layer is made of letters itself, peculiar forms start to peak through, hinting at its source material. This balance between levels can be used to enhance meaning and develop a built in hierarchy inside the form.

Through this process I have come away with a fundemantal understanding and much greater appreciation for written language. I hope that my studies can be helpful to your own considerations of typography and I highly reccomend you try testing my conclusions. As I began: everything is subjective. Language is as mutable and unreliant as culture and is subject to change at whim. We think, speak and live through language, grammer and typography. Master it as a tool, don't let it master you.

B r e a k in g U ni v e rs

Senior Capstone Project 2012

J asp e r J o n C r o c k e r

Maryland Institute College of Art Bachelor of Fine Arts Graphic Design Department

Breaking Univers  

Jasper Jon Crocker's Thesis Book

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