Breaking Univers An Examination of Typographic Dissection
Jasper Jon Crocker
Table of Contents
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
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 Frutigerâ€™s Univers. By process of dissection, I considered the fontâ€™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.
â€œTypography 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.â€? 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.
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 letterâ€™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 formâ€™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
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 doesnâ€™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
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 â€“
backbone, if you will â€“ of the font.
The lowercase a of Univers is surprisingly unique. It has the only bowl that is smaller vertically than the x-height.
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.
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 letterâ€™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 letterâ€™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 wordâ€™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.
With these studies I left behind
letterâ€™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 isnâ€™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,
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 wordâ€™s context the s is clearly visible. 63
Patt e rn
By digitally scanning calligraphy
within the restrictions of the lettersâ€™
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 www.breakingunivers.com
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 www.jasperjon.com
Jasper Jon Crocker's Thesis Book