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The Typographer’s Guide to the Univers

The following pages are an introduction to the his-

39 Thin Ultra Condensed

tory and characteristics of the typeface Univers,

49 Light Ultra Condensed

designed in 1954 by Adrian Frutiger. This sans serif typeface contains a staggering number of font

59 Ultra Condensed

families, and is distinguished by many idiosyncra-

47 Light Condensed

sies within the letterforms themselves.

57 Condensed

Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic

67 Bold Condensed

of Univers is the accompanying numbering sys-

45 Light

tem. To compensate for the incredible variety of

55 Roman

font families, Frutiger designated each font with a number to make it easy for the user to relate

65 Bold

the fonts to one another. Generally, as num-

75 Black

bers increase, the weight and density of the font

85 Extra Black

increases. Numbers ending in 3 represented the “extended” font families, and progress to numbers

53 Extended

ending in 9 that represent the “ultra condensed”

63 Bold Extended

font families. Numbers in the 30s represent the

73 Black Extended

thinnest font weight, and continually increase to

93 Extra Black Extended

light (40s) and roman (50s), and even going as high up as extra black (90s). On the extremes of the system are Univers 39 Thin Ultra Condensed, progressing all the way to Univers 93 Extra Black Extended.


Periodic table layout of Frutiger’s numbering system for the Univers typeface.


Adrian Frutiger Adrian Frutiger is one of the most important type

Frutiger has created a broad range of typefaces

designers to emerge since World War II. He is the

including OCR-B a type for optical character rec-

designer of many notable faces—the best known

ognition. His 1982 Breughel is an original face

being the sans serifs Univers and Frutiger—and

almost wholly comprised of curves and fitting

was one of the first designers to create type for film.

into no existing type category. He has embraced new technology and used it to advantage in faces

Although Frutiger has said that all his types have

such as Centennial, a modern whose fine serifs are

Univers as their skeleton he felt, when he came to

made possible by recent improvements in defini-

design a face for the Charles de Gaulle Airport at

tion. More than ten years earlier his Iridium had

Roissy, that Univers seemed dated, with a 1960’s

demonstrated that the classical modern face was

feel. His airport face, originally known as Rois-

neither outdated nor necessarily caused legibility

sy but renamed Frutiger for its issue to the trade

problems. Frutiger himself is skeptical about the-

by Mergenthaler Linotype in 1976, is a humanis-

ories of legibility. He learned to read with gothic

tic sans serif that has been compared to Gill and

characters without difficulty and says legibility is

Johnston types.

solely a matter of habit.1



Anatomy cap height


spur terminal (sans serif)

finial descender

To achieve the goal of an expansive, integrated type

less and has a disturbing effect on the word as a

family, designers must be sensitive to the nuances

whole.”2 By overlapping a Z and a T of the same point

of each letterform while simultaneously consider-

size, variation in stroke thickness becomes apparent.

ing the overall system. In the case of Univers, this

Frutiger’s decision to use different stroke thickness-

sophisticated approach to type-family design is sup-

es for the horizontal, diagonals, and verticals was a

ported by a well-considered set of typographical

response to his assessment of visual discrepancies

characters. Inspired by his study of the limitations

in other type-faces. It is also no coincidence that Fru-

of existing sans serifs, Frutiger began with the as-

tiger’s interest in creating a functional and efficient

sumption that “a purely geometric character is un-

type family followed well-documented scientific

acceptable in the long run, for the vertical ones; an

research done in the 1930s and ‘40s on the mechanics

O represented by a perfect circle strikes us as shape-

of eye movement during reading.3


Left and Below: Diagram text is set in 65 Univers Bold, sized at 90 pt font.

While Frutiger’s goal was to make letters that fit together so flawlessly that the assemblage formed a new satisfying gestalt, he also deemed it important that individual letterforms 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.” To maintain the integrity of each letterform, careful optical adjustments were made, based on the current knowledge of the principles of perception. The


counter ascender



of Univers ascender height


As width increases, the letter forms begin to shrink their counters to maintain a constant cap height. Demonstrated below is the progression from Light to Extra Black.

c is smaller than the o because in open letters the

innovations contributed to the over-

white space achieves greater penetration into the

all harmony among letters, allowing

form, thereby appearing larger. The n is slightly

for a smooth line flow.4

larger than the u because white entering a letterform from the top appears more active than white

Right: Demonstration of the size difference between lowercase c and o, set in 55 Univers Roman.

entering from the bottom. Ascenders and descenders were shortened in comparison with existing typographic norms, and x-heights were increased. Larger x-heights also provided greater legibility, addressing the concern that sans-serif type was more difficult to read than serif type. All of these


Comparisons Univers font was created almost simultaneously

Left to Right: Gill Sans, Futura, Univers The Univers “Q” is noticeably less circular than the other typefaces, following Frutiger’s move away from geometric san serifs of his time.

with other successful alphabets: Helvetica (1957) and Optima (1958). Whereas Helvetica, for example, had a general clarity and a modern, timeless and neutral effect without any conspicuous attributes (lending to its great success), Univers expressed a factual and cool elegance, a rational competence.5


Above: The Univers “G” (furthest on the right) is again ovular, rather than perfectly ciruclar. The letter’s terminal also runs parallel with the baseline, which uniquely characterizes the typeface in comparison.

Gill Sans (Left): Circular tittle, close to the stem of the i. Width of the stem is slightly wider than the circle. Univers (Middle): Distinctive square instead of a circle, with a mid-height stem. Futura (Right): Larger circle that is spaced farther from the stem. The stem has more geometric proportions, as well.




Blackwell, Lewis. 20th-Century Type. New Haven: Yale University

1 Pincus W. Jaspert, The Encyclopaedia of Typefaces. (Poole, Dorset: Blandford Press, 1983), 69-70.

Press, 2004. (A&A: Z250.A2 B59 1998 and Vault)

2 Alexander S. Lawson, Anatomy of a Typeface (Boston: D.R. Godine, 1990), 304.

Kunz, Willi. Typography: Macro- and Microaesthetics. Sulgen: Verlag Niggli AG, 2000. (A&A: Z246 .K86 2000 and Vault)

ain: Lund Humphries, 2002. (A&A: Z250 A2 C364 1995 and Vault)

3 Jennifer Gibson. Revival of the Fittest: Digital Versions of Classic Typefaces (New York: RC Publications), 171.

Revival of the Fittest: Digital Versions of Classic Typefaces, essays

4 Ibid, 173.

Carter, Sebastian. Twentieth Century Type Designers. Great Brit-

by Carolyn Annand ... [et al.]; edited by

5 Linotype Library GmbH, Available at http://www.lin Accessed November 1, 2005

Philip B. Meggs and Roy McKelvey, New York: RC Publications, 2000. (A&A: Z250.R45 2000) Note: See the list at special collections for this designer.


This book was designed by Maggie Chuang in Spring 2017 for Typography I, taken at Washington University in St. Louis. Body text is set primarily in Vista Slab (2008), designed by Xavier DuprÊ. Diagram text is set in Univers (1954), designed by Adrian Frutiger. Typefaces included for comparisons include Futura (1927), designed by Paul Renner, and Helvetica Neue, adapted from Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffman’s Helvetica (1983).



The Typographer's Guide to the Univers  
The Typographer's Guide to the Univers