The Typographerâ€™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.
Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic
67 Bold Condensed
of Univers is the accompanying numbering sys-
tem. To compensate for the incredible variety of
font families, Frutiger designated each font with a number to make it easy for the user to relate
the fonts to one another. Generally, as num-
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
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 Frutigerâ€™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 facesâ€”the best known
ognition. His 1982 Breughel is an original face
being the sans serifs Univers and Frutigerâ€”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 1960â€™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neither outdated nor necessarily caused legibility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
solely a matter of habit.1
Anatomy cap height
spur terminal (sans serif)
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
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 type.com/7-267-7-13347/univers.html Accessed November 1, 2005
Philip B. Meggs and Roy McKelvey, New York: RC Publications, 2000. (A&A: Z250.R45 2000) http://www.linotype.com http://www.fonts.com 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 DuprĂŠ. 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 Hoffmanâ€™s Helvetica (1983).