What should a 21st-century type foundry be? How might a type specimen function in a way that suits our increasingly interconnected and rapidly changing times? And why shouldn’t fonts be intelligent systems—programmed to shift and react to meet the needs of designers? And while we’re at it, they might as well combine all the possibilities of the digital world with a sense of humor and inquisitiveness that challenges what a typeface should and could be today.
These are the questions that preoccupy Dinamo, a Swiss type foundry started by the enigmatic, energetic graphic designers, Johannes Breyer and Fabian Harb. And they have a response to all their probing typography queries: contemporary words should take contemporary forms that give a nod to the past but also question, articulate, and sometimes even satirize new concerns.
Graphic designers in the know approach Dinamo for custom typefaces or to purchase the esteemed Grow, a font that Breyer, when I speak with him, describes with zeal as a “monster with a mind of it’s own.” The foundry has made custom type for museums such as Kunsthalle Zurich, for the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and even a series of Elton John poster. You’ll read Dinamo’s work in books published by Harvard and Sternberg Press, which recently released a title by graphic designer Sam de Groot, who asked for a special font for the project. In response, Dinamo mischievously tweaked old-style Janson to create its “Bastardized Janson” (above), concentrating on details like an upside down S and warm, open ends that evoke a sense of welcoming.
Now Dinamo has released a website of type specimens for their non-custom typefaces. And—no surprises here—they’ve approached the design of the site in an entirely unconventional way.
“People can chat with the specimen,” says Breyer, indicating the tab on the righthand side marked Specimen where you can send what you’ve written in the “Play with Fonts” section to others. They’ve also created an option where you can change the background of the text to a series of images by photographer and set designer Mirka Laura Severa that will be refreshed in the future to offer a consistently fun and entertaining user experience.
“You could compare releasing type to releasing records; we try to offer an overall interesting, diverse program to our audience” Dinamo explains. Like musicians, the foundry designs new work with an awareness of what came before, building on and reacting to its previous typefaces with every new release. Dinamo’s complex, conceptual, manifesto-like “first album” was 2013’s Grow, a display typeface that bridges the gap between the digital and the organic with letterforms that looks like the expanding rings of a tree trunk, swelling with age over the years.
Designing Grow was a real beast. The complexities of the typeface aside, Breyer and Harb were committed to making sure that their very first project together would express the studio’s overall ethos and their playful and ingenious approach to the post-internet potential of type.
The idea first emerged when they spotted a ’70s Letraset font that built itself up emphatically from several forms like the grooves of vinyl or the layers of an onion. “We thought, what would happen if we pulled it apart and had each component as a separate basic shape?” says Breyer. They took this thought further, wondering whether you could then recombine and mix and match these single, basic weights (or onion layers), sometimes just two pairs of them, or at other times three or four or five or six, to create a complex family where each combination shared qualities but also had a distinct characteristic of its own.
The basic shapes of Grow are labelled A-F (A being the layer in the center from which everything else grows, right to the outer layer F, as above) and layers can be turned on or off depending on what combination a designer wants. An A on its own is bouncy and floats whimsically, whereas the full combination (ABCDEF) is emphatic and somehow tactile. Other combinations fall everywhere in between, an array of different personalities—BCF is striking, while AEF seems to drift airily about. No matter how stripped-back or fully fledged, all the combinations retain that same distinctive sensibility that sets Grow apart.
To make a font this complicated, Dinamo turned to type designer Gustavo Ferreira, who created a custom tool that makes the building process possible, allowing Breyer and Harb to work on the six different basic shapes at the same time, and to edit individual glyphs in context (also above).
With its polymorphic set of letterforms, Grow is individualistic and organic, despite its digital origins. It addresses ideas of standardization and precision, but with so many possible outcomes Dinamo more or less hands the designer the keys to drive it wherever they like.
“We like fonts that stretch the idea of what type can be,” says Breyer, “Grow is a joke on modernism, too.”
The foundry’s more mature sophomore effort is Favorit, “named after a bar in Munich.” The delicate, low-contrast font was a reaction to what they’d became known for at that point, and proved that aside from the ability to think conceptually, Dinamo had range, too. For the underscore, the typeface’s tube-like components playfully snake under the text and contain it like an island—this detail also required its own custom tool and programming.
Eagerly awaited album number three will be Pareto, a typeface with three possible serif arrangements that either take the shape of a circle, a square, or a triangle. Dinamo turned to Ferreira again to develop a system that ensures no shape will ever repeat itself twice, as each additional character looks back at its neighbor. The slightly tongue-in-cheek, cartoonish result is somewhere between Bauhaus and classic Western.
“If you’re going to experiment with what’s possible with type,” says Breyer, “I myself find it interesting when it’s expertly crafted without losing a sense of humor.” Dinamo’s work will indeed make you smile, but more importantly, it will make you think about what you are looking at, and why.