Backstory: Söhne dates back to the first time Kris Sowersby, the founder of New Zealand foundry Klim, visited New York City. Sowersby was eager to slip down to the Subway platforms where he could admire Unimark’s famous wayfinding system, which he’d only seen in books like the NYCTA Graphics Standards Manual. The white letterforms stood stark against their black background. Their no nonsense shape seemed to have a liveliness to that was only deepened by the routine chaos of New York City public transit. “I remember admiring the angled terminals on the c, e, and s—their anonymous grotesk heritage felt perfect in context,” Sowersby recalls.
Helvetica is the unsung hero of the MTA system, but in fact, it was Akzidenz-Grotesk that first gave the Subway its modernist appearance. First designed in the late 19th century, Akzidenz-Grotesk was an influence to the design of Helvetica, and to an untrained eye, the two are more similar than different. A few years after his trip to New York, Sowersby began digitizing Akzidenz-Grotesk as a side project, and this became the basis for Söhne.
But the story has a twist. Upon returning to NYC years later, Sowerby once again found himself in the din of the Subway. Looking up at the signs, he realized that he was never looking at Akzidenz-Grotesk, which had been replaced by Helvetica starting around 1980; he was simply seeing what he wanted to see—the two similar typefaces merging into each other and solidifying their evolution. “I realized that I was remembering Akzidenz-Grotesk, but Helvetica was guiding my hand,” he said. “They are similar typefaces, and in my mind they had erased and emended each other’s contours.” Söhne was born from the essence of Akzidenz-Grotesk, but it was firmly rooted in Helvetica. As Sowersby describes it: “Söhne is the memory of Akzidenz-Grotesk framed through the reality of Helvetica.”
On his website, Sowersby explains that he doesn’t think it’s possible to make an “authentic digital revival” of an analogue typeface. “It’s a contradiction in terms. There is no equivalence between physical material (metal type) and a virtual, cartesian vector (digital font).” Instead, he wanted to create the essence of Akzidenz-Grotesk. “My primary motive in drawing Söhne was to express the analogue materiality of these letterforms in a digital font. I wanted to capture the memory and sensation I felt from the Subway signs,” he recalled.
What are its defining characteristics? Like its spiritual predecessors, Söhne is anchored in the solid geometries of Swiss modernist type. Still, Sowerby wanted to imbue the typeface with the tactility he experienced in the NYC Subway. Söhne is built around 36pt Akzidenz-Grotesk Halbfett, a semi-bold font that has a “poster-like” quality to it.
The typeface comes in four families: Söhne, Söhne Schmal (Condensed), Söhne Breit (Wide) and Söhne Mono, with a range of weights and styles. Sowersby describes the source material of grotesks as “largely anonymous, robust forms with a satisfying heft.” Söhne feels much the same, but with some added flair and gloss. Sowerby says the typeface’s default “a” and “g” were inspired by the old grotesks—their alternate forms, the tail of the lowercase “a” for example, add more personality without sacrificing the typeface’s overall cleanliness.
“Söhne Mono was the final family added to the Söhne Collection,” Sowersby writes. “I drew it in deference to contemporary typography and the ever evolving concept of a ‘super family.’ Aesthetically, monospaced fonts are always handy for a typographic palette. They have a lovely, brutish quality.”
Why is it called Söhne? Söhne means “sons” in German. Sowersby explains that the name came from his discussions with Tim Kelleher of design firm Sons & Co. in Lyttelton, New Zealand. “He was an early supporter and user of Söhne. The name just stuck, it felt right. It alludes to lineage, to family.” He decided to stick with a German word to honor the legacy of Söhne. “I’m very wary of the anglicization of the contemporary digital font culture and software in general,” he says. “Typefaces are at the service of language and culture, and perhaps we in the English-speaking communities could make allowances for other cultures. I know it will cause difficulties, but they are minor indeed. I decided, if I’m going to pursue this, I want to pursue it to the logical conclusion.”
What do I use it for? Like other highly legible sans-serifs, Söhne is versatile. The bold, condensed cuts work as an impactful display font, while lighter weights could be used on everything from body copy text to forms to signage.
What do I pair it with? Think of Söhne as the sturdy base for all sorts of typographic experiments. Its reliability lends itself to pairing well with more playful typefaces.