Back Story: Ambiguity’s 70 fonts are designed as five separate “states”—Tradition, Radical, Thrift, Generous, and Normate—that challenge binary design hang-ups about how letterform proportions ought to behave and interact.
The typeface was inspired by the keynote lecture given by Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s senior curator of architecture and design, at the 2016 RGD Design Thinkers conference in Toronto. Titled Are We There Yet? A Road Trip to Utopia, her talk asserted that historical attempts at creating utopian visions of cities through design and art are misguided because the people designing the utopias are not the only people inhabiting them. The result is one person’s vision of utopia, and not a shared one. Conversely, if we choose to accept the notion of fluid or ambiguous realities as perfect, then we can hope to achieve utopia, or utopias.
“I found this idea really compelling and immediately began trying to imagine how it would work for type,” designer Charles Nix says. “Back in New York, I started sketching. I took apart my idols, contradicted them, experimented with them. I took things I hold dear, such as traditional proportions in letterforms, subverted them, and then observed the interaction between traditional form and a radical, contrarian reverse.”
“It’s not a walled garden, it’s like a garden where all the ramparts are sort of broken down so you can enter freely, play around, and walk right back out of it.”
Why’s it called Ambiguity? One look at the letterforms provides your answer.
What are its distinguishing characteristics? Things that intentionally strive to defy expectations just for the sake of it tend to be dull and/or pretentious, but Ambiguity is neither of those things. Its five states swap proportions for letters that are traditionally slim and others wide, resulting in some startling juxtapositions. The Radical state features a narrow capital “A” and crazy wide cap “B,” while Tradition reverses that with a manspreading “A” and demurely skinny “B.” Against all logic, a wide lower case “t” and a tall narrow “o” exist in the same alphabet.
“Ambiguity doesn’t lend a consistent voice to language, but offers opportunity to plumb the depths of what visual voice will do,” says Nix. “It’s not a walled garden, it’s like a garden where all the ramparts are sort of broken down so you can enter freely, play around, and walk right back out of it. It’s very permeable, but all of the pieces that made that walled garden to begin with are still there.”
“Ambiguity is so varied within itself as a type family that no two users will ever will arrive the same mix of hierarchy and order.”
What should I use it for? The Tradition, Normate, and Generous states work well for books and magazines. Thrift is great for web and app text because it’s economical in terms of horizontal real estate—condensed without looking terribly narrow.
What other typefaces do you like to pair it with? “My hope is that it’s as much about starting a conversation about visual voices as it is about choosing a typeface at all,” says Nix. Ambiguity is so varied within itself as a type family that no two users will ever will arrive the same mix of hierarchy and order. This is one that doesn’t need an outside dance partner.