Back Story: Exchange was originally designed as a new text face for The Wall Street Journal between 2002 and 2005. As with his expansion and update of Retina, Frere-Jones wanted to give the typeface a life outside of newspapers. Exchange’s two main teachers are the Ionics (an early form of slab serif) of nineteenth-century Britain and 1937’s Bell Gothic from the U.S.. The Ionic serif was a powerful tool for binding letters together into words, and the lowercase arches of Bell Gothic were a terrific defense against ink spread. Bell Gothic was made for printing phone books at high speed on thin paper, so its strategies have a natural sympathy with newspapers.
Inspired by his library of type specimen books collected over the years, Frere-Jones was eager to free up some of the thinking tied up in old designs that have now fallen out of favor. He sought to decompile the works of the past, isolate the decisions that led up to each final product, and recombine them in a new typeface using the same strategy, not the specific forms. “I took the exterior contours and serifs from the Ionics and the interior of the letterforms from Bell Gothic, so Exchange is not a revival of either, it’s more of a behavioral study that separates the practical lessons from the stylistic container they happen to come in,” Frere-Jones says. “Compressing the story of these two typefaces into something much shorter was a counterintuitive process sometimes, sort of like putting peanut butter on pancakes—weird, but great.”
Why’s it called Exchange? The typeface is named after the stock exchange, a nod to its origins at the WSJ.
What are its distinguishing characteristics? The stability of Ionic letterforms hinges on the way the outside contours turn in towards themselves, but nevertheless it’s not a practical feature—it creates tight, awkward counterforms around the ball terminals. Exchange does something clever; it clips off a piece of the ball terminal to allow for more white counterspace inside each letter. An odd distinctive feature is the 45° angle replacing a smooth curve on the brackets where the serifs join to the stems, a happy accident that occurred when Frere-Jones was running tests on the weight and mass of serifs and brackets and quickly roughed out the curves as straight lines. By the time he was satisfied with the test characters, he’d gotten fond of the straight connections and decided to keep them.
What should I use it for? The Exchange family includes 18 fonts in ten standard styles and eight MicroPlus styles for screens and the smallest sizes of print—basically, you’re covered for any use. Although it’s built as something very sober, Exchange has its own voice. Its surprising features are visible at display sizes which seem to contradict that sobriety, like someone who’s super-efficient, organized, and dead serious on the job, but who really cuts loose after a couple of drinks.
What other typefaces do you like to pair it with? It works well with Mallory and Retina, but its ideal dance partner depends on the size at which you’re using it. In its original role as body copy, try something equally serious. At larger sizes it feels more adventurous and can be used as a foil for a more delicate typeface.