Courtesy Futurefonts.

Westenwind, a new font designed by Olga Umpeleva at the KABK TypeMedia master program in the Netherlands, grew from a startling premise: “…There are not enough serifs in our typefaces. Why should serifs only be present in certain places? Why is it not possible to add them elsewhere?” 

On the one hand, it’s almost like asking: why can’t people have an extra set of arms at waist level? On the other, the question challenges a venerable assumption about letterform design and leads to some fascinating explorations.

Serifs perform a valuable function for the reader, laying down a little path that aids the eye as it moves along from one letter to another. They are elemental and functional parts of typographic anatomy (much as humans have arms and legs), although they range in style from Baskerville’s workmanlike serifs to more decorative versions such as Archer, whose lower-case characters sport slab serifs ending in ball terminals.

“We encourage all sorts of explorations of letterforms in the TypeMaster program. When designers take their work to the edge of legibility, such projects question our shared assumptions and expectations,” said Master type designer Erik Von Blokland, one of Umpeleva’s teachers at KABK. “Once the process veers into new territories, the designer is responsible for inventing the criteria as well: what is a good shape, in this context? Westenwind does this very well: a relatively basic design principle is multiplied into very complex and intriguing textures.”

Umpeleva’s proposal stems from finely-honed design thinking, seeing serifs—things we take for granted—with a fresh eye. “I thought about how and why serifs had appeared in general. It is not handy to draw them with a brush or pen; I also don’t believe in the idea that they came from stone carving. I have experience in stone carving, and I know for sure that there is nothing impossible or special about it,” she said. “So if the appearance of serifs doesn’t make any sense already, why couldn’t it be possible to add them not only to the ends of stems? Then I tried to place them everywhere.”

Although Umpeleva’s denial of serifs as relics of the stone carving process may seem heretical, the position is supported by the likes of W. R. Lethaby, founder of London’s Central School of Arts and Crafts (renamed the Central School of Art and Design in 1986), who points out that nothing was carved until it was written first—with a brush. In his editor’s introduction to Edward Johnston’s writing manual of 1906, he wrote:

“The Roman characters which are our letters today, although their earlier forms have only come down to us cut in stone, must have been formed by incessant practice with a flat, stiff brush, or some such tool. This disposition of the thicks and thins, and the exact shape of the curves, must have been settled by an instrument used rapidly; I suppose, indeed, that most of the great monumental inscriptions were designed in situ by a master writer, and only cut in by the mason, the cutting being merely a fixing, as it were, of the writing.”

Westinwind is perfectly legible as words if a reader is willing to do a little extra visual deciphering. It also becomes easier to read the farther one gets from it, meaning that while it might not be practical for a column of text read at intimate scale, it would be great on a billboard. “At first I experimented with the amount and shapes of serifs and their placement relative to each other, Umpeleva added. “Then I tried different weights and widths, until a hypnotic effect was achieved.”

The thinking behind Westenwind links to a larger story of other fonts that become decorative patterns, challenging the idea of legibility as the main characteristic of type, which exists to convey the written word. Is it still type if it is strictly ornamental or has its arms where its legs should be, or has extra arms? Do these distinctions even matter?

After all, as long as there has been typefaces, there has been typographic ornamentation. Consider the printer’s dingbats, such as manicules (those little pointing hands) that have been with us since the 15th century, and the ornamental borders seen in all kinds of printing from the 1700s on. Printers kept sets of ornamental borders and dingbats in separate job cases, apart from the cases where collections of type families were stored. They matched them to the size of the type they were setting, not particularly to its style. In other words, ornaments were not even considered characters per se. 

The notion of a typeface that was equal parts ornamentation and letterform started in the 1990s at the beginning of the desktop publishing/digital type revolution. Zuzana Licko and Rudy VanderLans at Emigre released a handful of typefaces that were sets of tiny spot illustrations: Big Cheese (1992), Thingbat and FellaParts (1993). However, 1994’s Whirligig was something else. The characters were modular geometric pattern elements intended to be repeated and combined into backgrounds, borders, and page dividers—pure eye candy. They support other typefaces as page elements, but can’t be used to set readable text. Zellige, designed in 2017 by Pedro Leal, merges standard characters with elaborate tile-patterned backgrounds, establishing a balanced mix of ornament and readable letterforms.

Designer Nigel Cottier also took a disruptive look at typeset characters in his project Letterform Variations (we wrote about it here). His letters are less decorative and more an exploration of alphabetic shapes outside of their usual roles as language-conveyance symbols, bending the laws of functionality almost to the breaking point. With a little extra effort on a reader’s part, the characters can be recognized as the familiar letters of the alphabet. Lunica by Thomas Hirter carves out its own creative territory when it comes to serifs, using a split-serif design that calls attention to itself rather than appearing integrated into the letterform. The font’s serifs feel decorative and frilly, to the point where using any ornamentation alongside them would be garish. (See Jäger from Violaine et Jérémy for a similar level of serif exuberance.)

There are countless other typefaces that experiment with modular elements to create letters (Fernhout and Diode), or mess up the characters in various ways while maintaining a level of legibility (NotCaslon and FS Sally Triestina come to mind). It turns out that experimenting with the humble serif and questioning its very purpose leads to some surprising new directions in type design, and a blurring of the traditional boundary between type and ornament.