Back Story: Isotope was inspired by a style of handlettering popular among German technology companies such as Sennheiser, Liebherr, Soehnle, and Leifheit in the years following WWII. This was the era when Functionalism—a design movement in which the form of an object is driven by its purpose, not by aesthetics—came to influence architecture and industrial design. Swiss Modernism, meanwhile, followed in the footsteps of the Cubist and Bauhaus artists who sought to break down visual clutter and strip design down to bare essentials.
As a movement, Functionalism sort of got swept to the side by Swiss Modernism, but in many ways its principles were similar and its typefaces equally modern; they just carried more personality in their letterforms than did the more neutral Helvetica and Univers fonts which quickly dominated mid-century graphic design.
Why’s it called Isotope? The designers—Jonathan Hoefler and his team members Troy Leinster and Sara Soskolne—wanted a science-related name that was not evocative of past discoveries, nor too futuristic. Isotope seemed just right. “It’s a term of the nuclear age that’s familiar, non-academic, and part of a range of applied sciences from medical imaging to power generation,” Hoefler says. “And it conveniently contains the letter “S” front and center, which never hurts: it’s one of Isotope’s more memorable letters.”
What are its distinguishing characteristics? Isotope is part of a small subset of sans serif typefaces featuring marked contrast, the distinction between the weight of its horizontal and vertical strokes. For instance, Helvetica uses contrasting strokes only incidentally; Isotope heightens this relationship substantially. “Some of its signature characters are the ones that reduce organic letterforms to stricter geometries, such as the “S”, along with one of my favorites, the figure “8”, which almost resembles an Erlenmeyer flask,” Hoefler says. Isotope’s subtle mix of rounded and sharp corners on characters such as the “W” add a feeling of forward momentum and keep the typeface lively.
What should I use it for? “Its scientific backstory certainly invites anything from the worlds of engineering, technology, or industry,” says Hoefler. “Its lightest weights also resonate with the typography of health, beauty, fashion, fitness, or luxury.” Functionally, Isotope’s large x-height helps make it work very well at small sizes, a boon for screen uses.
What other typefaces do you like to pair it with? The designers like it with Tungsten and Vitesse, among others from their library, and you could also experiment with the extremely exaggerated reverse-stress letterforms of Maelstrom for a little typographic frenzy.
Bonus Trivia Round: Isotope is H&Co’s first typeface to include a “capital eszett,” a new letterform that was officially added to German orthography just a few months ago. In the past, words with “ß” would resolve to “SS” when set in all capitals, but this new character offers an alternate solution. “Our design for the capital and lowercase ß in Isotope solves an interesting puzzle for a typeface designer: as much as both forms must resemble one other, each needs to be most at home with an entirely different alphabet of upper- and lowercase letters,” says Hoefler.