Illustration by Tala Safié

Welcome to Spotted, Eye on Design’s new(ish) column that turns an eye (ahem) on the styles and graphic trends you’re seeing everywhere. First time around we looked at “liquid metal,” the glinting 3D texture effect that gives everything it touches a futuristic shine; then we turned our eye on the neon hue of “terminal green.” Now, we focus our gaze squarely on the offbeat but somehow lean and mean letterforms of chiseled type. Have other nominations for trends we should feature? Shoot us an email at submit@aiga.org.

What are you seeing?

We’re dubbing this style of distinctly quirky, offbeat but exaggerated serif fonts “chiseled type,” thanks to the fact they look as though someone’s taken chisel to rock and carefully crafted them with the most rudimentary of tools, all updated for 21st century, distinctly digital applications. It’s a style that’s sort of prehistoric/futuristic: both very much of the human hand, but not. 

As trends go, this is more of a slow burner than some of our other Spotted stars, such as the retina-searing terminal green. Chiseled type has been edging its way into the trend zone for a few years now, rather than exploding onto the front of every magazine or digital masthead. The style has a number of similarities with other trends, such as the chunky serifs that seemed to appear everywhere in the wake of the apparently universal adoration shown for Chobani’s rebrand. These letterforms appear as though sharpened—made leaner, and slightly meaner.

 

Who’s using it?

This is quite a “designer’s” design, and the majority of uses are in editorial, self-initiated, and projects for cultural clients. One of the key examples of the trend, Minérale, for instance, was first used for a theatre identity project by its creator Thomas Huot-Marchand. He ended up first using the family for an identity project he was working on for the Theater, l’Etincelle; mixing it with fellow chiseled face Infini, by Sandrine Nugue, which was the first public commission by The Centre National des Arts Plastiques when the latter launched in 2015. They share a very geometric design, and a common structure, in a way,  says Huot-Marchand. He adds that one of the best use of Minérale is in Nick Sherman’s did identity for Typographics 2020 in NYC, which also combined it with Infini, as well as Danser Brut by Marga Berra Zubieta.

One of the other typefaces that made us consider the prevalence of these chiseled letterforms is Bedow’s Bedow Hand typeface, which was create specifically for use by the Swedish design studio alongside its less flamboyant counterpart, Bedow Head. Created to mark the studio’s 15th birthday, each typeface represents a different key part of the design process: Bedow Hand shows the “thinking” aspect, while Bedow Hand acts as the “making” part of design.

“Personality-packed serifs are back in fashion, reflecting evolving cultural attitudes”

Sarah Hyndman, the author and designer behind a number of multi sensorial explorations of typography in her Type Tasting series, posits that the new-ish prevalence of such fonts is in part a riposte to the “neutral and minimalist sans serif typefaces” that dominated for around a decade; such as those used in the Google and Airbnb logos and on Apple’s packaging. “However, tastes change and now personality-packed serifs are back in fashion, reflecting evolving cultural attitudes,” she says.

She adds that the style—“typefaces with big, triangular serifs that are reminiscent of type styles of the late 1800s”—started to emerge in force in around 2017, citing examples including Medium’s new logo, the Birmingham Design Festival identity, and The Guardian’s 2018 redesign. The latter, she sees as particularly relevant in terms of the prevalence of this chiseled style now; in which the Guardian’s previous masthead’s “friendly, all lower case letters” were replaced with spiky triangular serifs in title case. Indeed, Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner described the new masthead as having “a renewed strength and confidence to represent the Guardian’s place and mission in these challenging times.” 

Why do designers love it?

These more chiseled serifs are distinct in the way their idiosyncratic shapes have a sense of handcrafted personality, rather than the starkness of something computer-generated: They “feel like they’re created by the human hand, but the paintbrush has been switched for a calligraphy pen or a chisel,” says Hyndman. “All curves have been replaced by angles, but they retain the irregularity of hand written letters.”

It could be suggested that the long-awaited Cedar font (see above) by XYZ’s Jesse Ragan aligns with this stye. Described by its creator as an “experiment in wrapping rudimentary vector shapes around calligraphic structures in a hand-carved aesthetic,” it’s certainly a chiseled number. “The letterforms seem straightforward at first, but closer observation reveals a paradox: their tactile appearance emerges from a distinctly digital construction of dissonant arcs and corners,” Ragan adds.

“We’re moving on from very handmade-looking typefaces”

The type designer reckons that angular typefaces like this are in vogue at the moment because they “carry a strong personality, which comes through in various resolutions onscreen,” which may contribute to their popularity. “We’re moving on from the very handmade-looking typefaces, and but designers still want faces that defy the simplified structure of many screen-first fonts,” Ragan continues. He suggests that his typeface Study also falls into this camp—“finding the meeting ground between forms that are calligraphic, typographic, and simply ‘graphic.’”

French designer Thomas Huot-Marchand started drawing Minérale for the identity of an exhibition about Mineralogy,” he says. I wanted the letters to shine like diamonds,” says Huot-Marchand, and found this trick to make the contours of the stem cross. It was fun, so I decided to expand the glyph set and see what would happen in a broader range of weights, designing the extremes (ExtraLight and Black). In a way, there is no stem, but rather two big serifs: it’s a kind of exaggeration of flared serifs. 

Finally, Swear by the Oakland-based foundry Ohno was heavily influenced by Roger Excoffon’s 1952 typeface Vendôme, says its designer James Edmondson. He loved to draw it for the simple fact that “sharp details are just fun to appreciate at large sizes,” he says. “And at small sizes (Swear will eventually get text styles too), they work well for making details like serifs render clearly.