In the last few years, monospaced fonts were suddenly making appearances in editorial and advertising design, showing up everywhere from social media to posters to packaging.
Invented to suit the mechanical requirements of typewriters, each letterform in a monospaced alphabet occupies exactly the same amount of horizontal space, unlike the more traditional proportional fonts whose widths vary by character. So, a monospaced narrow letter such as “l” or “i” always floats with space around it, while a wider one like “W” looks like it’s been shoved into a corner. Each character is made from a line of uniform thickness (there is no stroke contrast), unlike most typefaces that feature stroke modulation and optical correction.
Mono Moment, a new book published this year by Slanted, began as part of graphic designer Christina Wunderlich’s undergraduate thesis. Wunderlich, who studied at Berlin’s School of Culture and Design (Hochschule für Wirtschaft und Technik / University of Applied Sciences) and graduated in 2020, looks at 45 different monospaced fonts from 1955-2020, and includes interviews with four type designers.
The book showcases a variety of digital monospaced fonts, such as Courier which tried to duplicate the look of typewritten words, and others that come from the world of computer coding. Trixie, the most widely used typewriter font in the world, faithfully includes all the things that were not-so-hot about typewritten text: when the ribbon and keys got dirty, bits of inky dust and gunk would smudge and smear the paper. Trixie builds in the digital gunk, plus the uneven pressure of keys that would leave parts of some letters darker than others.
Monospaced fonts have evolved beyond their archaic origins and are now used in writing computer source code because machine readability relies on disambiguity between characters. For this reason, optical character recognition is more accurate when reading monospaced fonts. Until recently, though, monospaces were not much used as “design” fonts, but relegated to narrowly-specific situations based on utility. We set out to learn more about their current moment in the spotlight through a conversation with Wunderlich.
How long did it take to complete the book?
Three months of research, plus three or four months more of intense work. When I finished, I shared the book with more people to get a conversation started. I sent it out to Slanted, just to see if they wanted to feature it on their website, and they said “yes but we also want to publish it!”
Monospace fonts are suddenly hitting something in the culture. Is part of the appeal the joy of rediscovery? Even though typewriters have been around since the late 19th century and the look of typewritten words may be unremarkable to someone from an older generation, perhaps it feels new to a younger person? Using a typewriter certainly feels different from working on a computer keyboard: the force needed to strike the keys and the sound as they hit paper, the ding of the bell when it was time to slam the carriage return. There was even the smell of the ink on the ribbon. Computers are mostly soundless (if you don’t have YouTube tabs open)—the printer whirs quietly and your pages come out, wafted along on a whiff of ionized air. But somebody typing furiously on a typewriter makes so much noise! A busy 1950s newsroom on deadline was sheer bedlam. Maybe that’s part of what we are missing, the sensuality of it all?
Exactly. Part of it is that older generations feel nostalgic for the typewriters they used back in the 60’s. Some new experimental monospace fonts look like they were inspired by old business ledgers discovered in a grandfather’s desk, as if the designer said, “I almost forgot about these ledgers but here they are.” So these fonts reference history.
Another thing: monospaced type makes its own design on the page—the regular spacing makes the typeset text into a picture of its own with a very special look different from proportional fonts. The look is nostalgic but it seems new—and also looks like coding.
Maria Ramos, one of your interviewees, said: “I would like to see more inventiveness in monospace fonts,” and it’s true that when you flip through the fonts in your book, there’s an overall sameness to many of them. For instance, IBM Plex Mono and Roboto Mono can be tricky to tell apart. Beyond a few other examples, such as Syno Mono, it seems there hasn’t been much work put into developing truly distinct monospaced fonts. There is a blackletter monospace out there, F25 Blackletter Typewriter, but is there room for even more playfulness?
Yes! We have just started to rediscover monospaces again and we are still in the wave of discovery.
I feel like designers are hovering between nostalgia for the ink strike on paper and the virtual world of coding, and trying to adapt both of those things for use in contemporary design.
For me it was good to see that coders need quality typefaces, and that these typefaces evolved and grew over time into a design of their own that wasn’t trying to mimic an analog thing. Some of these beautiful fonts meant for coding are spilling over backwards into general usage.
We should embrace our new inventions. It’s time to put monospace typefaces into a new era. My mother told me her fingers hurt from typing all day on a manual typewriter. I don’t want to look back too fondly on typewriters but rather consider monospace fonts as their own new genre.