Back Story: During the optimistic, future-looking 1950s and ’60s, typefaces such as Microgramma and Eurostile expressed the same sort of sleek modernity and style as the era’s industrial design (think Dieter Rams). More recently, we tend to associate this kind of squared-off extended letterform with motorsports, cosmetics, space travel, or the ’90s rave-party look—but designer Stéphane Elbaz begs to differ. He sought to develop a Latin letterform based typeface that felt a bit imperial, without directly reflecting the traditional chiseled letters found on every design student’s historic touchpoint: the Trajan Column.
“I like the contrast between the typeface’s name and its appearance,” Elbaz says. “Ultimately, a sense of strength relative to technology and craft has remained since the origin of this style.”
“It’s a bit like the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, when you expect to see planets and spaceships but instead what you see is apes and the dawn of man.”
Why’s it called Pilat? It isn’t a literal reference to anything; the name has no connections to type history, although a pilum was a javelin commonly used by the Roman army in ancient times. Elbaz says, “I was just looking for a name that had the right connotations. This two-syllable word, with Latin roots, seemed to express the strength and contrast of the typeface. I think with the name Pilat you’d expect to see Roman Imperial lettering but you get the surprise of strong mechanical post-war shapes. It’s a bit like the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, when you expect to see planets and spaceships but instead what you see is apes and the dawn of man.” Fun fact: Microgramma is the main typeface seen on all the technology in that movie and is a source of influence for Pilat.
What are its distinguishing characteristics? Pilat is a constructed grotesque developed in 6 widths and 8 weights ranging from compressed to extended and from thin to bold for a total of 48 styles. Its base structure, commonly called a ‘superellipse’ or ‘Lamé curve’, describes a circle trapped inside a box. Some alternate glyphs (G, J, Q, R, K, a, k, and &) connect the alphabet to its industrial roots.
Pilat’s default letterspacing is set very tight for display uses, but with a bit of tracking, the standard width works perfectly for smaller text. The narrow width provides good narrow column space optimization and readability for headlines, and also looks great as short-form body text.
“I’m not big on design guidance. I trust designers to find their own way to use my work.”
What should I use it for? Elbaz says, “I can’t really give any directions because I love to discover typefaces used in unexpected ways and situations.” May we suggest packaging, editorial print, and identity projects?
What other typefaces do you like to pair it with? “At this very moment, I want to say PS Fournier,” says Elbaz. “But again, I’m not big on design guidance. I trust designers to find their own way to use my work.” If you need a little starting inspiration, Masqualero provides a nice contrast, especially the Groove variation.