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Grinnell’s new typeface choices

Topics/tags: Rants, typography, open source, rambly

Grinnell recently announced the new font families [1] that we will be using throughout the College. What are the font families? The primary families are Futura [2], which serves as our sans-serif font family, and Freight Text Pro [3], which serves as our serif font family. At first glance, they seem like reasonable choices; Futura is a classic that still has a bit of edge [4]; Freight Text Pro is a relatively modern typeface that seems to have a few nice flourishes to set it apart from the myriad of other serif faces. And, as a blurb about Freight Text Pro suggests,

From technical manuals to university catalogues … Freight Text Pro is designed to excel anywhere style and sturdiness are required.

It appears that the College’s designers are particularly enamored of Futura. Not only does it serve as our primary display text in an ALL-CAPS form, typically with a lot of spacing between the letters [6], but it also seems to get used for body text in print publications. I don’t see us using Freight Text Pro as much in printed documents, but we do seem to be using it on the new Admissions site.

Both Futura and Freight Text Pro are commercial typefaces that are not readily available on most computers. Hence, to make things easier [7], there are two alternative choices available. Communications tells us that we can use Arial as the sans-serif face and Georgia as the serif face. In particular

In scenarios where Futura and Freight may not be available, Arial and Georgia are suitable replacements. [8]

These strike me as strange alternatives.

Other than sharing a lack of serifs, Arial looks a lot different than Futura. You’d never mistake one for the other [9]. In addition to the general feel of the face (I notice, for example, much higher ascenders in Futura than in Arial [10] and that Futura is much less consistent in the height of ascenders [11]), there are many clear differences in individual letters. Futura’s as don’t have the little doohickey on top; Arial’s do. Futura’s ts are perfectly straight. Arial’s ts have a curve at the bottom. You get a very different sense from the two. Plus, Arial is, well, Arial. As far as I can tell, it’s the default sans-serif font on every Microsoft product. While Futura is edgy, Arial is staid.

I don’t have great access to Freight Text Pro, so it’s harder to compare it to Georgia. It looks like Freight Text Pro has thicker serifs, or at least thicker horizontal serifs, such as at the bottom of n and q). Does that make it aslab serif" font? I think so. I see that Freight Text Pro has relatively short ascenders [12]; that makes it a bit of a strange pairing with Arial. Georgia’s ascenders seem slightly taller. Both are fairly consistent in stroke width, at least from my quick exploration. But Georgia was designed for the Web, not for print. What if one wants to do printed documents? Should one really use a Web typeface for those purposes?

When Communications first announced the new typefaces, I did the only logical thing: I asked for copies to use in my own work. ITS wasn’t prepared for the question, so I asked Communications. I was told, You can use the alternative fonts. But why choose typefaces to identify ourselves if we’re not going to use them consistently? My guess is that we’re too cheap to purchase a site license. Alternately, they don’t want to support the difficulty of people adding new faces.

But you know what? I can’t use Arial or Georgia in my everyday work, even if I wanted to. I do most of my writing on a Linux Workstation using either LaTeX or html2ps [14]. Microsoft does not seem inclined to provide free versions of either Arial or Georgia. I would rather (a) have the College buy the typefaces so that the designers of Futura and Freight Text Pro are appropriately compensated or (b) use open faces. Communications has not responded to my revised request for either the typefaces or a recommended open alternative, so I’m left to search on my own.

There are a variety of free (like beer) and open-source font families available. Font Squirrel seems to have a particularly large range of choices. But which ones to pick?

The problem is that not all advice is helpful when I’m trying to match the look and feel of these faces. For example, when I look at a list of alternatives to Futura only one of them comes close to achieving the effect of the high ascenders in Futura. The rest, well, seem to just be interesting sans-serif font families.

One fun stop was the league of moveable type, which has some nice types and some nice accompanying verbiage. My initial inclination was to consider using League Spartan for sans serif and Goudy Bookletter 1911 for serif. (The serifs seemed relatively consistent with Freight Text Pro). But each is only available as a single font. I generally need three faces: plain [15], bold and italic.

After way too much time on Font Squirrel and elsewhere, I ended up settling on Renner* as my Futura alternative. It looks the most like Futura, except for the inclusion of that curvy top piece on lowercase a. And it comes in multiple faces. It’s not only a much better family than Arial, it’s much closer to Futura. Plus, it has a reasonable open-source license [16].

I’ve had less luck finding an alternative to Freight Text Pro. I’ve found I really like many parts of it, from the stem on the b to the overall structure of the lowercase e. I’m still not certain, but I may end up trying Besley*, which has a similar heaviness to Freight Text Pro and similar slab serifs. It doesn’t have quite all the characteristics I like of Freight Text Pro [17], but I think it’s worth trying.

I’m not sure how Communications will feel about these choices. But you know what? They haven’t offered me any alternatives to try. And anyone who says you can substitute Arial for Futura doesn’t really care that much about typography.

Now I just have to figure out how to incorporate these typefaces in the programs I use most regularly [18]. That’s a task (and a musing) for another day.

Postscript: Since we have a license for Web usage of Futura PT and Freight Text Pro, I also asked to use those fonts on my Web site. I was told that we don’t yet have a policy on using those fonts on sites other than the central site. So I’m waiting. Given other experiences I’ve had with waiting for Communications on Web stuff [19], I have a long time to wait.

Postscript: If you’re interested in reading some things that make Futura an interesting font family, such as the overshoots on some of the letters, this article on alternatives provides a good starting point.

Postscript: Wouldn’t it be cool if Grinnell chose to license Renner* and Besley* rather than Futura and Freight Text Pro? Then we could make a bold statement about how even our font choice supports our promotion of open dialogue, or something like that.

[1] When I’m trying to be serious in talking about these kinds of issues I do my best to distinguish the term font from the term typeface. The former is a particular weight and shape (italic, roman); the latter is a collection of related fonts. That is, a typeface is a font family. Casual usage, including my own casual usage, conflates the two.

[2] Or perhaps Futura PT.

[3] We seem to refer to it only as Freight in some documentation.

[4] One of my colleagues notes that Futura is used by luxury designers such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Dolce and Gabbana. Are we going for a luxury look? I’m not sure. I see that the Barbican also uses Futura, although I think they use Futura SH [5]. You may want to compare their visual identity guidelines to ours.

[5] Did you know that there are multiple versions of Futura? I didn’t. But now I see that different type manufacturers make different versions of Futura. Futura SB is from the Scangraphic digital type collection and is designed for body text. Futura SH is also from the Scangraphic digital type collection and is intended for headlines. Futura PT, which is what we seem to be using, was created by ParaType. Linotype has a Futura, too. Can I tell the differences? Not really.

[6] I don’t like all-caps Futura. I particularly dislike all-caps Futura with the excess spacing that they’ve decided to use for display text. The letter widths vary so much (e.g., L is particularly narrow and N is wide) that the combination seems disconcerting at best.

[7] More on that issue later.


[9] Perhaps I’m wrong. I’ve seen students who don’t realize that they’ve switched from a serif font to a sans-serif font on their résumés. But most of the people I know, including, I assume, most of my readers, pay a bit of attention to fonts.

[10] Or is that a smaller x-height? I never know how to assess such issues. In any case, the ratio of ascender height to x-height in Futura is large.

[11] Compare, for example, t and h. t has a short ascender. h has a tall one.

[12] Perhaps a relatively high x-height. As I said, I haven’t been thinking enough about type design recently.

[14] I use html2ps more frequently than LaTeX.

[15] Or Roman or book or whatever you want to call it.

[16] If I find myself using it regularly, I’ll certainly pay the designer.

[17] As I said, I’m really finding myself becoming fond of the lowercase b. It’s both the way the designer handles the upper serif (an approach that gets replicated on other letters with vertical ascenders) and the lower-left corner, which seems atypical.

[18] Setting up for programs on the Mac was easy. I just used Font book. Preparing to use LaTeX and html2ps looks to be harder.

[19] E.g., I think we’re over four years on we threw everything and everyone off the main Web server without having planned a place for it and them to go; we’ll come up with something soon.

Version 1.0 of 2018-05-17.