The Cosmos of Adrian Frutiger

Adrian Frutiger ushered type design through enormous changes in the twentieth century. Those changes yielded his superlative work: designs that were built intuitively and realized theories that were previously only hinted at. A member of a rarefied generation of designers, Frutiger began creating punches for metal type before graduating to phototypesetting and, later, digital technologies. Over the course of a long career, his influence was as enormous as his work was prolific: In addition to over forty typeface designs, he wrote books and crafted corporate, civic, and institutional identities. It’s difficult to find a designer who hasn’t used his typefaces; it’s impossible to find one who hasn’t learned about typography from their use.

Frutiger created typefaces in almost every imaginable style, but his best works were sans serifs. And no wonder—he was a tireless champion for the importance of space in type. The sans lays bare this truth. From counters and apertures to letter spacing, kerning, and word spacing, its unadorned forms are defined as much by what they are as where they are not. Frutiger created three sans-serifs in particular that were emblematic of his precision and taste and that were crucial contributions to the definition and development of the genre.

In the 1950s, Frutiger’s most famous work, the neogrotesque Univers, expanded the cosmos of strict modernist design. It was momentous—a typeface that seized on the potential of nascent phototypesetting technology. At the time, a limited palette of type defined the ordered ideals of international modernism. Frutiger conceived a family of twenty-one styles arrayed along the two axes, weight and width, for a comprehensive system of almost unlimited potential. Univers has a luster that owes to its restraint; the designer reasoned that building a neutral framework would allow nuances to emerge across the styles. “I liked calling this a landscape: the landscape where different typefaces unfold,” he said. This was too modest, not just because the spatial metaphor is limited, but because it implied that, in Frutiger’s case, chance played a larger role than the creator. Univers continues to amaze. Today, as then, it shines with confidence, exuberance, and newness.

Frutiger was driven to develop forms that were at once contemporary and timeless, which inspired his eponymous typeface two decades later. His ability to merge analysis with intuition is evident in Frutiger, a design that established a voice so clear that it set a standard for accessibility. He developed the type from lettering he did for the Charles de Gaulle Airport in the early ’70s. Airport signage is demanding, and the solution he proposed was striking for its openness and legibility. Frutiger was the designer’s favorite creation—type that was both stylish and practical. Although it isn’t particularly calligraphic, it is the quintessential humanist sans-serif, because it reflects the hand that drew it.

My favorite work of Frutiger’s is Avenir, a typeface whose innovation was its detailed balance. As type transitioned into the digital age, no one was better suited to solve the old problem of the geometric sans, where legibility often suffered from rational modernist form. He used his experience to fight fire with fire; where the forged precision of geometric shapes often resulted in typographic rigidity, Frutiger managed to soften the results by rigorous refinement. “To draw in all those nuances, so fine that you can hardly see them, but you know they’re there,” he recalled, “that really sapped my strength. It was the hardest typeface that I have worked on in my life.” Avenir tricks the eye: It is a masterpiece of optical fine-tuning that cheats ideal forms just enough to adjust for the subtleties of human perception. It established a high bar for craft just as the tools arrived to usher in a new era of type design.

Frutiger’s work will enliven graphic design for centuries to come. He made beautiful and useful typefaces, but his legacy may best be measured in his influence. He taught, lectured, wrote, and gave interviews, sharing his knowledge in great detail. His ideas are distributed directly and indirectly so that, among the thousands of designers making hundreds of thousands of typefaces today, the entire trade is made up of Frutiger’s apprentices. Any measure of artistry in contemporary typography owes a debt to him.

-Benjamin Woodlock
From on the passing of Adrian Frutiger in 2015.

The body copy is set in Univers 55. Licensed from Monotype.