Ultramodernity & Hypermodernity in Typeface Design

Ray LarabieRay Larabie Posts: 1,358
edited August 2022 in Technique and Theory

I’ve been using the terms ultramodern and hypermodern to define typefaces, but I don’t believe there is agreement on how they should be used. I was hoping to get some feedback on these terms and the typefaces that fit under them. The term “techno” is frequently used as a catch-all, but I believe it’s too broad.

The adjective “modern” is ineffective when applied to typefaces in this way since it is not synonymous with "modern" in other types of design. Futura’s forms align with modern the way the term is used in architecture, but modern fonts are Bodoni/Didot. We usually categorize Futura as a geometric-sans, or geometric-grotesque. I'm not sure if that's a retronym for Futura because I never heard the term until the early 2000s. How was it classified before?

Ultramodern typefaces usually have less focus on pure circle forms and often use consumer electronics themes shapes to emphasize a more industrial structure. Industrial stovepipe typeface existed before Microgramma/Eurostile but there was always a traditional flavor, Bank Gothic being a notable example. I'll try to keep out of the weeds here because I discussed it in another post. Eurostile had superelliptical shapes resembling contemporary high-tech devices: the cathode ray tube. It appeared to be intended to minimize the impression of a pen stroke. Eurostile’s design avoided classical typeface forms to portray the sensation of high technology. In the 1970s there was E+F Digital Sans, Handel Gothic, and Earth which took the Eurostile idea and simplified it further while placing more emphasis on modularity. One particularly stark example is the old Namco logo. In these examples, the industrial shapes convey a sense of precision while appearing to be functional.

A hypermodern typeface takes the ultramodern style and loops it back into something that draws attention to its own high-tech nature. It’s post-modern maximalism; ultramodern shapes amplified in a computerized kaleidoscope to make them more exciting, more interesting to add maximum emphasis to technological aesthetic. Letterforms become distorted to further distance them from classical letterforms. Modularity is exaggerated to further dehumanize, suggesting some unknown electromechanical system or alien technical requirement. There may be notches, chopped corners and unusual stencil struts to create the impression of panels or unfamiliar technical constraints. They can be curvy like Cyberotica, but inorganic, communicating a sense of complete artificiality. The earliest hypermodern example I know is Westminster (Data ’70, Moore Computer) which was based on magnetic ink machine readable numerals developed in the 1950s. This concept was pushed to the limits of legibility in the 1990s by The Designers Republic. One of my favorite examples is the title for the original Wipeout game on PlayStation in 1995. They subverted the idea of LCD digits being comprised of an 8 with missing segments by using a Eurostile 8 and chopping it up to produce letters. Here's a recent hypermodern typeface I made.

Hypermodern typefaces usually fall under the terms “decorative” or “sans serif”. I think we can consider this style as established—it has been around for over half a century. I think one of the reasons these typeface designs are not taken seriously is that designers have relegated them to science fiction roles. I’ve seen layouts from the 1960s where Westminster was juxtaposed with mod fashion and Data ’70 paired with psychedelia and jazz. Now they’re mostly used for EDM or videogames involving robots and spaceships. What are your thoughts? Do you think these terms fit?


  • James PuckettJames Puckett Posts: 1,957
    edited August 2022
    I agree that there should a term for these designs. I like the term hypermodern, but in the future it might run into the same problem as the now problematic modern classification that doesn’t align with art and architecture. Froyo Tam is also working in this genre right now, so her input might be useful. You could ask the ATypI crowd who is working on the new classification system and see if they’ve handled this.

    This post could be expanded into something longer and with more examples to start a larger dialogue. If you write something you could ask John Boardly to post it on I Love Typography.

    Regarding the geometric-sans classification of Futura, in Meggs & Carter’s Type Specimens: The Great Typefaces (1993) they refer to Futura as “sans-serif.” Gray calls it “modern face” in A History of Lettering (1986). I didn’t see a classification in Kapr or Nesbitt (which I admittedly only skimmed). Christopher Burke wrote a biography of Paul Renner, so he might know. Paul Shaw would also be a good person to ask.
  • Craig EliasonCraig Eliason Posts: 1,367
    edited August 2022
    On that last point, I think the British Standards categorization (1967) may have been a key point in the English language for thinking of Futura's categorization under the "geometric" label: that taxonomy largely followed the Vox-ATypI scheme but broke out "lineales" into Grotesque, Neo-Grotesque, Geometric, and Humanist. (That subdivision was spurred by the then-more-recent appearance of Univers, Eurostile, Optima, Pascal, etc.)
    Here I'm thinking of "Geometric" specifically as a category name—it had been used as a descriptive adjective for Futura countless times earlier, of course. 
  • Craig EliasonCraig Eliason Posts: 1,367
    As for your new terms, I follow the distinction you're describing, but I'm not sure "ultra-" and "hyper-" are distinct enough for the labels to stick. They both seem to mean "beyond" (in Latin and Greek respectively), and you could probably argue the reverse assignment of terms with equal persuasiveness. 

    To be honest your description of hypermodernist forms (looped back, self-conscious, remixed) sounds like postmodernism to me, but I know that term is even more fraught and confusing. There's a little bit of grunge aesthetic that also might name the difference between Namco and Wipeout.

    How about "straight techno" and "alienated techno"?

    Korrupt is fantastic BTW!
  • Ray LarabieRay Larabie Posts: 1,358
    @Craig Eliason Thanks very much!

    I believe ultramodern is already a name for a typeface category, but it may not be widely used. I've been using it for so long that I've forgotten where I first heard it. There is a link in my mind between hypermodern and hyperpop. Hyperpop (RIP SOPHIE) is maximalist, bombastic, and a self-referential reinterpretation of synthpop and similar genres. It takes something synthetic and pushes it the limit in order to make it more intriguing. I believe that some form of the term techno could match what I characterized as hypermodern, but not what I described as ultramodern. It places typefaces like Conthrax or Eurostile in the sci-fi category, in my opinion. They certainly fulfill those functions well, but they're more versatile than that. If you're concerned about variations of the term modern becoming dated, know that this can also happen with techno. The technopop music genre has been around for 45 years, and the aesthetics of technology alter with time—future technology may resemble art nouveau forms and what we call techno will seem antiquated. However, techno may be appropriate. I admit I’m biased toward the term hypermodern because of the hyperpop connection and the “hyper” suggests that these fonts are pushing the limits of legibility, which they are and I think it sounds cool.

  • I am inclined to call faces such as Westminster as Retro-Futuristic.
  • I asked gpt3 and it gave me Technofuturistic. Who are we to argue with our technological overlords?
  • Chris LozosChris Lozos Posts: 1,457
    To me, the basis of the term "Modern" implies most current.  This of course is a moving target which makes the word modern too confusing to use any more. I think we need to get away from historic era placement as a means of distinction beyond stating the decade it was designed. What set of distinctive features would you employ to define the category you are trying to name? Didone features used to define "Modern" but they are no-longer applicable. Perhaps the term might be "Millennial" to cover what you are after but what are the features that depict it? Maybe Sans Serif is one but then what? Perhaps "structured" is better than geometric but then describe what that means? Perhaps we are too close to it to be able to see it?  Maybe it will take some more years of distance to have the proper perspective. There is nothing as clear as Stone Age Bronze Age, Iron Age was that works for today.  What I see is an "Eclectic age" where we borrow from any other time and congeal or "Morphic Age" when we combine whatever. Before we name it, we have to agree on its properties but the properties must be definitive and I don't know what that may be.

  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 2,102
    edited August 2022
    Historical taxonomy (“genotype”) is not much use for identifying type style unless one is referencing a particular design movement to which a typeface belonged.

    Theo Ballmer’s lettering of 1928 would have been at home in the 1960s (in a Ken Garland poster) or a rave flyer from the 1990s.

    Anything that mentions “modern” has a lot of redundancy.

    How about involving the phenotypic term “orthogonal”? —meaning that there is a preponderance of vertical and horizontal strokes, eschewing the diagonal.

  • K PeaseK Pease Posts: 180
    edited August 2022
    I can accept the description of squared faces as "ultramodern": They are forward-looking but practical enough for the present, which is to say, they are not out of place in the real world. But what you call "hypermodern" is futuristic, and always has been, all the way back to Stop. The broken forms are deliberately alien to evoke an imagined future. Some such faces invoke the orientalism endemic in cyberpunk. Some just cling to the feeling that there's a digital mystique in segmented displays. In whatever way, we are supposed to imagine that by 3033 lettering will have evolved as much as it has since 1011, making these unfamiliar forms normal, even though we know, ironically, that replacing handwriting with computers has probably put that process into stasis for good. When we see such faces used in reality, such as on an energy drink or something, it is still meant to engage our imagination. There is no reality in which waiting long enough will make them merely modern.
    One may say, there must already be some old artistic movement called "futurism", surely?  Well, yes, it transpired in Italy in the 1910's. But look at its works, and what you find is broken angular shapes, so I think its relevance holds and there is no confusion.
    Now, if you are attached to a particular style's relevance to hyperpop, you should probably just call it "hyperpop". If we can name clothing fashions according to their associations with music, we can certainly do the same with type. If you wanted to go for "hyperfuturist", there's a unique overconfidence to it, but it wouldn't be out of place.
  • Cory MaylettCory Maylett Posts: 245
    edited August 2022
    I avoid the term modern when referring to typography.
    When I was in design school, modern referred to typefaces, such as Bodoni — extremes in thick-to-thin ratios, no stresses, etc. More recently, I've heard the term used by those unconcerned about historical classifications as meaning most anything designed in the 20th Century that didn't have serifs. And for those with no typography training, modern often means it was designed within the last several years.
    Anyway, the term is mushy enough that I never use it to describe type. When I'm referring to type that has characteristics popular in the previous ten years, or so, I'll just say contemporary since it has little typographical baggage. What's contemporary today won't be contemporary a few years down the road.
  • John SavardJohn Savard Posts: 1,073
    edited August 2022
    When I hear the term "hypermodern", I think of Aron Nimzowitsch, Gyula Breyer, Richard Réti, Ernst Grünfeld, and several others. Thus, I would be reluctant to include it in type classification without dire need.

  • Jim UtzJim Utz Posts: 8
    I recently licensed this to use on a sci-fi project:

    Would it Hyper, Ultra, or something else?
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 2,102
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