Ultra-compressed flat-siders

In times of the ancients, sans-serif condensed, compressed, ultra-compressed fonts usually had flat sides. If you look at Univers as it gets narrower, curves get squeezed until they become completely flat. These ultra-compressed fonts often had higher stem/gap uniformity. There were strange situations like Helvetica Compressed where the flat sided font barely resembled Helvetica. When I see new compressed fonts, I don't see them going completely flat much anymore. Helvetica Neue retains curved sides but appears to have some degree of gap normalization applied to the heavier compressed weights. My question is: why? Obviously when working with interpolation, a sharp transition from curved to flat requires extra work. Do designers who use type prefer consistent round sides to going totally flat? Nobody cares?

To my eye, there's a certain threshold where flat sides and uniform gaps simply look better. I can't picture Univers Ultra-Compressed with curved sides, no matter how subtle.


  • Hrant H. PapazianHrant H. Papazian Posts: 1,621
    edited March 2019
    They look better, but they also look like a different typeface.

    A given typeface has a certain character, a character that our users –hopefully– choose it for, that simply cannot survive beyond certain thresholds. For example a Baskerville with a very large x-height is no longer really a Baskerville (even though it might very well be a serviceable design). Sober naming of our work is part of its functionality.

    If anything type designers have unfortunately started to care less about such consistency.
    Presumably desiring a freedom that is essentially anti-user. Art.
  • Ray LarabieRay Larabie Posts: 977
    I think a variation like Instant is uncommon but maybe I haven't been paying attention. Is it a trend? I remember seeing old magazine ads when I was a kid where they'd use News Gothic for regular and light, Franklin Gothic for Bold and Alternate Gothic for condensed. The contrast between those faces is subtle enough that I don't think it jumped out at the reader and of course they share DNA. I don't think in the case of Univers the flat-sided style looks like a different typeface. I mean, it's different in that it's squished but it retains it's Universness. But that old Helvetica Compressed was simply bizarre. In my old Letraset catalog there's Haas Helvetica Compact which was flat-sided and did a good job of resembling Helvetica. Maybe flat-siding can retain consistency better than flattening curves. If there was a Futura Compressed (I don't think there is) it might work with flat sides. Futura Condensed is almost at the breaking point.
  • Mark SimonsonMark Simonson Posts: 1,206
    edited March 2019
    I think flat-sided condensed is practically a separate genre. Helvetica Compressed was so named most likely to capitalize on the success of Helvetica. If one is to do a "compressed" or flat-sided variant of a non-flat-sided face, it's almost guaranteed to be only loosely related.
  • Chris LozosChris Lozos Posts: 1,226
    Flattery will get you everything.
  • Ray LarabieRay Larabie Posts: 977
    Visually, I think there's something pleasant that happens—a charming pattern barcode-like tone that you don't get with curved sides. In regular width that tone might impede readability but with ultra-compressed, readability is already out the window. It clears that brink where curved sides read as noise and cause letterforms to look overly distorted. There's no really need for any ultra-compressed widths at all but they're just for fun anyway. But I can see for myself right how it's more work to make them. It's basically a whole new typeface. One pleasant by-product is that once the sides are flat you can keep scaling it down, sliding things around and crushing it until it's outlandishly slender.

    And I don't think readers are conscious of whether or not the sides are flat or round and whether or not it looks like it doesn't belong to the same typeface. I guess. I never noticed the flat sides on Univers Ultra-Compressed until I really thought about it.
  • Grotesques are more malleable, but I don't find condensed geometrics like Futura Condensed persuasive at all. 
  • Ray LarabieRay Larabie Posts: 977
    @Thomas Phinney
    I'm sure that's the main reason they're not as common. It's not just a matter of flattening the sides. It's all new spacing, kerning and overshoots. Kind of a pain. The character relationships change too so that needs to be worked out while still retaining stylistic hooks to keep it plausibly in the same family. I did it with Galderglynn 1884 for a client job and I'm working on something similar for Coolvetica. Still I wonder if designers prefer it over round sized condensed fonts. Maybe it's better suited to retro themes.
  • I think the “loss of character” argument doesn’t hold true for every font with flat-sided letters in the compressed version. For example, Knockout has a unique character that transcends through all weights across the board. Granted, some letters have a flat side even in wide variation. But that’s not true for every letter, particularly not the lowercase range. Notice the different shapes for the uppercase /S in compressed and wide.

  • Stephen ColesStephen Coles Posts: 794
    edited March 2019
    I agree that it’s not necessary for a cohesive type family to have the same structure for the round glyphs throughout its styles. It could be argued that geometric designs like Futura would maintain more of their geometric character if the condensed styles where more rectangular than oval. I'd rather have a condensed geo-sans O with strong flat sides and squared corners than an O with eggy curves.

    As @Ray Larabie said, it’s mostly due to type designers saving time with interpolation.
  • Mark SimonsonMark Simonson Posts: 1,206
    edited March 2019
    It could be argued that geometric designs like Futura would maintain more of their geometric character if the condensed styles where more rectangular rather than oval.

    The Filmotype "G" series is more or less that idea in many ways. (I'm the only one who has digitized any of them, back when I was part of the Filmotype project. That series is a particular favorite of mine.)
  • Oops, @Mark Simonson, your MyFonts album is not public.
  • Mark SimonsonMark Simonson Posts: 1,206
    Oh, sorry. It is now.
  • Christian ThalmannChristian Thalmann Posts: 1,521
    edited March 2019
    Grotesques are more malleable, but I don't find condensed geometrics like Futura Condensed persuasive at all. 
    Huh. Am I the only one who likes Futura Condensed? I even used it for a poster recently.

  • Mark SimonsonMark Simonson Posts: 1,206
    edited March 2019
    It's fine. Some people don't like it, but I always have. I think it's okay for a condensed style of a geometric to have "egg-shaped" O's. Most of them do and it's never bothered me. I don't think you have to do it one way or the other.

    Depending on the design of the normal width, it can be tricky, though. For instance, Avant Garde Condensed looks almost like a different genre next to the severe geometry of the regular width. That's a case where I think a compressed, straight-sided style could be nice.

    Years ago I did a little experiment (for my own amusement) to see what it might look like:

    Some of the ligatures probably wouldn't work, though.
  • Coincidentally, I've been working on a compressed, "flat-sided" family. Here's a sample of the most compressed upright weights.

  • John SavardJohn Savard Posts: 596
    For example a Baskerville with a very large x-height is no longer really a Baskerville (even though it might very well be a serviceable design). Sober naming of our work is part of its functionality.
    That is one place where I think that an exception to the principle is approrpriate.

    Caslon 540 certainly is unlike the original Caslon design because of its stubby descenders. Corona owes a lot stylistically to Century Expanded, but has a huge x-height.

    A large x-height still allows most the stylistic attributes of a typeface to be retained; naming it as a variant helps to identify it. So one could have Jenson News, Caslon News, Baskerville News, and so on, all with Corona-like proportions. For when you would like to use the real thing, but you have a pressing need for economy in paper usage.

    This is not at all the same situation as a super-bold "weight" of a typeface that is unrecognizable. A typeface can be very recognizable even after its x-height is increased significantly.
  • Interestingly I saw that for Univers Next they chose to round off the flat sides in all the condensed widths. The idea was that it was more consistent across the family, but to me it doesn't quite feel like Univers anymore. 

    That new “Universe Compressed” is just a Condensed… merely more condensed.
    What makes Univers Compressed so appealing is precisely the strong design decision to verticalize the letters while retaining the spirit of the typeface.
    And the spirit of a typeface is not merely a question of form. Thumbs down to Linotype for this. A solution like that works for Futura or Semplicità.
    Avant Garde is an interesting case in point: being so strongly geometric the Condensed is indeed going against its design principle.
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