Typography is a service, not an art

I never liked Untitled Sans or its brother, Untitled Serif. There was a sort of anti-design-designer thing going on with them. They screamed “I am extremely from New York City” for some reason, as if they were designed for ugly billboards that legally require a generic sans. They weren’t beautiful or striking or unique or new to me and so I thought, what’s the point of this?

I judged them in the harshest way imaginable: I just shrugged and then forgot about them.

A screenshot of Untitled Sans, taken from Klim Type’s website

But now, returning to them all these years, I can see I was dead wrong. They’re typefaces specifically designed not to stand out. As the designer Kris Sowersby writes in the design docs:

I made all Untitled Serif design decisions while reading. After each round of changes, I embedded the updated fonts into an ePub of Orwell’s 1984 and read several chapters. If a detail stood out, I removed it in the next round of changes. I kept doing this until it was totally comfortable to read.

I mention this because it’s interesting how your taste changes over time. In the past whenever I typeset something I had a bit of an ego. I wanted not only for the text to be beautiful but I wanted to wink and nod at designers: ah yes, the historical context of this typeface compared with this other typeface is, indeed, quite illuminating. I struggled taking off my monocle for one whole minute to see that Untitled Sans and Serif are for people more so than they are for designers to wink and nod at each other.

I still think there’s a time for winking and nodding and giving each other a pat on the back for being so brilliantly typographic, but it should be restrained. You don’t need to show off all the dang time about how well you know 18th century Turkish sans-serifs because your readers will never care.

So I can’t say that I’ve fully taken that monocle off—it remains perched on my face at all times—but there’s less of an ego with my work now.

(I think, I hope).

Either way, I have to remember the most important lesson of typography that I always tend to forget: typography is a service and not an art.