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What does font weight mean, exactly?

The weight of a particular typeface is the thickness of the character outlines relative to its height.  A typeface typically comes in a variety of weights from ultra-light to extra-bold, with as many as a dozen options.

The base weight differs among typefaces. For example, a typeface used for a movie poster might have a different normal than one suited for long blocks of text.

Here’s an example of the Helvetica Neue typeface with numbers that indicate weight:

 

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You might ask yourself, “How did those numbers become the standard measurement of font weight?”

In 1954, Adrian Frutiger was the first to introduce a range of weights using numerical classification. His groundbreaking Univers typeface featured a “two-digit numeration system where the first digit (3-8) indicated weight and the second indicated face-width and either roman or oblique.” Univers was the first “font family” designed as a complete collection of coordinated weights and widths, with the normal weight of 55 being the starting point.

 

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Pictured: a “periodic table” he created for the Univers family

In Frutiger’s system, 35 was Extra Light, 45 was Light, 55 Medium or Regular, 65 Bold, 75 Extra Bold, 85 Extra Bold, and 95 was Ultra Bold or Black. He also included alternate numbers for Italics (“6 series”) and Condensed (“7 series”).

The popularity of Univers led to Frutiger being commissioned by Monotype to create Apollo, their first typeface designed specifically for phototypesetting. He was also hired to design the Roissy typeface for signage at Charles De Gaulle Airport (below).

 

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He became immensely popular and his work quickly spread around the globe—his typefaces appeared on London’s iconic street signs…

 

 

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…San Francisco’s BART trains, and even early Apple keyboards.

 

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In 1997, Frutiger revised the Univers typeface and created Linotype Univers, a family that consisted of 63 fonts, including weight options like Ultra Light or Extended Heavy. The new numbering system was extended to three digits to reflect the expanded number of variations.

*When Web Fonts were introduced, the numbering system was borrowed from this Linotype model.*

For 60 years, Frutiger’s “clean” and “legible” designs were the toast of the typography industry. But perhaps his biggest contribution to design was the introduction of the weight system.

Award-winning typeface designer Erik Spiekermann called Frutiger “the best type designer of the 20th century.” He also paid him a huge compliment when he said “I know of no other typeface designer who can put so much feeling into a systematic approach. Frutiger’s typefaces are always carefully planned, but they never look like it.”

Frutiger passed away on September 10, 2015. For more about the life and work of this amazing man, read Fontshop’s lovely tribute or the informative Frutiger piece in the New York Times.

 

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