The joy of a hairline sans

3 minute read

I admire good typography. Both the look and idiosyncrasies of pretty fonts, and their arrangement and use in everything from books through billboards to title cards and the words on your phone or computer screen. Making a font is something I would like to try (or maybe have already started…), but not something to undertake lightly. Creating a successful, nuanced, and beautiful font that people will want to use is skilled professional that most people only notice when it goes wrong.

This post is an appreciation of hairline sans serif fonts. A thin, ultrathin, or hairline sans is an elegant thing to see heading the page at a large size. Whisper thin columnar forms combining the minimum amount of ink with the maximum amount of impact.

A selection of ultralight and hairline sans serif fonts.
A selection of ultralight and hairline sans serif fonts.

At this size too, the geometric – Avenir, Gill Sans, and TT Hoves above – are particularly allowed to sing and show their pointed circular forms. Being based on circles and straight lines gives them a very spacious setting – hence Avenir takes up the whole line. Those fonts more closely based on historical text fonts – Macklin Sans and Lato, for instance – retain their curves and more gentile presence.

Sans serif fonts – without the small flicks at the end of lines – have had centuries of history, but most of their variety came over the last hundred years. That variation came from the interpretations and opinions of their creators. Perhaps surprisingly sans serif fonts have largely tracked their own course, and few are directly related or derived from older serif fonts. Connections have been made between 19th Century ‘modern’ serif and early grotesque fonts – for example, compare Bodoni to Akzidenz Grotesk or Helvetica. Similarly in a type family with complementary serif and sans components created from an underlying harmony.

As a prodigy of the 20th and 21st centuries sans serif fonts have that air of modernity about them. Bedecked upon the New York Subway or the London Underground they are the movers of the proletariat; robust yet essential. In another guise inflicting the height of modernity to the rawest photos and artwork. Yet another sitting in refined pose at a graduation.

Typesetting some of my thesis in Avenir and Warnock.
I showed you some of my thesis previously, and because it’s convenient for me here’s a little more. Typeset in Avenir and Warnock. Words from Moon (2016) and extended in Moon (2019).

I used this a little in my thesis, well a lot – every title; adding sans serif to pick out the headings over the main body text. This is not a unique instance … not by a long shot. A hairline, ultrathin, or thin sans serif font is not always good for this, unless it’s rather large. Even in presentations a hairline is a dangerous thing to those attempting to read. Any poorly lit lecture theatre, meeting room, or Zoom call – which is most in my experience – will not forgive you in the slightest.

Hairline fonts are not a good option for a slide presentation.
Macklin Sans’ hairline fonts, and many other typfaces too, are not my best choice for a slide presentation. Forgive my use of the Solarized colour scheme.

Properly used thin fonts provide instant impact and long-lasting enjoyment. Placed where they don’t belong they elicit derision or even mistrust. That is not limited to this exclusive group of fonts, but the elements of typography are vast and frequently subtle. It’s worth the dive if you fancy the plunge. I started some time ago and still have that thrill of new discoveries and wonder at others’ thoughts. This remains very much alive too. New fonts are continuously arriving, exploring new ground, rethinking present ideals, and revisiting past successes. And who knows maybe someday I’ll add my own stone to this tower.

References and other reading

Bringhurst, R. 2013 The Elements of Typographic Style. 4th Edition, Hartley & Marks. ISBN: 978-0881792126

Leaning, B. 2015. An introduction to typography for non-designers. HubSpot Blog. Accessed 2020-11-21 at https://blog.hubspot.com/agency/typography-introduction

Moon, B.C. 2016. Ichthyosaurs of the British Middle & Upper Jurassic & the Evolution of Ichthyosaurs. PhD thesis, University of Bristol.

Moon, B.C. 2019. A new phylogeny of ichthyosaurs (Reptilia: Diapsida). Journal of Systematic Palaeontology 17 (2): 129–155. doi:10.1080/14772019.2017.1394922

Leave a comment