Fast Fonts

Five non-obvious ways to use type to evoke the speed, power, and control of performance racing.

Typeface designers frequently speak of curves being fast or slow. We’re often talking about the kind of motion that we imagine having created a shape, whether something feels like the product of a relaxed wrist loosely holding a pen, or pinched fingers meticulously turning a compass. A common topic is changes in speed, whether throughout a curve, an alphabet, or even a family of typefaces. There are curves that breathtakingly decelerate in exciting ways, letterforms that employ different strategies (so that a boxy W feels as nimble as a sinewy S), and the constant battle to ensure that lithe alphabets aren’t paired with sluggish boldfaces. Here are some of the techniques we use to convey speed in our letterforms, and some things that you as a designer can do when choosing and applying typefaces. —JH

Relieve the corners. Above, in the Isotope N, the font’s energetic movement comes from the placement of its curves and corners. In a typeface that generally has sharp edges, subtle curves on the outside diagonal corners help to heighten the momentum through the line.

Choose extreme proportions. Idlewild’s pronounced width is accentuated by gestures that extend outward, like the elongated tail of this capital R. A typeface originally inspired by lettering on cruise ships and jet fuselages, these proportions have long been used to symbolize the perfect balance of speed and control.

Look for controlled dissonances. Even unexpected genres like the slab serif can achieve a feeling of speed. Above: more sophisticated than a simple rounded rectangle, the Vitesse typeface contrasts round sides and flat bases to introduce a dynamic tension. Even the simple letter O has moments in its ‘corners’ where its material seems to bend almost to the point of breaking, adding a little drama to what could otherwise be a unadventurous letterform.

Tighten the curves. Letters in the Tungsten Compressed family take every opportunity to square up against their sides, to convey a clean, engineered feel. Instead of slowly moving through a graceful curve, the spine of Tungsten’s S has tight turns that quickens the movement, creating a brisk, staccato tone.

Turn up the contrast. In the Peristyle typeface, the stark contrast of thicks and thins is never more dramatic than in its letter M, which cycles rapidly between quiet and loud timbres. As the font gets heavier, and the distinction between dark and light strokes becomes more pronounced, adding a little letterspacing helps make the font rev louder.

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