Meet Isotope

Inspired by a style of lettering invented to convey precision and reliability, Isotope is a new family of typefaces designed to be both luxurious and fit.

If your idea of a luxurious product is one that’s stainless steel rather than gold, you may be a Functionalist. Functionalism is an approach to design that gained popularity in the decade after World War II, especially among German manufacturers of consumer goods, for whom a thing’s visual design was the natural expression of how it was meant to be used. In their desire to be intuitive and straightforward, the designers of a generation of unobtrusive radios, bathroom scales, and turntables would define a new aesthetic, one that still resonates with us as useful, well-built, honest, and timeless.

In the years that followed, the Swiss International Typographic Style would supply the letterforms for this philosophy, and industrial design would forever be associated with Helvetica and Univers. But briefly, before Swiss typography swept the continent, there was a strikingly beautiful species of letterform that arose in Germany — never produced as a typeface, but popular among lettering artists, through whom it became fossilized in company logos. For their precision-built products, companies like Sennheiser, Liebherr, Soehnle and Leifheit would adopt this new style of letterform, to convey the solidity, reliability, and practicality of products from kitchen appliances to bulldozers. It’s this style that we’ve explored in Isotope®.

Where Functionalist lettering was limited to boxy capitals, Isotope reimagines the style across a full range of weights, and a complete character set including a lowercase. The broadest strokes of the style have been preserved — contrasting vertical and horizontal weights, complex letters like S reduced to their most linear essence — to which Isotope brings new subtleties that help make the design not just purposeful, but luxurious and elegant. Corners are intermittently softened, to heighten the momentum through letters like A, M, N, V and W; in the numbers, strokes are sheared at unexpected angles to give them a welcome liveliness. From the initial Ultra at the heaviest end of the spectrum, Isotope descends through eight discrete weights down to a sinewy Thin, where subtle details rescue the design from sterility, to create a typeface that’s smartly clinical, and reassuringly exact.

My thanks to our typeface designers Troy Leinster and Sara Soskolne, who joined me in developing this idea into a fuller and more practical family of typefaces than any of us ever imagined. Their backgrounds in graphic design helped keep the project focused on its end uses, and prompted an ongoing conversation about what the fonts were for. In lesser hands, this lettering might have remained a nostalgic curio — or worse, veered into the sort of streamlined lettering that’s the exclusive province of science fiction. Instead, we found ourselves able to steer Isotope towards associations of luxury, fitness, health, fashion and beauty, as well as engineering, technology, and industry. We’re looking forward to seeing what designers will do with it. —JH

Guggenheim Redux

Typeface: Verlag Light

For one quarter of its lifetime, the Guggenheim Museum has enjoyed the use of a signature typeface created by H&Co. The project originally commissioned by Abbott Miller, a sans serif in six styles called Guggenheim, has since grown into a family of thirty styles, now known as Verlag. This expanded set of fonts, now including five weights in three different widths, is now available from H&Co. And gratifyingly, it’s still being used by the Guggenheim — now more than ever.

If the fonts’ thirteen years of continuous use can be attributed to anything, it’s the careful formulation of the original brief. The iconic lettering on Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous rotunda furnished the seed for the project; unchecked, this might have grown into an overly stylized typeface, too eccentric to be of much use. A more short-sighted designer might have made the easy play for nostalgia, but Miller took a more thoughtful approach, envisioning all the different applications that the typeface would come to serve. The family of types we created was therefore more interpretation than facsimile, a versatile family that we all hoped would evoke the qualities of the museum without simply replicating its signature. It was the right call: the fonts once used only by the Guggenheim New York’s publication department now serve the signage programs of four museums, the institution’s Webby Award-winning website, and now the new identity for the Guggenheim Foundation, also designed by Miller, and premiering this year as part of the Guggenheim’s fiftieth anniversary. —JH

Groovy Tech

Spy shots from Macworld! If only. This is one of Mark Richards’ spectacular photographs from Core Memory Project, his terrific survey of vintage computers. Mark’s sexy shot of the DEC PDP8/F explains all those day-glo set dressings in The Prisoner and The Time Tunnel, both worlds in which the higher the technology, the brighter the orange. Like the steampunks who reimagine today’s aluminum boxes as a festival of valves and gears and brass, when will we see the Modpunks, who will wickedly return us to a world of ochre cabinets, spooling tapes, and knobs that reassuringly click? (Or are they here already?) —JH

Powers of 41

Ours isn’t a government that holds designers in especially high esteem; a glance at the back of the $20 bill says as much. So it was with both delight and surprise that I learned this morning that the U. S. Postal Service is scheduled to roll out this set of stamps next summer, honoring the great contributions of Charles and Ray Eames.

Our entire profession owes thanks to USPS designer Derry Noyes, not only for raising the public profile of design with this marvelous project, but for answering its unique design problems so expertly. The Eames Office worked in two, three, and four dimensions, and to meet the challenge of representing their body of work so concisely — at the size of a postage stamp (a rare, non-metaphorical use of the phrase) — takes tact and aplomb of Eamesian proportions. —JH

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