For many years now, we have felt a gap in our library. The missing piece was a simple, no-frills sans serif that would appeal to contemporary modernist and post-modernist aesthetics. A straightforward, universal typeface easy to use for a wide range of design genres. We set out to develop this missing piece about three years ago in a pub in London’s Bloomsbury and today we release it to the world hoping it will serve you well. Below are a few notes about our thoughts and the process.
As we were working on the concept, we realized we needed to decide on a language to describe our design direction. The typeface we had in mind could be categorized as a neo-grotesque, but such a classification merely describes appearance. We were more interested in describing the ideas and motivations behind the design and linking them with a particular style and utility.
At first, “neutral sans-serifs” seemed to be the term we were looking for. It often refers to typefaces that are supposed to show as little personality of their designers as possible. This is usually presented as a modernist attempt to focus on the function and the content of a message that is being typeset. However, neutrality in design in general is a questionable construct. And many have argued that before us. For better or worse, designers are always contributing to the message readers ultimately perceive. A choice of colour, font, illustration, or layout – they all have their meaning. In this way, typographers and typeface designers are always co-authors of the message. The presence of the designers’ opinions is inescapable and it would be pretentious to say and act otherwise. It would be a disservice to typeface design and its contribution to society if we subscribed to this notion of neutrality.
Keith Tam, a colleague from the University of Reading, once told me that instead of “neutral”, he prefers the term “universal”. Although still somewhat vague, the term better indicates how it might be possible to pragmatically judge whether a typeface lives up to it. In my mind, a universal typeface is suited for as wide a range of messages as possible. And, importantly, it does not need to be voiceless! It just needs to be suitable.
Although a truly universal typeface in this sense is clearly an impossibility, the more pragmatic perspective helped orient our design direction. It also helped us realize that even though the neo-grotesques (Helvetica, Neue Hass Grotesque, Arial, and others) seem to form a single, coherent category of typefaces when judged by their appearance, they are frequently used in two very different ways.
Neo-grotesques are an unobtrusive, basic, or even default choice when used for continuous texts. Yet, they can also be selected intentionally to make a strong stylistic statement suggesting minimalism or unaesthetics when used in posters, magazines, or book covers. These differences become obvious when looking at post-modern design, from unrestrained art books to down-to-earth navigation systems.
Typeface publishers sometimes claim to have achieved both good readability in small sizes and interesting appearance in big sizes, but the challenge is more complex. We found it is nearly impossible to have a single sans-serif font that satisfies both requirements equally well. Text sizes require stronger articulation of features which tends to look out of place in larger sizes. On the other hand, display sizes favour finer details and spatial economy which would inconvenience readers when used for continuous text. Not one, but two or more typefaces might be needed.
Thus, we set out to design two variants of the same sans-serif: Adapter Text and Adapter Display. To maintain the distinction between the two objectives, both functionally as well as stylistically, we thought of the two Adapters as being designed by two different designers. The Text designer was a typographer who focused on the ergonomics of reading, thus the rhythm and clarity of forms were his utmost concern. He would acknowledge the influence of production technology and shape the characters to comply with it. The Display designer, on the other hand, was a graphic designer or an architect with a sweet spot for smooth curves, symmetries, and alignments. She would not be eccentric, but would want to demonstrate her appreciation for form and introduce some statement details here and there while keeping an economy of expression.
As a result, Adapter Text has more squarish, solid forms that don’t easily get distorted by the pixel grid or the raster of printers and presses. Apertures are open and junctions are pinched in order to better articulate these features. You might notice some ink traps in action, too. The vertical proportions are generous to allow for distinct ascenders and descenders and well-differentiated diacritical marks. The inter-letter spacing and kerning were set with a preference for even rhythm. Compare Adapter Text to Helvetica and Arial and you might think it’s a bit loose, but once you start reading you will notice how much more comfortable it is and how cramped Helvetica and Arial seem. The weights of Adapter Text range from Extralight to Extrabold, but not further, as weights beyond this range would simply look sub-par in text sizes. Thin would disappear. Black would be too dark and have uneven counters.
Adapter Display has rounder and narrower forms. Unlike in the Text, most of the terminals are aligned horizontally, which turns the aperture shapes into cleanly defined cut-outs. The curves flow smoothly, the corners are sharp; the letters “a, y, R” and their relatives in Cyrillic and Greek speak for themselves. The overall appearance is more condensed and the vertical proportions are a tiny bit more compact too. The spacing strategy is different from that of the Text, too. The letters are closer together as the focus was on keeping the inter-letter spaces small and equal. The spaces within the letters (the counters) become bigger than the inter-letter spaces which results in a less even rhythm, but a greater economy. The weights stretch across a wider spectrum, from Thin to Black.
Our goal was to design a no-nonsense type system that is easy to use, with the defaults just right. There is nothing you could do without: no ligatures, no small caps, and no old-style figures. A handful of alternates made it in for the sake of DIN 1450 compliance, which should make our wayfinding colleagues happy. This includes the seriffed “I”, the hooked “l”, and the slashed zero. Otherwise, Adapter’s only indulgence is a single-storey alternate of the letter “a”, which makes the typeface soft and fluffy, and an alternative “J” for better spacing in all-caps settings.
As with most of our fonts, with Adapter we provide wide-ranging and well-considered language support for over 160 languages using Latin, Cyrillic, and Greek scripts. And we have already started exploring similar ideas in the contexts of Arabic and Hebrew and their contemporary aesthetics. We hope to release equally interesting fonts for these scripts later this year.
It would be an opportunity missed if we thought about a universal system that adapts to all kinds of environments, and did not manage to make it into a variable font.
Variable fonts are useful in two major ways. First of all, they allow users to customize the font’s appearance using design parameters that are typically represented by axes or sliders. Each of these corresponds to a continuous change in the design. For example, instead of choosing from a pre-set collection of weights, in Adapter Display, a user can pick any weight on the scale from Thin to Black. If the predefined Semibold weight is too light for their design, they can simply move a slider and get a darker weight.
We did not stop at weight only. In fact, we packed all of the variants and styles into a single font! You can move seamlessly between the Text and Display, adjusting the design to a specific size or to your taste, or change the slant from upright to a 10-degree angle. The italic letters have the same width as the corresponding upright letters. This is super useful as the text will not reflow when you set a word in italics or when you decide to change the italic angle late in your design process.
The second advantage of variable fonts is their small file size. This is particularly useful on the web. The variable version of Adapter contains text and display variants, its full range of weights, and italics. And yet, the result is a single webfont with a lightweight 334 KB footprint that supports over 160 languages using the Latin, Cyrillic, and Greek scripts. It shrinks to a dainty 230 KB when supporting only the Latin-script languages. When trying to cover the same stylistic and linguistic scope with single-style fonts, it would be 2400 KB (for the three scripts) or 1600 KB (for Latin). See the chart below.
Adapter is the brainchild of William Montrose and David Březina. William created the shapes, and David developed the concept. William worked on the drawings with our frequent collaborator Sláva Jevčinová. Once he set up the basic Latin, Sláva took over, refined the shapes and expanded Adapter to its current scope. She also designed the Cyrillic and Greek with consultants Maria Doreuli and Irene Vlachou. Kerning was done by Jitka Janečková. Production by Johannes Neumeier and David. And finally, big thanks to Anna Giedryś for making Adapter presentable and to Andrea Churchill Wong for making all of the texts about Adapter clearer. All these people played a part in releasing Adapter into the world. We hope you will like it! Download the free trial fonts and take it for a spin.