TypeTalk: Supersize My Font Families, Please!

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Q. I notice an increasing number of font families containing an unusually large number of weights and/or styles. Are they genuinely useful or just overkill?

A. Font super families are becoming more and more common in the world of digital fonts due to the fact that today’s font production software makes it easier to make “variations on a theme,” so to speak. Super families can fit into one or more categories: those that contain numerous weights (usually eight or more); that have a range of widths such as compressed, condensed and expanded; that include stylistic variants such as sans, serif and slab; as well as specially designed versions (often referred to as opticals) with customized design details intended for captions, text, and display usage.

Trilon by Terminal Design is an example of a super family that contains 20 versions for each width. Notice, too, there are four related families: Trilon Compressed, Trilon Condensed, Trilon Regular, and Trilon Expanded, totaling 80 individual fonts. That’s a lot of fonts!

Super families might seem overwhelming at first given the sheer number of members it can contain, but they are definitely worth considering as they offer a broad range of typographic flexibility and options that can help solve some common type and design issues.

Type Size
The days of metal type when a separate font was created for each point size are long gone. In today’s digital fonts where one scalable outline is used for every size, a typeface used at a small size might not work well at larger sizes, especially if it has very thin strokes, extreme weight contrast, and/or small counters, and vice versa.

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This can be a real problem when a project requires type to be set at a broad range of sizes, such as from a business card to an ad to a trade show booth or billboard. If this is the case, consider the use of a super family that has specially designed, size-sensitive versions, allowing the type to maintain its integrity and visual consistency.

Consul by Terminal Design is an optically sized family available as Caption, Text, Deck (subhead), and Display. James Montalbano has “democratized” this high-contrast design, making it surprisingly legible at smaller sizes.

Combining Typefaces
One of the most challenging and time-consuming of tasks is finding two or more typefaces that work well together. One solution is to consider a super family that contains two or more design variants, such as sans and serif, script, slab, or informal, as well as varying widths.

Since all super family members are usually based on the same skeletal and design structure, they work well together while offering the contrast and emphasis needed for different hierarchical elements, such as body text, headlines and subheads, paragraph lead-ins, and captions.

ITC Stone from Stone Type Foundry is a super practical, workhorse type family whose members include San, Serif, Informal, Humanist, and the latest family addition, Sans II.

Sense and Sensibility by Shinn Type consists of Sense, a modernist sans serif and its close companion, Sensibility, a humanist sans.

Klint from Linotype is an authoritative, distinctive, yet warm sans that comes in standard, condensed, and expanded widths.

Paper and Surface Considerations
When selecting a typeface for print, take into consideration the kind of paper or other surface it will be printed on. This is especially true when the desired typeface or weight has extreme weight contrast with very thin strokes, is an extra light or ultra thin weight, or has small counters that might close up. Different papers and surfaces — such as mylar, glass and plastic — take ink differently. This can alter the weight of the type (especially the thin strokes), making it heavier or lighter and in some cases, start to break up.

Using a super family that contains a broad range of subtly progressive weights allows you to select the exact weight needed to give you the desired results for the medium you are using. And if the type will appear on more than one surface, customizing the treatment for each version can help produce a more consistent result.

Knockout’s nine-width, four-weight family offers a broad range of choices for both text and display sizes. This super family designed by Hoefler & Frere-Jones offers widths from Flyweight to Sumo, and weights from Junior to Ultimate — ya gotta love it!

Typographic Logos
When designing a typographic logo, it often makes sense design to several versions with subtle differences that help maintain the integrity of the letterforms and overall spacing at a range of sizes. The use of a super family with a broad range of weights can help bridge the gap by allowing for the substitution of subtly different weights for progressively larger (or smaller) versions.

Type Color
Dark or black type on a light or white background can look differently from the same exact type being reversed out of a dark color, a photo, or an image. Often this results in thin strokes appearing too light, breaking up, and in some cases, disappearing totally. Solution? Try using a slightly heavier weight for reverse type as this can beef it up just enough to perform better and visually look the same as a lighter version on a white or light background.

Terminal Design’s Yo is an elegant yet warm high contrast serif family consist of five widths: Yo Andy, Yo Frankie, Yo Lucy, Sophie, and Zelda, each containing a whopping 20 weights.

Type on the Web+
In today’s digital world, type is often used for both print and non-print applications (the web, ereaders, tablets, and smart phones) in the form of Web fonts, embedded fonts, and type converted to image. The challenge is making them all look consistent, while maintaining legibility and readability. A super family with a broad range of weights and versions can provide the flexibility to select those that work best for each purpose while maintaining a consistent appearance.

Georgia Pro and Verdana Pro — both from Font Bureau — are two dramatically expanded versions of their Web-safe predecessors designed by Matthew Carter, with greatly broadening usefulness.

Other Super Families Worth Consideration
Click on font name for more info.

Once you get used to the wide range of options and flexibility of a font super family, a three or four weight family might never be enough again!

What are some of your favorites? Let us know!

Ilene Strizver is a noted typographic educator, author, designer and founder of The Type Studio in Westport, Connecticut. Her book, Type Rules! The designer’s guide to professional typography, is now in its 4th edition.
  • Anonymous says:

    This is one of the reasons I’ve always loved Swiss. Maybe it’s not exactly a super family but it has a fairly wide range of widths and weights, all of which can come in mighty handy when designing for different applications while keeping the visual identity consistent and strong.

  • Anonymous says:

    excellent article, Irene! The points you made about paper and surface were especially good…

  • Anonymous says:

    I find the term “super family” ambiguous and misleading. I prefer “series” for a set of different designs under a common theme, like serif, sans, slab but also for size specific variants. (Analogous to how ATF has used it.) If a type family consists of many weights and widths I simply call it “extensive family”.

  • MarieWilson says:

    Yeah, font families are increasing and some of them are really useful. But some are far more similar to the old ones. picture on canvas

  • MichelCleark says:

    Excellent idea to convert a text into a different types, shape and color. These fonts looks really superb and colorful. The best part of this it is easy to change it’s shape, size and color. Shaker Kitchen Cabinets

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