What makes a character grotesque

  Sans serif uppercase alphabets document epigraphy in the form of inscriptions and inscriptions at the time of Pericles (around 460-430 BC) in Athens and in the Hellenistic epoch of Egypt. The most famous epigraph is the Rosetta stone with its ancient Greek capital letters. William Caslon IV designed a sans serif font for the first time in 1816 and published it in his print shop's sample catalog. Apparently he was not particularly convinced of the success of this typeface because it only existed in capital letters and in the size of 28 points. She was called "English Egyptian" probably in connection with the ancient Egyptian discoveries that took place in Egypt and Napoleon's campaign in Egypt. 

However, this early Egyptian should not be confused with the serif Egyptienne by Vincent Figgins, which in its early phase (from 1817) was still referred to as "antique" in England.

The sans serif was mainly used as advertisements and advertising font (commercial), but also in the headlines and title pages. At the beginning of the XIX. In the 19th century they were used by numerous architects, cartographers and sign makers (house numbers). Because of the simplicity of the construction, the font was also preferred for engraving signs and milling or casting type designations on machines. In this context, the sans serif "deserves" the name "industrial font".

A few years later - in 1832 - Vincent Figgins designed a sans serif, majuscule typeface with three font sizes, which became known as the Two-line Great Primer Sans-serif. For the first time, the sans serif is given the title “Sans-Serif” (French for “without serif”). This is the name of the fonts in English-speaking countries to this day.

In the same year William Thorowgood († 1877) published the first sans serif typeface with an uppercase and lowercase alphabet. This font was named "Grotesque" 44 known. In Germany, the sans serif font was called Grotesk from the start, which reflects how people thought about these new forms. But these fonts still bear the name "Grotesk" in German-speaking countries today.

Another milestone in the development of the sans serif was the design of the “Royal Grotesque” by Ferdinand Theinhardt for the scientific publications of the “Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin” in 1880. By using the sans serif font in the publications, Theinhardt the grotesque "socially acceptable".

After Hermann Berthold took over the Theinhard type foundry in 1908, he used the Royal-Grotesk as "Akzidenz Grotesk lean" listed in its catalogs. This font by the Berthold house is still considered to be “the grotesque” today.

In the United States, the American Type Founders (ATF) association was also looking for a sans serif typeface that would serve as an expression of modernity and a departure from traditional developments. During the XIX. In the 20th century, the foundry's pattern book featured around 50 styles of characterless Gothic, from extra narrow to extra wide.


The chief designer at ATF Morris Fuller Benton wanted to set new impulses and developed Franklin Gothic in 1902, which contrasts with the well-known commercial typefaces.

Details such as the thinning of the strokes where curves run into the trunk give the typeface a life that sets it apart from other sans serif bold fonts (Blackwell, 2004: 25).

The print shops' demand for the new fonts was great - for this reason, two more Gothic families emerged at ATF: the Alternate Gothic (1903) and the News Gothic (1908). 

In England in 1913 two employees of the London Transport Board turned to writing experts Edward Johnston and Eric Gill to discuss the possibility of creating an easily legible, optimally comprehensible font for the subway. Since Gill could not participate in the project, Johnston began work on the designs alone in 1915.

During the work they exchanged their opinions - the two had a friendly relationship; After completing the contract, Gill even received a 10% fee for his consulting work. The newly created font was based on the proportions of the Roman capital of the Trajan column and consisted of uppercase and lowercase. The Johnston Grotesque was reissued and revised as New Johnston by Banks & Miles in the 1980s on behalf of London Transport.

Johnston's 1916 alphabets were very different from the sans serif of the second half of the century before last; they were downright revolutionary and had a completely new quality. Eric Gill even spoke of the corrupt forms of the earlier sans serif (Caflisch, 2004: Vol. 2, 8).



After the First World War, constructivism, Dadaism, futurism and informative objectivity as artistic movements influenced many painters, architects and typographers all over Europe.

In Germany in particular, the styles manifested themselves in the products of the Bauhaus School of Applied Arts. The artists saw the adequate font of modernism in the grotesque.

The groundbreaking sans serif fonts emerged from this set of ideas: 1922 die Erbar-grotesque by Jakob Erbar (Cologne), 1925 Albers by Josef Albers (teacher at the Bauhaus), also in 1925 Bayer by Herbert Bayer (head of the typography department at the Bauhaus), in 1927 the circle and straight line Futura by Paul Renner and also in 1927 the one designed by Rudolf Koch for the Offenbach type foundry Gebrüder Klingspor electric wire.

Meanwhile, Johnston's student Eric Gill, a sculptor by profession, achieved great fame in typographic circles in England. He himself knew better than anyone else how to confidently draft the scripts carved in stone, but also how to understand the problems of the ancient Roman epigraphs.

His timeless font designs, which to this day have lost none of their elegance and independence, were enthusiastically celebrated by connoisseurs. Coming from his hand Perpetua (1925–36), Gill Sans (1926–1939), Monotype Solus (1928–29), Golden Cockerel Type (1925–29), Joanna (1929–1937), Aries (1932), Bunyan (1934) and Jubilee (1933-34). The Gill Sans as the only sans serif typeface among the above shows how carefully and carefully Gill went to work with the drafts. Gill also motivated Stanley Morrison to develop this typeface in order to be able to "oppose the fashionable German geometrical typefaces with a competitor product of the monotype" (Caflisch, 2004: Vol. 2, 31).


One of the greatest typography theorists of the XX. Century in the German-speaking area Jan Tschichold also designed one in 1926 "Alfabet" and made his contribution to the discussion about "elementary typography".

Tschichold's position with regard to sans serif font changed several times in the course of his lecturing.

As an enthusiastic representative of the "elementary typography" he stated in 1925:

Elementary writing is the sans serif font of all variations: lean - half bold - bold - narrow to wide. (...) The old-style antiqua is the most common form of print typeface to those living today. In the (continuous) set of works, it still has the advantage of better legibility over many sans serif fonts, without actually being designed in an elementary manner. As long as no elementary form has yet been created, which is also clearly legible in the work set, an impersonal, factual, as little obtrusive form of the old-style antiqua as possible (i.e. one in which a temporal or personal character is expressed as little as possible) is preferable to the grotesque . Extraordinary savings would be achieved through the exclusive use of the small alphabet by eliminating all capital letters, a spelling recommended by all innovators of the font as our future font (Tschichold, Elementare Typographie, 1991: Vol. 1, 14f).

In 1957 he wrote:

So the grotesque bears its historical name with full right. She is a real monster. The choice of the nineteenth-century grotesque style as the solitary form reveals the sterility of its followers in writing. With one weak and unsuccessful exception, none of these Bauhaus people, who have been so creative in other areas and feel so very contemporary, has ever produced a new publication: People have always been content with older types, even if only the worst. Grotesque fans don't want to know anything about the best contemporary finals, the Gill Sans Serif, perhaps because it is not based on the degenerate sans serif fonts of the nineteenth century, which they consider indispensable, but is derived from the basic form of our typeface, the Renaissance Antiqua , obviously a red cloth for the bulls of the so-called style of our time (Tschichold, Zur Typographie, 1991: Vol. 2, 258).

In this statement, one recognizes, on the one hand, the clear position for the classical fonts, which are to be developed based on antiquas, and, on the other hand, the recognition of Gill's achievement, who did not derive his font geometrically and constructivist, but from calligraphy and very carefully designed it after the capitals of the Trajan column .

Only a few years later - 1970 - Tschichold explained his position:

The new typography had existed since 1925. She hardly bothered about the book at all, but about all the other printed matter. Here the situation couldn't be worse than it was. The typography around 1895 was still much better than that of the advertisements around 1925. All of this disgusted me so much that I decided to make a change. I even managed it, the twenty-three year old! Instead of the myriad of almost ugly typefaces, I demanded in 1925 that only a single font should be used, the grotesque and the form principle of asymmetry (an imprecise word for non-centered sentence). With that I threw out the baby with the bath, but the consequences were beneficial at first. The ugly fonts and stupid ornaments disappeared. It would have been correct to first look for good fonts and help spread them. My train of thought at the time 'What is the best handwriting? The simplest script. What is the simplest script? The grotesque. So the grotesque is the best font ‘is a fallacy. The most legible writing is the best. (...) How could I be so naive as to accept only the grotesque! (Tschichold, Flöhe, 1991: Vol. 2, 360f.).


The Second World War including the bans of the National Socialists regarding “degenerate art” and the Fraktur as “Schwabacher Judenletter”, as well as the Font verdict of Martin Bormann (3.1.1941) for the use of the "Aryan-compatible" Antiqua as a traffic font also brought typography to a standstill.

The leading typographers left Germany. The new centers of typography established themselves in Zurich and Basel in Switzerland and Chicago and New York in the USA.

After the Second World War, the typographic scene recovered only slowly. The new drafts were mostly revitalizations of the old scripts. This is how the Folio (1957) by Konrad F. Bauer and Walter Baum on the Broad grotesque dating back to 1867. Which is still used today with unbroken popularity Helvetica (1958) by Max Miedinger has its roots in the Schelter grotesque of the Leipzig type foundry Schelter & Giesecke from 1880.


The most important sans serif of the last century are undoubtedly the Univers and the Frutiger designed by Adrian Frutiger. The Univers was created in the years 1954–57 for Deberny & Peignot. With it, Frutiger started a unique attempt to reclassify the weights of this typeface family: he no longer used the terms “lean”, “bold” or “normal”, but assigned numbers to the weights. Univers 55 is in the middle; the vertical axis determines the line thickness, while the width and width of the line change. The font styles with the even numbers are in italics. Even if the system was limited to Frutiger's typefaces and found very few imitators, Univers became one of the world's dominant typefaces.

In 1997 it was reissued by Frutiger and now has 59 styles, categorized using three digits. The "normal" now has the number 430. The first digit denotes the bold, the second the width, the third differentiates the normal cut (0) from the italic (1). Frutiger was designed in the years 1973–76 for the guidance system of the Paris airport Charles de Gaulle and is derived from the Univers but is more open. With small capital letters and long ascenders and descenders of the base. The inspiration for Frutiger's design were the Antiqua fonts rather than the geometrically constructed sans serifs.

In 2000, Frutiger digitized the font family for Linotype Frutiger Next, which denotes more harmonious widths, especially in italics.

In the digital age numerous, sometimes high-quality sans serif fonts were created, some of which were specially developed for work on the screen. In contrast to the serif fonts, which "blur" very quickly through the use of the pixel display on the monitor, the sans serif fonts together with the Clear Type (or XSF) technology are ideally suited for screen display. Even just listing these modern digital fonts would, however, go beyond the scope of this excursus.