Untitled: The Act of Trusting Others
What happens when a type designer consciously strips out all of the expression and design details in a typeface?
Get Kris Sowersby from the Klim Type Foundry talking about his newest type releases, Untitled Sans and Untitled Serif, and you’ll discover a type designer attempting to trust other designers. “Up to now, my typefaces have been expressive and detailed—there’s a lot of personality—and the removal of that seemed counter-intuitive at first.”
The Untitled typefaces started with Sowersby’s mate (and designer) Duncan Forbes. “Duncan is a really good designer and we would often talk about the typefaces he used. Every typeface he used would have something wrong with it. He was always searching for the perfect, plain sans serif.”
So Sowersby started playing around with an idea of a plain version of his typeface National, which he called “National Plain.” “I just decided to relax and get rid of all the overt expression that I had put in National.”
Playing Around with Plain
After the surprisingly positive reaction of other designers, Sowersby continued designing a sans serif with less and less expression. He wanted to strip out all of his personal style and see what was left.
When Sowersby showed his new designs to other graphic designers he was always surprised by how much they liked it. They all seemed to be clamoring for a font that didn’t have expression. It was that validation, by the actual end-users of his work, that encouraged him to keep going and finish Untitled Sans. “The reception of it has been much more positive than I could have imagined.”
Normality, Not Neutrality
Sowersby wants to be clear: “There is no big concept or cutting-edge theory behind Untitled, this is just acknowledging the real work of real designers. We all do it. We all make tedious boring work — like Microsoft Office templates — that we’re not particularly proud of. Sometimes, you just need a simple typeface to do the work.”
Sowersby is quick to admit that his “normality” is unavoidably coloured by his own experiences and culture. “Almost every typeface has a story, a historical weight and lineage and an implied provenance which helps justify it. Every time you use a modern typeface you’re not only using the typeface, you’re also using the marketing and the spin. It’s hard to not think about the story of a font when you’re designing with it.”
Marketing the Unremarkable
“As much as I like to say there isn’t a story with Untitled, there really is.” Sowersby laughs and says, “It’s a sort of self-defeating marketing idea. Which is funny to me.”
Originally, the typefaces were going to be called “Common” but the name was already taken. It wasn’t until Sowersby handed the fonts over design studio Alt Group for promotion that they received the name “Untitled.” But it isn’t really a name to Sowersby: “They only have that combination of letters and words because you need something for the font file name-tables.
The marketing of Untitled is tautological—meaning that it references itself. One only needs to look at the promotional posters to see that Sowersby is marketing the fonts with a serious sense of humor.
“Some people on social media were asking if this is serious or not. It’s not a joke at all. It’s dead-serious. I’m just trying to not be heavy-handed about it. Just have a light touch and let it be what it needs to be.”
When asked how the public response has been so far, Sowersby says, “I was quite apprehensive on the release but it has been received really well and sales have been surprisingly good.”
Who knew? Maybe designers just need a typeface to do the work.