Sharp Sans

sharp type / Sharp Sans

Sharp Sans began as an Avant Garde (the magazine lettering, not the ITC typeface) inspired geometric sans-serif. I began working on Sharp Sans as a student in 2009. Back then, like many young graphic designers of my day, I was obsessed with the work of Herb Lubalin and the typographic ‘A-team’ that coalesced around him in the 1960’s and 70’s. Their work was nothing short of resplendent. Lubalin himself had a mastery of letterforms, which was more cerebral than bodily; an idea man whose typeface designs and loosely jotted, but ingenious sketches of compositions would find their paragonical execution by the hands of such greats as the swashbuckling scriptographer Tony DiSpigna, the unflinchingly precise Tom Canarsie, and the legendarily prolific extra-bold italicised Ed Benguiat. The best examples of these works display a mastery of clean typographic form that pushed the boundaries of contrast, proportion, and construction into previously uncharted territories.

The covers of all 14 issues of Avant Garde magazine which ran from January 1968 to July 1971

When I began working on Sharp Sans, this timeless style was at the height of a particularly concentrated seasonal trend in the NYC graphic design scene. It was peak Lubalin. And while you may think a kool-aid swigging ‘Lubbalinite’ such as myself would enjoy that, I was actually pretty critical of what I perceived to be poorly executed and hastily made homages everywhere I looked. There were numerous outliers to this characterization, and many off-shoots that became their own actualized thing, but a large portion of this resurgence was not improving on the Lubalin model, especially when it came to typefaces in the Avant Garde style. The problem was a consistent lack of well crafted options for a style that was very much in demand.

The Sharp Sans Superset

One very important thing to understand about the Avant Garde typeface is that it was not conceived as a digital typeface destined for mass distribution. Its original design was singularly uppercase, and strictly for the context of Avant Garde magazine. Its innovation was its system of interlocking ligatures, its tight-as-humanly-legible spacing, and its relentlessly geometric design (the latter of the two being the pinnacle nuggets of inspiration in the conception of Sharp Sans). Digital editions of ITC Avant Garde Gothic are readily available, but ironically it is two of its original creators who would advise most enthusiastically against its use. Tony DiSpigna once said, “The first time Avant Garde was used was one of the few times it was used correctly.”

The 1971 Lubalin, Burns & Co. type specimen for Avant Garde Gothic

“It has become the most abused typeface in the world.” Ed Benguiat has stated that, “The only place Avant Garde looks good is in the words AVANT GARDE.” In my opinion, the beautiful instances that made the Avant Garde magazine lettering so compelling were never properly and artfully translated into a quality digital typeface. Sharp Sans wasn’t meant to be that exactly, but the capitals in Sharp Sans Display No.2 were definitely a direct homage.

Top: Sharp Sans Display No.2—default / Bottom: Sharp Sans Display No.2 with Lublin Alternates

The Sharp Sans series is divided into three parts. While most superfamilies are organized by a single differentiating principal such as optical size (text, display, etc.) or style (serif, sans, slab, etc.) the Sharp Sans series contains elements of both. There is a stylistic differentiation between the two display cuts of the family, Sharp Sans Display No.1 & No.2, and a nuanced optical size relationship between the display cuts and the newest edition, simply called Sharp Sans.

Left: Sharp Sans Display No.1 / Right: Sharp Sans Display No.2

While Sharp Sans Display No.1 ends its round monolines with diagonally sheared terminals, Sharp Sans Display No.2 shears those terminals on a 90° angle. This small distinction became the basis for a plethora of exploration on either end. The most distinct aspect of No.1 is its whimsical, almost slab-like true italics, which in turn give way to a full set of swash capitals in all italic weights. Sharp Sans Display No.2, being the more geometric of the Superset pair, has a more traditional oblique for its italic, as well as alternative reductionist Herbert Bayer-inspired lowercase. Sharp Sans Display No.2 also has the first truly fluid OpenType homage to the famous Avant Garde interlocking capital style created out of an intelligent system of ligatures and contextual alternates which do not interfere with tracking (I suggest you track them in). While I make no claims to the ingenious style created by Herb Lubalin, I was tired of all the half-baked imitations, so I did my best to do the style justice. The original photo-type settings will always be the paragon, but this may just be the next best thing.

Top: Sharp Sans Display No.1 / Bottom: Sharp Sans Display No.2

The newest iteration of Sharp Sans was conceived for the 2016 Presidential bid by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Michael Bierut and his Pentagram team chose Sharp Sans Display No.1 as the main typeface for the campaign identity, but such a monumental project required a sturdier and more utilitarian typeface. The new Sharp Sans is completely redrawn and shaped by the rigorous typographic demands of modern visual communication. Setting the new Sharp Sans apart from its predecessors are a larger x-height and more open counters, lending the types improved utility in extended text setting, while still working as a headline face. This versatility was not the primary objective of the two Sharp Sans Display typeface families. I call the new Sharp Sans our ‘use it for everything’ font. While I stand by that statement, the originals do make for a compelling display counterpart.

Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign—designed by Michael Beirut, art directed by Jennifer Kinon

The platonic form of Sharp Sans is the optically perfect, monolinear circle. Everyone has a slightly different visual preference for what they perceive a ‘perfect’ circle to be, and I have noticed mine evolve over time. In general, most enjoy circles slightly bowed outward horizontally, with an ever so slight addition of weight into the verticals.

The first step was to raise the x-height and open up the metrics. I opened up apertures, experimented with new constructions, and made subtle adjustments to weight and emphasis. Some things I loved about the display style ended up finding new ways to rhyme and groove with the new lowercase. The roman lowercase a was given a new double story construction in the new ‘everything’ version due to legibility issues with the classic ‘futura a’ when set at small sizes. Importantly, the signature slab-like true-italics of Sharp Sans Display No.1 were replaced with a corrected oblique lowercase that is more traditional for the genre and more useful for designers.

Left: Sharp Sans Display No.1 / Right: Sharp Sans

The skeletal construction of the Sharp Sans Display uppercases make for a subtle but exciting tension in display settings. The Bike NY campaign is a particularly good example of this. Its varied system of uppercase letter widths also relate well to its small lowercase. For something that needs to work for everything however, (smaller all-capital settings included) this was not appropriate.

The Bike NY campaign—designed by Emily Oberman’s team at Pentagram

A big theme in my work recently has been a focus on harmonious systems of uppercase letter-width relationships. I talk a lot about this in the write-up on my Virgo typeface, a slab serif with an overall geometric-ish skeleton. The word-shape of the new Sharp Sans uppercase has a much more even interval of rhythm than its display predecessor. The methodology behind this was to find the sweet spot in between the two extremes of monospacing and a hypothetical extreme of proportional/varied letter widths.

Sharp Sans—this diagram is meant to show each letter’s relationship in width to the uppercase H, whose width is determined by the optically perfect circle.

The features unique to monolinear capital letters that makes this system of letter width scrutiny so important, I am convinced, are the lack of ascenders and descenders, the nature of monolinear typography, and the elegant simplicity of the Latin alphabet. The above diagram is meant to show each letter’s relationship in width to the uppercase H, whose width is determined by the platonic form of all geometric typography: the optically perfect circle.

Sharp Sans Display No.1—the uppercase letters have more varied widths

The degree to which each letterform inhabits or exceeds this space is unique to the construction of that particular letter. However, they are not intended to all optically appear the same width. A reduction of width in forms whose sides take up less optical weight than those with flat stems was applied. This reduction is evident in the forms like the E, F, I, L, and Z. Other letters like the A and V compensate their dense acute joins by taking up more ground with less form. In letters made up of higher amounts of strokes like the M and W, density of form gets too dark and they must exceed the confines of the H-width substantially. The I and J are the other far outliers to this median width range on the opposite extreme, being only a single stroke and therefore take up far less space.

Many other useful updates can be found under the hood as well. The quotations, apostrophe, ampersand, and the numerals were all drawn from scratch and give the typeface a friendlier and more approachable voice.

Top row: Sharp Sans Display No. 1 / Bottom row: Sharp Sans

The new Sharp Sans is a sans serif workhorse that can adapt to any situation gracefully. Although the new naming convention of the Sharp Sans series would suggest a hierarchy of optical size (IE: Sharp Sans and Sharp Sans Display No.1 & 2 their relationship is more complex than the traditional text and display relationship. Sharp Sans is not a text face: it is a one-size-fits-all use-it-for-everything face. While the original Display complements the new Sharp Sans beautifully when used in tandem, the choice to use one or the other at an appropriately large point size is a stylistic decision as well as a practical one. Sharp Sans Display is edgy and provocative, while the new Sharp Sans finds grace and utility in its subtle perfectionism.

The Sharp Sans Superset

Sharp Sans
Sharp Sans Display No.1
Sharp Sans Display No.2

Sharp Sans Styles

Sharp Sans is available in 7 feature-rich weights in Roman and Italic with extensive language support.

Version History

V1.0—Initial release version; 2016.09


Standard licensing: OTF
Web font licensing: WOFF, WOFF2 & EOT
Other formats available upon request

Typer / Sharp Sans

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