Elzevir faces: A lesson in durability
Defining a new serif face for screen use is a rather broad brief. Common wisdom has long suggested that serifs for screen reading underperform and should therefore occur with less frequency in good type libraries. Although their readability is in fact much higher than that of sans serifs, they’re traditionally viewed as fuzzy and archaic in screen-first environments. We decided that the time had come to reinvigorate the use of well-crafted serif typefaces online.
We began by probing history. For six centuries, France has enjoyed a tradition of high-performance designs for immersive reading. One of the most overlooked highlights of that tradition is the resurgence of Elzevir typefaces, which happened in France some forty years before everywhere else. The French Elzevir (sometimes also known as French Old Style) is a lesser-known genre in the Anglocentric type-design history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The Elzevir typefaces mark one of the first attempts to recreate a new modernity, at a time when another modern style (Didone) prevailed. Across France, countless punchcutters soon began exploring Old Style types as text faces. Naming conventions were sloppy, but the shapes were specific: A serif looking back at the Renaissance, but polished and honed to work hard for neat reproduction on the new and shiny paper surfaces of the time. From the late 1880s onwards, these early revivals soon shed their bibliophile status to emerge as broadly useful text typefaces. Only decades later did this trend catch on globally, with Monotype’s comprehensive and well-advertised revival program. In the meantime, the stars of French typeface design in the period—including Pierre Jannet and Maurice Ollière—enjoyed success but eventually fell out of favor.
While deeply rooted in French type design history, Spectral tends to reject the idea of any country-specific flavor—much in the same way that Elzevir typefaces have always represented a cross-current of western influences from Italy, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and the United States. From fifteenth-century France to sixteenth-century Holland and back to nineteenth-century France, the underlying concept of these Elzevir typefaces still makes sense in 2017. Our design takes material that succeeded in the past and puts it to use in the present.