It goes without saying that the creative world has lost some of its leading lights recently. And last September, typographers lost their own Bowie – the legendary typeface designer Adrian Frutiger. Of course, his masterpiece was the Univers typeface. I always loved the type specimens from type foundry Deberny et Peignot – a perfect way of showcasing this incredible system of letterforms.
I used these specimens recently as a reference for a Christmas poster I was designing – the plan being to use the asterisks as snowflakes. However, after looking at the original glyphs for Univers, I realised that no asterisk had been created when the typeface was initially released – it only appears in later editions. It seems that it was added in collaboration with Linotype (quite odd I thought, as the asterisk has been in use for hundreds of years).
A bit of background on the humble asterisk, then. The word asterisk derives from the Ancient Greek ‘asteriskos’ meaning little star. It was initially used much the same way ellipses are nowadays – in a set of three to show an intentional omission within a passage of text. It also started to appear in old family trees in the 15th century – the asterisk would be put next to a date of birth (while the dagger or cross symbol would be put next to the date of death). Of course, it‘s been used and misused in a myriad of correct, incorrect and profane ways ever since.
While creating my poster, I took a much closer look at the asterisks for Univers. They all have a certain liveliness to them, which initially seemed in contrast to the overall steadiness of the Univers letters combined. This made me look even closer at individual letterforms from the Univers typeface. Suddenly everywhere I looked they had quirky features – the extended ‘5’ and condensed ‘5’ for example – all with their own characteristics, but enough similarities to make them work together. To be able to create a typeface with so much personality and still have twenty-one weights working in perfect harmony was a phenomenal achievement.
So as a festive tribute to Mr Frutiger, I took the asterisk, an unsung hero of the Univers character set, and elevated it to star billing. No surprise, on the poster all the different weights worked together harmoniously.
“Helvetica is the jeans, and Univers the dinner jacket,” said Adrian Frutiger. I’m not sure this means the asterisk is a dickie bow. But, despite what my fellow art directors think, I know it isn’t pants.
*Past enjoyment is not necessarily a guide to future enjoyment.