Adrian Frutiger (1928–2015): Univers and OCR-B

Adrian Frutiger: May 24, 1928 – September 10, 2015

Adrian Frutiger: May 24, 1928 – September 10, 2015

Adrian Frutiger died on September 10, 2015 at the age of 87. He was one of the most important type designers of his generation, having created some 40 fonts, many of them still widely used today. He was also a teacher, author and specialist in the language of graphic expression and—since his career spanned metal, photomechanical and electronic type technologies—Frutiger became an important figure in the transition from the analog to the digital eras of print communications.

Frutiger was born on May 24, 1928 in the town of Interseen, near Interlaken and about 60 kilometers southeast of the city of Bern, Switzerland. His father was a weaver. As a youth, Adrian showed an interest in handwriting and lettering. He was encouraged by his family and secondary school teachers to pursue an apprenticeship rather than a fine arts career.

Adrian Frutiger around the time of his apprenticeship

Adrian Frutiger around the time of his apprenticeship

At age 16, Adrian obtained a four-year apprenticeship as a metal type compositor with the printer Otto Schlaeffli in Interlaken. He also took classes in drawing and woodcuts at a business school in the vicinity of Bern. In 1949, Frutiger transferred to the School of Applied Arts in Zürich, where he concentrated on calligraphy. In 1951, he created a brochure for his dissertation entitled, “The Development of the Latin Alphabet” that was illustrated with his own woodcuts.

It was during his years in Zürich that Adrian worked on sketches for what would later become the typeface Univers, one of the most important contributions to post-war type design. In 1952, following his graduation, Frutiger moved to Paris and joined the foundry Deberny & Peignot as a type designer.

During his early work with the French type house, Frutiger was engaged in the conversion of existing metal type designs for the newly emerging phototypesetting technologies. He also designed several new typefaces— Président, Méridien, and Ondine—in the early 1950s.

San serif and Swiss typography

San serif type is a product of the twentieth century. Also known as grotesque (or grotesk), san serif fonts emerged with commercial advertising, especially signage. The original san serif designs (beginning in 1898) possessed qualities—lack of lower case letters, lack of italics, the inclusion of condensed or extended widths and equivalent cap and ascender heights—that seemingly violated the rules of typographic tradition. As such, these early san serif designs were often considered too clumsy and inelegant for the professional type houses and their clients.

Rudolf Koch, Kabel, 1927

Rudolf Koch, Kabel, 1927

Paul Renner, Futura, 1927

Paul Renner, Futura, 1927

Eric Gill, Gill Sans, 1927

Eric Gill, Gill Sans, 1927

Along with the modern art and design movements of the early twentieth century, a reconsideration of the largely experimental work of the first generation of sans serif types began in the 1920s. Fonts such as Futura, Kabel and Gill Sans incorporated some of the theoretical concepts of the Bauhaus and DeStijl movements and pushed sans serif to new spheres of respectability.

However, these fonts—which are still used today—did not succeed in elevating san serif beyond headline usage and banner advertising and into broader application. Sans serif type remained something of an oddity and not yet accepted by the traditional foundry industry as viable in terms of either style or legibility.

In the 1930s, especially within the European countries that fell to dictatorship prior to and during World War II, there was a backlash against modernist conceptions. Sans serif type came under attack, was derided as “degenerate” and banned in some instances. Exceptions to this trend were in the US, where the use of grotesque types was increasing, and Switzerland, where the minimalist typographic ideas of the Bauhaus were brought by designers who had fled the countries ruled by the Nazis.

The Bauhaus School, founded in 1919 in Weimar, Germany, was dedicated to the expansion of the modernist esthetic

The Bauhaus School, founded in 1919 in Weimar, Germany, was dedicated to the expansion of the modernist esthetic

After the war, interest in sans serif type design was renewed as a symbol of modernism and a break from the first four decades of the century. By the late 1950s, the most successful period of san serif type opened up and the epicenter of this change emerged in Switzerland, signified by the creation of Helvetica (1957) by Eduard Hoffmann and Max Miedinger of the Haas Type Foundry in Münchenstein.

It was the nexus of the creative drive to design the definitively “modern” typeface and the possibilities opened up by the displacement of metal type with phototypesetting that brought san serif from a niche font into global preeminence.

Frutiger’s Univers

This was the cultural environment that influenced Adrian Frutiger as he set about his work on a new typeface as a Swiss trained type designer at a French foundry. As Frutiger explained in a 1999 interview with Eye Magazine, “When I came to Deberny & Peignot in Paris, Futura (though it was called Europe there) was the most important font in lead typesetting. Then one day the question was raised of a grotesque for the Lumitype-Photon [the first phototypesetting system]. …

“I asked him [Peignot] if I might offer an alternative. And within ten days I constructed an entire font system. When I was with Käch I had already designed a thin, normal, semi-bold and italic Grotesque with modulated stroke weights. This was the precursor of Univers. … When Peignot saw it he almost jumped in the air: ‘Good heavens, Adrian, that’s the future!’ ”

An early diagram of Frutiger’s Univers in 1955 shows the original name “Monde”

An early diagram of Frutiger’s Univers in 1955 shows the original name “Monde”

Final diagram of Frutiger’s 21 styles of Univers in 1955

Final diagram of Frutiger’s 21 styles of Univers in 1955

Originally calling his type design “Monde” (French for “world”), Frutiger’s innovation was that he designed 21 variations of Univers from the beginning; for the first time in the history of typography a complete set of typefaces were planned precisely as a coherent system. He also gave the styles and weights a numbering scheme beginning with Univers 55. The different weights (extended, condensed, ultra condensed, etc.) were numbered in increments of ten, i.e. 45, 65, 75, 85 and styles with the same line thickness were numbered in single digit increments (italics were the even numbers), i.e. 53, 56, 57, 58, 59, etc.

Univers was released by Deberny & Peignot in 1957 and it was quickly embraced internationally for both text and display type purposes. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, like Helvetica, it was widely used for corporate identity (GE, Lufthansa, Deutsche Bank). It was the official promotional font of the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.

Frutiger explained the significance of his creation in the interview with Eye Magazine, “It happened to be the time when the big advertising agencies were being set up, they set their heart on having this diverse system. This is how the big bang occurred and Univers conquered the world. But I don’t want to claim the glory. It was simply the time, the surroundings, the country, the invention, the postwar period and my studies during the war. Everything led towards it. It could not have happened any other way.”

Computers and digital typography

Had Adrian Frutiger retired at the age of 29 after designing Univers, he would have already made an indelible contribution to the evolution of typography. However, his work was by no means complete. By 1962, Frutiger had established his own graphic design studio with Bruno Pfaffli and Andre Gurtler in Arcueil near Paris. This firm designed posters, catalogs and identity systems for major museums and corporations in France.

Throughout the 1960s, Frutiger continued to design new typefaces for the phototypesetting industry such as Lumitype, Monotype, Linotype and Stempel AG. Among his most well-known later san serif designs were Frutiger, Serifa and Avenir. Frutiger’s font systems can be seen to this day on the signage at Orly and Charles de Gaulle airports and the Paris Metro.

The penetration of computers and information systems into the printing and publishing process were well underway by the 1960s. In 1961, thirteen computer and typewriter manufacturers founded the European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA) based in Geneva. A top priority of the EMCA was to create an international standard for optical character recognition (OCR)—a system for capturing the image of printed information and numbers and converting them into electronic data—especially for the banking industry.

By 1968, OCR-A was developed in the US by American Type Founders—a trust of 23 American type foundries—and it was later adopted by the American National Standards Institute. This was the first practically adopted standard mono-spaced font that could be read by both machines and the human optical system.

However, in Europe the ECMA wanted a font that could be used as an international standard such that it accommodated the requirements of all typographic considerations and computerized scanning technologies all over the world. Among the issues, for example, were the treatment of the British pound symbol (£) and the Dutch IJ and French oe (œ) ligatures. Other technical considerations included the ability to integrate OCR standards with typewriter and letterpress fonts in addition to the latest phototypesetting systems.

Comparison of OCR-A (1968) with Frutiger’s OCR-B (1973)

Comparison of OCR-A (1968) with Frutiger’s OCR-B (1973)

In 1963, Adrian Frutiger was approached by representatives of the ECMA and asked to design OCR-B as an international standard with a non-stylized alphabet that was also esthetically pleasing to the human eye. Over the next five years, Frutiger showed the exceptional ability to learn the complicated technical requirements of the engineers: the grid systems of the different readers, the strict spacing requirements between characters and the special shapes needed to make one letter or number optically distinguishable from another.

In 1973, after multiple revisions and extensive testing, Adrian Frutiger’s OCR-B was adopted as an international standard. Today, the font can be most commonly found on UPC barcodes, ISBN barcodes, government issued ID cards and passports. Frutiger’s OCR-B font will no doubt live on into the distant future—alongside various 2D barcode systems—as one of the primary means of translating analog information into digital data and back again.

Frutigers Sign and Symbols 1989

Frutiger’s 1989 English translation of “Signs and Symbols: Their Design and Meaning”

Adrian Frutiger’s type design career extended well into the era of desktop publishing, PostScript fonts and the Internet age. In 1989, Frutiger published the English translation of Signs and Symbols: Their Design and Meaning a theoretical and retrospective study of the two-dimensional expression of graphic drawing with typography among its most advanced forms. For someone who spent his life working on the nearly imperceptible detail of type and graphic design, Frutiger exhibited an exceptional grasp of the historical and social sources of man’s urge toward pictographic representation and communication.

As an example, Frutiger wrote in the introduction to his book, “For twentieth century humans, it is difficult to imagine a void, a chaos, because they have learned that a kind of order appears to prevail in both the infinitely small and the infinitely large.  The understanding that there is no element of chance around or in us, but that all things, both mind and matter, follow an ordered pattern, supports the argument that even the simplest blot or scribble cannot exist by pure chance or without significance, but rather that the viewer does not clearly recognize the causes, origins, and occasion of such a ‘drawing’.”


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