Akzidenz Grotesk: (Berthold Foundry 1898). Even though Akzidenz Grotesk was technically released in the 19th century, it was certainly one of the most important typeface of the 20th century. In response to the Industrial Revolution William Caslon IV offered a monoweight set of capitals without serifs in 1816. In 1832 the Fann Street Foundry brought out a sans serif, which it termed a “grotesque”. By 1850 virtually all type founders were issuing such faces in a confusing variety of widths and weights. As industrial printing moved out of the dark ages, typefaces began reacquiring the sharpness and refinement they once had in transition to their modernization.

What made Akzidenz Grotesk truly a stand out was that in its initial release it offered a well-coordinated 10-member family in response to the complex needs of modern communication. By its efforts, not only did (AG) give sans serifs the sort of dignity to move them out of the realm of the 19th century “grotesque”, but by integrating that complexity within the family structure, it turned the corner toward standardization and modularity. Issued in 1898, it was so successful that Morris Fuller Benton followed suit with “Franklin Gothic”, in 1902, the Stempel Foundry with “Reform Grotesk” in 1903, and the Bauer Foundry with “Venus” in 1907, in competition for market share. The popularity of these typefaces began to transform the early 20th century into a landscape for sans serifs, opening the path for the geometric sans to follow.

With the ascendance of Swiss typography in the 1950’s, typefaces such as Helvetica and Universe connected back to Akzidenz Grotesk, reaffirming (AG) as the grand daddy of modern sans serifs. Still running strong, Akzidenz Grotesk has retained the memory of that decisive turn. While its forms are modern, many subtle inconsistencies remained. It is those inconsistencies, which give Akzidenz Grotesk the warmth to separate it from the clinical blandness of its grand children. While its stroke terminations are mostly vertical or horizontal, they are not so entirely. The capital “C, G, Q, and S” as well as the lowercase “a, c, e, and s” end at an angle. Such inconsistencies are an indication of the fact that Akzidenz Grotesk was making the turn toward modernity to which it never fully completed.

Note the junctions of the shoulder to the stems. A close inspection will show the tapers of the “h and p” are modest, those of the “b, d, and r” more pronounced, while those of the “m, n, q, and u” high. Note also how the dots of the lowercase “i and j” are set on the capline which is too high instead of being in alignment with the ascender of the “t”. Indeed, it is rather surprising that while its stress is vertical, the counter of the lowercase “q” has a slight tilt. There is no reason for that tilt other than a bit of sloppy craftsmanship. As for its capital to lowercase balance, the fact that its x-height is 10% smaller than Helvetica works to its advantage. That smaller size gives its letters a bit more reserve. That smaller size in conjunction with its lighter stroke also gives its letters that touch of delicacy not found in a typical grotesque. So while Akzidenz Grotesk does not have the robust presence of the typical grotesque, it has the virtue of not shouting its message.

Since its lowercase letters are smaller, they are surrounded by more white space, making its texture more open, which partly accounts for its sense of repose. Since its letters are more expanded (or more correctly, less compressed), while they are smaller, they are just as distinct and easy to read. Unfortunately, the sense of grace from its smaller size and more relax spacing is not supported by the imbalance between the upper and lowercase stroking. Even a casual look exposes their dissonance. In text, that imbalance make the strokes of the capitals jump out like text set with caps and electronic small caps. Even students of typography understand that true small caps are not merely smaller capitals adjusted to the x-height but the proportion and stroke weight of the lowercase letters. The formula for that proportion is the relative width of the capital plus 1/2 of the difference between the widths of the capital and the lowercase. That is to say the uppercase letters are proportionally narrower and their strokes proportionally lighter than lowercase letters. The stroke proportions of Akzidenz are merely the proportional relations between their heights. As a consequence, the stroke weight of the capital is too heavy. In order to bring that relation into balance, either the stroke weight of the lowercase must be strengthened, which would take away their delicacy, or the stroke of the capitals made thinner. Even though it can be argued that this stroke imbalance is another inconsistency which makes its texture more lively, this oversight is different from the other inconsistencies since it is sufficiently disruptive to act more like speed bumps in the text field. Those speed bumps act to jolt the eyes rather than energizing them in their journey across the text. This is especially so in regards to the wide letters such as the capital “O” to which the stronger strokes are followed by open counters exacerbating the problem. An adjustment of the capitals, by reducing its width and stroke weight would be a welcome one. It should at least be offered as an alternative letter set, even if the historic purist wants to cling to the authenticity of the original forms.

Despite the above drawback, Akzidenz Grotesk has remained an extremely functional face for over one hundred years, remaining popular through a number of stylistic eras. It has stuck around not only because of its historical status, but because typographers still find it useful. It has the practicality of a typical neogrotesque, while its inconsistencies give its text that touch of warmth to which contemporary individuals find evermore attractive in a society that has become increasingly impersonal.