Universe: (Adrian Frutiger 1957). Released in 1957, Universe was one of a host of neogrotesque faces, which participated in the displacement of the geometric sans serifs, made popular in the 1930’s and 40’s. The 1950’s were a time when the modernity of the Bauhaus was being transformed into an international style. It was also a moment when multinational business began its global reach to which the universality of the grotesque forms proved useful.

To the typographic novice Universe and Helvetica look virtually identical, but to the professional their differences are quite obvious. Universe has been called the French Helvetica, which is to say it has the systemic virtue of a Swiss mind moderated by a French heart. Its subtle contrast, especially where the curve strokes meet the stem, gives Universe a suppleness absent in Helvetica. While still large, its slightly smaller x-height in comparison to Helvetica, not only gives its text more reserve, but its longer ascenders also give its form more poise. That smaller x-height also means its lowercase letters are proportionally wider, which acts to energize its counters. That wider proportion, along with a subtle squaring of its shape gives universe an exceptionally horizontal tram. Where as Helvetica has a vertical thrust, Universe hits a perfect balance between the vertical and horizontal, allowing the eyes to traverse words with ease.

Since sans serifs have no serifs to push the eyes horizontally, they generally suffer in the reading process, but Universe seems to have transcended that shortcoming making it acceptable even for book setting. The certitude of its horizontal push means Universe can withstand some looseness in its letter spacing, and Adrian Frutiger took full advantage of that capability. Because each letter is given a bit of elbowroom, despite the fact that Universe is smaller than Helvetica, it feels more open. Were it not for the strength of its tram, that loose fit would not be possible. That generous letter spacing makes Universe exceptionally legible because it allows each of its letters to be articulated with crystal clarity. It is that ability to give its letter that little extra spacing which also accounts for the sparkle that gives Universe a twinkle in its eyes to differentiate it from the blandness of Helvetica. To underscore the subtle interplay of letter spacing and word cohesion, Jan van Krinpen’s Spectrum also has sparkle in its letters. However, since Spectrum’s letters could not pull themselves efficiently into words, they have a tendency to float as if still dangling in an idea. That is not so with Universe. Not only does that touch of “extra” spacing in Universe add sparkle to the reading process, but since its counters are more open than those of Helvetica, and since they are slightly squarish, the counters push outward. This outward push would have made the letter seem more crowded, if there was no “extra” space to counteract its effect. As a result of the balance between its internal counters, strokes, and external counter spaces, however, Universe has an even, calm temperament.

A quick comparison between text set in Universe and Helvetica shows Universe to be more composed, with an inner confidence that allows it to enunciate its thoughts clearly. Helvetica by comparison feels a bit dense in both senses of the word, confounded by its own agitation, trying to make up for its confusion by speaking more forcefully. Despite its smaller size and less emphatic stroke, the distinctness of Universe makes diction more punctuated. The confluence of its sparkle, diction, and openness gives Universe its inner energy to sustain reading. Were it not so, its textural evenness as a result of its balance between the positive and negative space and the proportional balance between its upper and lowercase letters would be in danger of becoming tiresome. Because of that inner energy, however, surface agitation that would have been necessary can be tamped down without falling into the pit of typographic boredom. By contrast since Helvetica does not posses that inner energy, it must rely on surface agitated to stimulate vision. The consequence of Helvetica’s surface agitation is its convolution of speech. That convolution must be counterbalanced by a more emphatic voice, which in turn makes Helvetica less poise. This exposé is a good lesson that shouting is not the same as getting the point across. Were that not so, typography would have never moved away from the blackletter. Since typography is a subtle artform, a good designer must be sensitive to such cascading effects. While Universe is a bit more mild mannered by comparison, it still has a commanding presence. For those documents, which need a lighter touch, little brother 45 could serve up a lighter meal. Because letter spacing requirements are so subtle, it is not surprising that Universe 55 does not handle justification well. While it can accommodate minor compromises because of its loose letter spacing, even medium compromises disrupt its poise. Consequently where as justification is not out of the question, column width should be wide and hand editing done with care to maintain that critical poise.

As for its family structure, that is where Universe truly shines. Prior to Universe, family members were often unplanned, popping up to satisfy a particular demand. Universe was a planned family, modularly conceived for its 21-member family to work together at optimum advantage. Universe is also a good mixer with many serif faces. Its inner spark seems to bring out the character of others. However its limitations shows up with other sans serifs. Sans serifs generally do not mix well with each other. Having similarities with virtually all sans serif designs, Universe mixes even more poorly in such gatherings so care must be exercised in pairing it with other sans serifs. The confluence between its ability to handle complexity, its perfect blending of inner confidence with outward calm, the integration of its systemic structure with its French poise, as well as its ability to handle virtually any printing conditions makes Universe a typeface that is truly universal.