Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Ugly Duckling Typefaces

Some typefaces are like swans – graceful faces like Civilité and Grolier. Others are classic, like Caslon and Garamond. Then there are the ugly ducklings. Some people may disagree with my choices for “homeliest typeface award”− it’s a matter of personal taste. So if I’ve included one of your favorites, please forgive me!

Not every typeface ever designed is attractive or even functional. In some cases even their designer didn’t like them! Witness Goudy Stout, one of the ugliest typefaces I’ve ever seen, shown above.(Click on any picture above or below to enlarge it.) Frederic Goudy was a talented type designer who created many attractive typefaces. He designed Goudy Stout in 1930. Writing about it later, he said, “In a moment of typographic weakness I attempted to produce a ‘black’ letter that would interest those advertisers who like the bizarre in their print. It was not the sort of letter I cared for, but requests from some advertisers who saw the first drawings induced me to cut one size and try out the effect. I never cut any but the one size, although I threatened to cut other sizes if any were demanded. None were!”

Sometimes a typeface is looked down upon because it’s out of touch with the times. When I was a kid going to printers’ conventions in the 1960’s, Broadway and Boul Mich were considered to be gauche, ugly typefaces. Their 1930’s cubist look seemed dated at the time. Now Broadway and Boul Mich are used and sought after by letterpress hobbyists. So if you have an ugly typeface, you can always keep it and hope it comes back into fashion!

Boul Mich, an Art Deco typeface that's back in demand.

Broadway, which is similar to Boul Mich, is also back in vogue.

Another “out of fashion” typeface is Cheltenham. It was used heavily around 1910, replacing the quaint and occasionally bizarre Victorian typefaces that preceded it. To me Cheltenham is an ungainly, “plain Jane” face. It’s not terrible, but it’s not classic either. Letters fit together awkwardly in mass, and in the bold sizes it’s even less appealing. The other thing working against Cheltenham is supply and demand: it’s common. Hobby printers literally have tons of it.

Cheltenham Bold, one of the most common types available in the hobby printing world, is a work horse, though not particularly graceful.

I would personally nominate two candidates for “homeliest typeface award”. Thankfully we no longer own either of them! One of the ugliest typefaces in my opinion is Kaufmann Bold. It’s supposed to create a casual, hand lettered look, but to me it looks like the letters were squeezed out of a toothpaste tube.

Kaufmann Bold practically squiggles across the page. Someday I should try the toothpaste tube thing and see if I can replicate it.

The other candidate is Brush. It was designed as a contemporary script in the 1940’s. Today it’s a computer font that’s horribly misused in graphic design. Brush pops up all over, often mixed with other type that doesn’t blend with it at all. Try looking at commercial signs in any business district and see how much badly used Brush you see.

Here's Brush -- recognize it? It's everywhere.

So, which typeface do you think is the ugliest? Do you ever print with it?


  1. I think the Brush is the ugliest. The others, especially Goudy Stout that you first talked about I didn't find ugly. But looking at something and then actually printing with it could be another story. I liked how you compared Kaufmann Bold with squeezing toothpaste out of a tube. Funny.

  2. I think you're right -- Brush is the ugliest. I've heard it called, "a face only a mother could love." I was tempted to use some toothpaste to create Kaufmann Bold for the blog, but figured it would be pretty messy.

  3. Oh, no! Mistral is ten times uglier than Brush. At least you can _read_ Brush :)

  4. You know, you're right -- Mistral is amazingly illegible. Sort of defeats the purpose of a typeface, doesn't it?