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By Zuzana Licko

This text was first published in the Summer of 2002 in Emigre #63. It was reprinted in the type specimen booklet "Various Types" in 2004.

Designing Fairplex

The foundation for Fairplex began in January 1998. I wanted to develop a serif text face loosely based upon Garamond No.3. This resulted in many false starts, some of which turned into seemingly unrelated sans-serif designs, including Tarzana and Solex. As the experimentation continued, it became apparent that Fairplex, too, would not be the Garamond revival that I had originally intended; perhaps I'll return to that sometime in the future.

Various serif treatments experimented with in the narrow width.

My goal for Fairplex became that of creating a text face which would achieve legibility by avoiding contrast, especially in the Book weight. This was spurred by experiences with my own eyesight, which I've noticed is becoming increasingly intolerant of high contrast typefaces when reading lengthy texts. (Especially when combined with paperback printing and less than perfect reading conditions!) As a result of its low contrast, the Fairplex Book weight is somewhat reminiscent of a sans serif, yet the slight serifs preserve the recognition of serif letterforms.

When creating the accompanying weights, the challenge was balancing the contrast and stem weight with the serifs. To provide a comprehensive family, I wanted the boldest weight to be quite heavy. This meant that the "Black" weight would need more contrast than the Book weight in order to avoid clogging up. But harmonizing the serifs proved difficult. The initial serif treatments I tried didn't stand up to the robust character of the Black weight. Several months passed without much progress, and then one evening we attended a talk by Alastair Johnston on his book Alphabets to Order, a survey of nineteenth century type specimens. Alastair pointed out that slab serifs (also known as "Egyptians") are really more of a variation on sans serifs than on serif designs. In other words, slab serif type is more akin to sans-serif type with serifs added on than it is to a version of serif type. This sparked the idea that the solution to my serif problem for Fairplex Black might be a slab serif treatment. After all, the Book weight already shared features of sans-serif types.

Shortly after this came the idea to angle the serifs. This was suggested by Rudy, my husband, and was probably conjured up from his years of subconscious assimilation of the S. F. Giants logo while watching baseball, and reinforced by a similar serif treatment in John Downer's recent Council typeface design. The angled serifs added visual interest to the otherwise austere slab serifs.

The intermediate weights were then derived by interpolating the Book and Black, with the exception of several characters, such as the "n," which required specially designed features to avoid collisions of serifs, and to yield a pleasing weight balance. A range of weights was interpolated before deciding on the Medium and Bold weights.*


Overlay of Fairplex Narrow Book, Medium, Bold and Black


Classifying Fairplex
By John Downer

The essence of a letterform is dictated by an inner framework - its "armature" as the late type designer Warren Chappell called it. A letterform with serifs has a personality greatly influenced by how its serifs are constructed. Serifs reveal a certain kind of attitude and orientation. In the history of type, Zuzana Licko's new series, Fairplex, finds a place among relatively few antecedents. The serifs come from primarily nontypographic sources, but the skeletal forms are clearly recognizable as being typographic in tradition. Fairplex is a rare combination of elements from three distinct media:
- chromolithography of the late 19th and early 20th centuries
- American sign painting during approximately the same period
- display typefaces designed between ca. 1840 and ca. 1980

The Fairplex serif style was more common in commercial lithography and American sign painting than it was in type - but it had no single, established, standard form. Lettering artists introduced their own interpretations. In sign painting, this serif mode, with its pronounced bracketing & angled terminals, was known as the "Detroit" style during the early 1900s. In the lithography trade, there may have been another name, but it seems to have had no given name in the realm of type, in which names of letter styles and serif kinds were generally known by their routine inclusion in the full names of the faces. In the sign trade of a century ago, Fairplex would likely have been classified as a "Detroit Egyptian" lettering style: "Detroit" referring to the kind of serif, and "Egyptian" referring to its basically monoline structure or "armature."

Left: Snow King Baking Powder cardboard sign from Country Store Antiques by Don and Carol Raycraft. Photocopy detail from a photo by Carol Raycraft.
Right: Atkinson's Sign Painting up to Now, 1909 by Frank H. Atkinson. Published by Frederick J. Drake & Company, Chicago.

Neither "Detroit" nor "Egyptian" are widely used terms in today's classifications of types. Alas, in the one area of printing where Fairplex has definite ancestors, namely planographic printing employed to manufacture product labels, there seems to be no compendium of all the lettering styles available. Maybe they weren't all documented.

The one place where the fashion remains in modern use is on granite grave markers, which are inscribed not by hand any more, but instead by masking and sandblasting.

Gravemarker at St. Joseph Cemetery, Iowa City. Photo by John Downer.

In any case, even though Fairplex is indeed a new typeface design, it sits squarely in a camp of commercial lettering first seen in common use more than a century ago. It is therefore a very likely candidate for the same kinds of color effects that helped this grand style rise to prominence initially: inlines, outlines, centerlines & shadows.


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