What if blackletter was for more than graduations and gravestones? Perhaps more than any other style of type, blackletter tends to carry a lot of baggage. It would probably be safe to assume that pretty much everyone in the latin-type-using world has an association with it; some of these are good and some are not so good. Is there a way to make a blackletter typeface that pushes against these associations? Elfreth is an attempt to make a blackletter typeface that is less strict in its upbringing.
Part of what makes blackletter so interesting (and challenging to read) is its repetition of form in its lower case. Most of us, when we think of repetition of form in letterforms, tend to think of the Modernists and their sans serif designs. Everyone from Herbert Bayer with his Universal Alphabet to Max Miedinger with Helvetica was working to make every letter look the same, something blackletter had already been doing for several hundred years. Part of our goal was to liven up this space—add a bit more character and a little less severity to the notoriously rigid blackletter we are so familiar with.
The starting point was with the contrast. Blackletter usually has a strong contrast between thicks and thins, Elfreth was a study in the effect of keeping things more mono-linear. This effect, we found, immediately made things a bit more casual (and gave us the cool bone-like strokes on the top of the ascenders). So we had something that was casual but it was still a bit sterile. It was then that we discovered the work of Max Körner.
Seeing that blackletter could be written with this kind of character was such a breath of fresh air (despite the lettering manual being around 90 years old). This work helped us solidify our direction. While we wouldn’t be copying anything in particular about his work (those crazy dieresis, for example), we couldn’t help but be inspired by the overall feel of it.
With that work on our mind, we took our bone-y blackletter and started to humanize it. By playing with contrast and swapping some sharp angles with graceful curves, Elfreth took on a much more lively personality without looking like handwriting.
Another area of contention was what to do about some of the uniquely blackletter designs of some characters. The lower-case x and k, in particular can be quite indecipherable to a lot of non-German readers. For Elfreth, a compromise was devised that blended the traditional German form with the more familiar non-German design.
Elfreth ended up as blackletter that isn’t a pastiche or anachronistic. It is meant to be used in contemporary design. Due to the modulation of its unique strokes, the personality of the typeface changes as weight is built up, giving the black weight a different feel from the light, while still carrying the same relationships all the way through the extremes.
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