Daring and high-voltage with a voice that cuts through the din like a power chord at a packed gig, this month, let us introduce you to Gneisenauette™ with help from our friend and designer Anthony Noel.
Designers looking for a distinctive voice in the middle ground between elaborate calligraphic typefaces and the abundance of scratchy, hand-made lettering fonts will find lots to love in Gneisenauette’s™ simple, assertive, rough-hewn aesthetic.
Perfect for posters and book covers, this urgent, energetic typeface by Latvian artist and designer Gustavs A. Grinbergs is characterized by a dramatic forward emphasis derived from the movements of a broad-nibbed marker pen. And while it may be a largely overlooked and underused typeface, Gneisenauette is not without its fans.
“Sometimes you need that electric guitar and laser typeface”— Terrance Weinzierl
According to Stephen Coles, it’s at the top of his ‘Weird and Wonderful’ typeface list. John Boardley of ilovetypography described it as an “absolute gem of a script…fantastic.” And Monotype’s type designer Terrance Weinzierl calls it punchy, cool, and retro chic.
“I like Gneisenauette because it reminds me of the high-contrast scripts that are popular right now,” says Terrance. “It’s fast, confident, square and quite dense. Like a chisel-tip marker, just cranking away.”
“What I love most is that it has a very unusual lettering-inspired style that works in a variety of different contexts,” says Stephen. “Most script fonts are either very obviously retro, or very contemporary, but Gneisenauette doesn’t have an apparent origin. It looks like it could be from the 1920s, or maybe the 1950s, but it also feels very current and fresh—like it could have been drawn yesterday.”
“To me it shares that retro-chic quality we see in ITC Serif Gothic® and ITC Benguiat, and that’s cool, “ adds Terrance. “It’s clearly not as versatile as Matthew Carter’s Alisal [our first Hidden Gem]. But, then again, you won’t see this typeface in a book. You might see it on a gig poster while you’re drinking at a blaring concert. And that’s okay. Sometimes you need that electric guitar and laser typeface, and Gneisenauette is one of those.”
“I realized that the German old form handwriting is not just a beautiful art but is a specific science”— Gustavs A. Grinbergs
Origin story: An honorable mention
Gneisenauette made its debut as a competition entry in 1997 when Linotype launched its second International Type Design Contest—an event designed to gather fresh new type in the library and inject some youth into the brand. Judged by an esteemed panel of type designers, graphic designers, and typographers (including Adrian Frutiger, Kurt Weidemann, and Philippe Apeloig), the contest received 800 typeface submissions. Gneisenauettee didn’t win, but it did receive special recognition, chosen with a selection of other submissions deemed “particularly impressive due to either their high level of quality or their extreme originality” to be digitized and sit alongside the prize winning designs on Linotype’s Take Type Library CD.
While Gustavs submitted Gneisenauette as a display face, that wasn’t his original vision. “I have always admired Blackletter fonts,” he says, “and I originally intended for Gneisenauette to be a sloped, calligraphy complement allied to Blackletter (Fraktur) letters. In fact, Rudolf Koch [German type designer, 1876–1934] has at all times been my absolute authority. I try to emulate him modestly in nearly everything I do.
“So I was inspired by German school calligraphy scripts from the turn of 19th and 20th centuries, and it seemed to me that I could make my own contribution in this genre,” he continues. “But when I got to know Kurrentshrift and Ludwig Sütterlin works, I realized that the German old form handwriting is not just a beautiful art but is a specific science. To enter from the side would be hopeless, so I gave up that idea. But I kept the name because I liked it very much. Gneisenauette is a very old girls’ name dating from the 18th century, I think, and I really like it because it is so strange and uncommon.”
You can see from Gustavs’ original designs below (which we’ve annotated) that Gneisenauette started out with a more handmade feel. Note, for example, the subtle pucker and bloat in some of the glyphs’ strokes, which also reveals something about the writing implement and its speed—usually brushes make these rounded features. You can see he also experimented with skewed stems (that jagged baseline), a feature that was not retained in the final, digitized design.
1 / 4 Brush details, like this trial with entry strokes, were eventually edited out of the final design.
2 / 4 Note the subtle pucker and bloat in the earliest Gneisenauette design, which gave it a more homemade feel.
3 / 4 Early experiments with skewed stems and steeper, irregular angles were discarded, as they made the baseline and x-height more jagged, bouncy and harder to read.
4 / 4 The final design is more mellowed out, for the better.
“As it developed, I cleaned off the details I could live without and the freestyle script got the accurate, disciplined, mechanical look it has today,” he explains. “I modified the stems, skewing and rotating them, and optional characters were created because I wanted to give users a chance to create a text line more effectively.”
“I find his trial with skewed stems in this early comp interesting,” adds Terrance. “The italic angle stays the same, but the baseline and x-height become more jagged. In this case, this more extreme angle didn’t work quite as well because it makes the text vibrate more, which makes it a little harder to read. But during a type design process, it can be useful to push your design concept to a breaking point where it gets worse, and then pull it back. His end result is a nice balance of geometry and calligraphic movements, and his final design for Regular mellowed out for the better, but I do miss the brush details that were edited out.”
“Anything with an ‘i’ or ‘j’ gets a contrast jolt with the big round dot” — Terrance Weinzierl
A punk rhythm
Gneisenauette is a family of four weights, starting with a breezy Light and progressing through Regular and Bold to a hefty, substantial Black. There’s also an alternate design of each weight. There’s not a huge distance between the extremes, meaning that the weights are interchangeable to some extent. They’ll all look great in large format display applications, but don’t assume that this face can’t find a home in short to medium length texts as well. It will particularly shine when used for pullquotes or standfirsts, for example.
Looking to its stylistic qualities, what first demands our attention is Gneisenauette’s structural, rhythmic contrast—a steady thin upward stroke followed dependably by a fat movement downwards with almost nothing in between, only essential horizontal strokes. Repeating the same, regular stroke movements creates a compelling visual rhythm along the line of text, and that heavy downward sweep is like the confidently struck chord that drives a punk protest song onwards. Furthermore, while the rightwards slant of the letter itself may only be a few degrees off the vertical, its dramatic contrast between the thick and thin strokes makes for strong right-leaning sensation, creating a visual tension that contributes to that sense of urgency I mentioned earlier.
Gneisenauette’s energy comes not just from its directional bias, but is also an aspect of its aesthetic style, which recalls the advertising scripts of baby-boomer America. I can imagine an art director, sleeves rolled up, chunky marker in hand, creating these swift yet utterly elegant and tightly controlled catchphrases and slogans. There’s an insistent immediacy about this style of type that says “Read me—now! Respond, decide, act!”, yet unlike the jobbing grotesques of commercial advertising’s heyday, it has none of that brutal disregard for the message it conveys.
Delighting in the details
My favourite character from the glyph set is this fantastic lowercase ‘a’, from the Black Alternate font. Set large like this, it becomes something other than just a letter—its dramatic tilt and extreme contrast transforming it into something powerfully assertive. Of course we rarely get to use isolated characters like this, but the effect will be just as strong for short words set big.
It’s those touches that give it its dynamism that interest and appeal to Terrance and Stephen as well. “Anything with an ‘i’ or ‘j’ gets a contrast jolt with the big round dot (tittle),” notes Terrance, “and the descending ‘f’ and ‘l’ in the alternate weights add even more zig-zag energy.”
“Gneisenauette includes a lot of unique shapes that aren’t found in other fonts,” adds Stephen. “In addition to the two-story alt ‘a’ and the fearless size of the tittle just mentioned, there are the high stroke-return loops on the lowercase ‘r’, ‘v’, ‘w’, and ‘y’, plus the caps with angled bottoms that give them a jaunty rotation along with the slant. I also appreciate that it’s one of few script faces that works just as well in all caps.”
Context & usage
It’s worth remembering that when I talk about setting Gneisenauette ‘big’, this is a relative term. You can of course set it big in display font sizes, but Gneisenauette’s assertive character will also be well served by having it push at the constraints of whatever frame you set it in—whether that might be an enormous advertising hoarding, a book cover, a business card or a heavily typographic background for a website.
The lighter weights in the family might not have the same radical contrast, but the feeling of urgent yet controlled energy is still there. Gneisenauette Light and Regular will be good additions to a magazine’s type palette, but they’ll need careful pairing not to lose that compelling sense of purpose. Check out Fonts In Use for some very nice real world examples.
That regularity of movement described above does result in some rather similar glyphs—it will be difficult to distinguish individual characters in sequences of ‘mm’, ‘mn’, ‘mun’, and ‘mum’ for example. For that reason, I’d be cautious about using this typeface for extended functional reading. Likewise, a degree of manual intervention is required in order to improve some of the letter connections. This is fairly straightforward in desktop design software, where adjusting the spacing between pairs of letters is simply a case of manually tightening the kerning. But this type of control is more complex when using HTML and CSS, meaning its use on the web requires more care and thought. Therefore, when using the web font format of Gneisenauette—like we’ve done in this article—it's best to use the standard weights, not the alts, and keep it for short headings and titles.
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With a personality far too big to be quiet, Gneisenauette excels in scenarios where the text really needs the limelight: editorial headings, ad layouts, logo designs and posters. So here are my pairing suggestions for each use case.
The Jeircho, Oxford
The Jericho now hosts the UK’s longest running weekly blues night, ‘Famous Monday Blues’ as well as other monthly and annual events, including charity one-day festival Audioscope, now in its 13th year.
Battle of the Bands
The Zanzibar Club, Liverpool, United Kingdom
Supplying the loud and proud since 1979
LA COOPÉRATIVE DE MAI 63100 Clermont-Ferrand
ITC Legacy Sans
For editorial headings, pair Gneisenauette Light with body copy set in a humanist sans, such as ITC Legacy® Sans. Legacy’s angled stress is also suggestive of handwritten origins and lends it enough character so that it doesn’t appear too bland next to Gneisenauette.
Set an advert’s principal message in Gneisenauette Bold, and add something stylistically different for the short body text—like the constructivist yet human Quitador Pro. Add extra letterspacing to Quitador to evoke that retro feel.
Neo Sans Black
Gneisenauette Black will make for great logotypes. And again, a contrasting style for the logo's strapline will work very effectively. Try Neo Sans® Black for a comparable density, but very different tone.
Posters are Gneisenauette’s natural home, and poster designs with minimal text need strong, characterful type. Try adding the Thin weight of Posterama 1933, a geometric sans with echos of Art Deco lettering.
Hopefully you can now see how tricky it is to categorize Gneisenauette neatly. It’s a bit 1920s, a bit 1950s, and also very contemporary; its roots are in 19th century Germanic Fraktur lettering, yet it has an electric, screaming energy. This (and perhaps its unwieldy if charming name) may be why it’s remained off the radar and underused for so long, with designers unsure where to find a home for it. I hope I’ve helped smooth some of that confusion today. Yes, it’s still difficult to put in a box, but that’s its appeal—Gneisenauette’s strength is that it will push back hard at any frame we put around it, leaping out at the reader and shaking up expectations. It’s a lot of fun, and I encourage you to try it for yourself.
About Hidden Gems
When you’ve been making and collecting type for over 100 years like we have, you accumulate a lot of typefaces. So each month we’re digging deep into our extensive collection to bring beautiful but buried typefaces back to the surface and give you fresh new options for your designs.
About the author
Anthony Noel is a British graphic designer and design writer living in Berlin, Germany. He sees a lot of both new and old typefaces come across his desk as the producer of Rising Stars and Creative Characters, MyFonts’ popular twin email newsletters on new fonts and type designers.
Lead photograph by Alberto Ciceri.
Photos used in pairing examples used with permission from Remi Le Pogam.