My Not-So-Favorite Typeface of 2016

A Type Review

For the past four years I have been invited to write for Typographica’s Favorite Typefaces column. For this year’s edition I was a bit slow to pick my subject. Left with a list of subpar releases to choose from, I decided on a different route: Instead of choosing a great typeface, I chose a popular typeface. The only problem was that my choice, despite its position at the top of the bestseller list, was really quite bad.

It is unclear whether this promotional piece is intended as a joke or not.

My chosen typeface was an extension to Jakob Runge’s Cera family (specifically Cera Round Pro and Cera Brush, both released in 2016). I wrote a somewhat sarcastic review under the guise of a “favorite” and submitted it to Stephen Coles, the editor of Typographica. I didn’t divulge my secret, instead waiting for the editorial team to comment.

I was relieved when Stephen responded a few weeks later, having caught on to my mischief. My first thought was to publish it myself, but I instead decided to take this second chance to clarify my thoughts.

To single out one typeface may be unfair, because Cera is just one of many examples of the real subject matter here. The thing is, on the surface it checks all the boxes. It is a geometric sans serif. It appears clean and contemporary. The character set is extensive, covering most European languages, and the family sports a large selection of weights and styles. According to the promotional text, it works equally well for headlines and text sizes. The family is fleshed out with a stencil variant, a rounded variant, and a “brush” variant.

Some of the most glaring mistakes from the original Cera — particularly the lack of attention devoted to the extended character set — were addressed in Cera Pro (2015). The updated diacritical marks are passable, but lack consistency in proportions and placement.

As a language nut, I am always puzzled by type founders who seem to think the world ends at the EU border. As is the case for many — even reputable — typefaces, the accented letters in Cera Pro are not devoted the same attention as the more familiar ones. Cera’s diacritical marks are passable, but lack consistency in proportions and placement. This is the level of quality I’d expect from someone mostly interested in filling empty character slots.

The biggest issue with Cera, however, is its lack of identity. Cera references well known designs like Futura, Avenir, and — in particular — Gotham, but the sum of its inspirations is a muddled haze. Runge fails to break new ground in the crowded genre of geometric sans serifs and captures neither the bravado of Paul Renner’s experimentation, the subtlety of Adrian Frutiger’s craft nor the clarity of Tobias-Frere Jones’ textures.

Cera reminds me of a lesson my jazz teacher once gave me: “Strike every key with confidence.” There is little confidence to be found here: The spine of ‘S’ is weak, the ‘K’ barely connects to the stem (a feature not echoed in other shapes) and its diagonal unintentionally tapers towards the baseline. Signature shapes like the poorly balanced lowercase ‘e’ and the spotty branch and weak inner counter of lowercase ‘a’ only grows more distracting with added weight. I won’t list all the problems, but compounded by uneven widths and spacing it makes for a less than ideal reading experience.

Cera Stencil Pro is equally undecided. Despite mechanistic details like the flag of ‘r’, its cuts largely follow a calligraphic logic constantly fighting the original intent of the design. In the designer’s own words:

“Asymmetrical stencils are creating a dynamic tension the general placement of stencils is emphasising the handwritten origin of the supported scripts.”

For the most part I’m just bored with Cera, but the brush cuts gets my blood boiling. The “organic” style Runge attempts to translate to the digital font medium becomes a crude parody of itself. Cera Brush has the authenticity of a pair of pre-torn jeans.

And Cera Round Pro? This is the obvious next step when you are playing the numbers game. I would not be surprised if there are condensed and monospaced variants in the pipeline.

I know first hand how hard it can be making a living from type design. As much as I sympathize with Runge, faces like Cera are not making life easier for quality-minded type designers. And I do believe Runge belongs to that category, having released FF Franziska with FontFont, and most recently Harrison Serif on his own Typemates label. Cera occupies a different segment: The world of deep discounts, quantity over quality, copycats over originality, and commerce over culture.

One can easily question my motives for writing this piece. I too have a geometric sans serif to market. In a tiny sphere such as the type business everyone knows everyone, and we are wary to step on each other’s toes. Amidst booster press and backpatting, I have long called for more critical design writing. Exactly what form it might take remains unclear to me. (I find it highly unlikely that other type designers will attempt what I’ve done here.) Though reviews will never eradicate lazy type design, I believe critical voices can help graphic designers find the knowledge they need to discern quality.