Typography is at the core of the personality and style of a design project.
A type choice can blend into the background with subtlety that helps clearly communicate messaging or serve as a dominant visual force that pushes the design forward. Either way, typeface design is an important element in any project.
Experimental typefaces can help add a powerful edge or the right feeling to a design. They often serve as artistic and typographic elements concurrently. But experimental typefaces aren’t always bold and bizarre; this type style encompasses anything new and interesting that pushes type norms just a little outside of the usual comfort zone.
Here’s a guide to everything you need to know about experimental typefaces with a selection of some great examples to try in your projects.
What are experimental typefaces?
Experimental typefaces are generally of the display family, and have an unexpected look or interaction, such as animation, different x-heights, or a general disregard of the rules of letterform shape and spacing.
These text styles include quirky lines, colors, and letterforms. They have flair and plenty of personality.
But that’s not always the case.
“I think there might be a misunderstanding about this term of ‘experimental.’ We tend to use it to describe display typefaces that look either new or weird or disturbing,” says Jérémy Landes, Art Director & Type Designer at Studio Triple.
“The question of the design process behind the creation of these typefaces, and the question of the experimentation in the design process, is not really the point. Anyway, it seems to me that this term tries to convey the idea of a certain novelty, an avant-garde in the display genre,” he notes.
The definition of an experimental font may not be truly solidified, but you can think of it like this: An experimental font is anything that bucks the rules of traditional type design.
What might be most important when designing or using experimental typefaces is the push and pull between uniqueness and readability.
When working with this kind of type element, there’s a delicate balance between typography as art and typography to convey a message.
According to Jérémy Landes, while experimental typefaces stand out for their innovation, the main criteria to examine them is audiences’ reactions. “They feel new, but the question behind a successful experimental typeface is more one of the Zeitgeist. Will people relate to it? Will people be intrigued by this novelty, more than repelled? The question of why a creation, and a typeface, is successful at one point in time is for me the most intriguing one.”
Before conducting any type of design experiment, it is important to think about how it will resonate with your core audience and overall messaging.
“The question behind a successful experimental typeface is more one of the Zeitgeist. Will people relate to it? Will people be intrigued by this novelty, more than repelled?”
Types of experimental typefaces
Experimental typefaces can have a variety of purposes–purely aesthetic, commercial display, or to promote a specific goal, such as social or promotional engagement.
Visually, these typefaces come in a lot of forms:
- Color fonts
- Variable fonts
- Custom novelty
- Illustrated or artistic lettering
10 remarkable experimental typefaces
Monospace | Free, open source | Design: Velvetyne Fonts
Solide Mirage was originally designed as a custom typeface for French-British music band, Frànçois and the Atlas Mountains. The band and designer decided to release the font as free and open source, to be used by fans as well as anyone else who appreciates its experimental aesthetic.
This unicase display typeface combines upper and lowercase characters together, resulting in a somewhat haphazard look. It was inspired by the Didone genre, while putting a new spin on the classic style with compressed shapes and long, elaborate serifs, especially on letters with ascenders or descenders. The typeface supports the Latin and Greek writing systems, and has ornamental alternates for some of the letters, shaped as squiggly zig-zags.
Consider using this font for branding. Note that while it is highly readable with some character combinations, others can be more difficult.
Sans serif novelty | Paid | Design: Adrien Midzic for Pizza Typefaces
This experimental typeface is highly readable and includes quirky details such as cutouts and missing curves. These details are inspired by traditional ink traps in typography, only that in this case, the missing details are stylistic interpretations and aren’t meant to be filled with ink in the printing process.
Best use cases would include titles and headers, or a short word or phrase in a display space.
Sans serif | Free, open source | Design: Mickaël Emile
This open source font boasts an extremely wide stance, and is adequately named after the sliding stunt performed in extreme sports. In that vein, it’s best used with extreme design intent. The letterforms are sharp and compressed, with long straight lines and very little curves.
Novelty typeface | Paid | Design: Janik Sandbothe for Typelab
With hairline-thin strokes and pronounced, bubble-like terminals, this typeface turns to an Art Nouveau magazine cover illustrated by Ludwig von Zumbusch for inspiration. This expressive all-caps font features a single stroke design, as if scribbled lavishly in one go.
Its play on stroke width contrasts and free-flowing curves provide a lot of visual interest for display usage.
Novelty typeface | Paid | Design: Studio Triple
This font takes inspiration from Gothic architecture, Art Nouveau, seaweeds and human anatomy. The type design strikes a balance between attraction and repulsion, mixing tall proportions with loose, fluid shapes.
Digestive is a type family of seven fonts, ranging from super compressed to wide. This experimental typeface is best used for large text, and adding generous letter-spacing can help improve its legibility.
Modular and variable font | Paid | Design: Peter Bushuev for Naum Type Foundry
This experimental typeface is a modernist homage to space-age typography. Its design is based on a four-lines grid, and together with it’s very tight kerning it creates a sense of filling up the space. The Cascadeur type family is made up of 12 styles and a variable font, supporting a variety of languages. Most letters come with two to four alternates.
This typeface is perfect for a design featuring oversized headlines or type for digital display or print. It would also work well as a primary artistic element.
Novelty typeface | Design: Sveinn Þorri Davíðsson and Siggi Eggertsson
Aptly named Russibani, meaning roller coaster in Icelandic, this experimental typeface takes inspiration from roller coaster rails, using a single, continuous line for each letterform. The result is a pixelated-like appearance that gives off a mechanical feel.
Best uses may include branding projects or as the type treatment for a main headline or other large lettering.
Animated sans-serif | Paid | Design: James van den Elshout and Hans Renzler for Animography
This highly readable typeface includes 64 adjustable controllers, with each letter composed of six modifiable strokes. You can tweak this font’s motion speed, color, stroke width, and many other features, allowing for versatile uses of the same design.
Lovelo, which offers uppercase letters and extended Latin glyphs, can be downloaded either as a JSX file or an After Effects project. This typeface works best on a solid background as a decorative text element.
Dingbat-based display | Paid | Design: Fable Type Foundry
With illustrative touches and a hint of whimsy, this experimental font features architectural landmarks and other objects from Singapore in honor of the country’s 55th birthday. The all-caps typeface offers 130 glyphs, with two to three alternates for each letter. These different versions allow designers to blend clean, geometric letters with unique dingbat-style ones, adding flexibility of use.
The specificity of the typeface dictates use somewhat, making it best fitted for projects related to its namesake, or in any design that calls for a palm tree as a capital T, a shrimp for a G and more.
10. David Milan: Hand lettering
Custom created lettering | Design: David Milan
While not an actual typeface, experimental typography can also take on the form of hand lettering. These unique renders of letterforms can add a bespoke touch to a design.
Based in Madrid, David Milan creates his lettering pieces either digitally or with markers and brush pens. His style ranges from hyper-realistic 3D designs, to looser strokes that highlight the human hind behind them. The typography itself also varies, going from handwritten script to cleaner capital letters.
When it comes to custom lettering and phrase design by a lettering artist, use and application is almost unlimited and can accommodate a wide range of design projects.
How do you use experimental typefaces?
Once you become enamored with the idea behind experimental typefaces, it is hard not to dive in. But you want to ensure that you’re using experimental typefaces the right way.
It’s important to consider whether these styles are appropriate for your audience or publication, the value of readability versus artistic value, and the overall relationship to your brand as a whole.
Here’s how you can make experimental typefaces work for your projects:
- Use a typeface that feels like it goes with your brand. Experimental typefaces are funky by nature, so choosing an appropriate way to display them is important.
- Mix it up. Using experimental typefaces can mean that you have to switch typefaces frequently for some text elements. Is that acceptable within your brand’s style?
- Create a messaging match. A color font typically feels fun and light. Does that go with your content and tone? The same is true of any experimental typeface. Type in the words in the font you plan to use. What emotions or meaning come to you when you see it for the first time? Does that fit the goal of your messaging?
- Build brand value. For startups or rebrands, an experimental typeface choice spark for a logotype or text element that becomes part of your brand’s visual story.
- Think of typography as art. Not all typography is designed to read like a novel. For short words or phrases where the letters meld together in just the right way, type can be used as an artistic element. This concept can be a solid option if you find yourself in a project without a lot of other imagery.
That last point brings about a good question: How do you weigh readability versus the artistic value of an experimental typeface?
There’s no perfect answer. It really depends on your brand voice and tone in relationship to the font and aesthetic. But there are a few things you can do:
- Test fonts, pay attention to analytics, and poll your audience. Do they understand what you are trying to communicate? Watch for red flags in your analytics such as drops in traffic, reduced time on site/page, and unclicked calls-to-action.
- Pair an experimental typeface with a simpler, more legible font that reiterates key messaging.
- Only use an experimental typeface with the finalized version of your UX copy. Don’t use placeholder text or elements that will auto populate, such as a header tag for webpages or a blog. These typefaces require attention and care that only comes with manual typesetting.
Experimental typography is one of those design tools that people tend to either love or hate. (I’m in the former category.) These typefaces are expressive, creative, and special.
They give type designers a chance to stretch with concepts, letterforms, and artistic vision.
The key thing when looking at typefaces in this category is toggling between readability and artistic value. Not all type styles have both, and it can be a determining factor when it comes to using an experimental typeface or not.