Pensum shot the serif, but didn’t shoot no legibility

Just chopping off the serifs? If only it could have been that easy to make Pensum Sans! Type designers like making their work more and more complex, more and more subtle. And it isn’t easy to transfer a serif font’s character and legibility to a sans. How to keep important details, how to transfer the spikiness and how serious or playful did the sans need to be? These are the questions Nils had to resolve.

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Let’s start with an important detail Nils wanted to keep in the new Pensum Sans. We’re talking about the notch between the stem and arch of the small letter n. How prominent should this cut be? Nils decided to make it more subtle than in the serif. You won’t see it at reading sizes, but it’s still strong enough to be a feature in display settings.

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The sans needed to be less conspicuous and more even for text. Therefore slightly wider round letters like O, o and so on were made tighter.

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While the Serif and the Display share the same stem width, Nils decided that the Sans should have the same grey value as the Serif. This entails a lighter stem, because a lower contrast leads to a darker text appearance.

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Surprise! The Sans is even more efficient than Pensum Pro and Display.

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To ensure the nine weights feel like they’re part of the same humanistic sans family, the contrast increases with weight. The highest contrast is in the black.

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The first digital sketch of Pensum Sans was made with a humanistic style in mind, but you can see how this would be far too soft to be a sibling of the spiky serif Pensum Pro. You can also see how retaining Pensum Pro’s stem width would have lead to a darker texture.

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These three versions of the a show how Nils refined those early soft shapes into the sharp forms of Pensum Sans.

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And that sharpness was necessary. Removing Pensum Pro’s spiky-serifs brought a lot of smoothness to the Sans. To balance that out, he decided to skip the brushy endings of f, a and r, making them more sharp or spiky.

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Small details like the swashy ending of the a and the slightly slanted middle bar of the e needed to stay! And as you can see the new sharp and spiky ends of the a and e gives Pensum Sans a nice relationship to Pensum Display.

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The italic is always the biggest challenge for Nils. The first sketches were too close to Pensum Pro, too many swinging curves. As the design developed, those curves got straighter and straighter.

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This lovely extravagant version of the small x needed to be discarded.

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The same was true with this small y. It got straighter and straighter and that beautiful deep cut had to be dropped.

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In the end, straightening the curvy shapes in k, v, w, x and z means that the italic is a little more serious while still having a lively and fluent character.

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As the sans got more serious, Nils added some nice little details to some shapes. For example: there are the slightly skewed endings of the uppercase letters, a different way to manifest Pensum’s sharp and spiky appeal.

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Normally a sans serif font doesn’t need any convoluted ligatures, but Nils is a romantic and he couldn’t resist adding them for lovers of book typography!

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Which letters needed to be more serious and what shapes needed to be more playful was a constant debate. One thing was obvious, though: the figures needed to be clear, serious and straight. The proportions of 3 and 5 were rebalanced and the eccentric swing of 3, 5, 6 and 9 became a little more restrained.

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Now, we have to own up. Amongst the figure set you will find a SERIF. Whoa-ho-ho, yes, we promised that this was a font with no serifs, but, seriously, the tabular figures work better with that one serif.


Further reading