I Love Typography

Typeface Review: Arnhem

By Kris Sowersby

Talent borrows, genius steals

In Erik Spiekermann’s list of favourite five typefaces, Arnhem comes in at No.5. He writes “I Love it for newspapers, magazines, etc. Not so keen on the headline weights, they look too Dutch for my use (perhaps too Ungerish, but then Fred is also from Arnhem). But the text weights are a superb modern interpretation of a legible serif with an edge.” This sums up the essence of Arnhem—a very legible serif with an edge.

I first encountered Arnhem in Norman Potter’s “What is a designer” published by Hyphen Press. It is set beautifully, with a good point size, rag-right and suitable leading. Arnhem really works well; it is calm enough for extended reading yet retains enough personality to save it from lapsing into mediocrity and the reader from boredom. It has an understated feeling of seriousness, a fitness of purpose that isn’t betrayed by any unusual or distracting details.

Arnhem was released by OurType in 2002. It is designed by Fred Smeijers, a first generation digital type designer. (His typeface Quadraat was one of the first designs to be distributed by FontShop in 1992.) He is currently a partner in OurType, a digital foundry founded in 2002. According to their website, Ourtype “publishes newly designed fonts that are tailored to contemporary needs… So it stands apart from those who are enslaved to the new and those who merely try to recreate the past”.


The OpenType Standard text styles of Arnhem has a fairly basic character set, the usual standard accents (no macrons, though) with lining and old-style figures, small caps and two f-ligs, ff and fl. This is slightly disappointing, as one expects a bit more depth with OpenType. Hopefully there is a ‘pro’ version of Arnhem planned with all the bits.

What Arnhem lacks in depth, it makes up for in breadth. The family can be safely split up into text and display styles. The text styles have 4 weights, Blond (light) to Black with italics, and the display variants have been labelled Fine, with two weights and italics. Surprisingly, the roman text weights have all been duplexed onto the same widths—meaning that one can change from any weight to another and the letters will occupy exactly the same space! Happily this wee trick doesn’t detract from the actual design of the letterforms, none of them have been compromised by the duplexing.


The overall stress of the face is subtly vertical, but the excellent modeling saves us from the eye-strain typically caused by lesser Modern types. The bowls are gently modulated from thick to thin, as are the arches of ‘n’ ‘h’ ‘m’ and ‘u’. The serifs have shallow brackets with an easy wedge shape. The overall detailing seems initially sharp and spartan, but if looking closer at the ascender serifs one notices a slight rightwards finish, lending a lovely movement to the line of type. The eagle-eyed will also notice the ‘k’, its arm and leg not quite joining the upright stem. And the ‘g’! It works so well within the confines of the design—the ball-shaped ear breathes a good amount of life into the face.

The italic styles are good companions to the roman. They provide the right amount of contrast without resorting to flashy tricks or self-conscious styling. Smeijers has kept the counters open, the entry serifs horizontal and the departing serifs at a decent length. The strokes are slightly modulated, the ‘x’ ‘v’ and ‘y’ strokes are slightly curved, and the ‘z’ descends slightly below the baseline. Thus the italic has feeling, enough finesse to keep it from becoming a dullard subordinate to the roman.

Looking at these details, enlarged, is a mite unsettling. There is an urge to smooth out some curves, to fix the odd serif. But this impluse must be avoided, as the text styles must be judged at text sizes. Smeijers has anticipated this by designing Arnhem Fine—essentially display versions. Certain details like the ball-terminals of the ‘a’ and ‘y’ have been erased, the serifs seem lighter and broader, and the overall contrast of the face is increased. It is most definitely sharper, the moniker ‘Fine’ is certainly fitting.


Arnhem is an elegant workhorse; it is eminently useable. It is quite telling that Spiekermann, the designer of Meta, ranks it in his top five typefaces. To use Arnhem is a pleasure and it will surely imbue a feeling of pride and certainty in a typographer’s work without leaving the reader in the cold.

For the record, Spiekermann’s other favourites are 1. Reklameschrift Block; 2. Akzidenz Grotesk Mager; 3. Concorde; 4. FF Clifford.

[Kris Sowersby is a professional type designer from New Zealand. You can see his own typefaces at Village.]


  1. Arnhem is a great font, I’m using the font in signage and wayfinding solutions, very readable even with a small font height.

    Also recently started to use the font in a popular Dutch financial newspaper FD, I love reading the paper with the usage of Arnhem. http://www.fd.nl/home/

    I’d say, everybody buy the font and go “Blond” :)

    Btw, be sure to check other famous Dutch font designer Gerard Unger, the font BigVesta rocks.

    Good luck with ilovetypography.

  2. Sander
    Thanks, and thanks for the link. And speaking of Unger, I’m a big Swift fan.
    Your being here reminds me that we really need a ‘type & signage’ article on iLT.

  3. Article on type & signage sounds like a great idea! Let me know if I can assist you with images/resources or anything else about type & signage. A great point of reference is the recently released book by Chris Calori (http://www.cvedesign.com/book.html), recommended readings for signage and wayfinding design.

  4. A lovely typeface indeed. Great review Kris.

    I need to start setting aside money for fonts — seems like you can never have enough! :)

  5. Beautiful font; great review. I’m not sure why, though, it started with “Talent borrows, genius steals”. But then I often miss metaphors when they’re staring me in the face.

  6. Bert Vanderveen

    Kris, please note that Mr Spiekermann put Akzidenz Grotesk Mager in second place. A sign from above that you should extend your wonderful National tribe with a Light and an ExtraLight (or call it Mager).

  7. Paddy C

    I almost bought Arnhem last year when I was looking for a good serif to set extended text but went with Mercury instead. There was so much I loved about Arnhem but Mercury is also great and, when you add it all up, Mercury is more affordable. This article, of course, makes me almost regret my choice.

    I do love a number of OurType’s faces but they are on the expensive side and just out of my range.

  8. Alec: Talent borrows, genius steals is from the Arnhem printed specimen.

    Bert: I know, I know! I am actually working on expanding the National family, 1 darker and 2 lighter weights, as well as Compressed & Condensed styles. Hopefully by the end of the year…

  9. Kris, thank you for this great review of one of my favourite typefaces. The text weights, of course! ;)

  10. Ah, another case of RTFM. Thanks, Kris.

  11. “Modern Typography” and “Unjustified Texts”, both by Robin Kinross, are set in Arnhem and are very pleasant to read :-)

  12. Bert Vanderveen

    Kris, good to hear you’re on top of it. Thin sans’es (&italics) are what I need now (and the rest of the world next year, hopefully). ; )

  13. Really nice typeface, thanks Kris!

  14. I was taking a closer look at some of the individual letterforms that Kris points out; especially.

    The eagle-eyed will also notice the ‘k’, its arm and leg not quite joining the upright stem.

    and here it is. I hadn’t noticed this at text sizes.

    arnhem k.png

  15. hussein

    i’m a big fan of “Swift” too, especially the “NuSwift”.. :)

    about Arnhem, my friend has bought it for a magazine design project, and i remember that he was complaining about the bad kerning in the font.. he said he’ll contact them about this issue..

    and I found the regular weight is a thick a bit.. but it’s okay..

    nice review iLT.. thanks a lot :D

  16. I really like these kind of type reviews - they make me see some familiar typefaces in a completely different light. Thank you.

    Lately, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time trying to choose a typeface for my new logo, and noticed that my font collection consists of more serifs than sans-serifs. I see the same is true on John’s sidebar here on iLT. Does it mean that there are simply more beautiful serif faces than sans-serifs?

  17. hussein
    I’m finally putting together my list of favourite typefaces (I’m always being asked to do this), and the list is looking very Dutch. I don’t have a license for Arnhem so can’t comment on the kerning. However, I would be very surprised to learn that a one of Fred Smeijers’ types suffered from such an affliction. Let me know how OurType respond.

    >Does it mean that there are simply more beautiful serif faces than sans-serifs?

    I don’t think so, though it does come down to what one uses type for (and personal taste); if you’re, say, a book designer, and your setting swathes of text, then you’re more likely to have a number of good serifs (that’s not to say there aren’t numerous good sans for setting continuous text).
    How about National for your logo, or if you want something heavyweight and dynamic, FF Meta Serif Black Italic; or mixing it up with say ‘inspiration’ set in FF Meta and ‘bit’ in FF Meta Serif?

  18. Great review, Kris! A type novice like me can follow it, provided she has paid attention to things like weights and ligatures. It’s comprehensive and yet compact. Bravo! Oh, how I do love spending an afternoon at this site. I’ve missed it! More type reviews would be well-loved by me, for sure.

    Johno — what are some of the good sans-serifs for setting long stretches of text? I’m thinking of printing out some of my blog, which is in Verdana. I believe Verdana was designed for computers/Internet use in mind. I’m not sure how it will work on paper and was wanting to switch it up, maybe try a new font. (You might ask why I don’t just go ahead and print some, but unfortunately my printer is old and decrepit and doesn’t print anymore, and we live out in the woods, so a trip into town to use the IT center doesn’t happen every day. Oh the pleasures of rural living.)

  19. leah
    Yes, I really enjoyed the review too. Hopefully more typeface reviews to come from Kris; it’s good to read a type designer’s take on type (how about that for alliteration).

    >what are some of the good sans-serifs for setting long stretches of text?

    Big question, but rather than use that as an excuse not to answer, here are some suggestions:
    Myriad, TheSans, Scala Sans, Stone Sans, StagSans, Proxima Nova (an updated and OpenType Proxima Sans).

    I can’t say I’ve ever printed Verdana (perhaps accidentally); it was designed for screen and works very well on screen, and I’d suggest that that’s where it should remain. Are you looking to buy, or hoping to use something you already have?

  20. Thanks for this review! I love the blonde and normal weight of it, but the black is just a bit… unstable, in my opinion. The “e” has a slight tipsy to the right and the bolder the font gets the more this gets intensified. Also, I don’t feel the black variant is as smoothly balanced as the thinner weights are.

    To read the blonde variant is really wonderful though.

  21. These typeface reviews are particularly helpful to me right now as I plan to start adding fonts to my library this year … after I replace my dead laptop in another month or three.

    I’m confused about one of the comments. Someone prefers Mercury to Arnhem. Arnhem looks like a nice, sturdy face, that could serve well as for body text in book work. I am, however, concerned by the thickness that someone pointed out. This is something I’ll have to look carefully at.

    Mercury, however, is a sans serif, no? So, I mean, it’d likely be used in different circumstances from Arnhem.

    That said, I like having fonts new to me presented like this once a week.

  22. There is a mercury sans, but I imagine the mercury in question is this: http://www.typography.com/fonts/font_overview.php?productLineID=100017

  23. That is great, a review of a typeface!
    I almost purchased a license for Arnhem a while ago, but at the last moment it didn’t fit in the budget. Always those pesky budgets! But when the opportunity presents itself, I will definitely buy Arnhem. It works so well for text, without getting dull. I think it’s strong point is that you can still ‘see’ it while reading, it really defines a page of text; but it never gets distracting at all.

  24. Johno, A type designer’s take on type is terrific! :)

    And here’s where I admit that my ability to buy and use boughten fonts is rather limited, and indeed non-existent. Put another way — I use Microsoft Word and that’s about it.

    Thanks for attempting to make a dent on such a big question… I suppose my answer to your query would then be, I was hoping to use one I already have.

    Is there a way to introduce new fonts to Microsoft Word?

    Clueless in Cape Breton

    (hehe :) )

  25. Thank you for this review, Kris!

    To address Hussein’s remark on kerning, since having Arnhem on the market (2002) we haven’t had but one e-mail questioning the kerning. And that was from Hussein’s friend Daniel.
    We believe that kerning is a rather subjective matter. And, while listening to and assessing various opinions, we do relay on our own judgement for final decisions.
    In the future release (this year) of Arnhem Pro some minor modifications might be expected, however we fully stand by Fred’s kerning of Arnhem.

  26. Corina
    Thanks for your input. I’d like to see examples of this bad kerning. Well, Arnhem is at the top of my shopping list, so I hope to check for myself. But you’re right about it being somewhat subjective—we all have our own tastes when it comes to letterspacing.

  27. Johno,

    The pdfs of all OurType typefaces are online, just go to ourtype.com > Try > Arnhem > Download sample pdf.

    Otherwise, nearly any Hyphen Press book is set in Arhnem, and those are very reliable specimens ;-}

  28. Daniel

    We use Arnhem for a magazine, and infact do like the font very much, but aren’t happy about the kerning. Certain letters touch, and especially in larger sizes (16pt for example) we had to kern manually. You can see letters touching in the pdf that Corina mentions.

    One of the designers at Ourtype replied to our concerns and said that, in his opinion, it is not ok that letters like r+y (like in “very”) touch. But, he added, “by putting things too close Fred (Smeijers) is convinced he has to compensate for the counters”. They say that spacing and kerning are a compromise to obtain an optical balance. True.

    I simply don’t know if it creates problems when reading a 9pt text and letters touch. Is there a study about that? Or is it solely a subjective matter, as stated by Corina?

    Maybe in smaller sizes it doesn’t cause problems, though even Ourtype seem to think that some changes have to be made. At least they told us that certain pairs are too tight, and they changed some kerning for another project they did.

    So, to put that straight, I am not sure myself if it makes reading harder when letters touch in small sizes. It would be interesting if other designers shared their opinion on that.

  29. Thanks, Daniel

    Spacing is rather subjective, and the fact that I find some spacing acceptable and someone else perhaps not, is a proof of exactly that.
    Now back to ‘very’, I attach a sample of typical Smeijers spacing for ‘very’ in Arnhem, Fresco, Quadraat and Renard. Ther is no mistake, but a convinction that the touching ‘ry’ is the best solution for that combination [according to Smeijers].

    As for Rudy’s answer regarding us changing some spacing in Arnhem - just to make things clear - it was about a custom Arnhem Titling version, designed especially for larger sizes, and according to specific wishes of the client. For the text, the client was absolutely fine with the retail version (and touching of the ‘ry’). So, perhaps that gives more insight into why Arhnem text at 16 points makes you space [not kern] the ‘ry’.

    But, of course we are glad when users share with us their opinions and preferences, but at the end of the day we make a compromise between what we think a product should be like and what [a majority] of our customers do expect. Type design is about compromises. And we aim at a reasonable one.

  30. Daniel

    Thanks for your quick answer, Corina.

    If Smeijers is convinced that the touching ‘ry’ is the best solution (for body text) then let’s trust him – he is the expert. And as soon as the titling version is out (will it be available for everybody?) we might buy it:)

  31. Daniel,

    my pleasure.
    I do not seem to manage to upload the image. Will send it to you by e-mail.

    The Arnhem Titling will be available by the end of the year.

    Thank you for your remarks,


  32. Corina
    Apologies that you weren’t able to add the image. If you mail it to me, I’ll post here. Many thanks for your contributions.

  33. Corina
    Thanks for sending the image. Here it is:

    very smeijers

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