Typeface Review: FF Balance

By Kris Sowersby

The late  Evert Bloemsma created four of the most original, hard-working and forward-thinking typefaces in the history of type design. In order of creation, these are  FF Balance (1993),  FF Cocon (1998/2001),  FF Avance (2000), and  FF Legato (2004), all released under the FontFont label. As good as they all are, I shall be concentrating on his first. 

FF Balance 4 weights


FF Balance first appeared in an embryonic state in Bloemsma’s 1981 graduation exhibition at the Arnhem Academy in Holland. After a long gestation period consisting of reworkings, redrawings, digitization via Ikarus, postscript output and rejection by several foundries, it was finally accepted and released by FontFont. However, it has undeservedly seen little use, especially in New Zealand. Since we seem to be a nation full of pseudo-modernists caught up in the recent revival of interest in Modern Typography, it’s fitting that we rethink what sans serifs we choose to present words to the reading public.

SANS SERIF

During his time at the academy, Bloesmsma became fascinated with Swiss typography, even conducting an extensive interview with the Gridnik himself, Wim Crouwel

It should come as no surprise that Bloemsma’s first typeface was a sans. He had an uncomfortable relationship with serifs; FF Avance is his only face that has them: “The serif has many purposes and possible origins, and it took some time before I felt ready to handle this item. The serif may carry a burden of outdated conventions, so applying serifs is risky when trying to avoid the swamp of traditions.”

To counter the lack of serifs, Bloemsma turned to those sans serifs that were around at the peak of cold Swiss functionality, but were too eccentric and warm to achieve popular acceptance. 

For example,  Lewis Blackwell wrote that  Antique Olive, designed by the masterful Roger Excoffon, was “an attempt to offer a more refined sans serif than presented by Helvetica and Univers, but it was too characterful and too late to be widely adopted outside of France”. The salient features of Antique Olive are the top-heavy weight distribution and the inverted stress: the emphasis of horizontal strokes rather than vertical. 

Bloemsma asserted there was no functional reason for the classic proportions in letterforms: “In fact, recognizability and readability largely depend on the top half of most characters. So perhaps enhancing this half can have a positive effect on readability.” In practice his theory works surprisingly well, considering how much the FF Balance letterforms deviate from traditional weight distribution. 

INNER TENSION

Bloemsma took Excoffen’s ideas and extended them much further. He paid serious attention to the ‘white’ in letterforms, as much as the ‘black’. (The two are inextricably linked, just as a cup is only so because of the empty space inside.) 

no straight lines

FF Balance hasn’t any straight lines; it consists entirely of curves. As his teacher Jan Vermeulen used to say: “A straight line is a dead line”. 

Bloemsma explains: “As we know, in the old days the letterpress technique used to add something to the appearance of type on paper; the physical press/strength that really printed the letters into/on the paper was not just visible but also tangible. To the straight stems and simple curves of a typeface like  Gill Sans, the letterpress process added tension and a natural irregularity. The tension between shape (metal, body) and counter-shape (emptiness, space) was visible. 

“This tension was part of the beauty of many san serifs in particular… because it also expresses the infinite tension between the clean design concept and the embodiment in reality. In offset, this characteristic property is gone. Offset is flat. Shape and counter-shape are reduced to two dimensions,” he said.

the letterpress effect

Many serious typographers and designers regard letterpress as being the ideal manifestation of readability. Bloemsma was no exception, although he wasn’t intimidated by new technology and tradition. He took what seems to be a spiritual approach to creating letterforms, always keeping the reader in mind, always thinking, never taking a fashionable approach to creating type. 

SENSE OF BALANCE

When the individual letters of FF Balance are enlarged the curves and unconventional construction are evident. But when we see it set as a whole in a paragraph at text size, these individual details submit to the whole.

The inner tension links the letters, words are created, lines flow and ideas are thus rendered transparently. FF Balance never forces itself to the forefront, yet it behaves with confidence and will not shy away into icy, constructed indifference. 

FF Balance. Inner tension

FF Balance comes in four weights, with italics and small caps. They all share the same width, which is rather unusual but very useful, especially if the designer needs to swap weights at the last minute; lines will retain their length! The lining numerals reside in the Roman weights and the Oldstyle in the small caps. My only technical gripe is that FontFont has not released an OpenType version, which would make typesetting far easier. 

FF Balance 4 weights

Evert Bloemsma died suddenly at his home in Arnhem on 22 April 2005. It is a terrible shame that a man with so much intelligence and original thought was struck down at the height of his profession. He gave more thought to one of his letterforms than most give to an entire typeface.

[Kris Sowersby is a professional type designer from New Zealand, and director of the KLIM Type Foundry You can see his own typefaces at Village.]


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  1. Thank you for the ff Balance font review, enjoyed reading it. Although he designed many sans serif fonts I must say I’m impressed by FF Avance, it has a touch of ‘Arnhem’ from Fred Smeijers. They probably influenced each other in Arnhem. Great another Dutch Type Review @ iLT.

  2. Those subtle curves only increase my longing for higher resolution monitors. What I find interesting though, is that at larger sizes the problem gets worse not better. And at paragraph size the problem disappears. Definitely need to see in print.

  3. Nice review. I love Bloemsma’s typefaces. I especially love Balance and Legato. Masterpieces.

  4. Thanks for this. It is amazing what a negative shape can do to hold the letters together. Thank you for so clearly identifying this important principle and its relation to this typeface!

  5. Thickestskin

    Thanks heaps for an excellent read! I’m particularly interested in the quote “a straight line is a dead line.” That’s fantastic, particularly because it’s so… debatable. I mean in other contexts a straight line is, in many ways, the most efficient line because it is the shortest way of connecting two points. Does anyone have any more thoughts on why, in typography, a straight line may seem “dead?” Thanks!

  6. Thank you, Kris, for calling attention to one of the unsung accomplishments in type design. Your gripe is well made — I’ve wanted an OpenType FF Balance for years. Fortunately, the release is only weeks away.

  7. Good idea this review about Evert first typeface. He IS a very talentued type designer, a great fan of Citröen cars. You can easily do comparison between his typefaces designs where forms came from a certain understanding of a function-needs and bizarre-original car design from Citröen (50-60-70’s).
    Each discussion with him were deep and interesting. A rare person. I miss him. I will recall all my life first we meet in 1993 during ATypI in Belgium…

  8. Giovanni

    I think you already know it, but in the second image, well, that thing between Antique Olive and Univers… it’s not Helvetica…

  9. Katja Bak

    made me appreciate a font that i otherwise would not have liked

  10. Jay

    Giovanni—it is *not* Arial. Look at the lowercase a, e, and s again. Arial strokes terminate at a slight angle, not horizontally like in the sample posted here.

  11. Dan

    I have to disagree with the experts on this one—I personally find this type to be a little ugly and unbalanced. It reminds me of all those ugly PC fonts like verdana or something. The small caps look fantastic, but the rest of the font reminds me of hand painted garage sale signs. By the way, I hate Optima as well, and I see some similarities between that and this one.

    Just an opinion.

  12. I really love how much character and style this typeface has and I love how all the weights are the same widths, genius!

  13. MP

    Of Bloemsma’s typefaces, I would have to say my favortie is FF Legato. Very good review Kris, well written. Johno, keep them coming!

    -MP

  14. Giovanni—that is Helvetica. Helvetica Neue Bold, to be precise.

    Everyone else—I’m happy you like the review! It’s always good to share the work of excellent, under appreciated designers.

  15. Giovanni
    Kris is right. It is Helvetica. What’s probably confusing you is the “a” and its almost non-existent tail. Beyond the medium weight, Helvetica Neue’s “a” loses it tail.

    Great review, Kris. And good news about the upcoming OpenType version, Stephen.

  16. Thanks! Nice post, great review.

  17. David Engelby

    Thank you, Kris, for this great review. A lot of the visual secrets of both form and legibility of type lies within the hard study of inner forms and space in general. May the work of Bloemsma inspire all typedesigners.

  18. poms

    A mindopening review about FF Balance and the design process behind it, thank you Kris!

    T.


  19. This is what I love about FF Balance and off Evert Bloemsma’s work in general. He was all about challenging conventions. The lowercase s of FF Balance looks top balanced, but it’s just an artifact from our perception. If you rotate it by 180 degrees you’ll see how it’s practically specular, and the weight distribution, which to us looks very much concentrated on the top part of the letter, is instead even and symmetrical.

    One of my favourite type design lessons, evert!

  20. Giovanni

    Thou shalt not try to catch a typo on a typographic blog…

    From now on my least favorite character is lower-case “a” in Helvetica bold.

    Viva Akzidenz Grotesk…

  21. Antonio
    Sorry you had difficulty inserting that image in your post. I’ve taken the liberty of embedding it for you. Thanks.

  22. I confess I have never felt that any of the reversed-contrast roman fonts really work, with the lower case being the downfall both for Antique Olive and Balance

    I also don’t find them daring or advanced, because I am familiar with Hebrew script, which has heavy horizontals and light verticals—the reversed contrast. But the structure of the letters is quite different, without all the round strokes of roman lower case. To me, the roman lower case just doesn’t want to go there with reversed contrast. Arches that are thicker at the top just look ungainly, perhaps because of the illusion of excess weight.

    Bloemsma’s ideas about using curves in place of straight lines is I think are a valid direction, but to me the reversed contrast thing is a dead end. The most interesting and successful of Bloemsma’s faces is Legato, but even that I think is compromised by a too fat top of the ‘s’.

    The only thing in this line I’ve seen that is really attractive is a Legato-influenced work in progress by a guy from New Zealand :)

  23. William - have you seen FF Balance in print at text sizes? There is an art monograph publishing company that used it for a few titles and I found it to perform beautifully. It’s easy to forget that not all type was meant to be seen at 100 pt. on screen.

  24. Rolf

    I remember back at the academy when Evert was teaching there I asked him about Balance and his fonts. In retrospect, he said, Balance was perhaps too much of an experiment. Still believing in the concept etc., but maybe the outcome was not wat he was after.
    This could be the general thought after several years looking back at your work though.
    He then showed what he was working on, later becoming Legato, mentioning it could be Balance v2 as far as the idea behind it, a “better” Balance perhaps..?
    I love Legato and use it every now and then, though never in a big project.. yet.. :) Thanks for this post Kris, 3x hooray for Bloemsma! He was a funny guy. Cycling all the time, in great condition, and then he died just like that.. :/

  25. Hi Bill! I can see where you are coming from. But Stephen is absolutely correct—you really need to see it work at text.

    A “Legato-influenced work in progress” by a Kiwi? What’s his name, I might know him… ;-)

  26. No, Stephen, I haven’t seen it used at text sizes, so I might indeed change my mind if I get a chance to see them.

  27. i love typogrphy :)

  28. Jan Middendorp

    A good article — the visuals are really enlightening. Well done!
    There’s a number of quotes that are familiar to me. It would be great if you could mention your sources.

    I used FF Balance as text and headline typeface for a book I wrote on a theatre pedagogy project aimed at young actors from Eastern Europe (Evert specially made a few CE-glyphs for the Czech and Croatian names). I found it an appropriate face to use because the book’s underlying themes were wilfulness and resourcefulness, themes that also apply to Evert’s practice.
    Legibility, in something like 8,5pt Balance, was excellent but even at those small sizes the text looked idiosyncratic. I can confirm Rolf’s comment: Seeing these and other examples of the font in use, Evert grew increasingly unhappy about Balance. With hindsight, he found his first typeface ‘exaggerated’ and at times even considered withdrawing it. I felt that designing Legato, which is in some aspects a kind of Balance 2.0, had a lot to do with that dissatisfaction.

    Jan

  29. Thanks for your insight, Jan.

    designing Legato, which is in some aspects a kind of Balance 2.0, had a lot to do with that dissatisfaction.

    Of course what brings a master like Bloemsma personal dissatisfaction could still be considered a success for almost any other designer.

  30. Jan—There’s a number of quotes that are familiar to me. It would be great if you could mention your sources.

    Yes, of course, sorry. Some of these quotes come from your book, Dutch Type, unfortunately out of print. Other quotes come from a couple of Typophile threads and the rest were from Evert’s website, which seems to be down.

    It’s interesting that he was disappointed with Balance. But I must say that almost everyone hates their early or ‘first’ work—all you see is the mistakes. I feel like this at times, I’m sure others do as well.

  31. Great article! Well worth the read.
    To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of sans with curved lines (Eg. gill sans). But it is great to see/ read about the little differences between faces that makes type so fascinating!

  32. very good article. thanks for all

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