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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.]

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