The Ubiquity of the Slender Stroke
by Dave Provolo
Consider the typographic aesthetic of the following high-traffic websites: Google Docs, PayPal and Apple. What is the commonality in these three, and many other, professionally-designed websites? All feature thin, sans serif typefaces in their dominant messaging.
Unlike some misguided graphic design trends of the recent past (soft shadows behind type!), this current aesthetic actually embodies sound design principles. The typography is refined to its cleanest and most direct form. Although ornamentation and flourish are eschewed, this typographic approach still exudes elegance, sophistication and a distinct understated charisma. For sufficient contrast, the thin typography is usually paired with a generous swath of white space; knocked out of a solid field of color; or positioned on top of a full bleed image within an area of uniform value and detail.
This is typography that speaks to us in intelligent and welcoming tones. It doesn’t scream, it whispers. Its absence of artifice and embellishment, and especially its slender strokes, communicate honesty and integrity. The simple structure and geometry of these characters subconsciously spark our memories of grade school penmanship and our first tentative strokes with a No. 2 pencil. Thin and fundamental characters greet the viewer with an underpinning of the familiar, yet the impression feels vivid and original.
The familiar is also hardwired into the font choice. Many of the typefaces encountered in the thin type movement are the offspring of three classic sans serif typefaces: Helvetica (introduced in1957), Futura (1927), and Gill Sans (1928). It’s interesting that I often see a contemporary interpretation of these classics instead of the genuine article. Even though designers continue to find inspired uses for Helvetica & friends, the prevailing trend appears to be towards fonts that embody the essence of a utilitarian sans serif typeface yet are devoid of the quirks and identifying marks of those old reliables.
To paraphrase and modify the famous quote attributed to Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, “Can typography ever be too thin?” Yes, many Apple users griped, when the company incorporated thin typography as a primary motif of its mobile operating system’s new interface. Introduced in 2013, iOS 7 featured Helvetica Neue Light, which provoked critics to question its readability, especially at small sizes and with tight kerning. Apple has since tweaked and modified the iOS typography in subsequent releases and updates to a mix of praise and scorn (who knew non-designers could respond so viscerally to typography?), striving for the sweet spot of skinny to not so skinny letterforms.
By definition a trend is fleeting, but this one is so rooted in graphic design best practices that I can’t envision its virtues fading completely from the sphere of visual communication. Will its current practitioners cringe at the recollection of it a decade from now as if presented with their high school prom photo? I don’t think so. So what, if any, are the negatives of the thin type vogue? I posit that a contrarian view would denounce its minimalism and simplicity as sanitized and banal, and bemoan its pervasiveness as proof of homogeneity.
As is clearly evident, though, this is an appreciation not a critique. You may have noticed from the typography I’ve employed on the home page of this site that I’m a disciple of this aesthetic (at least for this application, not for all). And how could I not be? When simple yet graceful letter architecture aligns with our principles and proves to be so evocative and persuasive, it is a triumph of successful typography. M