Smart, tough, and sexy. Hello Tungsten.

September 17, 2009


That rarest of species, Tungsten is a compact and sporty sans serif that’s disarming instead of pushy — not just loud, but persuasive.

Flat-sided sans serifs have been a vital part of graphic design since its very beginning. Like many of typography’s loveliest styles, these letters are an import from sign painting, where the style — doubtless because its kit of lines and curves resembles plumbing — is colorfully known as “Modern Gaspipe.” These modular letters were an important part of the twentieth century poster, bright and optimistic in the propaganda of the Works Projects Administration (WPA), and peremptory in the Constructivism of the young USSR. In the service of any agenda, what these letters always signified was modernity, industry, and zeal.

Typographers have explored this compact modular style with mixed results. Typefaces that stay true to Depression-era forms run the risk of becoming nostalgic, forever evoking the sentimental Americana of tuxedo jackets and automats. Other designs, if they stick more doggedly to the underlying principles of rule and compass, often reveal how monotonous a typeface can become when restricted to too meager a kit of parts. Many such designs quit the fight when the going gets rough, abandoning their own internal rules when unruly letters like S or Y won’t conform to the grid — a frailty that’s especially unwelcome in this kind of typeface, whose square-jawed ruggedness would otherwise recommend it for action movies and airport paperbacks.

A few years ago, we started wondering if there was a way to make a typeface in this genre that was disarming instead of brutish, one that employed confidence and subtlety instead of just raw testosterone. It was an unusual design brief for ourselves, completely without visual cues and trading in cultural associations instead: “more Steve McQueen than Steven Seagal,” reads one note; “whiskey highball, not a martini” suggests another. We decided to reduce the letterforms not to circles and squares, but to a manageable set of stated interrelationships — between inside and outside, uppercase and lowercase, and one letter and the next — that could be applied with equal consistency throughout the design. The result is Tungsten, a tight family of high-impact fonts that doesn’t sacrifice wit, versatility, or style.


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