Fred Smeijers’s Arnhem typefaces

Typeface stories by Andy Crewdson
1 641 words9 min read

Implicit in Fred Smeijers’s best known typefaces, Quadraat and Renard, and explicit in his 1996 book Counterpunch, are arguments for a more rigorous, craft-centered approach to type design. Building on his research into the methods of sixteenth century punchcutters, Smeijers has not only advocated forgotten practices, but has shown with his type designs how these ideas, when applied, can yield impressive results. Quadraat, which was first published in 1992, is an inventive interpretation of the genre exemplified by the romans of Garamond, Granjon and Haultin.


Quadraat roman enlarged from approximately 10 pt, scanned from the FontFont ‘Focus No. 2’ specimen booklet.

Renard, which was first used to set the text of Smeijers’s book and has more recently been offered for sale, is a masterful revival of a late-1500s type that was one of the earliest of the so-called ‘Dutch taste’ romans.


Renard ‘One’ roman enlarged from 10½ pt, scanned from a 1997 broadside specimen.

In their approaches to detail and irregularity, both types reflect Smeijers’s employment of what he describes as the early punchcutters’ ‘connection with craft.’

It was this same connection that Smeijers chose to deliberately avoid when beginning work on a new typeface in the late 1990s. Taking the era that followed the introduction of the romain du roi (the first size of which appeared in 1702) as an initial frame of reference, Smeijers aimed to draw a typeface in the context of the ‘constructed’ and more consciously designed approach of the famous French academicians.

The first size of the romain du roi enlarged from the original of about 18 pt, scanned from a reproduction of a page from Médailles sur les principaux événements du règne de Louis le Grand (1702).

romain du roi

Though it is now accepted that the romain du roi’s planners were more informed by historical and contemporary type design than had previously been thought, as James Mosley writes, their project remains the first in which ‘the form of the alphabet for a printing type [was] determined independently of its means of production.’ It was this unprecedented undertaking, in which Enlightenment concepts mixed for the first time with type design, that Smeijers looked to for inspiration. As with Quadraat, this new type would be an attempt to reference ideas rather than a specific set of letters.

In 1999, while the typeface that would become the first version of Arnhem was still embryonic, Smeijers was asked to consult on a project by the Werkplaats Typografie (‘Typography Workshop’). The hybrid postgraduate course/design practice based in Arnhem had begun a redesign of the Nederlandse Staatscourant, the Dutch government’s daily newspaper, and Smeijers was asked to be a typographic adviser to the project. After Smeijers participated in discussions about typefaces that might be suitable for the redesign, it was suggested that a brand new type might be warranted. When Smeijers showed the designers several faces he was working on at the time, the early version of Arnhem stood out as a type that could be used for headlines in the newspaper. With the encouragement of the Werkplaats, Smeijers began developing two weights of the type for use at large sizes. Once these were integrated into the redesign prototypes, the Werkplaats designers decided the type worked successfully and asked Smeijers to make a corresponding text version for the paper’s body type.


As Smeijers says, the display type, or ‘Arnhem Fine’ as it is now called, ‘lacked a certain sturdiness and the efficiency needed for comfortable reading of extended texts in smaller sizes.’

Arnhem Fine

Arnhem Fine rasterized in Photoshop, with the first line at 84 pt and the others at 48 pt.

In adapting the display roman for newspaper text, Smeijers set some parameters: the new version should have a strong color, a large x-height, and be relatively economical in width. (Times New Roman served as the standard that Arnhem was measured against throughout the design process.) In tandem with these alterations to the original type’s proportions, several other changes were made to Arnhem’s overall character. Smeijers says: ‘I simply took the liberty to change anything that would not work or could have a disturbing effect in reading sizes.’ This led to the alteration of serif shapes and redrawing of parts of certain letters. In the lowercase a, for example, Smeijers justifies the addition of a ‘bulb’ terminal with the logic that ‘the majority of lowercase a’s have such a bulb, [and] we simply expect a bulb ... it simply works better.’

Arnhem Normal

Arnhem Normal rasterized in Photoshop, with the first line at 68 pt and the others at 36 pt.

This same pragmatic rationale is used to explain why the ‘Normal’ weight of Arnhem was made significantly darker than most digital text typefaces. Smeijers believes that it is preferable for text types intended for less than ideal printing conditions – like newspapers – to be too dark rather than too light. Smeijers elaborates: ‘ “people” never object to a strongly colored typeface, at least not when it comes to use in normal text composed at smaller reading sizes (10 pt. and down). Designers however might object, but then again designers are not “the people”.’ Nevertheless, Smeijers acknowledges that he would have made the type lighter had it not been initially intended for newspaper use. Recognizing that the type’s exceptional color might hamper its versatility, he later added a slightly lighter variation. (This was also done with the similarly dark Renard; after making the primary typeface, Smeijers added two lighter weights.) This new variant, however, could hardly have been dubbed ‘Light,’ as its stems were only made thinner by 10 units. Smeijers instead chose to call it ‘Arnhem Blond,’ employing a somewhat vague, atmospheric Dutch term used to describe ‘fairly light fonts without much contrast,’ as Gerard Unger has defined it.

Arnhem Normal and Blond comparison

Arnhem Normal (the top two lines) and Arnhem Blond (the bottom two) compared at 36 pt.

Though Arnhem’s text and display italics also ended up as distinct designs, they did not evolve in the same sequence as their roman counterparts. Smeijers’s first attempt at an italic was intended as a companion to the Normal type, and so was meant for small sizes from the start. In keeping with Arnhem’s original references to eighteenth century forms, Smeijers began his cursive in the mode of the italics pioneered in the mid-1700s by French punchcutters like Pierre Simon Fournier. (Fournier’s modernized italics, influenced by the romain du roi and contemporary styles of handwriting, are highly regular and show a marked romanization of their forms.)

Fournier's italic

An example of Fournier’s new italic, scanned from a reproduction of a page from the 1742 Modéles des caracteres de l’imprimerie (original size unknown, though it is likely in the 20 pt range).


But as these preliminary italics were tested alongside the existing roman, Smeijers found that they lacked the rhythm he had hoped for. As he altered the italic to improve its harmonization with the roman, the type moved steadily away from the original Fournier-like model. Smeijers explains: ‘I thought, I might as well forget about [the Fournier references] entirely and simply design a matching italic ... which belongs more to the tradition of newspapers.’ The result corresponds well to its upright counterpart while maintaining the same vigorous qualities of Smeijers’s previous italics.

Arnhem Normal Italic

Arnhem Normal Italic rasterized in Photoshop, with the first line at 72 pt and the others at 36 pt.

The display version, which was developed later when the entire family was expanded for general use, is appropriately more refined and rationalized. It also manages to return to some of the initial Fournier-era ideas that had been abandoned in the text italic.

Arnhem Fine Italic

Arnhem Fine Italic rasterized in Photoshop, with the first line at 90 pt and the others at 36 pt.

Arnhem’s transformation, from the initial display version into a strong text typeface, not only produced two quite different kinds of letters, but also seems to show elements of a reversion to the craft-connected approach. Remarkably, the type Smeijers ended up with is essentially in the goût hollandois tradition: it is dark, compressed, and has a considerable x-height. Though Arnhem could never be described as a revival or recreation, some of its features will inevitably provoke comparisons with historical typefaces. The text version’s proportions, contrast, and sharpness might call to mind aspects of the romans made by Fleischman and Rosart in the middle of the eighteenth century. Other forms in Arnhem might also echo – however superficially – certain features in a variety of types appearing in eighteenth century specimens. Ultimately, attempts at constructing these false connections between the contemporary and historical cannot be of much use. Like many of the most enduring modern text typefaces, Arnhem addresses the past in an intelligent way while making a contribution very much of its own time.

As it turned out, the Dutch newspaper did not adopt Arnhem in its final redesign. This decision was the result of an unrelated bureaucratic conflict, and did not stem from dissatisfaction with the typeface. For more about the redesign project, see Karel Martens: printed matter / drukwerk, a second edition of which was published by Hyphen Press earlier this year. The best place to see Arnhem is in another Hyphen title, the fourth edition of Norman Potter’s What Is A Designer, which is composed entirely in the type. The small, coarse images included above provide a vague idea of what the typefaces look like. A real notion of their appearances can only be gained from extended printed settings.