Give me twirl or clutch them pearls: An axis for realness

Service Typeface development, Variable fonts Partners XYZ Type in collaboration with Polymode Date 2021

Cutting-edge bi-coastal design studio Polymode needed a custom typeface to establish and emphasize their unique voice. To create this one-of-a-kind typeface, they turned to Type Network partner XYZ Type. Here’s how XYZ created Polymode Sans, a branded variable font with a unique “realness” axis.

Ben Kiel and Jesse Ragan of XYZ Type “chase new ideas for typefaces that are as clever as they are technologically robust.” Meanwhile, Polymode weaves together diverse identities and frequently marginalized cultural aesthetics using a process they call “Poetic Research.” The combined approaches dig deep into history and unearth connections, all while paying attention to practical matters like grids, how many words fit the space, timelines, and production costs. 


“Poetic research takes into account the factual with the formal, the universal with the outsider… let it be lofty, let it be magical and ancestral… let it be funny with a divine kiss of queerness. It holds the space of a project searching for the details in archives, footnotes, and marginalia within the great force of history.”

From Polymode’s website


With this eclectic identity at its back, Polymode needed something that could be dialed into the full range of the work they produce: From art book design to exhibition design, interfaces, websites, identities, workshops, and everything in between. They had expressive needs and functional demands. They required something truly poly-modal to function in running text, art books, screens, captions, and displays. It needed the right amount of Friction—noticed, but not annoying—and the friction needed to increase with the optical size.

In other words, their brief called for the ultimate in terms of flexibility and functionality—all while capturing the “realness” of Polymode’s attitude.

“We approached XYZ with a question, it wasn’t just ‘we want a typeface,’ it was more: How does, or can, a typeface dynamically express a point of view while also being able to remain ‘neutral’? Ben and Jesse were phenomenal listeners and started by encouraging us to submit visual references that moved well beyond typefaces, consisting of personal and professional lineages—including BIPOC and Queer voices.” 


Slides from the early discovery phase of the project: Collected images from Polymode’s inspiration folder, XYZ’s resultant brain dump of descriptive words and phrases, some of XYZ’s hand-lettering inspiration.

With these inspirational guidelines in place, Ben & Jesse got to work researching a typeface whose basic traits wouldn’t veer far from established norms of proportion, weight, and contrast. It called for a decent x-height to work well on screens and at caption sizes. Above all the priority was the flexibility to dramatically change in tone across different use cases.

They ultimately came upon Lining Gothic, one of ATF’s 19th century numbered gothics. A straightforward sans serif, it also carries a few unique surprises: The hook of the lowercase “r,” for example, the sharp arches, and the simultaneously-flat-and-round descenders. 

Lining Gothic specimen

Adherents to the notion that design is a means for precisely and adeptly solving specific problems, neither Ben nor Jesse are interested in doing anything “just because.” XYZ’s discovery process signaled a variable font as the best solution for truly meeting Polymode’s brief, landing on the question: “What if we took Lining Gothic and made it real plain on one end and made it real weird on the other?”

So was born Polymode Sans: A chameleon of a typeface that expresses points of view ranging from quietly buttoned-up to fiercely outrageous. These points of view find themselves moving along the font’s “realness axis”: They increase in their structural surprises as the realness increases. The typeface also contains a range of 30 different expressions along this axis for use as static fonts.

Polymode Studio gave Polymode-esque names to some of the stops along the realness axis: Acting Basic is a more reserved version of Lining Gothic; Going to Work, the contemporary revival of Lining Gothic, then Churl Please, Attitude, and Opulence round out the journey from plainness to maximum REALNESS.

Polymode immediately set to work using Polymode Sans in vastly disparate contexts. Acting Basic is featured in an art book featuring the work of artist Fred Eversley, commissioned by David Kordansky Gallery. Opulence is on full display in Amanda Williams’s work of public art for Storefront for Architecture, What is this Black You Say?

Fred Eversley: Parabolic Lenses David Kordansky Gallery
Credit: Michael Oliver

This project arrived just as XYZ was converting their library to variable fonts. Despite it being a custom typeface commissioned specifically for their studio, Polymode is excited to share their new typeface with the public. In that spirit, Polymode Sans is available in beta version for licensing immediately upon request. The official retail release will happen further down the line.

If you’re interested in licensing Polymode Sans for a project or would like to have a custom variable font created for your brand, contact us at Type Network.


—Kate Beckwith

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