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TYPETR delivers Upgrade, a modern humanist sans built for the future

After releasing a supersized modular bitmap family in 2017, Petr van Blokland raises the bar for sans faces with his first “traditional” type release in nearly two decades.

Upgrade, the name of TYPETR’s new humanist sans family, reflects the approach designer Petr van Blokland took throughout the design process. He didn’t review visual reference material while crafting his latest release, instead relying on lingering mental images of iconic mid-twentieth century humanist sans serifs to serve as a jumping-off point for Upgrade. Conjuring up form and function in his imagination, Van Blokland set out to create a present-day interpretation that would perform similarly to mid-century models, but with an important difference. He analyzed the core principles of those classic archetypes, implementing certain design concepts while upgrading them to reflect current technical and typographic standards.

Upgrade’s darkest and lightest weights.
Upgrade covers an impressive range of weights, from the imposing Ultra Black to the gossamer Hairline.

Upgrade bears plenty of features that set it apart from other families in the genre. The typeface has its sights firmly set on the future; only a few typical letterforms reference the storied past of the humanist sans model, such as the vertex of an M not reaching all the way down to the baseline, or the wide N and O. These earmarks lend elegance to this multipurpose typeface. The lowercase is dynamic and airy, with open apertures and a generous x-height guaranteeing good legibility at any size. And because they’re not overly narrow, Upgrade’s italics look contemporary and are in balance with the upright styles. If one were to map it to the teachings of the legendary Gerrit Noordzij, Upgrade would situate itself on the bottom line of the Noordzij Cube: it’s a forward-looking example of what the master theorized as the low-contrast-translation–sans-serif genre.

Illustration of some of Upgrade’s defining design traits.
Only a few of Upgrade’s design details, such as the M’s vertex not reaching all the way down to the baseline and the wide N and O, recall humanist sans serifs. The large x-height and open apertures aid legibility in smaller sizes.
Example of Upgrade’s italics.
Upgrade’s comparatively wider italics harmonize better with the upright styles and give the type family a contemporary look.

To achieve Upgrade’s impressive range of weights, from extremely thin to extremely black, Van Blokland went above and beyond the call of duty. While most designers use two or three masters for interpolating and defining the different weights in a type family, he created no less than five. These additional masters served distinct purposes. Most importantly, they made it possible to cover the entire weight spectrum without the specificities of the extremes interfering with the intermediary weights. The five masters also allowed Van Blokland to adapt the shapes of difficult glyphs—like the dollar sign, the cent, and the slashed O—when the weight increase caused counters to overfill.

Upgrade’s entire weight range with the location of its five masters
Because the weight transitions at both extremes of the spectrum are defined by separate masters, their quirks don’t affect the medium variants. Character substitutions reduce clogging of complex characters’ counters.

All styles of Upgrade have extensive character sets, including several figure sets, a fully kerned fraction set, ligatures, and an alternate g, and are programmed with rich OpenType features. Tilmann Hielscher assisted in Upgrade’s development with additional designs, character-set extensions, and extensive fine-tuning of the faint contrast that makes the design come to life. Jill Pichotta led technical support and quality assurance.

Alternate glyphs and ligatures in Upgrade.
Besides a two-storey g, Upgrade also offers a J that doesn’t extend below the baseline, and a 6 and a 9 with increased differentiation from the 8. Non-connecting ligatures avoid potential collisions with neighboring letters.
Different sets of numerals in Upgrade.
Upgrade features a wealth of numeral styles, including proportional inferiors and superiors.

The name Upgrade was carefully chosen to telegraph that the core family is merely a starting point, with enormous potential for expansions and derivations. This initial release forms a stable foundation upon which the Upgrade typographic system can grow. When used as a verb, “Upgrade” can serve as a constant family name, with subnames identifying future variations. These can denominate purpose, function, and even material or texture: for example, Upgrade Logo, Upgrade Identity, Upgrade Party, Upgrade Wood, Upgrade Var, and so on. All such proposed variations will be compatible with Upgrade’s base version.

Complex typesetting using all the different sets of numerals in Upgrade.
With its many different sets of numerals, Upgrade is fully equipped to tackle even the most complex typesetting challenges.

Van Blokland plans to make the first expansion of the system, Upgrade Text, available later this year. This optical size will eventually combine with the core Upgrade to produce Upgrade Var, a variable font with not only the common axes (width, weight, and optical size), but also the parametric axes detailed in David Berlow’s Variations Proposal.

To see more of Upgrade in action, check out the minisite or visit Design Design Space, Van Blokland and Claudia Mens’ new online design school.

Like all TYPETR fonts, Upgrade is available for desktop, web, app, and ePub licensing. Webfonts may be tested free for thirty days. To stay current on all things TYPETR, subscribe to Type Network News, our occasional email newsletter featuring font releases, foundry happenings, type and design events, and more.