Capitolium signage and typeface
“The Dutch high profile design company n|p|k invited Gerard Unger to contribute to their proposal of a bespoke signage system for the Holy Year (2000) in Rome. An event that was estimated to attract 20 to 25 million visitors, its brief was remarkable. What made the assignment extremely interesting to Unger was the requirement that a new type design be developed as the central element of the information system. ‘A specific typeface, …a modern one for the third millennium (and not at all a philological repêchage), but in some way related to the tradition of the city.’ Thus the brief of the organizers, the Agenzia Romana per la Preparazione del Giubileo. Rome is very probably the only European city that boasts an uninterrupted two-thousand-year tradition of road signage. So designing a typeface for Rome was both a prestigious and a delicate job, perhaps, Unger wrote, ‘the typographic equivalent of taking coals to Newcastle.’
“The brief, which explicitly asked for a contemporary typeface, suited Unger well, as he is ‘not an enthusiastic supporter of twentieth-century revivalism’. He set out to make a pragmatic, versatile typeface – a ‘real Unger’ which, somehow, also had to communicate Roman-ness. In other words: a blond design with a Latin heart. For Capitolium Unger chose to take as his starting point the work of the sixteenth-century writing master Giovan Francesco Cresci – notably a lower case alphabet which Cresci drew to accompany the classic roman capital. For some time, Unger played with the idea of making the alphabet into a sanserif – lowercase with initial capitals – tapping into twentieth-century signage tradition. Yet in Rome classic capitals are still the norm, even for contemporary street signs. Eventually, Unger reconciled readability and tradition by choosing an in-between solution: a brisk seriffed roman of classical proportions, to be used in lowercase with capitals.
“After several rounds of improvements and refinements, Unger finalized Capitolium: an unorthodox signage alphabet with a companion version for use in print. Although the project did not plan for the type to be set in caps-only, the capitals would work perfectly in this way: in their sober stateliness, they recall Jan van Krimpen’s hand-drawn titles. The design team worked around the clock, managing to meet the extremely tight dead line; unfortunately the organizing committee of the 2000 Jubilee did not succeed in implementing the information system. Parts of it were used for signalling single sites, but the street signage system envisioned by Unger never materialized. For Unger, this was disappointing but by no means a disaster. It simply meant he had been paid to design an interesting typeface of a sort he might never have made without this assignment; from 2002, when the copyright went back to him, Capitolium was marketed by Unger himself.”
The quote and the images are from Dutch Type, Jan Middendorp’s illustrated compendium of type design in the Netherlands. Sold out since ca. 2007, the book will be made available again through crowdfunding in 2018.