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Schauspielhaus Zürich, 2006–09

Gill’s most awkward offspring finds a home on the stage.

Contributed by Stephen Coles on Jan 31st, 2011. Artwork published in .

A leaflet from a 1936 edition of Typography magazine. Courtesy Mikey Ashworth.

It’s healthy to see our least favorite typefaces used well. It opens our minds. The notion that there is no bad type, only type used badly is simplistic, of course, but here’s an example of its truth in action:

“I used to dislike Gill Kayo—until I saw the Schauspielhaus Zürich posters by Raffinerie.” — Kris Sowersby on Twitter

Gill Kayo (or Gill Sans Ultra Bold) is the overinflated, cartoonish heavy weight in the Gill Sans family. Its origins are curious. For years I assumed Kayo wasn’t designed by Eric Gill at all, but an addition tacked onto the family by those with more commercial interests. Well, it was definitely commissioned by marketing but it is Gill’s work. Its design is one of the decisions questioned by Ben Archer in his essay “Eric Gill got it wrong”:

The strange variation between weights in the Gill Sans family. Courtesy Ben Archer.

This is why series 442, the Ultra Bold weight, is otherwise called Kayo for “knockout” — it was envisaged as an (English) heavyweight champion capable of slugging it out with (German) Futura Extra Bold. Gill labels his diagrams with terms “sans overbold”, “hardly recognisable” and “fatuous”, to drive home his point about the distortion of letterforms in the heaviest weights. Yet this is exactly what happened to Gill — rather than refuse commissions for Extra Bold and Ultra Bold (well beyond the weight of what was considered normal), he continued to draw up and deliver designs that he knew to be aesthetically unjustifiable.

Posters advertising plays at Schauspielhaus Zürich.

It doesn’t make much sense to use Kayo alongside the rest of the Gill Sans family, but Raffinerie shows Kayo can work on its own. The Swiss firm boldly embraced the face’s strong character, making it the singular voice of the Schauspielhaus, a theatre in Zürich. I haven’t been to Switzerland, so maybe locals can confirm, but I’ll bet the brash style of Kayo turns heads in an environment that is known for the pure and rational.

See also: What If Kayo Didn’t Suck, Questioning Gill Sans


  • Gill Kayo
  • Gill Sans


Artwork location

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10 Comments on “Schauspielhaus Zürich, 2006–09”

  1. Love it. And any attentive subscriber of Bon Appetit has surely enjoyed how they've snuck it in — usually in small doses on top of rich imagery — over the past two years.

  2. Yes, this is great. So impressive how they manage to make it feel so fresh.

    I don't know, personally this doesn't feel «un-Swiss» to me at all. Swiss with a twist, perhaps, but I'd say it builds on the Swiss tradition/background as much as it subverts it, which really makes it extra strong.

  3. Those are great links, especially the one to Elefans!

    I've always wondered this about Gill Sans: What is with the lc "i" and "j"? Why would he make a bold font and not bold the dots along with the rest of the glyph?

    When it's normal weight and bold, the dot is proportionally larger, but when it gets to Extra Bold, the dot is smaller than it "should" be? When it's Ultra Bold, the dot is off to one side. And in Gill Light, the dot is rectangular instead of a circle.

    What could be the reason(s) behind this? And are there other fonts with a similarly idiosyncratic dot?

  4. Craig Eliason says:
    Feb 1st, 2011 5:11 pm

    It's impressive that this overcomes not only the absurdities of Gill Sans Ultra's design, but also its ubiquity in terrible comedy movie posters of the last few years.

  5. I love Gill designs for years, specially because he put the emphasis on contrast and "readability" for each glyph. Unity is still present but its not rational anymore. Don't try to compare Gill Sans with your traditional vision of typeface design with usual families. Its a human design. Its against machines and rationalism. Look carefully on his sculptures, drawings… you've got the answer together with his own life. This guy like contrasts, Gill Sans reflect this perfectly.

    (Its one of my model for Parisine, and its why my endings are different depending the weights.)

  6. Nice of you to stick up for Gill, JFP, but you have to admit that Parisine’s variation is much more minor and reasonable than the stress angle and x-height changes in Gill Sans.

  7. I have seen some samples of Kayo before and was always turned off by its goofiness, but seeing it now with this much copy I think I finally realize Gill's design decisions. Its actually quite smart or "outside-of-the-box" what he has done. Rather than a single system of interrelatedness he uses a few subsystems. Eg. a e g are one group. i j is another, c s is another and the rest of the lc characters are another. There are things related amongst the subsystems but they each have their own rules. Because of this, short words, 3 or 4 characters, look ridiculous. However, longer words or sentences look quite nice because the different subsystems repeat enough times that the disparity between styles no longer looks like visual noise but a more complex rhythm.

    Why would he do this? In order to make an extremely heavy typeface you have to consume white-space to maximize stroke weight, i.e. the large x-height and reduced counters. When you shrink the counters you have less space to make them distinctive enough to differentiate similarly structured characters. Likewise, the large x-height makes the addition of diacritical marks more difficult. It seems that rather than compromise the weight of the face and open the counters up and reduce the x-height, Gill decided to play with the structure of the letter-forms. He did this in a fashion that maintains even coloring of the letters and legibility.

    The scoop on the top of the i and j creates distinction from the stem of an n and creates space for the dot. The small off center dot fits nicely within the ascender height and creates a visual difference to further distinguish the character as an i. The size of the dot actually is similar to the counter of b,d, etc so it is not totally out of place. In the case of the e, the stress keeps it from looking like a c. By mimicing the stress in the a and the g the e doesn't seem totally out of place.

    While this may not be the only solution for a heavy, evenly colored, legible typeface the design choices are not as haphazard as they initially look.

  8. Yassin B. says:
    Feb 14th, 2011 12:38 pm

    It is a display type and as such I think it is a great catchy design. Obviously it was clear to Gill that this weight wouldn't be used along the regular weights and that he could take particular decisions.

    I think Zurich and switzerland in general, as a place of avant-garde graphic design, has overcome the "pure and rational" a long time ago. Of course the heritage is strong and maybe it's just not as "chaotic" (not a judgement) as some other places, therefore it might still look rational for many.

    A look at lineto gives you a vague idea of what has happened to swiss graphic design and typography the last 10/15 years.

  9. Benjamin says:
    Apr 7th, 2011 11:42 am

    Gert Dooreman from Belgium also uses this font alot. Unfortunately he is not very known outside Belgium.

  10. Never having liked the look of Gill Sans I never really delved down to the Kayo weight. Looking at it now, I could see using it in little interesting ways. Still can't stand Gill Sans, otherwise.

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