Adrian Frutiger


As one of the most recognized type designers, Adrian Frutiger (1928 — 2015) was the master of his craft. Born and raised in Switzerland, Frutiger first discovered the art of type when he began helping his father, who was a weaver. He showed an early interest in painting and sculpting, but was encouraged to put his talents to use in the lettering industry. In 1994, he began an intership at the firm of Otto Schaeflli in Interlaken while attending the Zurich School of Arts and Crafts.2

Frutiger's move to Paris in 1952 was his chance to explore his talents as a type designer. He began working at the Deberny & Peignot type foundry, where he produced three typefaces before beginning his work on Univers, which become his greatest font to be created. During this time, he pioneered the weight and stroke classification system that would become a common practice for type designers later on. Following his successes in Paris, Frutiger dedicated his life to typography. He continued to create fonts, but also made signage an area of his work. The Paris-Orly and Charles-de-Gualle airports bear two of Frutiger's fonts on their signs — Univers and Roissy (now Frutiger).

Frutiger's notable fonts include Univers, Frutiger, Avenir, Egyptienne, Apollo, OCR-B, Didot, Méridien and Serifa.



Originally named Le Monde, Univers was Frutiger’s first major breakthrough as a type designer. He began working on the font during his time at the Zurich School of Arts and Crafts and eventually developed it as a phototypesetting font while working at the Deberny & Peignot type foundry in Paris. Univers became a success due to its ability to remain unobtrusive to the viewer while being detailed at the same time. Frutiger not only made this sans-serif font in its basic form, but evolved it with a weight system, allowing it to have variety and still remain consistent throughout all variations. The creation of Univers led to many commissions for Frutiger, one of which was a modified version of the font that was to be used on the signage at the Paris-Orly airport in France.1 2


Frutiger’s second significant contribution was a self-titled font called Frutiger. The font was not an original piece, like Univers — instead, it was a modification of a font that was designed for the signage at Roissy Airport (now known as Charles-de-Gaulle Airport) in France. Based off of Concorde, another one of Frutiger’s early fonts, Roissy was made only for signage and never for print, which is why Frutiger was approached by the typographical director of the Mergenthaler Linotype Company to redesign it. This font gained popularity for its usage in corporate and transportation branding, due its ability to be read from various angles and distances. The Frutiger family was expanded to include Frutiger Next. sup>1 2 3


Avenir was Frutiger’s third font that gained extreme popularity. Compared to his Univers and Frutiger, Avenir was designed with a much thinner original stroke and weight. In his self-written book on his fonts, Frutiger describes Avenir as “… a geometric typeface that was easy on the human eye”.2 This font combines the forms of Futura and Gill Sans, yet still manages to be set apart from them due to its readability in long texts, both in print and digital forms. To demonstrate its usability in various mediums, the copy of the site is done with this font. As per Frutiger norm, Avenir has various weights and has been expanded to include Avenir Next.

Font Analysis: Univers

One of Frutiger’s famous, if not most famous, typefaces ever designed was Univers. It was his first font that truly gained popularity and success, and would later become used on the streets signs of London wherever you went and various transportation system signs. Univers marked the beginning of the triad of Frutiger fonts that would redefine sans-serif fonts as a whole, in addition to becoming the first font family to ever be classified by stroke and weight.

Univers is a sans-serif font designed with the idea of readability and clarity in mind. Designed in 1953 and first published in 1957, Univers was initially created for Charles Peignot’s Lumitype machine, but work on it had begun during Frutiger’s time at the Zurich School of Arts and Crafts.

Publicity material designed by Deberny & Peignot for the promotion of Univers.

Frutiger, Adrian, et al. Adrian Frutiger – Typefaces : The Complete Works. Vol. English ed, Birkhäuser, 2009. EBSCOhost,

Only sketches back then, Frutiger’s meetings with Emil Ruder, typography teacher at the Allegmeine Gewerbeschule in Basel, helped him make corrections to the designs and create what he called a “regular weight”. Frutiger had experimented with different stroke sizes and weights to see how consistent his font would look despite the changes, which later became a classification system that he created to categorize each variation.2

Like many of his other fonts, Univers was no exception to Frutiger’s desire to design fonts that could be universal for all surfaces and mediums. Constructed on a horizontal axis, Univers contains more stroke modulation than Helvetica, to which it has been compared. Univers has a smaller x-height than Helvetica and the base is set a little wider. Two identifying features of Univers are the letter “a”, which has a straight back, no baseline curl and a perpendicular connection at the top of the bowl, and the letter “k”, with its diagonal strokes meeting at the stem.6

Frutiger’s Univers became the first font to be classified by its stroke and weight. Initially, Frutiger had created other variations of Univers but wanted to find the “medium” as he called it, or the regular version. This was named Univers 55, the first “5” meaning normal and the second “5” meaning roman. The first digit indicated the stroke width: 3/thin, 4/light, 5/normal, 6/bold, 7/black, 9/extra black; and the second digit indicated the width of the character: .3/extended, .5/roman, .6/italic, .7/condensed, .8/condensed italic, .9/ultra condensed.4

Frutiger's classification chart for Univers.
Frutiger, Adrian, et al. Adrian Frutiger – Typefaces : The Complete Works. Vol. English ed, Birkhäuser, 2009. EBSCOhost,

Composition Analysis: Roissy

Frutiger not only designed fonts, but took on projects related to signage. It was during his first signage project that he came to develop a modified version of Univers, which would be used at the Paris-Orly airport, yet didn’t feel that it was his best work. In 1970, he was approached by Paul Andreu, the architect of the Charles-de-Gaulle airport, and asked to create the signage.2 This project of his produced the font Roissy, which combined with the design of Concorde, would become the second member of the Frutiger triad of fonts – Frutiger.

Roissy is a sans-serif font that was designed with the idea of instant recognition and lack of artistic detail, resulting in clarity. Based of off Concorde, Frutiger placed emphasis not only on the letters, but on the numerals as well, which needed to be clear and easily readable by viewers. The typeface was meant for interior signage and the size of the letters would be dependent on the reading distance (ex. For a distance of 20 metres, the letter height would be 10 centimetres). Eventually, it was adopted for exterior road signage as well, but upon later analysis, Frutiger realized that the letter spacing was appropriate in an interior context and was not optimal for an exterior context.2

While designing the signage, the contrast of colour and the visibility of the characters compared to the surrounding area was an important element that Frutiger had to keep in mind. In his book, he writes:

“The signage in the airport had to be bilingual and was supposed to be differentiated by colour. For this, we had a colour expert on the team who told us right from the start that the contrast must not be too strong. He then mixed a dark yellow, positioned a black and a white letter one above the other on this background and showed us that the contrast was the same in both instances. The idea was good: illuminated from within, the French text should be set in black against the dark yellow background and below it, in white, the English text”.2

Airport signage in Roissy (top), present-day signage in Frutiger (bottom).
Frutiger, Adrian, et al. Adrian Frutiger – Typefaces : The Complete Works. Vol. English ed, Birkhäuser, 2009. EBSCOhost,

Frutiger’s decision to design Roissy for the signage was a surprise amongst type experts. Due to Univers’s popularity and functionality, it was believed that it would also be implemented in the signage, but Frutiger felt that Univers was a good typeface for reading and not for signage.

Typographic Contributions

Frutiger’s method of designing and creating fonts was strongly connected to his understanding of how a person reads and views text. His work on each individual character was extensive to ensure that as a whole, the font was made to perfection. Frutiger’s famous words, “From all these experiences the most important thing I have learned is that legibility and beauty stand close together and that type design, in its restraint, should be only felt but not perceived by the reader”4 show that he considers more than one perspective when it comes to font design.

Due to his attention to detail and willingness to create fonts with a purpose, Frutiger has offered a new method to type design that is used by font designers today — using mathematical logic. This logic is illustrated in the following:

“A purely geometrical letter-form is not tenable in the long term. The eye sees horizontal strokes as thicker than vertical ones and the perfect circle of the O appears mis-shapen. Built up from a geometrical basis, the lines must play freely, so that the individual characters find their own expression and join together in in a cohesive structure in world, line and page”.5

Using this method, font designers are able to understand the way that strokes work when it comes to individual characters and find a way to combat any issues that may arise as a result of stroke differences.

Photo by Henk Gianotten.

Frutiger also piloted what would later become the norm for fonts — classification by weight. This was first seen with his Univers font, which was expanded to include different weights for the regular, oblique and italic letterforms. His system is unique to the Univers typeface, due to the personalized method of numbering. Nowadays, we use different systems of classification, such as the 100 to 900 series in CSS typography, but the general principle is the same.


Frutiger is considered by many to be the typographer responsible for the leap from phototypesetting and metal type into digital typography in the twentieth century, in addition to redefining what sans-serif fonts were meant to be like. The creation of Univers, Frutiger and Avenir became the pillars amongst which various other sans-serif fonts would be based off of, and would eventually lead to being both redesigned and expanded by Frutiger as their usage became more common.

Frutiger was able to understand what many could not: digital typography is much different than traditional metal type. He was able to understand the technical problems that came along with transitioning from one surface to another and create fonts that, as a solution, would be adaptable to the change. He also kept in mind the fact that as fancy and detailed as fonts can be, in the long run, they may not be suitable in long texts and could cause more distractions to the viewer than originally intended, which is why he made fonts with the purpose of readability in all forms. The fact that he looked past the aesthetic look of sans-serif fonts and focused on how we as viewers would see these characters is what makes him such an important figure in typography.

Sources & References

1 Carter, Sebastian. Twentieth Century Type Designers. Norton, New York, 1995, pp. 162-169.

2 Frutiger, Adrian, et al. Adrian Frutiger - Typefaces: The Complete Works. London, Basel, 2009, 2014, 2012.

3 Dawson, Peter. The Essential Type Directory: A Sourcebook of Over 1,800 Typefaces and Their Histories. Tobias Frere-Jones, Running Press, 2019.

4 Heury & Heury. “The Adrian Frutiger Legacy.” Medium, Medium, 1 Nov. 2015,

5 Frutiger, Adrian. Type, Sign, Symbol. ABC Edition, Zurich, 1980.

6 Christensen, Thomas. “Typeface: Univers.” Right Reading, Right Reading,

Schwemer-Scheddin, Yvonne. “Eye Magazine.” Reputations: Adrian Frutiger, Eye Magazine, 1999,

Adrian Frutiger.
Comparison between Univers (left) and Helvetica (right).
Roissy signage in the Charles-de-Gualle airport (1972).