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Inside the fonts: Antenna and Antenna Serif Stylistic Sets

Cyrus Highsmith’s design took a little detour during its conception. Then it blossomed into a powerful pair of coordinated sans- and slab-serif families.

The core concept for Antenna began to germinate in the early aughts, as Cyrus Highsmith was experimenting with new sans-serif forms. By injecting squareness into his usual energetic curves, Highsmith managed to create lettershapes that were simultaneously calm and tense, energetic and balanced, with a deliberate rhythm that propelled words forward while keeping the text image grounded.

Intrigued by the results, he shared his sketches with Courtney Murphy, then art director for the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the US-based interest group dedicated to empowering Americans fifty and older. Murphy expressed interest in the concept’s potential; encouraged, Highsmith set out to create an integrated type system that would tie the design of AARP The Magazine to both AARP The Bulletin and the Spanish-language AARP Segunda Juventud, the nonprofit’s print magazines.

Comparison between Antenna and Antenna Serif, and Salvo Sans and Salvo Serif
While developing Antenna for the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) in collaboration with art director Courtney Murphy, Cyrus Highsmith took the project in a different direction and eventually ended up with Salvo, a rounder design with a more pronounced contrast.

During its development, though, the design branched off, organically evolving in a different direction. The project turned into Boomer Sans and Boomer Serif, a family with a rounder appearance that was eventually redubbed Salvo, also available as sans-serif and slab-serif companions. Detours like this occasionally happen when a design has to match a project or client’s specific requirements, and Highsmith felt perfectly fine about the change. So he shelved the concept for Antenna—but he didn’t forget it.

Examination of the relationship between the counters inside the letters and the spaces between the letters in Antenna.
In Antenna, the spaces inside the letters and the spaces between the letters reveal an interesting relationship.

Following a period working on Benton Sans, the reimagined superfamily of Morris Fuller Benton’s iconic News Gothic series, Highsmith decided to dig up his sketches for Antenna. After working on a reliable, all-purpose sans for so long, he hungered for something with lots of personality. As he developed his initial drawings further, Highsmith focused on creating a connection between shapes occurring both inside and outside of each glyph, placing a new emphasis on the repetition and variation of counterforms. Antenna ultimately became an expansive type family in four widths, each in seven weights with matching italics.

Antenna specimen
Antenna and Antenna Serif form a versatile duo of type families in four widths and seven weights, all with italic companions.

A few years later, Highsmith revisited the typeface, redrawing its squared-off curves as clear-cut slabs to create Antenna Serif, a welcome counterpart to the original sans family. Although Antenna and Antenna Serif were not necessarily designed to be used in tandem, the harmonized widths and weights ensure that they play well together and can be used to build comprehensive identity systems and editorial palettes. Both typefaces have enjoyed considerable success: Antenna has been adopted by the Ford Motor Company and the Star Wars franchise, among others; and Antenna Serif’s athletic forms have surfaced in Sports Illustrated. Both families also offer the four basic text styles—Regular, Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic—as Reading Edge (RE) fonts for improved onscreen rendering.

image description
Antenna and Antenna Serif’s four basic text styles are also available as Reading Edge (RE) fonts, optimized for reading on screens.

What people don’t always realize is that there’s more to Antenna and Antenna Serif than meets the eye. Highsmith added OpenType features to increase the typefaces’ usefulness and range. Aside from customary sets like various figure styles and all-caps punctuation, he also included fun stylistic alternates that diversify the fonts’ appearance and voice.

Demonstration of Antenna’s Stylistic Sets 1 and 2
Antenna’s Stylistic Sets SS1 (Single-storey “a”) and SS2 (Single-storey “g”) switch the a and g to their simplified forms.
Demonstration of Antenna’s Stylistic Sets 3 and 4
Stylistic Set SS3 (Straight “l”) straightens the outgoing curve on the l, and SS4 (Lowercase-style “u”) adds a spur to the u.

To guarantee maximum flexibility, Antenna’s stylistic alternates are each activated by their dedicated Stylistic Set. SS1 (Single-storey “a”) and SS2 (Single-storey “g”) switch the a and g to their single-storey versions, respectively, to simplify the text image; designers of elementary-school textbooks or children’s books, for example, might find this feature useful, since these forms are considered by some to be more legible than their double-storey cousins. SS3 (Straight “l”) straightens the outgoing curve on the l, and SS4 (Lowercase-style “u”) adds a spur to the u for a more conventional shape.

Demonstration of Antenna Serif’s Stylistic Sets 1 and 2
Because of its slab serif design, Antenna Serif has just two alternate lowercase letters: SS2 (Single-storey “g”) switches the g to its simplified form, and SS4 (Cap-style “u”) removes the u’s spur.

Because the slab serifs fundamentally influence the shapes of some lowercase characters, Antenna Serif offers only two stylistic alternates. SS2 (Single-storey “g”) swaps the double-storey form for its simpler equivalent, and SS4 (Cap-style “u”) does the opposite of what happens in Antenna: the u’s spur is removed instead of added.

Demonstration of Antenna’s Stylistic Set 5
SS5 (Biforms) changes some capitals to their lowercase forms for a unicase effect.

SS5 (Biforms) is rather unusual: it changes the capitals A, E, M, N, R, and U into their lowercase forms. This enables unicase setting, reminiscent of uncial writing in the Middle Ages. The Stylistic Set is called Biform because it combines both forms of the alphabet—uppercase and lowercase—at the same height. It emerged from conversations Highsmith had with David Berlow in the early 2000s, at a moment when unicase setting suddenly became popular in graphic design. You can find unicase alternates in typefaces like ITC Franklin, too.

Antenna and Antenna Serif form a confident, balanced, and energetic type system with a unique voice, fit for editorial design, branding, and identity systems. Rest easy—the typefaces will do the heavy lifting for you.

Like all Occupant Fonts releases, Antenna and Antenna Serif are available for print, web, applications, and ePub licensing. Webfonts may be tested free for thirty days. To stay current with Occupant Fonts, subscribe to Type Network News, our occasional email newsletter featuring font releases, foundry happenings, type and design events, and more.

Bald Condensed, né Yves Peters, is a Belgian-based rock drummer known for his astute observations on the impact of letterforms in the contemporary culture-sphere. A prolific writer on typography, he has a singular knack for identifying the most obscure typefaces known to humankind.