Meet Exchange, a New Typeface from Frere-Jones Type

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With the debut of its new typeface Exchange, Frere-Jones Type has continued the streak of releasing one font per year since 2015. But unlike Mallory and Retina which were two sans serif fonts, Exchange is a serif.

exchange typeface

Although a different style, Exchange has one thing in common with Frere-Jones Type’s other fonts: it was developed for years before coming to market, or decades when you consider Retina with its origins dating to the 1990s.

Exchange originated as a typeface for the Wall Street Journal, with the earliest versions dating from 2002 according to Tobias Frere-Jones, “though it wasn’t deployed in the paper until 2005.” Originally a new text face for the paper, now you can get your hands on Exchange too. And the best part? It solves problems you may be facing in print or digital design, or if you work across media, it’s a double threat.

Revisiting & Expanding

Before its release in 2017, the Exchange typeface was a commission from the Wall Street Journal, and intended as its new text face. Compactness was important, according to Frere-Jones, “to preserve copyfit on a shrinking page width.” But at that time, the paper “didn’t need the whole range of what Exchange could do,” says Frere-Jones. “It’s a common situation, and I had always planned to revisit and expand it for the retail market, to help it find broader use.”

And did he expand it. Exchange now has 18 fonts, 10 standard styles and 8 MicroPlus styles.

Exchange MicroPlus is ideal for small text in print or on screen, with letterform shapes designed for those specific needs. Those familiar with Retina MicroPlus might expect to see Exchange MicroPlus incorporating similar “deep-cut notches.”

But while they have similar uses, they have different appearances. “Though it’s a kind of sibling of Retina, Exchange was first conceived for a larger target size, so it didn’t need such large notches (or so many of them). Those big notches are so pervasive in Retina, that it seemed a shame to remove them.” While Retina began with the MicroPlus version, Mallory and Exchange began with the Standard, and were redesigned for the MicroPlus.

The Influence of Time & Place

As a type designer and type historian, Tobias Frere-Jones calls on his knowledge of past typefaces, type styles, and type technology with every project. And he did so with the Exchange typeface. “Exchange’s idea was to ‘decompile’ the works of the past, to isolate the decisions that led up to each final product. I could then take lessons from any time and place, and combine them to inform a new design.” Exchange is a marriage of the nineteenth century Ionic serif (“an early form of slab serif” according to Frere-Jones) and Bell Gothic.

“The Ionic serif was a powerful tool for binding letters together into words. And the lowercase arches of Bell Gothic were a terrific defense against ink spread.” The Bell Gothic typeface was intended for printed telephone books, so it had to work well at small sizes and also be legible on the flimsy phone book paper it was printed on. Designed by C.H. Griffith for AT&T, the typeface was later replaced by Matthew Carter’s Bell Centennial typeface.

Bell Gothic appears large because of its high x-height, and its open gaps help ensure that letters such as the lowercase e and c wouldn’t close up when printed at small sizes and on unforgiving paper. Technically, Frere-Jones suggests that Bell Gothic’s attributes were valuable to reference because it “was made for printing phone books at high speed on thin paper, so its strategies have a natural sympathy with newspapers.”

“I used the Ionic serif as a device to preserve the overall word shape, and the hierarchy of internal and external spaces. The deep Bell Gothic arch became a way to reinforce identity. Though it wasn’t planned at the start, these two strategies divided pretty cleanly between the interior and exterior of each shape.”

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When he began Exchange, Frere-Jones was faced with the challenge of designing a typeface for a newspaper, ensuring that it worked well at small sizes. That kind of application is still needed today, making Exchange as relevant now as it was in 2005 when Exchange was first used in the Wall Street Journal.

Frere-Jones stresses how important it is to look back, and “to learn from past designers and their work.” But it can be easy (and a mistake) to overlook the value of that work because of “the taste or technology of that particular time.”

When it comes to non-print uses, the Exchange typeface could work for digital screens, be it smartphones or tablets, or even small type on a smartwatch. “There’s a fortuitous (though not so intuitive) link between newspapers and screens, so research and strategy can be comfortably transposed from one to the other.” Small wearables—or small digital screens such as e-readers—would be a perfect place to use Exchange MicroPlus.

Creating Solutions

Fine-tuned for print and digital use, Exchange can be a workhorse across media, a smart addition to a designer’s font repertoire. But the process of digging through one’s very very long font menu can be frustrating, making the average designer wonder, How many more typefaces do we need? Frere-Jones has two responses. “The first is cultural: typefaces are expressions of time and place, like songs and stories. So we need more typefaces for the same reason we need new stories and songs. Or put another way, why do I have all this stuff in my music library?”

And then there’s the application, the use, which Frere-Jones calls the mechanical aspect, “…apart from being cultural artifacts, typefaces are (or can be) solutions to problems, and we keep having new problems.” Whether those new problems are found in print or digital media, or something else entirely, you can bet that Frere-Jones Type will continue to produce one solution after another.

Nina Stössinger oversaw Exchange’s current revisit & overhaul, with help from Fred Shallcrass, Tim Ripper and Graham Bradley. Sara Soskolne, Ksenya Samarskaya, Erin McLaughlin, Aoife Mooney and Colin Ford assisted in the earlier version of the Exchange family.

Online Course | Typography 101: Letterform Design