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Cyrillic on Google Fonts: Humanist Sans

This is the new series of articles on Cyrillic typefaces available through Google Fonts. We want to give our professional advice and help designers navigate Cyrillic. Episode one, humanist sans serifs (spoiler alert: not too many good ones.)

June 25, 2020

Experts

misha

yura

ilya

Disclaimer

Today, a free font doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad. Sadly, browsing Cyrillic fonts is still like walking in a minefield; but there is also some good news. Our critique and our advice do not have a monopoly on the truth — that’s just an expert review by three professionals sharing the same values. Plus, you always have to remember that there is no such thing as forbidden means and tools in design. Any bug can be turned into a feature in the hands of a daring, confident typographer, — only before taking risks, you should figure out what this bug actually is.

What is a humanist sans serif?

In short, humanist sans serifs are sans serif typefaces that somehow inherit, in one way or another, dynamics and letterforms of the broad nib.

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Open Sans

Steve Matteson

As the name suggests, it’s an open-aperture sans serif. Of an obvious humanist nature, however smooth: vertical contrast axes, squarish ovals and arcs. This way its closed-counter glyphs can let more air in, which balances them against open-counter glyphs. There was no kerning, and it affects designs of certain glyphs. For example, take an uppercase J that has descended below the font baseline.

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Hands-on High-quality contours. Due to the open aperture and large uppercase letters, the font is highly legible in small sizes. Note the lavish vertical and horizontal proportions — it is not some compact typeface for limited spaces.

Styles Humanist nature of the font is manifested in its italic style, too. It is relatively independent of its roman version, yet certain glyphs are replicating the upright forms — such as thus two-story g. We can find this letterform in Renaissance typefaces, so in this sense, the humanist character of the font is rather consistent.

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There is a narrow version, Open Sans Condensed. Lengths of ascenders, descenders, and other vertical metrics remain unchanged with respect to regular face. It works well if you need to combine the two faces — yet you probably won’t be able to arrange a tight leading, natural for a condensed typeface.

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Cyrillic Borrows from Latin in terms of its dynamic personality — sometimes, excessively. See the letterforms and the open aperture.

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For example, the stroke dynamics of Лл and Дд **looks redundant, especially in the lighter styles. Besides that, **Дд has an unfortunate balance of its upper part and its baseline — the latter has too long descending strokes. In bold faces, Ии is most clearly marked by unwanted reverse contrast — and the head of Я lacks volume, significantly.

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The tail of У is placed too far to its left, and the one of б — to the right (in addition to being too long here). Cyrillic breve has proper contrast, but it’s too wide. In Чч, the horizontal stroke hikes up too high at the junction point, wrongly imitating dynamics of Latin-version arcs.

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Likewise, problems of the italic design arise depending on the style: as ж gains weight, it also gains balance — while ы, au contraire, gets too wide and lacks volume in its oval (same problem with upright glyphs). ц and щ in every italic style have uncomfortably short shoulders.

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Open Sans Condensed has inherited all the above problems — all while having even worse traits, such as the length of descenders in its д.

Our advice

Open Sans can be used when there is no need to save space. But you better avoid using its Cyrillic, — especially in the bolder weights.

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PT Sans

Alexandra Korolkova, Olga Umpeleva, Vladimir Yefimov

Makes part of the open PT Fonts family, which supports more than 70 languages using Cyrillic. PT Sans has all the distinctive features of a humanist sans serif, such as a significant calligraphic influence or dynamic ovals. That said, this is one fairy neutral and versatile font.

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Hands-on High technical quality, and good legibility in small sizes. The font was originally adapted for low-resolution devices — which is helped by quite large lowercase and open aperture, as well as by very decent hinting. And there are inktraps — would work just fine in small sizes, but may seem unnecessary in headlines.

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Styles The font boasts the true italic — meaning an italic style independent of roman faces in terms of glyph design, yet related to it in its character and constitution.

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PT Sans Narrow and PT Sans Caption subfamilies consist only of upright faces. The first is made for dense typesetting and the latter meant for use in small sizes. Caption styles have higher and wider lowercase characters and larger inktraps, which does indeed improve legibility in small sizes and poor-quality prints.

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Cyrillic Reasonable in quality, accurate in nature. However, Cyrillic italics is marked by too narrow rounded glyphs, which somehow break the rhythm, — the roman is better balanced. Insecure hybrid form of Фф. Upper stroke in б is fractured too badly in the roman styles.

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Our advice

The typeface is well suited for long texts. Concise and compact, short ascenders and descenders are inducing tight leading. But keep in mind that PT Sans appears fairly light in typesetting — and shall be balanced by enough white space, both around and between the lines.

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Fira Sans

Erik Spiekermann, Ralph du Carrois

Developed for Mozilla Firefox OS. The design was built upon one of Erik Spiekermann’s best sellers, FF Meta, — but Fira, which is made to fit screens and small point sizes, is wider, bolder, with taller lowercase and stricter details. It is also to Meta that Fira owes its neutral character, — which is not so much about the design, but rather a result of almost three decades of active use.

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Hands-on Appropriate in quality, yet questionable from the technical point of view. Among other things, the kerning is controversial — for instance, take a look at this rge combination in the classic test word, Hamburgefonts. It looks too black, lacking air.

Styles Fira is equipped with true italics — and they also resemble italics in Meta.

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There are two additional families, identical to the roman style in terms of designs and style sets: Fira Sans Condensed and Extra Condensed.

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Cyrillic While working on Cyrillic, Fira Sans’ authors seemingly drew inspiration from Meta as well; Fira is very questionable in practically any glyph (and some of these questions are quite serious)

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Upper stroke in the uppercase Б is too short. Lowercase б has the same problem; besides, the stroke is awkwardly fractured, and its terminal lacks weight. Лл limps on its left leg — and the leg is troubled both in terms of its form and its size. Similar issues with Дд: its left stroke unfortunately pierces the baseline by its contrasting spot. Too thick (up to the point where it makes you think of reverse contrast) diagonal in Ии is the reason this glyph looks too black.

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The rationale behind diverse stroke dynamics in uppercase and lowercase Чч is unclear: none of them look good. Loose, wide, clumsy ф. The breve over Йй proceeds with reverse contrast’s theme — a solution copied from Meta, where you’d find the reverse contrast in Latin as well.

Our advice

When choosing a font, don’t forget that Fira Sans is very similar to FF Meta. It is not good or bad in itself — it’s just that Meta has been widely used for thirty years now. And stay away from Cyrillic, please, — sad to say, it is a true failure.

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Ubuntu

Dalton Maag

The default font for Ubuntu OS, it is a humanist sans serif, classified as one from the so-called spurless сategory (referring to the distinctive arc—vertical joints in letters such as m and n).

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Design is far from being very original: as has been repeatedly pointed out after Ubuntu release in 2010, it is quite similar to DTL Prokyon — the font released 10 years earlier. The arched letterforms are not a new idea, they date back to the art deco age — but the resemblance of Prokyon and Ubuntu is indeed remarkable.

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Hands-on Ubuntu has some quality curves and kerning; both tabular and proportional figures, sets of fractions, super and subscripts, as well as sufficient amount of ligatures, punctuation marks and currency signs.

Styles Italic is independent of roman — which is what you’d expect with humanist sans serifs. In some places we can see how legibility concerns prevailed over broader graphic ideas — a and u were eventually given spurs at the bottom.

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Ubuntu Condensed, the only condensed style in font, became a separate typeface. It has kept the letterforms and vertical proportions — but letter spacing was increased for the sake of keeping typeset lighter.

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Cyrillic Ubuntu Cyrillic doesn’t have many arcs, that is why spurless graphics (typical for Latin) is only present in Cyrillic р and а. Other than that, the spirit of the Latin is reflected rather well; authors managed to avoid many common mistakes of cyrillization.

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Лл’s left stroke looks too sweeping, especially in heavier styles. Lowercase я’s head looks a bit small, while its leg is placed too far. The tail of У has also flown far-far aways — and this detail doesn’t quite match anything in Ubuntu Latin. In lighter styles, the problems with я are getting worse; plus it’s evident that the shoulders in д, ц, щ, д, ц, щ are somehow short. As the font gains in density, the under-compensation in diagonals of its Мм becomes obvious, and we see signs of reverse contrast.

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There are problems in Ukrainian typesetting: the authors haven’t looked into typical combinations of ії and її. The problem would have been solved by modifying the accents.

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Our advice

Be careful while choosing styles: each has its own set of problems when it comes to Cyrillic (even though such problems are slightly offset by the distinctive personality of Ubuntu).

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Source Sans Pro

Paul D. Hunt

Developed and released by Adobe. Author drew inspiration in the typefaces by Morris Fuller Benton (Franklin Gothic, News Gothic), — which explains its very pronounced American style.

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Hands-on Defined by open apertures (typical in humanist sans serifs), Source San Pro is also characterized by its rather tranquil stroke dynamics. It is a neutral typeface of concise and simple graphics. The simplicity, height, and openness of lowercase letters are good for the font’s legibility. Compact in proportions, it is yet pretty light in typesetting: not leaning towards tight leading — but efficient in small spaces.

In small sizes, the legibility is ensured through subtle inktraps at the joints.

Styles Source Sans is fitted with true italics. Due to its simple letterforms, it looks even more concise than the roman.

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Cyrillic Cyrillic is only available in roman styles. An attempt to convey the humanist nature of the font (for example, look at its к, б, ф) resulted in a very different (and much less concise) feel of the Cyrillic.

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The problems arise in usual places — too much slope in the left strokes of Лл and Дд (yet the strokes are different in upper and lower cases!). Besides, Дд is highly insecure of its baseline positioning and has unduly long legs — this letter fails in pretty much everything. The form of Кк (old-fashioned, lacks the simplicity that defines Latin version) explains this too branchy Жж letter. Ыы look excessively wide for such a compact font.

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There is not enough volume in the upper part of Ч, while the top horizontal stroke in Ъъ is too long. Яя’s legs are placed aside in an inappropriately bold move — as compared to latin R, which is much more decent in doing the same thing. Cyrillic breve looks too big and contrasting, — even though in general large accents are intrinsic to this font.

Our advice

Source Sans Pro would be the right choice if you have to save space, but it’s super light — so you have to be careful with small line spacings. And it might be best to avoid using Cyrillic at all.

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Noto Sans

Google

About With this project, Google tried to solve the font deficiency in certain scripts and languages; the ultimate target is to fully cover all of Unicode, — with all the glyphs coexisting in mutual harmony. Noto is a quiet humanist sans serif with open square-shaped forms — which makes it light at the expense of increased inner white, but also adds certain strictness and technicality.

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Hands-on The font is marked by rather wide signs and considerable x-height — which has a positive impact on its legibility in small sizes. With Noto, Google Fonts is offering rather limited typographic capabilities — minimum punctuation marks, currency signs and math symbols, one set of usual tabular figures with the most basic fractions.

Styles Proper italics — true, with more pronounced stroke dynamics in ovals, and a general humanist spirit, — works great for highlighting parts of text.

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Cyrillic We can easily identify a set of typical mistakes in Cyrillic — both in terms of character and dynamics, execution and details.

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Sweeping diagonal in Дд: its dynamics exceeds the limits set by Latin. Plus, excessively long legs — the same with Цц and Щщ glyphs. Overly compensated oval in б, too small and too crooked, — and an upper stroke that is even longer and more crooked. Wide lowercase of в and ы; the latter also lacks volume in the bowl, just like ь and ъ. The curve of ч joins the stem at too sharp an angle.

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The tail of У is placed too far to its left; л is marked by fairly weird contrast relationship of its strokes; the relative positioning in Ул raises concerns in terms of kerning. Ии has an unduly thick diagonal: in fact, this whole letter is too wide, especially in bolder styles. In Я, we the elements have poorly assigned roles: the bowl lacks volume, while the leg, on the other hand (pun unintended! — translator’s note), is too active in putting itself aside. As the font gains in weight, the issues with Ыы are only getting worse.

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Our advice

The practical Noto Sans might be useful in multilingual situations, but you’d better consider alternatives for Cyrillic — here, the very same mistakes reoccur in all styles.

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Exo 2

Natanael Gama

Evolution of Exo font. It has been redrawn; glyph set and language support have been expanded. The author classifies it as geometric — and yet it is more of a humanist sans serif, that was given a futuristic feeling through the geometrization of letterforms.

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Hands-on The font has open glyphs, — that, coupled with square-shaped form (increased counter) helps enhance legibility in small sizes. Some glyphs reveal humanist stroke dynamics (i.e., bowls in b or q), but there is no such vibe in o or s — as if they were characters from some other typeface. The font has one set of proportional figures, several ready-made fractions with full self-assembly kits of numerators and denominators, basic ligatures, and key currency signs.

Styles A true italic face — with designs independent of roman styles and distinctive bowl shapes, — stresses the humanist nature of Exo 2 and ensures nice contrast in typesetting.

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Cyrillic The Cyrillic version of Exo 2 differs from Latin part in terms of personality, bringing in even more eclecticism, — it is way more soft and far less ‘technological’.

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An attempt to convey the futurist feel using rounded angles in Гг, Лл или Дд produced the opposite effect: the glyphs look too decorative, or even retro-futurist. Besides, Лл and Дд have broken left strokes and poorly distributed contrast — while descenders in Дд, Цц and Щщ are too thin. Яя’s leg placed too far.

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A branchy Кк and a wide Жж, even branchier: it’s a very common design for a poor sans serif cyrillization. Upper terminal in б is light-weight, and crooked. Another typical mistake is to transfer the arc dynamics of n and m into Чч: here it results in a sharp angle — and a very high-placed joint.

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Our advice

Exo 2 is optimized for small sizes. However, this Cyrillic fails to reflect the character of the font; not to mention how badly it was designed — with mistakes so grave, that it is hardly worth any recommending for use.

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Alegreya Sans

Juan Pablo del Peral

About Alegreya Sans is a font with calligraphic elements. The strokes vary in thickness; ovals and arcs manifest angled joints (common trait in handwritten forms). Letterforms are built upon old-style serifs which trace their ancestry back to Renaissance handwriting.

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Hands-on A fairly light typeface with a small x-height. Alegreya Sans has its own distinctive personality, and is rich in details — therefore ill-suited for typesetting in small sizes. The font uses old-style proportional figures, has a number of ready-made fractions and superscripts, separate sets of numerators and denominators, basic punctuation, and minimum currency symbols.

Styles Very sharp italics, clearly inspired by Renaissance scripts, too, specific triangle shape of bowls and arcs, — very different from the roman face in its design and narrowed proportions.

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Small caps were made into a separate font called Alegreya Sans SC.

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Cyrillic The character of Latin was well transferred into Cyrillic. The authors managed to avoid a lot of typical mistakes; yet there are still certain problems with the letterforms.

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Лл and Дд are too narrow, with poor contrast distribution. Besides, Дд feels rather unstable on its platform — it is skewed to the right. Upper stroke in б is both too long and too fractured.

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Sadly, in addition to the design flaws, there are also technical issues. For example, the interpolation sometimes result in a misshapen contour.

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The Italic uppercase of л has suddenly become triangular. The tail of б seems extended and overly active; too much angularity in в glyph; letter ы is unnecessarily wide. Regular slanted characters serve as italics in к and ж — pretty unexpected for a font with such a pronounced italic.

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Cyrillic small caps. Latin Y acts as У — which is wrongly derived from the identical design in lower case.

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Our advice

Alegreya Sans works well in large, and medium sizes. Yet, its Cyrillic should be approached with great caution (because of technical errors, at the very least); and Cyrillic small caps shall not be used under any circumstances.

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Arsenal

Andrij Shevchenko

Arsenal has high contrast, attaching a somewhat classical vibe to this font’s personality (such typefaces, somewhat intermediary between serif and sans serif, are usually called contrast sans serifs). In 2011, the typeface won the Mystetsky Arsenal Design Competition in Kyiv.

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Hands-on Arsenal is a compact sans serif with open apertures and narrowed proportions. The font’s humanist nature, as well as its bowl dynamics are quietened; the contrast remains its brightest feature. It’s rather light, yet concise: sometimes you get the feeling of insufficient letter spaces, as compared to the inner white, — which encourages to use Arsenal rather for headlines, than in sizeable texts. The font includes usual proportional figures, a large amount of ready-made fractions, math signs, a limited set of currency symbols.

True, rather quiet italics — with a small slant. Sometimes it might seem not sufficiently visible for highlighting a piece of text. Plus it appears very wide, as compared to roman, and is in fact less effective in typesetting when it comes to saving space.

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Cyrillic Arsenal is equipped with solid, high-quality Cyrillic: it has natural looks and matches Latin in terms of character. There are also Bulgarian glyph variants.

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A closer look reveals seemingly narrow Ч — and, in contrast, way too wide Ю with insufficiently compensated bowl. Лл has a very dynamic leg, with a terminal asking for additional weight. The serifless terminals are often quite problematic in contrast sans serifs.

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Our advice

It would be more appropriate to deploy Arsenal for headlines and in display typesetting. And this Cyrillic is indeed very decent.

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Andika

SIL (former Summer Institute of Linguistics): Victor Gaultney, Annie Olsen

Andika is a dark, wide font in just one style — a mix of regular and italic forms of an obvious humanist, handwritten nature. Designed especially for novice readers: it is believed that one-part italic letterforms are easier to perceive — and they are derived from handwriting, which is also quite handy for literacy training.

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The handwritten frame is supported by stroke modulation and curved, outstanding spurs — those elements provide letters with particular features, thus making them more distinctive. They also define the reading impression: informal, in certain contexts the font might even sound childish.

Hands-on Andika has quality curves, large glyph set, and zero kerning.

Cyrillic It is hard to tell how Cyrillic is different from Latin in terms of literacy training — but, stylistically and in terms of quality, they are beyond comparison. Cyrillic is way behind.

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Лл: despite all the overall dynamics, this left stroke is obviously little too much — it has flown away. Very wide Ии with reverse contrast. Also, there is a problem of widths in ы and з. Old-fashioned, clumsy Яя and Кк. The crooked tail of б, it doesn’t look particularly good.

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Reverse contrast in Мм diagonals. Unduly extended descenders in Дд, Цц, Щщ and other characters.

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For whatever reason, Cyrillic and Latin y differ in designs; that said, the logic is inverse to what we see in к: the Cyrillic у is more concise.

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Our advice

Decent latin — but you don’t want to use this Cyrillic, especially for literacy training purposes. Eventually, those children will learn how to read — but they also risk spoiling their taste.

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Istok Web

Andrey V. Panov

A serene humanist sans serif with neat structures, large and open-aperture lowercase, compact ascenders and descenders. Those are the features that normally ensure high legibility, multi-purposeness, and great potential for use.

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Hands-on Upon closer inspection, the typeface reveals its technical flaws: dull, irregular contours; inconsistency in terms of contrast and stroke widths (like, they differ in the two arcs of m).

Styles Those issues get even more visible in italics (a true one, with highly pronounced dynamics, especially in counters). Weight compensation is also somewhat questionable: in italics styles, certain signs are getting too thin and they are not always compensated. Other than that, we have an obvious problem of spacing: some glyphs are stuck together (ge) — while others get holes between them (bu).

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Cyrillic Not without its oddities, either. The forms chosen make it look old-fashioned; it is also different from Latin in its spirit.

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Contrasting, very branchy б; з is falling to its left and has excessively dark joints, — so does this в. Left strokes of Лл appear bent inwards. Ии is very wide, reverse contrast. Same with Ыы. That breve over й is huge. Distorted, broken arc in ч.

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Diagonals of Мм and Уу show reverse contrast. The bar of ъ, too long. And again, more trouble with letter spaces. ъ and я are too far from each other in the example below.

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Our advice

Pick a different font! Istok Web is a font of downright poor quality, both in terms of design and from the technical point of view.

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Yanone Kaffeesatz

Yanone

Kaffeesatz is a predecessor of FF Kava; the bold style was created under the impression of 1920s coffee house typography. However, the typeface doesn’t look out-of-date or historical. A vivid condensed sans serif with spurless arc structures, it is absolutely capable of finding a place for itself (even today).

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Hands-on Rigid articulated rhythm, defined by verticals, is well-contrasted with soft terminals and decent bowl dynamics.

Styles Kaffeesatz has four weights, uses only old-style numerals, is equipped with several fractions, minimum of currency signs and ligatures. Well, it covers all the basic typographic needs.

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Cyrillic The alphabet (also features Bulgarian and Serbian alternates) looks pretty natural; a nice choice of letterforms. Here, it even seems all right to have this Кк with those soft branches — works well within the context of narrow proportions and regular vertical rhythm.

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Not all signs are graphically perfect. For example, you’d want to add volume to the bowl in Я, or might reckon that Д shall take a firmer stand on its platform… Anyway, the strong personality of this font makes up for its flaws and weaknesses.

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Our advice

Yanone Kaffeesatz is a vibrant, high-quality font, best used as intended — that is, for display typography.

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M Plus 1p

Coji Morishita

Combination of multiple scripts within one ambitious project. M+ Fonts brings together Japanese Kana, Latin and Cyrillic; the author describes the design of two latter scripts as “sophisticated” and “relaxed” at the same time.

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Hands-on Neutral and quiet humanist sans serif with large lowercases and open, easily readable glyphs. The typeface looks light and spacious, — yet despite being all-purpose, it won’t work in dense typesetting and tight leadings.

Styles Google Fonts also distributes an additional family called M Plus 1p Rounded (with rounded terminals), more concise as compared to the main version.

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Fitted with seven weights, ranging from Thin to Black. Each style has a set of usual tabular figures, as well as minimum fractions, ligatures and currency symbols.

Cyrillic Cannot be described as high-quality or stylistically relevant to Latin, it has more rigid and geometrical looks. Unnatural б is standing out due to its upper stroke, bent at a straight angle. У has been complemented by a crooked terminal, narrow in the end — and flown away to its left (latin y has different design). The narrow ф might have worked way better, if it had a simpler form.

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З is falling to the right (with lowercase з being excessively wide); the bowl in я is of weird proportions — wide, but vertically condensed. There are problems with left strokes in л and д: both are drastically fractured at the bottom — while the characters themselves are way too wide. As for kerning, it leaves much to be desired — just look at this hole in уд.

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Uppercase Д, au contraire, is narrow. Broken-shaped arc in Ч has gotten too low. And Я, once again, lacks volume in the upper part.

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Our advice

A smart font for flexible typesetting — and for the joint use of Japanese and Latin — not Cyrillic script, though. In M Plus 1p, it is of poor quality.

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Ruda

Mariela Monsalve, Angelina Sanchez

This typeface was originally developed for the use on product labels — probably, this can explain its set of properties, openness and large lowercase signs, they all work for legibility. The glyphs have humanist forms, but the contrast isn’t fully consistent with the logic of the tool: it’s built and formed around the square inner white in arcs and bowls.

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Hands-on A light typeface with narrowed metrics and large letter spaces. The glyphs are fairly narrow — with bowls in lowercase looking particularly narrow (especially true for o). Very tall lowercase letters — hardly different from uppercase glyphs.

Styles Six upright styles, from Normal to Black, plus a variable font with weight axis. As the font gains in weight, the inner white remains spacious, while the letter spacing decreases, — in black styles, the balance of inner and outer white is nothing like that in medium styles.

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Cyrillic Cyrillic version is generally relevant to Latin, both structurally and in terms of character; yet there are some problems in details and execution — thus it cannot be described as high-quality.

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As it is the case with Latin, we see oddities in proportions: several round glyphs look narrow against those built on verticals (но). An unfortunate б, the tail is clearly too short; the bowl form appears somewhat illogical next to р, where the bowl is stiffly linked to the vertical. Ascending diagonals in к, и, у are very heavy, creating unwanted reverse contrast.

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Same issue with diagonals can be seen in м. Too wide ы, with its thin right stroke bent (for some reason). Failed л and д: both characters have too thick, broken at the foot, left strokes. Д also has a problem with its platform, short descenders do not match the same elements in ц and щ, neither in form nor in size and shoulder width (too short, in case of the latter two). Add clear problems with letter spacing (a hole in цы, for instance)

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Б — upper stroke is too short. Reverse contrast in the breve over Йй. Trouble with Д, Щ and И are the same as in lowercase. Letter spaces in the whole word look very random.

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Yet another mistake in Ы — very thin stroke on the right. Л inherited the flaws of its lowercase. Wide Ж with thick ascending diagonals — similar issues with those also manifested in И, М and А.

Our advice

Ruda is a typeface with an interesting approach to letterforms and a powerful Latin version. — However, this Cyrillic is too messed up to be used.

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