- Mikhail Strukov
- Type designer, graduate of Ilya Ruderman’s course at BHSAD (Moscow) and Plantin Institute of Typography (Antwerp).
Works with CSTM Fonts and Samarskaya & Partners
- Yury Ostromentsky
- Type designer, partner at CSTM Fonts and type.today
- Ilya Ruderman
- Type designer, partner at CSTM Fonts and type.today
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 neo-grotesque?
Neo-grotesque typefaces are closed-aperture monospaced sans serifs, heirs of the old grotesques — first ever typefaces without serifs. They have vertical axis, near-zero contrast, and oblique letterforms used as italics.
The font was developed for Google. According to its description, Roboto has a mechanical skeleton, but with friendly and open curves. In practice, it is a semi-open-aperture, neutral, neo-grotesque typeface with a number of humanist details. Obviously, Roboto’s author has examined other popular fonts and decided to combine certain solutions. This adds points to the font’s neutrality: it feels familiar rights away, but does not always look consistent.
The claimed mechanical character (most pronounced when it comes to uppercase) reflects in the rhythmic design and narrowed metrics, which is somehow inconsistent with the author’s comment: “While some grotesks distort their letterforms to force a rigid rhythm, Roboto doesn’t compromise, allowing letters to be settled into their natural width. This makes for a more natural reading rhythm more commonly found in humanist and serif types.”
Hands-on Roboto’s curves raise no questions, and it is well legible at pretty small sizes. Then again, today’s screen resolutions have turned a technical issue of legibility at small sizes into a one of type design, making it about metrics; here it is ensured by large x-height.
Roboto is equipped with a set of tabular figures, a minimum set fractions, mathematical symbols, monetary signs and ligatures.
Styles Six weights from Thin to Black, with corresponding oblique styles.
The oblique style is fully dictated by the roman, inheriting all the specifics and weaknesses — yet it is much more dense.
An additional family titled Roboto Condensed differs in even narrower metrics.
Cyrillic Roboto’s Cyrillic personality is largely consistent with its Latin version: rather neutral, fairly rigid, with no visible stylistic discrepancies.
However, the quality of this Cyrillic is questionable, therefore it is little suitable for application.
Lowercase and uppercase Д in Thin and Light styles (apart from the excessive dynamics of its left stroke) are marked by a very narrow platform; the same problem occurs with Цц and Щщ. There are problems with Уу, Кк, Ии: the diagonals are way too heavy, resulting in unwanted reverse contrast. Ill-balanced is я, with its flattened bowl and the too-far-aside leg.
It gets a bit better in heavier weights — however, the shoulders in Дд, Цц, and Щщ grow wider or narrower without any articulated reason, each of the glyphs does it in its own way. Д has the widest shoulder in Light, while in Black it is the narrowest. The overall form of Д is also too narrow, with a far too heavy left stroke.
There is more problematic glyphs. Starting as early as from Medium (getting worse in Bold and Black), the tail of б (being badly curved already) looks lighter and shorter next to the bowl (they are also stuck too close together). This glyph fails in every font style. In ч, the arm has a weird dynamic: unduly thin at the bend, it gets wider at the joint. Ы is excessively wide in all styles; Я seems to lack volume in its bowl.
In both Thin and Light, Ъ has too wide an ear, the bowl lacks volume, and there is too much spacing on the right.
In the lighter styles, the bowl in ю is way too far off, while in heavier styles it gets too close to the vertical.
In nearly every weight, the horizontal proportions of ю are far from being perfect.
The diagonals in Мм reveal unwanted reverse contrast, and that problem does not limit to Cyrillic.
The ф hasn’t managed to choose one of the conventional forms, and therefore looks insecure.
The Narrow Cyrillic inherits the same problems: distorted tail in б; ы is too wide; м with reverse contrast; narrow and unconfident ф showing signs of two different forms. Plus, the breve in the й is uncompensated in terms of width.
The accents are unfit for Ukrainian typeset, the non-accented glyphs are also problematic: for one, the middle horizontal in є should get a compensated vertical position.
If you really have to use Roboto, you’d better be choosing styles from the middle of its weight range — where the mentioned problems are not that visible. The mistakes interfere with the typeface’s neutrality, which is an important thing in UI. If possible, we recommend using something else.
Oswald reworks a classic typeface called Alternate Gothic by Morris Fuller Benton, a narrow variant of Franklin Gothic, released in 1903.
Preserving closed apertures and dense metrics, Oswald simplifies the details and basically smoothens the bright personality of Alternate Gothic. Less radical form of the arcs in n, m, u; the same solutions applied to bowls, which became rounder, with a less pronounced vertical accent.
You have to admit that Alternate Gothic looks more balanced, integral, decisive and rhythmic as a typeface, an honest reflection of the industrial age it comes from — and this is what Oswald will never have.
Hands-on There is an issue of over-compensation in the glyphs which tend to look too dark — like m or g. In Oswald, those are unnecessarily light, it strikes the eye in Regular and Light weights: for instance, m, apart from its clearly thinner strokes, is marked by overly large counters.
The typeface is equipped with plenty of currency symbols and math characters, but has only one set of figures (proportional) and minimum fractions. The entire glyph set, both Cyrillic and Latin, is rather rich.
Styles This family has 6 upright styles (plus the variable-weight file), all with identical vertical metrics — thus, the ascenders and descenders are way too long in heavier styles.
Cyrillic Oswald’s Cyrillic appears more vibrant — thanks to a number of peculiar letterforms, as well as different approach to proportions.
The lowercase н and its relatives are a far cry from the proportions exercised in Latin — way too wide, which disrupts the rhythm and the relations between upright and rounded glyphs.
The heaviest and the lightest of weights employ unrelated forms of б — because of this, in the mid-weight styles, this glyph turns out unbalanced and illogical.
The Cyrillic breve copies the form of its Latin counterpart. The lowercase з looks dangerously similiar to a three, the glyph falls into two vertical parts, which seem reflected.
Lowercase д and л, way too dynamic, with an unwanted diagonal stroke movement.
The lowercase м and ю are way too light and narrow, with overcompensated stroke widths. Also too light is ф, with its vertically distorted bowl.
Same problems with uppercase Д and Л. З looks like a large-headed three. The breve over Й (again, too light) also has reverse contrast. Very narrow, small, and light bowls in Ь, Ы, Ъ, Б. The problems only get worse as the weight increases.
Once again, the overcompensated М catches the eye — not only really light, but also with reverse contrast in its diagonal strokes. Bowls in Ф are of almost square shape, something you won’t see anywhere else in the typeface. Peculiar, very unexpected form of У, which goes below the baseline (that would be logical, if the same happened to J). Ю’s bowl seems too light and too wide next to the rest of the glyph.
In Ukrainian typeset, the problems with accented glyphs become absolutely obvious.
Sadly, there are even a number of purely technical errors.
Despite the strong historical prototype and the popular type genre, the Cyrillic of Oswald has way too many problems to ignore. Sadly, it’s not worth using.
Nunito has open-aperture, rounded shapes, and soft terminals with thickness modulations. This non-mechanical behaviour is not very typical for static sans serifs.
That said, Nunito has symmetric arcs and bowls, with symmetric joints to vertical strokes. Oblique style in the place of italic.
Hands-on Two sets of tabular figures, regular and old-style ones; fractions with a set of numerators and denominators, at least two dozen monetary signs, basic math symbols.
Styles Total of 7 styles with italics; thanks to the rounded terminals, the personality of the font changes with the weight.
The oblique has by a very small slant angle, which makes it virtually indistinguishable from upright styles. Unfit for highlighting parts of text, it becomes a stylistically autonomous tool — it might work independently of upright style, or even instead of it.
Cyrillic Of a sufficient quality and its personality is in compliance to Latin — although not without some inaccuracies and questionable forms.
On the one hand, the shape of Кк and Жж seems like a logical answer to soft diagonals in Яя and R.
On the other hand, this form seems unnatural for Cyrillic. The font would look more concise and relevant with its Cyrillic Кк and Жж repeating the design of the Latin Kk.
Зз and Ээ seem slightly skewed and imbalanced: Ээ tends to lean leftward, Зз leans rightward. This becomes less obvious in the slanted styles.
The same з and э look too light in the heavier weights: their thick spots seem overcompensated, and so does the spacing on the left. The breve over й is too light.
Also in the heavier styles, the Дд (which is quite narrow) looks squarish, the bend of the left stroke becomes nearly invisible. The actively diagonal tail makes б look like a six. Obvious problems with spacing: see the cavities in ге and дб.
The accents are not Ukrainian-ready.
Nunito cannot boast a unique design, nor an exceptional quality of Cyrillic. The font might work in the oblique styles, in which the design flaws are less visible.
IBM Plex Sans
Mike Abbink, Bold Monday,
Aleksandra Samulenkova (Cyrillic)
IBM Plex Sans replaced Helvetica which was used as a house font of IBM for half a century. The design task was to stay in the genre of static, modernist sans serifs — with their intrinsic mechanical spirit, and a nod to the corporation’s formative years.
This design invokes IBM’s history and cites its graphic artefacts, illustrating “the unique relationship between mankind and machine — a principal theme for IBM”. This fusion of rational and emotional, is reflected in the design with its contrasting angular-geometric and rounded elements — note the terminals of a, g, f, t. More subtle are the vertical segments within bowls, the distinctive joints between arcs, bowls and verticals. These components .
Hands-on The glyph set includes only regular tabular figures with alternates, super- and subscripts, lots of currency symbols, essential math signs.
Styles Plex Sans boasts true italics, in which the contrast between rigid and roundish elements is even more pronounced. The family has 7 weights, from Thin to Bold, with corresponding italic styles.
The same set of styles is also available for Plex Sans Condensed (no Cyrillic yet).
Plex Sans Mono is the monospaced subfamily with Cyrillic. Here, the angular geometric elements are pronounced most visibly (thanks to the nature of the subfamily).
Plex Sans Mono Italic originates in the IBM Selectric typewriter’s Italic 12, and is noticeably different from Plex Sans Italic.
Cyrillic The typeface features a proper and balanced Cyrillic version, with well-applied forms and structures.
The one thing to worry about is the accented glyphs — the double їs happen to overlap in a Ukrainian typeset.
IBM Plex Sans is a high-quality typeface, it can be used for a wide range of purposes.
A sans serif metrically compatible with Arial, but with improved on-screen readability. Designed to solve the needs of developers looking for width-compatible fonts across platforms.
Hands-on Greater legibility is achieved through larger x-height and squarish bowls, and a more open aperture, which all allowed for more white space — those are reasonable, working solutions. Rather high curve quality — yet, somewhat imperfect forms and metrics, mainly because of following Arial’s metrics.
Arimo has an impressive glyph set and extensive language support — Latin, Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew. Only tabular figures; fractions; sets of super- and subscripts.
Styles Just like Arial, Animo has only two weights with corresponding obliques.
Cyrillic Also trying to be a better and more relevant version of Arial; yet it didn’t manage to avoid lots of problems, primarily because of keeping the original metrics.
That explains a way too narrow к, which is also of a questionable shape. Ф has to keep the Arial structure — even though it could benefit from some simplification.
The descenders in Дд, Цц, Щщ are excessively long. Their shoulders look short, although the overall shoulder situation is slightly better than it is with Arial. З is marked by an unfortunate bowl joint, which makes it look like a three.
Unnecessarily dynamic stroke and incorrect contrast distribution in д and л.
И takes after Arial in its reverse contrast. У’s gotten worse — insatiable, with a little white triangle atop. Ч changes for the worse, too — the arch curve is distorted. The bowl in Ь appears somewhat flattened.
The accented glyphs are unfit for Ukrainian.
In Tajik typeset, ҷ and ҳ have visibly different descender lengths.
You may very well use latin Arimo as a replacement for Arial Latin — but it is not the case if you need Cyrillic.
A neutral sans serif, Inter was designed for screen typography, especially for small sizes, as one of the main goals was good legibility. The author prefers to place Inter next to Roboto, San Francisco, Lucida Grande, and other functional sans serifs, popular in UI design.
Hands-on Good legibility at small sizes is helped by relatively open apertures, large x-height, inktraps (even though those are rather moderate, Inter’s author warns about problems at large sizes), smart hinting, and multiple OpenType features: for example, the alternates prevent from confusing similarly shaped glyphs.
Inter is available in Latin, Cyrillic, Greek, offering extensive glyph sets for all scripts. Tabular and proportional figures with a number of alternates; Roman numeric sets. Fractions; super- and subscripts; plenty of monetary symbols, piсtograms, arrows and other UI-ready symbols.
Styles 9 weights (from Thin to Black), and a variable file: apart from the variable weight, it also features the slant axis, allowing for further customisation.
Cyrillic Consistent with Latin in terms of spirit and in most letterforms. However, this picture is absolutely destroyed by several design flaws, which are especially evident on both ends of the weight spectrum.
Overly thick diagonal in и. Also thick, the ascending diagonals in Уу и к, resulting in a slight reverse contrast — these problems occur in every style.
The lowercase б is a failure: the terminal is deformed, too light, with a very sharp cut.
ДЦЩ дцщ: the descenders change shape and height across weights, unreasonably and haphazardly. Same problem with their shoulder width.
This pattern makes the lightest and the heaviest cuts hardly useable. Apart from that, the left stroke in Дд and Лл is too heavy, and of poor shape.
Flattened, contrast bowl in the uppercase Э, makes it very different from other round glyphs in terms of metrics and character. Weird design of К: the joint looks like a technical error. Wide, uncompensated bowls in Юю. Narrow З (plus when paired, ЮЗ manifest some kerning problems). Flattened bowl in Ы (same for Ь and Ъ), with the vertical placed too close to it. The breve over Й appears too small — the accents are not optimized for uppercase.
Some of the kerning problems (ЮЯ) are nothing short of fatal.
Not enough attention for Ukrainian glyphs: problematic kerning and ill-positioned horizontal in є, double їs overlap each other.
Inter has a number of virtues, it is a largely applicable typeface. However, the Cyrillic part lacks attention for detail. With its many blunders, Inter Cyrillic is unfit for work.
A semi-closed-aperture typeface, falling into several classification categories — partially it is rather neo-grotesque, partially a geometric sans. Generally, it feels more like a neo-grotesque (mainly, because of its bowl shapes).
Manrope is marketed as a widely applicable font ‘for everyone’. To address this task, the author tried encompass every possible approach — thus failing to achieve any distinct image.
Hands-on The glyphs are diverse, non-uniform: like, the n is more geometric than the о which affects the whole majority of n-related symbols.
The curves are quite imperfect. The transitions from straight to rounded segments look distorted, and the bowl contrast distribution doesn’t seem right. The uppercase look too light because of uncompensated stroke thickness: in some cases, the uppercase strokes are even lighter than the lowercase ones.
This eclectic picture is further reinforced by the geometric figures, which are fundamentally different from the alphabet.
The glyph set covers most languages using Latin, Cyrillic, and Greek scripts.
There are case sensitives alternates, ligatures, non-alphabet glyphs, currency signs, proportional and tabular figures, basic fractions.
Styles 7 upright weights, from ExtraLight to ExtraBold, plus the variable-weight file.
The letterforms are most questionable in the lighter of styles: the arc-to-vertical joints are either too heavy (r, m, n), or the opposite, are getting too thin shifting to vertical segments (n, u).
Cyrillic Corresponds to the Latin — also trying to represent an average of various solutions, too.
The uppercase Ф is way too narrow in every weight. Shape-wise, both lowercase and uppercase ф are an insecure interim option between the two established letterforms. Кк, И, Уу, each of them has reverse contrast, with ascending diagonals heavier than descending ones. Too short and too light a tail in б.
Quite different character and level of openness in lowercase and uppercase Зз, and they both have a heavy spot in the bowl joint. Мм, again, reverse contrast. The leg of Лл is poorly-shaped — too straight, set aside, abruptly broken on the end.
Дд has a left stroke of the same unfortunate form, the platform lacks width on the right. In ц, au contraire, the shoulder is too wide and the descender is too short.
In every weight, Ъъ has a tiniest horizontal, while lowercase щ and ц have different shoulder widths.
In all styles, except the heaviest ones, Э has a very short horizontal.
The accents are unaware of common Ukrainian letter combinations: see the partly overlapping double їs and the accent spacing problem in iї.
Manrope is unconvincing conceptually and of poor
In the next episode: geometric sans serifs.