“It’s time for something else”: Grilli Type releases GT Ultra, which dances between serif and sans

The independent Swiss type foundry wants its new typeface to be “informed by the past, affected in the present and crafted for the future”.

1 October 2021


Grilli Type’s latest release is somewhat of a rebel or a non-conformist. Designed by co-founder Noël Leu, GT Ultra is informed by the decorative flare of serif typefaces of the 1970s (not to be confused with the flare jeans of the ‘70s) and ‘80s – whilst also functioning as a contemporary sans with true italics, dynamic weights and geometric construction. The foundry therefore hopes that the typeface challenges its own definition while questioning typographic expectations.

The process for creating GT Ultra started in 2017, says Leu, and took close to half a decade to complete. “I was initially wondering how to create a humanist sans-serif typeface that would work in a modern and minimalist graphic design environment,” he tells us. “I felt that existing typefaces in that genre were either too flimsy or quirky for what I was looking for.” Leu combined calligraphy with geometry and plenty of sleekness, creating a typeface consisting of 33 styles and three subfamilies, and includes GT Ultra Ultra – a thick, funky and blocky font which seeks to place a contemporary spin on disco-era display text.

So, for the untrained eye – what really is the difference in design between a sans and a serif? “Arguably, a serif typeface has a higher contrast and more calligraphic influence than a sans,” Leu explains. “And of course there’s the most significant factor – the serifs themselves” (these are the bits at the end of letters which flick inwards and make words look rich and important). “But like most definitions of genres, the borders are quite blurry. GT Ultra has a lot of calligraphic influence in its shapes. The shapes with curves or circles always have a pointy terminal stroke on the top left and bottom right sides (e.g. the ‘a’) or a vertical cut where there would usually be serifs (e.g. the ‘s’).”

In the fine version, explains the designer, these terminals “get more pointy and accentuated but they don’t turn into complex shapes like ball terminals that might be perceived as ornamental.” The more decorative elements of the serif genre have deliberately been avoided by Leu here in favour of “simple and clear solutions”. The finer the contrast gets, the more you see the flared terminals appear, he says. And these aren’t merely an aesthetic feature – rather, they help to balance the weight of the characters and the colour of the typeface, according to Leu. “Likewise, the italics do not use alternate shapes – like the single story ‘a’ – that are common amongst serif italics. The shapes are slanted versions of the roman style with the weight, contrast, terminals and width adjusted to match the italics of a serif typeface. So again: It’s somewhere in between.”

Beginning with calligraphic drawings and removing serifs and ornamental aspects such as ball terminals, Leu shaped out the design to get closer to his vision. “I realised that limiting the variety of horizontal proportions by infusing geometric construction principals results in the more rigorous expression that I was striving for. Likewise, compressing the vertical proportions made the design more compact and sturdy.”


Grilli Type: GT Ultra (Copyright © Grilli Type, 2021)

The first stages of the type showed distinctive features of calligraphy traditionally associated with serif typefaces, but Leu thought it had the feel and performance of a sans. He then experimented with designs of italics that would be equally well suited for a sans or a serif typeface – “slanted versions of the roman with narrow horizontal proportions and pointed stroke terminals.”

After completing the standard family of the typeface, Leu discovered that there was even more potential for the design by extending it into a typographic system. “Increasing the contrast emphasises the type’s calligraphic heritage and demonstrates a very different flow,” he says. “In order to achieve a good weight balance, flared terminals were implemented into the design. I found this part of the process really interesting, as the design went from a serif to a sans serif that feels like a serif, and then to a serif that feels more like a sans.” How’s that for a hybrid?

The need for such a typeface came from what Leu claims is our tendency to differentiate too much between sans and serif, and to assign each genre qualities that are derived from cultural habits. Sans serifs are often regarded, he notes, as more “modern, sober, corporate and efficient” (like an investment banker). “They are often used for branding and corporate identities.” Whereas serif typefaces are commonly regarded, he says, as more “cultured, complex and delicate” (like an artist – I know my audience). Serif typefaces are often used for literature or news articles, The New Yorker’s Adobe Caslon Pro being a good example – now, that typeface screams cultured.

“My goal was for GT Ultra to bridge these two worlds,” says Leu, perhaps unknowingly marking himself as a peacemaker for our polarised times... “To bring calligraphic culture to the corporate world and sober efficiency to the reading experience of literature and news articles.” Leu hopes that this typeface will help to reconsider some preconceptions and enrich our typographic landscape by offering a different solution.

GalleryGrilli Type: GT Ultra (Copyright © Grilli Type, 2021)

GalleryGrilli Type: GT Ultra (Copyright © Grilli Type, 2021)

Hero Header

Grilli Type: GT Ultra (Copyright © Grilli Type, 2021)

Share Article

Further Info

About the Author

Dalia Al-Dujaili

Dalia is a freelance writer, producer and editor based in London. She’s currently the digital editor of Azeema, and the editor-in-chief of The Road to Nowhere Magazine. Previously, she was news writer at It’s Nice That, after graduating in English Literature from The University of Edinburgh.

It's Nice That Newsletters

Fancy a bit of It's Nice That in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletters and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the creative world.