The first sans serif typefaces, designed in the early nineteenth century, bore the names of ancient cultures — “Egyptian,” “Ionic,” “Doric”, “Gothic” — even though these typefaces shared none of the qualities of genuine lettering from the ancient world. 2,500 years earlier, Greek inscriptions were taut and lively; by comparison, these nineteenth century printing types were impassive and deliberate. It would be nearly a century before typefounders would take an interest in inscriptional lettering, and begin to imbue their sans serifs with classical proportions, fluid kinesthetic movements, and references to calligraphic form. This new approach was nurtured by the calligrapher Edward Johnston, designer of the London Underground’s signature alphabet in 1916, and by Eric Gill, whose eponymous sans serif was produced by the Monotype Corporation a decade later. Because these designs were rooted in classical form, and their designers dedicated to traditional crafts, the new style became known as the Humanist sans serif. Nonetheless, these designs were often products more of the machine than the hand, chilly and austere designs shaped by unbending rules, whose occasional moments of whimsy were so out of place as to feel volatile and disquieting.
Ideal Sans began as an attempt to reclaim the Humanist style, and to restore its missing humanity. Like all Humanist designs, Ideal Sans has classical rather than industrial proportions (its capitals vary greatly in width, from the almost circular O to the half-square E), and it favors traditional forms like the two-storey lowercase a and g. Unlike most sans serifs, it is allergic to geometry: the design contains almost no straight lines, very few symmetries, and it takes every opportunity to resist formulaic rules. These policies make Ideal Sans engaging at large sizes, and help it to perform at small ones, giving the design a warm, organic, and handmade feeling.