The Questa Project is a type design adventure by Dutch type designers Jos Buivenga and Martin Majoor. Their collaboration began in 2010 using Buivenga’s initial sketches for a squarish Didot-like display typeface as a starting point. It was a perfect base on which to apply Majoor’s type design philosophy that a serif typeface is a logical starting point for creating a sans serif version and not the other way around. The extensive Questa family includes serif, sans, and display typefaces.
Questa, a serifed typeface
First of all the text version of the Questa super family had to be designed, not in the least to serve as a basis for both the sans and the display version. Typefaces like Didot, Bodoni, and Walbaum were reviewed and some characteristics were used as rough guidelines for the design. To prevent Questa’s shapes from becoming too clean and sharp, several features – not typical to Didot-like typefaces – were considered. The goal was not to make a revival of any of these three, but rather an original typeface.
The contrast within Questa’s characters is relatively high. At the same time the thin parts and the unbracketed serifs are strong enough to prevent the characters from breaking open. Modern digital revivals of Didot-like typefaces are often very thin, even compared to the original printed metal typefaces from around 1800.
Questa doesn’t have the ball terminals typical of many Didot-like typefaces. Instead its shape is a teardrop terminal with a sharp-pointed ending. The proportions between x-height, capitals, and ascenders/descenders are very much adapted to present-day needs. This means, compared to Didot, the x-height of Questa is rather big and the capitals are relatively small. The inclusion of small caps, four sets of figures, ligatures and extended language support makes Questa a real workhorse typeface.
The italic of Questa – compared to a typeface like Didot – is more upright and less constructed. Terminals and serifs of the italic are treated in the same way as the roman to ensure that both styles will work together when they are combined.
However, there is room for several style elements that can be traced back to Humanist or handwritten letterforms. This makes it difficult to classify Questa italic; it is in fact quite far removed from the typical Didot-esque italic style.
The numerals in Questa italic have a clearly different contrast than their counterparts in the roman. Where the stress in the roman shapes is in the vertical elements of the numerals; in the italic this is reversed, very much as can be seen in the lowercase ‘z’ of the roman and italic.
The strong text color of both roman and italic makes Questa very suitable for print as well as for use on screens. Questa comes in five weights in both roman and italic.
From the start of their collaboration Buivenga and Majoor intended to design a sans serif counterpart that would simply be based on the shapes of Questa serif.
In developing the sans there was no room for ‘niceties’ or ‘handsomeness’. The way the sans was going to look was a logical outcome of the process of cutting away the hairline serifs, changing the contrast, and optically correcting its shapes.
Ultimately the whole process of deriving a sans from Questa serif resulted in a typeface much in the spirit of the first serious sans text faces, like Akzidenz Grotesk. In this context the history of Akzidenz Grotesk is quite interesting. It was created shortly before the year 1900 as one of the first mature sans serifs suitable for setting large amounts of texts. Given the fact that before that time there were hardly any serious sans serifs, it could be assumed that Akzidenz-like typefaces were more or less based on the serifed text faces that were fashionable at the time, like Walbaum and Didot.
Advertisement from 1899, announcing ‘Accidenz-Grotesk’
This is exactly the path that has been followed during the design process of Questa Sans: from a neoclassicist serifed typeface to a modern sans, rather than imitating existing sans typefaces.
In comparison: typefaces like Folio or Helvetica – both made in 1957 – were not based on a serifed typeface. Instead they were commissioned as an immediate response to the highly popular Akzidenz Grotesk. Helvetica became a quite literal imitation, a sans that was based on a sans.
Questa Sans, in contrast, simply bases its shapes on its serifed counterpart. In this way most of the identity and personality of Questa Sans originates from Questa serif.
Where the italics of serifed typefaces are considered a fully-fledged member of the typeface, it is unclear why the italic shapes of most sans typefaces are so underestimated. Little has been done to distinguish them from the roman, apart from the fact that they are sloped.
In contrast, the italic of Questa Sans is modeled on the italic of its serifed counterpart, which results in a ‘real’ italic. The whole construction is essentially different than that of the roman. The angle is not more than 8°, better than the 13° to 16° that most sloped/oblique typefaces need.
Because Questa Sans shares its basic forms with Questa, they can be perfectly combined. Questa Sans comes in five weights in both roman and italic, including small caps, four sets of figures and ligatures:
The third version of the Questa Project is called Questa Grande. It is based on the text version of Questa. This display or headline typeface, with its very thin hairline serifs, is designed in the spirit of the best work of Firmin Didot and Giambattista Bodoni.
Where the text version of Questa has an almost workhorse-like quality, Questa Grande is more elegant and refined in the details. The sharp-pointed teardrop terminal found in Questa have been replaced by a crescent-like shape. The light parts and hairline serifs are unquestionably thin, and interestingly in all weights of Questa Grande the thin parts share exactly the same thickness of stroke.
Martin Majoor (b. 1960) started his type design career in the mid-1980s. He designed several award-winning typeface, like Scala, Seria, and Nexus. Worldwide the Scala family is a bestseller and it has established a position as a ‘classic’ among digital typefaces. Besides working as type designer, Majoor has designed several books, from poetry to complex scientific books. Worldwide he gives type design workshops and lectures at Schools of Arts and at design conferences. He has written articles for magazines like Items, 2+3D, and Eye, and has contributed to several books on typography. Majoor works in both The Netherlands and in Poland.
Jos Buivenga (b. 1965) can be passionate about a lot of things. He loves to paint, listen to music, brew an almost perfect espresso… but nothing challenges and rewards him more than designing type. Buivenga is the founder of Exljbris, the one-man Dutch font foundry through which he releases and offers his typefaces. In 2008, while still working as an art director at an advertising agency, he released his first commercial typeface Museo while offering several weights free. That strategy paid off and Museo became a huge bestseller. Partly thanks to that success he now calls himself a full-time type designer.
Sponsored by Hoefler & Co.