MuirMcNeil Cut: A Historical, Experimental Stencil Type Family

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Paul McNeil and Hamish Muir, principals of London’s MuirMcNeil foundry, are the masters of highly experimental, supercool modular typefaces created from systems of dots, hard-edged geometric shapes and grids. These dynamic parametric alphabets are at their most enjoyable when performing their dazzling range of tricks in animated uses, but they make compelling printed posters, environmental signage and publication designs as well.


A new stencil type family, MuirMcNeil Cut, takes its structural and visual cues from type designs of two different historical periods. Cut’s proportions echo the forms of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century neoclassical Modern style typefaces such as those by Firmin Didot, Giambatista Bodoni and Robert Thorne, but push the vertical contrast of these predecessors to an extreme; the hairline cross-strokes typical of these styles have evaporated, replaced by open white spaces that divide the letterforms into individual geometric segments. This segmented approach references types created slightly later in the early twentieth century by designers such as Herbert Bayer, Josef Albers and Jan Tschichold, who broke letters down into simple geometric components that could be used as structural elements to assemble complete alphabets by means of scaling, reflection, repetition and redistribution.


Although the typefaces produced in these historical periods are visually dissimilar, they represent stages in the development of a common design heritage that is rational, reductive, elegant and modern. Cut, released in September 2016 as an OpenType display family in three weights, is intended to blend and reconcile these disparate points of reference.

Who was the main designer on this project?

MCNEIL: Like everything we do, Cut was a team effort. It is the product of our collaborative approach to the design process, where the point of origin is always a question we’ve discussed and negotiated as a starting point, allowing us to address a problem with some degree of clarity. We try to set a root point that will allow us to grow a variety of outputs. In this instance we were trying to see if two differing points of historical reference could be reconciled harmoniously. Cut is an answer to that, but not the only one.


Is there any specific work by the Modernist designers Herbert Bayer, Josef Albers and Jan Tschichold that you found particularly inspiring?

MCNEIL: There are quite a few interesting typefaces from the 1920s and 30s, but Albers Schlabonen-Schrift and Kombinations-Schrift, Bayer’s Universal and Tschichold’s Transito are key points of reference. What we love about them is their reduction of the parts of letters to simple geometric shapes that are flipped, scaled and arranged to provide full alphabets, like parts in machines. All letters are actually built in this way but the early modernists stripped it down to basics. Making maximum meaning from minimum means, as Abram Games once put it, may be a modernist trope, but it remains supremely elegant.

What other typefaces do you like to pair it with?

MCNEIL: To us, the notion of font pairing is not an effective approach to designing. It suggests a presupposition that making some sort of formal contrast through the differentiation of typefaces may provide meaning or create visual interest. In stylistic terms, it’s making a fruit salad. We prefer to just eat the apple. We think of visual communication in simpler, more rational ways by creating visual hierarchies that disclose textual communications progressively. That said, Cut needs to be used at large sizes.


Explore the topic of illegibility in the past and present of typographic design in the latest issue of Print Magazine, with a special cover by Shepard Fairey. See what’s inside or subscribe to get Print all year long.