Adrian Frutiger was born in Unterseen, Canton of Bern, the son of a weaver. As a boy, he experimented with invented scripts and stylized handwriting in negative reaction to the formal, cursive penmanship then required by Swiss schools. His early interest in sculpture was discouraged by his father and by his secondary school teachers; they encouraged him to work in printing. Though in the world of print, he maintains the love of sculpture that has influenced his type forms.
At the age of sixteen, he was apprenticed for four years, as a compositor, to the printer Otto Schaerffli in Interlaken; between 1949 and 1951 he studied under Walter Käch and Alfred Willimann in the Kunstgewerbeschule (school of applied arts) in Zürich, where students studied monumental inscriptions from Roman forum rubbings. At the Kunstgewerbeschule, Frutiger primarily concentrated on calligraphy — a craft favouring the nib and the brush, instead of drafting tools.
Charles Peignot, of the Paris foundry Deberny Et Peignot, recruited Frutiger based upon the quality of the illustrated essay Schrift / Écriture / Lettering: the development of European letter types carved in wood. Frutiger's wood-engraved illustrations of the essay demonstrated his skill, meticulousness, and knowledge of letterforms. At Deberny & Peignot foundry, Frutiger designed the typefaces "Président", "Méridien", and "Ondine". In the event, Charles Peignot set Frutiger to work upon converting extant typefaces for the new phototypesetting Linotype equipment.
Adrian Frutiger's first commercial typeface was Président — a set of titling capital letters with small, bracketed serifs, released in 1954. A calligraphic, informal, script face, Ondine ("wave" in French), also was released in 1954. In 1955, Méridien, a glyphic, old-style, serif text face was released. The typeface shows inspiration by Nicholas Jenson, and, in the Méridien type, Frutiger's ideas of letter construction, unity, and organic form, are first expressed together. In 1956, he designed his first-of-three, slab-serif typefaces — Egyptienne, on the Clarendon model; after Univers, it was the second, new text face to be commissioned for photocomposition.
Charles Peignot envisioned a large, unified font family, that might be set in both the metal and the photocomposition systems. Impressed by the success of the Bauer foundry's Futura typeface, Peignot encouraged a new, geometric sans-serif type in competition. Frutiger disliked the regimentation of Futura, and persuaded Peignot that the new sans-serif should be based on the realist (neo-grotesque) model. The 1896 face, Akzidenz Grotesk, is cited as the primary model. To maintain unity across the 21 variants, each weight and width, in roman and italic, was drawn and approved before any matrices were cut. In the Univers font, Frutiger introduced his two-digit numeration; the first digit (3 though 8) indicates the weight, "3" the lightest, "8" the heaviest. The second digit indicates the face-width and either roman or oblique. The response to Univers was immediate and positive; he claimed it became the model for his future typefaces: Serifa (1967) and Glypha (1977) are based upon it.
In the early 1970s, the RATP, the public transport authority of Paris, asked him to examine the Paris Metro signage. He created a Univers font variation — a set of capitals and numbers specifically for white-on-dark-blue backgrounds in poor light. The success of this modern, yet human, typeface, spurred the French airport authority's commissioning a "way-finding signage" alphabet for the new Charles de Gaulle International Airport in the Roissy suburb of Paris. The "way-finding-signage" commission brief required a typeface both legible from afar and from an angle. Frutiger considered adapting Univers, but decided it was dated as too 1960s. The resultant typeface is an amalgamation of Univers tempered with organic influences of the Gill Sans, a Humanist sans-serif typeface by Eric Gill, and Edward Johnston's type for the London Transport, and Roger Excoffon's Antique Olive. Originally titled Roissy, the typeface was renamed Frutiger when the Mergenthaler Linotype Company released it for public use in 1976.
Frutiger's 1984 typeface Versailles is an old-style serif text with capitals like those in the earlier Président. In Versailles, the serifs are small and glyphic. In 1988, Frutiger completed Avenir ("future" in French), inspired by Futura, with structural likeness to the neo-grotesques; Avenir has a full series of unified weights. In 1991, he finished Vectora, a design influenced by Morris Fuller Benton's type faces Franklin Gothic and News Gothic. The resultant face has a tall x-height and is legible in small-point sizes.
In the late 1990s, Frutiger began collaborating on refining and expanding the Univers, Frutiger, and Avenir, in addressing hinting for screen display. Univers was reissued with sixty-three variants; Frutiger was reissued as Frutiger Next with true italic and additional weights. Collaborating with Linotype designer Akira Kobayashi, Frutiger expanded the Avenir font family with light weights, heavy weights, and a condensed version that were released as the Avenir Next font.
Adrian Frutiger's career and typeface development spans the hot metal, phototypesetting, and digital typesetting eras. He lives in Bremgarten-Bern.