How Roman type assumed its most popular form
In the 1920s, business at Monotype was booming. Thanks in part to their hybridized system for casting and setting type, printing had gotten cheap. Letters proliferated. Reading had never been so popular. Print advertising propped up a nascent consumer culture. Monotype built themselves an empire of type.
But their arch rival still held down the newspaper business. Linotype’s machines and Legibility Group fonts were particularly well suited for printing newspapers. From Linotype-printed pages, muckraking journalists ripped down the rich and powerful. Great as Monotype was, their position wasn’t secure.
Back when the Romans carved Square Capitals into their official buildings, they demonstrated that an empire needs signature letters. Owning a typographical empire doesn’t excuse this requirement, but it should make it easier to attain.
Monotype’s de facto emperor, the designer, consultant, and historian Stanley Morison, understood this as well as anyone. But he may not have anticipated that the word ‘Roman’ would indelibly attach itself to Monotype and himself, defining their work to this day. Especially when the font in question wasn’t designed for his empire, but for a newspaper’s.
Long before he changed the world of letters, Morison was working as a clerk when letters changed his world. Passing time reading a newspaper, a supplementary insert on printing caught his attention. It was enough to spark a career change. He soon found work at a magazine about printing, and moved from that to working directly for printers as a designer. A decade in the field made him an expert. In 1923, he started advising at Monotype.
Like Theodore Lowe De Vinne, Morison was an insatiable student of typography. Also like De Vinne, his historical knowledge and flair for the practical informed his taste in type. Modern fonts from the 19th century didn’t work; nor did the revived Old Styles and Blackletters favoured by Arts and Crafts. In general, he wanted nothing to do with any of the 19th century’s typographical excesses, from either modernists or medievalists.
Stanley Morison’s design convictions were deeply conservative. Type, he argued, could only change as much as the most conservative reader would allow. He shared those sensibilities with one of his friends and contemporaries, the opinionated and odd Eric Gill.
Gill’s career in type started with sign painting. This exposed him to a practical reality: Sans Serifs are the best letters for signs—if he wanted to make something readable at a distance, he was better off eliminating extraneous detail. When Stanley Morison saw Gill’s work on a Bristol bookstore sign, he knew he had to bring him into the fold at Monotype. There, Gill produced some all-time classic fonts, including Gill Sans, an excellent Sans Serif. Everyone from British Railways to Penguin publishing has used the font. Its most famous appearance may have been on the Ministry of Information’s wartime propaganda.
Today, we know Gill as a great designer of modern type, and as a troubled figure, given to vile practices with animals and children. Yet he was also infamous for savaging his contemporaries’ deviations from good design as, “unseemly”, “common vulgarities”, or “fatuous”. He lamented his fellow designers, “who for inscrutable reasons ‘must live’”. But behind his compulsion to bury the less talented alive, worked a deep understanding that asceticism was a reality in the modern world: “machinery and standardized production can only decently turn out the plainest of plain things.” Gill’s type design reflected that flair for the plain.
In the late 1920s, The Times contacted Monotype. They only wanted to sell ad space, and they made the critical mistake of offering typesetting for their advertisements. Maybe inspired by his friend’s mercurial attitude, Morison seized on the dated and fusty Didone The Times used in text, and tore their guts out.
Surprisingly, The Times took the criticism graciously. Then offered Monotype a job: make something better. It was only appropriate that Morison ended up working for The Times. That newspaper that first introduced him to typography? It was The Times.
At first, Morison recommended a modified Baskerville. Or using Gill’s brand-new Perpetua. Or something like the Griffo-cut Bembo. He started bombarding Monotype designer Victor Lardent with notes.
Lardent started with an existing Monotype Old Style design, Plantin—itself a modified version of French type founder Granjon’s 16th century Roman. Morison and Lardent then increased line contrast, pushing the new font somewhere closer to Baskerville. But this was a newspaper font; it needed to be economical. Morison had Lardent compress the font, moving letters closer together, shrinking the ascenders and descenders to allow closer line spacing. To open up white on the page, they increased the size of its counters. Finally, they sharpened the bracketed serifs and added ball terminals.
The resulting font, debuted in 1932, is a masterpiece of utility: optimized for the realities of printing, more square than Perpetua, heavier than Baskerville, sharper than Plantin, and fundamentally neutral—it didn’t look like it had been designed by somebody in particular at all. It worked for The Times then; it’s worked for millions of word processor users since.
While they were working on it, Monotype called the font Times Old Style. When they’d finished, they gave it the name we all know—the name that today inspires reactions everywhere between subdued respect and indifference: Times New Roman. The word processor default. The third most popular font of all time. The font of an empire.
Times New Roman’s longevity speaks to the quality of its design. It also marks an end of an era. There have been other—even better—Romans since, but the need for anything new from the venerable Roman is gone. It’s assumed, in a sense, its final form.
We can call designers like Morison, Gill, and even De Vinne, new traditionalists—they made new fonts, but these were typically refinements of centuries of tradition. To make something truly new, designers would have to break with the old, and create a new typography.
Over the following posts, we’ll share a series within a series on the story of modernism in typography. This is a story of radical innovations, resounding failures, and real change. It starts with a war.