Times New Roman

alt text
The standard for essays, Times New Roman is possibly the world’s best-known font. Impersonal and unassuming yet clear and consistent, Times has the dubious honour of having been designed on a dare. The story goes that in the late 1920s, the advertising manager of London newspaper the Times approached Stanley Morison, a typographic consultant for the Monotype Corporation. Looking to sell some ad space, the Times offered to have the ad typeset by the paper’s compositors. Morison, deeply insulted, shot back that he would sooner pay them not to typeset the ad, going on to comment on the sad state of the Times’ typography in a very public article, essentially accusing the paper of being a typographic dinosaur.

Morison’s story made its way to upper management, and the Times eventually dared Morison to produce a better font. And that he did. By 1932 the Times had officially retired their old font, Times Old Roman, and introduced Times New Roman as the new standard for the newspaper. Designed specifically for readability on newsprint, Times New Roman had no sharp angles or thick sections, ensuring that ink wouldn’t get “trapped” during printing, effectively preventing smudging. It was also neutral and businesslike: Morison once mentioned it had “the merit of not looking as if it had been designed by somebody in particular.”

Times New Roman continued to be the standard for the Times for almost forty years, and enjoyed lasting popularity until Microsoft ultimately bundled it with Windows 3.1 in 1992. Every version of Windows since then has carried Times New Roman as one of the defaults for word processors, solidifying its status as one of the world’s most famous fonts.

Garamond

alt text
Garamond has the distinction of being one of the great-grandfathers of modern typefaces, shaping the way fonts have developed for centuries. Designed by the Parisian publisher Claude Garamond over four-and-a-half centuries ago, Garamond is still widely regarded as one of the most legible typefaces ever designed, a true testament to its creator’s prowess. It enjoys success even today; you might recognize it as the font used by Apple in the 1990s, or the font used to set Dr. Seuss books. It is amusing to note that for almost a full century, what designers thought was Garamond turned out to be a completely different font.

In 1825, over two-and-a-half centuries after Garamond’s designs first began to circulate around Europe, the National Printing Office of France made an exciting announcement: they had discovered a previously unknown set of designs by Garamond. Over the next century, fonts and the art of typography saw a strong revival, and with it came new versions of Garamond, many based on the National Printing Office’s unearthed designs. The twist didn’t come until almost a century later, when type enthusiast Paul Beaujon happened upon the designs of a relatively unknown French printer named Jean Jannon at the American Type Founders’ library. Beaujon came to realize that the Garamond the National Printing Office had discovered over a century ago wasn’t a Garamond at all: it was a somewhat similar, yet completely unrelated font designed by Jannon. With this discovery came the realization that most of the Garamond revivals of the late nineteenth century were based upon a completely different font, designed by a completely different Frenchman. In 1927, Beaujon published his research in the Fleuron, a scholarly publication on type, and took a job soon afterwards at Stanley Morison’s Monotype.

Today, this is the stuff of typographic legend, but the story doesn’t end there. Beaujon wasn’t a man with a “long grey beard, four grandchildren, a great interest in antique furniture, and a rather vague address in Montparnasse,” as he had been described by his peers. In fact, he wasn’t a man at all. Paul Beaujon was the pen-name of one Beatrice Warde, who would go on to become the “First Lady of Typography,” the first woman to penetrate the otherwise male-dominated profession.

Helvetica (and Arial)

alt text

Helvetica has always been considered a typographic giant. Designed by type salesman Max Miedinger in the 1950s (in his spare time, and at the behest of his boss), “The Swiss” — the English translation of the Latin word “helvetica” — was a response to Akzidenz Grotesk, an advertising font from the 1890s that still dominated the industry. Helvetica borrowed the sleekness of Akzidenz (and in fact the two looked deceptively similar) yet managed to be far more neutral, allowing for great versatility. As typographer Simon Loxley once put it, “Helvetica has been called the typeface with no distinguishing features. It can go anywhere, do anything; it’s everything — and nothing.”

The results of Helvetica’s legendary flexibility are a who’s who of brand giants: American Apparel, Fendi, Jeep, American Airlines, GM, Nestlé — the list goes on. It’s no surprise then, that “when in doubt, Helvetica” has become a maxim for designers the world over. Helvetica is also polarizing, with designers being grouped into two categories: those who love it, and those who hate it.

As much as some designers might hate Helvetica, it’s nothing compared to how most feel about its bizarro brother, Arial. Deemed a bastardization of a theoretically “perfect” typeface, Arial was commissioned by Microsoft for use in Windows 3.1. The result was a font nearly identical to Helvetica (in fact, both fonts look so alike that most people will never notice the difference), but without the accompanying royalties. Over the next two decades, Arial went on to become the world-famous font that it is today, while Helvetica remains significantly less popular. A great irony, considering that Microsoft’s own logo is set in Helvetica.

Comic Sans

alt text

The font everyone loves to hate, Comic Sans is a designer’s worst nightmare: its childish, unsophisticated letterforms and uneven letterspacing have made it the butt of jokes for years. As (in)famous as Comic Sans might be today, its beginnings were nothing if not modest. Designed by Microsoft employee Vincent Connare, Comic Sans was originally intended as a companion to the “Microsoft Bob” application — Windows 95’s “helper program,” and Clippy’s (the Microsoft Word animated paperclip) predecessor. Using the lettering in graphic novels such as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns as reference, Comic Sans was designed in little over a week. Eventually, a product manager for Windows 95 took a liking to the font and chose to include it as a standard on Windows’ operating system.

Though it enjoys relative success even today, being featured on T-shirts, restaurant menus, and advertisements, Comic Sans’ goofiness has earned it disdain. “Ban Comic Sans,” a movement to eliminate the use of the font, has used stickers to educate about the inappropriateness of Comic Sans’ use in everyday life. And how about the font’s Dr. Frankenstein, Vincent Connare? He’s definitely aware of his creation: “If you love it, you don’t know much about typography.”

Stay up to date. Sign up for our weekly newsletter, sent straight to your inbox:

* indicates required