The Stories Behind 10 Famous Typefaces and Where They're Used
Typefaces are everywhere—in books, advertisements, signage, magazines, and logos—yet we rarely pay them any heed. But many of them have histories richer than their designs convey, including the ten below.
Before we start, some terms you should know. A typeface is the letters, numbers, and symbols that make up a design of type, while a font is one particular weight and style of a typeface—Garamond is the typeface, Garamond 12 italic is the font. Serif typefaces have small flourishes or lines at the tops and bottoms of each letter and are most commonly used in books, mastheads, and headlines, while sans-serif typefaces lack those flourishes and are most commonly used for logos, signage, and online.
Akzidenz-Grotesk is one of the the most influential of the early sans-serif typefaces. Released in 1898, it was designed by the Berthold Type Foundry and was based on another early sans-serif typeface, Royal Grotesk Light. It got a facelift in 1950s and '60s thanks to designer Günther Gerhard Lange, whose work made Akzidenz-Grotesk into a more useable family of typefaces. Akzidenz-Grotesk is most often used in advertising and logos, and can be seen as the typeface used for the American Red Cross [PDF], in Arizona State University's branding, and in the Brooklyn Nets wordmark logo.
In 1956, Eduard Hoffmann, manager of the Hass Type Foundry, commissioned Swiss typesetter Max Miedinger to design a new sans-serif typeface based on Akzidenz-Grotesk. The result, Haas-Grotesk, was released in 1957; it immediately became popular thanks to its sleek, neutral design. Three years later, the typeface was renamed Helvetica, after the Latin word for Swiss, to make it more internationally marketable. Today, Helvetica is one of the most popular typefaces in the world and is used for all the lettering on the New York subway signage since 1989, the American Apparel logo, and many U.S. government forms.
More controversially, movies like Titanic and L.A. Confidential have also made use of the typeface, despite taking place in 1912 and the 1950s, respectively. One typographer griped that the use of Helvetica in Titanic (for the dials on the pressure gauge) was “like taking out a Palm Pilot on the deck of the Titanic.”
Typographer Giabattista Bodoni (1740–1813) had a killer resume: He was employed by a number of Italian dukes and was the court typographer for Charles III of Spain. Over the course of his career, Bodoni developed numerous typefaces and published a number of books detailing his meticulous designs. The serif Bodoni typeface, which is based on the typographer's original 18th-century designs, features strong contrast between the thick and thin strokes of the letters. The design was recut in 1907 by American Type Founders’ Morris Fuller Benton, and it's this version which is still in use today. Bodoni can most famously be seen in the Columbia Records wordmark logo, and in modified forms in Nirvana’s logo (which uses a variant called Onyx) and the masthead of Vogue.
Bodoni isn't the only famous typeface Benton designed: He also created News Gothic, which is memorably used at the beginning of the Star Wars: A New Hope. That knack for type design ran in the family; his father, Linn Boyd Benton, created the Century typeface in the late 1800s. Today, it's used by the U.S. Supreme Court.
It all began in 1968, when Swiss type designer Adrian Frutiger was asked to design a typeface for signage at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport. There was only one requirement, really—that the type be legible from a great distance—but meeting that requirement was tough. Finally, after years of development, Frutiger gave the airport Roissy. It was so popular that he was asked to create a version for mass production. After some slight tweaking, the Frutiger typeface was released to the public in 1976. Due to its clarity, Frutiger is very popular for signage: It can be seen on Amtrak and is used for the publications of various institutions, including the University of Southern California and Cornell University. Perhaps most notably, in 2002, Frutiger was used on the all-new Euro banknotes.
5. TIMES NEW ROMAN
Times New Roman was designed in 1929 by typographer Stanley Morison and drawn by advertising artist Victor Lardent after The Times of London was criticized for the illegibility of its print. Because the typeface was made for newspapers it is fairly narrow so that many words can be fit onto one line. When the typeface was released to the public the two biggest type manufacturers, Monotype and Linotype, worked together to create the molds for casting the type, with one calling it Times New Roman, the other Times Roman—a naming difference which persists to this day, depending on whether you use an Apple computer (which uses the Linotype catalogue) or Microsoft (which uses Monotype’s catalogue), although Apple has recently begun offering Times New Roman as well. But despite being one of the most ubiquitous typefaces in the world, one place that doesn’t use Times New Roman is The Times of London. In 1972, they switched over to Times Europa, and continued to change every couple of years until 2006 when they settled on Times Modern, at least for now.
Baskerville is a "transitional typeface"—a departure from traditional typefaces based on hand-written letters but not quite as modern as the strong, bold lines that followed after it. It was designed in 1757 by printer John Baskerville, who created it to use in the printing of classic works for Cambridge University Press. Benjamin Franklin was a great admirer of Baskerville’s work; after the two met in 1758, Franklin took a sample of Baskerville’s typeface back to America, where it was used as the basis for the typefaces used in much of the U.S. federal government papers at that time. Variants of Baskerville can today be seen on the logo of the Metropolitan Opera, on the masthead of Better Homes and Gardens magazine and as the wordmark logo for Canada.
7. GILL SANS
Developed by British artist and typesetter Eric Gill in the 1920s, Gill Sans is a sans-serif typeface based on the work of Edward Johnston, whose 1916 Johnston Sans was used on London Underground signage. Gill first used his new typeface in 1926 on a bookshop’s sign in Bristol. Monotype advisor Stanley Morison noticed the potential of Gill’s type and asked him to develop it into a full alphabet. In 1928, Monotype released the typeface as Gill Sans, and it was immediately adopted by London and North Eastern Railway, where it was used on their locomotives, timetables, and logos. Gill Sans rose to international prominence in 1935 when it was used by designer Edward Young as the typeface for Penguin paperbacks. Today, it can be seen in Toy Story and on Tommy Hilfiger’s logo.
Garamond is a classic, elegant old-style serif typeface that originated in the designs of French punch-cutter Claude Garamond (1480–1561). Garamond’s designs were further embellished in the 17th century by French typographer Jean Jannon. Garamond has been modified and refined over the years, but the family of typefaces can still be said to be based upon the original designs of Claude Garamond. Such is its timeless appeal that Garamond is still widely used today, especially as a beautifully legible typeface in books (all of the Harry Potter and Dr. Seuss books are primarily set in Garamond) and as logos for the likes of Abercrombie & Fitch.
9. COMIC SANS
This world's most-maligned typeface was designed by Vincent Connare in 1994, when he was an employee at Microsoft, to mimic the kind of type seen in comic book talk bubbles (and in fact its original name was Comic Book; the sans comes from sans serif). Connare was working with a team creating software for PCs when he opened a program called Microsoft Bob, which featured a cartoon dog named Rover that spoke in a text bubble. The typeface was Times New Roman, and Connare thought he could do better. After looking at a couple of comic books in his office (The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen) he created the typeface using his mouse to draw on the computer screen. Comic Sans was designed within the week, and was eventually a standard typeface in Windows’ operating system.
According to an article in the Wall Street Journal from 2009, “Mr. Connare has looked on, alternately amused and mortified, as Comic Sans has spread from a software project at Microsoft Corp. ... to grade-school fliers and holiday newsletters, Disney ads and Beanie Baby tags, business emails, street signs, Bibles, porn sites, gravestones and hospital posters about bowel cancer.” Today, it's a typeface we love to hate.
This geometric sans-serif type was developed between 1924 and 1926 by German designer Paul Renner. Released in 1927, it was inspired by the modernist Bauhaus school of design, which believed in dispensing with unnecessary clutter and ornamentation. As if to secure its reputation as a thoroughly modern typeface, Futura was chosen for the commemorative plaque left on the moon in 1969 by the astronauts of Apollo 11. Futura is also very popular with filmmakers and was used extensively by Stanley Kubrick in the credits and artwork for his films 2001: A Space Odyssey and Eyes Wide Shut, and also in Wes Anderson films such as The Royal Tenenbaums. Today Futura can be seen on Absolut Vodka bottles, in a modified form on the Domino Pizza’s logo, and on Red Bull energy drinks.