The Fontastic Stories Behind 5 Common Typefaces

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Every time we read printed material, we’re interacting with a font. It’s easy to take them for granted, but every typeface has an inventor and a story. Let’s take a look at the origins of five common ones.

The ubiquitous typeface that fills our computer screens and books owes its existence to the British newspaper The Times. In 1929, typography expert Stanley Morison had blasted The Times’ printing and typeface for being too difficult to read and aesthetically unpleasing. The paper’s publishers accepted Morison’s criticism and asked him to develop a new face for The Times. Morison collaborated with the paper’s in-house draftsman Victor Lardent to create a new font that became known as Times New Roman.

The new font debuted in The Times on October 3, 1932. The paper held a one-year window of exclusivity on the typeface, and once the font hit the open market it quickly became a favorite of book publishers thanks to its readability.

The widely used typeface began its life with a less melodious name: Neue Haas Grotesk. Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffman developed the typeface for Switzerland’s Haas Type Foundry in 1957. The font’s neutral design made it useful in a huge number of applications, but the name wasn’t as marketable. When German company D. Stempel AG began marketing the typeface a few years later, it wanted a fresh name that could be used internationally. The company settled on one that paid tribute to the font’s Swiss roots; Confederatio Helvetica was the Latin name for Switzerland.

The typewriter-esque typeface on your computer was originally a typewriter font. IBM commissioned the typeface from Howard “Bud” Kettler in 1955, but the company failed to secure legal proprietary rights to the font. That oversight meant that when Courier debuted, it was fair game for anyone in the typewriter world to grab and use on their typewriters. It soon became one of the world’s dominant typefaces.

When Kettler was working on the typeface he referred to it as “Messenger.” However, shortly before the font’s release he changed the name to Courier. His reasoning: “A letter can be just an ordinary messenger, or it can be the courier, which radiates dignity, prestige, and stability.”

Not everyone still thinks the typeface radiates dignity and prestige. For years, the U.S. State Department used Courier New 12 as its default font for treaties and other official diplomatic documents. In 2004, the department announced that it was banning Courier from its official documents and replacing it with Times New Roman 14. Although Times New Roman is the older of the two fonts by 23 years, the State Department explained the move by saying the font provided more modern look than Courier.

The much-maligned font favored by Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert is the creation of former Microsoft designer Vincent Connare. Connare created the font in 1994 as a casual, kid-friendly offering for Microsoft products.

In April 2009, Connare explained the font’s birth to The Wall Street Journal. Microsoft had been designing their user-friendly interface Microsoft Bob, and the test version of the children’s edition included a talking cartoon dog. Connare didn’t like that the words in the dog’s speech bubbles were written in Times New Roman, so he consulted two comic books, The Dark Knight Returns and The Watchmen, and spent a week working on a new, less stolid font. The font’s name came from the comic-book inspiration and the lack of serifs – small projecting features at the ends of strokes – on most letters.

Over the years, the font has become commonplace in situations where a more serious counterpart would probably have been a better option, and typography nerds love to hate and mock Comic Sans. To Connare’s credit, he seems to get a kick out of the violent hatred of the font. As he said in the aforementioned WSJ story, “If you love it, you don't know much about typography. If you hate it, you really don't know much about typography, either, and you should get another hobby.”

As ridiculous as Comic Sans seems now, one of its more absurd little flourishes has fallen by the wayside. The font’s original rendering of the currency symbol for the euro had a small eyeball on the top right of the symbol. Connare has said Microsoft dropped the eyeball after the European Union threatened to sue company over defacing its symbol.

The popular Web font was also the brainchild of Connare. The name springs from a joking conversation about trebuchets, or large medieval catapults, that Connare heard in a cafeteria on Microsoft’s campus. One Microsoft employee asked another, “Can you make a trebuchet that could launch a person from main campus to the new consumer campus about a mile away?”

Connare was almost finished designing the new font and was on the lookout for a good name. When he heard the word trebuchet he said, “I thought that would be a great name for a font that launches words across the Internet.”

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July 26, 2011 - 1:21pm
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