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Ripoffs & Revivals — Choosing a Book Font in the Cybernated Age, Part 1

Ripoffs & Revivals — Choosing a Book Font in the Cybernated Age, Part 1

Type has been around for a long time. When the first “modern” typeface was cut, Beethoven could hear (and the Words in this Parentheſis might have been ſet like ſo). As it happens, there are lots of great book fonts that precede digital typesetting. Bembo, Garamond, Caslon, Baskerville, Bodoni, and Electra are a few. And their digital revivals are still in common use—to mixed results.

The problem is that typesetting ain’t what it used to be. In the days of physical type, each glyph was cut special for each point size. Forms were fudged accordingly—for the sake of legibility and technical limitations. Lowercase letters would grow proportionally larger and thin strokes would become proportionally thicker at smaller point sizes. In this cybernated age, each glyph is an infinitely scalable vector, and modern printing techniques have eliminated the crucial vintage phenomenon of ink spread.

This makes updating on old font for the digital paradigm far from straightforward. Even if the reanimators do credible jobs sculpting these vectors and accounting for changes to the printing process (and the often do!), the originals are still impossible to replicate. Extremely Close is a bustling village at the bottom of Uncanny Valley, population: digital revivals.

But it’s even more complicated than that. With the oldest fonts, we are dealing with revivals of revivals. Just as “chicken curry” is not a dish in its own right, neither is “Garamond” a typeface. Names like “Bembo” and “Caslon” are really nicknames that refer to groups of fonts with strong resemblances, typically from a single designer, not a definitive set of letterforms. Each of these early typefaces spawned its own legion of revivals throughout the metal-type era. Many of those, in turn, have since been realized digitally. Printing with legacy fonts is therefore perilous as well as hopeless.

To avoid being dissolved in this existential fog I recommend generally setting books with native digital ripoffs rather than pious revivals. But if you’re definitely going with a legacy font, you can do right by choosing a good digitization. To assist in this, and to spread my personal typeface agenda, I offer suggestions for the best digital revival and the best ripoff (or “spiritual successor”) of each of the following die-hards.

From Pietro Bembo's De Aetna, 1495.

From Pietro Bembo’s De Aetna, 1495.

Bembo (ca. 1496)

Font zero in the global spread of Roman type, originally designed by Francesco Griffo. It’s called Bembo because it was used to print Pietro Bembo’s De Aetna. It has an occasionally problematic R. Many digitizations end up looking like weaponized skeletons.

Best revival: Bembo Book (Monotype, 2005) by Robin Nicholas et al. The thins have been thickened! The R has been given a less audacious understudy!

Best free revival: ET Book by Dmitry Krasny, Bonnie Scranton, and Edward Tufte. ET Book was designed for use in ebooks, with thicker strokes to compensate for the lack of ink spread, which, incidentally also makes it useful as a contemporary print font. It could use an italic. On the other hand, it’s free to license.

Best ripoff: Arno (Adobe, 2007) by Robert Slimbach. A Renaissance-inspired original. Like Slimbach’s Minion, but with more character. It even includes a range of “optical masters” optimized for different point sizes.

From a type specimen printed by Conrad Berner in 1592 with Claude Garamond's original type

From a type specimen printed by Conrad Berner in 1592 with Claude Garamond’s original type.

Garamond (ca. 1532)

A Bembo-inspired set of typefaces from Claude Garamond. The pre-digital revivals are notoriously heterogeneous. The pool of source designs was tainted with misidentified type specimens by Jean Jannon.

Best free revival: EB Garamond (2011) by Georg Duffner. Pretty and free.

Best ripoff: Aragon (Canada Type, 2010) by Hans van Maanen. Garamond-like, but with a milder italic featuring a pelican-bill gee. Aragon’s serifs are a little chunkier, too.

Best sans companion: Aragon Sans (Canada Type, 2011) by Hans van Maanen.

Best free sans companion: Classiq (YOFonts, 1992-2013) by Yamaoka Yasuhiro. Comes in a whole bunch of weights and alternate styles, each of which is paired with an italic. Wicked. Free.

Best free serif companion: Cormorant (Catharsis Fonts, 2015) by Christian Thalmann. A gaunt, spiky take on the original. Cormorant works as a hyperstylized display font to pair with a less distractive Garalde text face. Comes in a range of styles and weights.

Think twice before you use: ITC Garamond. It’s an eyesore.

From a type specimen by William Caslon, 1728.

From a type specimen by William Caslon, 1728.

Caslon (ca. 1725)

Most versions of William Caslon’s exceedingly warm text faces contain a few frustrating details. The bearclaw C doesn’t set well next to lowercase letters. The heavy-metal T can produce funky spacing when followed by an aitch. Modern digital versions compensate with a T-aitch ligature. The question is whether you find the anachronistic solution more distractive than the problem. I do. So if you’re going with Adobe Caslon Pro because it came with InDesign, consider highlighting your Thes, Thises, Thats, Thens, and Thankfullys, and reverting them.

Best revival: Williams Caslon Text (Font Bureau, 2010) by William Berkson. An attempt to achieve the “dark but open” look of classic Caslon pages, without dogmatically adhering to “accuracy.” The italic is redrawn for greater readability.

Best ripoff: FF Clifford (Font Font, 1999) by Akira Kobayashi. Not truly a Caslon derivative, Clifford nevertheless shadows most of Caslon’s letterforms. The vertical proportions are rather different—Clifford is a bit stubbier. But it’s pretty and sober and literary. Also, it comes in three optical sizes, each of which was drawn separately by Kobayashi, rather than algorithm’d into existence. Moderately expensive, depending on how many sizes you license.

Think twice before you use: Big Caslon (Font Bureau, 1994) by Matthew Carter. It’s not for setting at small sizes, and it’s not patterned after “Caslon” the book font.

From Bucolica, Georgica, and the Aeneid, printed by John Baskerville, 1757.

From Bucolica, Georgica, and the Aeneid, printed by John Baskerville, 1757, via North Carolina Museum of Art.

Baskerville (ca. 1757)

John Baskerville is responsible for taking a polarizing step forward in type design that had Benjamin Franklin gushing and many others screaming that his thin strokes would induce blindness. Baskerville’s design are called “transitional” as they form the link between the calligraphy-informed old-style fonts and the rational moderns.

Best revival: Baskerville 1757 (Fountain Type, 2002) by Lars Bergquist. This is a brutally faithful translation. Bergquist set Baskerville 1757 with an eye toward recreating the look of John Baskerville’s original pages without perfectioning the forms. Baskerville 1757 even omits a bold weight, because Baskerville himself never cut one. It’s a get-off-my-lawn, Pragmatist replication of the original (not a revival of a revival). NB: It comes off a bit dustier (compare lowercase effs) than the Monotype Baskerville you may have seen in City Lights’ Pocket Poet Series.

Best ripoff: Mrs. Eaves (Emigre, 1996) by Zuzana Licko (pronounced “litchko”). Mrs. Eaves is everything that Baskerville 1757 isn’t: a completely liberated take on the original, with a reduced x-height, which strikes a literary and slightly precious figure. “Anachronistic” features—like a versatile Sans companion (licensed separately as Mr. Eaves) and fanciful ligatures, let alone a variety of weights—abound. It is instantly recognizable as a Baskerville face, but even-more instantly as Mrs. Eaves. Due it seems in part to reservations about letter spacing, many designers have relegated Mrs. Eaves to display settings. But it’s not too distractive for text, particularly poetry.

Best sans companion: Mr. Eaves (Emigre, 2009) by Zuzana Licko. Mr. Eaves comes in both saucy (“Sans” )and sober (“Modern”) versions that match Mrs. Eaves’ forms specifically, but would work as a complement to any given Baskerville, particularly in caps or small caps. (The small lowercase looks even more dramatic in a sans font, and could upstage your text font.)

Think twice before you use: Baskerville Old Face. In any of its digital revivals (of a revival), it’s better at large sizes.

An original Bodoni specimen

From Giambattista Bodoni’s Manuale Tipografico

Bodoni (ca. 1790)

Giambattista Bodoni didn’t cut the first “modern” typeface. Firmin Didot did. But it’s Bodoni’s designs that have endured as a Didone text font. They may have scandalized some with their high contrast, extremely upright strokes and (nearly) unbracketed serifs, but they were marginally less offensive than Didot’s, which for all their elegance, were about as cold as a marble statue. Due to its hairline strokes, Bodoni is particularly vulnerable to being misused in modern printing. Set it too small and those characteristic hairlines paired with upright strokes create an optical effect called “dazzle,” which sounds good, but it’s bad—the text becomes an unrecognizable rhythm of vertical stripes. So, always check your proofs!

Best revival: ITC Bodoni Twelve by Jim Parkinson, . The serifs are finessed than in other Bodoni revivals, and the thins are thick enough to hold up at text sizes.

Filosofia on the cover of William Dalrymple's Return of a King

Filosofia on the cover of William Dalrymple’s Return of a King, via Emigre

Filosofia as a text face

Filosofia in Simon Winchester’s Atlantic, via Emigre


Bodoni Egyptian. image via

Bodoni Egyptian. image via

Best ripoff: Filosofia (Emigre, 1996) by Zuzana Licko. Like Licko’s Mrs. Eaves, Filosofia is so useful as a display face that some overlook it for text settings. Don’t let this happen to you!

Best slab companion: Bodoni Egyptian (ShinnType, 1999) by Nick Shinn. Bodoni reimagined as a low-contrast slab serif. Novel in concept, classic in form, it gives your Didone-loving book project a contemporary vibe.

Think twice before you use: ITC Bodoni Seventy-Two (International Type Face Corporation, 1994) by Janice Fishman, Holly Goldsmith, Jim Parkinson, and Sumner Stone. The name refers to the recommended point size.

From an Electra type specimen.

From an Electra type specimen.

Electra (1935)

Electra is a neutral but exquisite typeface by William Addison Dwiggins, designer of several great workhorse fonts in the pre-digital 20th century. It’s got one of the best gees in the business.



prensa-specimenturnip-specimenBest revival: Parkinson Electra (Linotype, 2010) by Jim Parkinson.

Best ripoff: Prensa (Font Bureau, 2003) by Cyrus Highsmith.

Best serif companion: Turnip (Font Bureau, 2012) by David Jonathan Ross. More cheerful than Electra (it’s probably the rounded terminals!), Turnip’s character nevertheless derives from a Dwiggins-like principle of construction. It comes in a bunch of weights.

There you go. All opinions are my own, and I’m probably wrong.

Param Anand Singh

About The Author

Param Anand Singh

Param Anand Singh is a poet and translator who used to be called R.M. O'Brien. A sticker he made might be in a movie.

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