This one’s for Teresa Nielsen Hayden, typography maven extraordinaire: today’s NY Times has an article by Andrew Blum (also in the IHT if you don’t want to register with the Times) about the redesign of the MoMA logo:

As might be expected of some of the most visually aware people in the world, those who have worked on the the Modern’s typefaces have a remarkable history of typographic self-scrutiny. In 1964, the museum replaced its geometric letterforms typical of the Bauhaus and German modernism with Franklin Gothic No. 2, one of the grandest and most familiar of American typefaces. Designed in 1902 by Morris Fuller Benton in Jersey City, Franklin is simultaneously muscular, with an imposing weight, and humanist, with letterforms reminiscent of the strokes of the calligrapher’s pen rather than a mechanical compass. “Quite simply, it’s a face that’s modern with roots,” Ivan Chermayeff, the designer who made the selection for the museum, recalled recently. “It has some character, and therefore some warmth about it, and some sense of the hand — i.e., the artist. All of which seemed to me to make a lot of sense for the Museum of Modern Art, which is not only looking to the future but also looking to the past.”

…Somewhere in the process of its evolution from Benton’s original metal type to the readily available digital one it had lost some of its spirit, becoming “a hybrid digital soulless version,” in [Ed] Pusz’s words. Metal type traditionally has slight variations between point sizes, to compensate for the properties of ink and differences in proportion. But digital versions of historic typefaces are often created from metal originals of a single point size — as was the case with the commercially available Franklin. It had been digitized from metal type of a small size, distending the proportions at its larger sizes. Once its defects were recognized, they became glaring: the letters were squat and paunchy, sapping all the elegance out of the white space between them. With some of the signage applications in the new building requiring type four feet tall, the small variations became “hideous,” Mr. Pusz said.

The museum approached the pre-eminent typographer Matthew Carter about “refreshing” the typeface. On the Mac in his third-floor walk-up apartment in Cambridge, Mass., Mr. Carter has designed many of the letterforms we swallow daily in unthinking gulps — among them typefaces for National Geographic, Sports Illustrated and The Washington Post, as well as Bell Centennial, used in phone books, and Verdana, the Microsoft screen font. Trained originally as a type founder — the person who forges type from hot metal — Mr. Carter pioneered typography’s transition to computer-based desktop publishing in the 1980’s when he helped found Bitstream, the first digital type foundry. He was one of the first to embrace the idea that type no longer necessarily began with metal forms and ended as an impression on paper; it could be designed, implemented and read without ever escaping the confines of the computer screen.

Refreshing Franklin was, Mr. Carter said, “like asking an architect to design an exact replica of a building.” But it was a job he was happy to do: “That opportunity to really study these letterforms and capture them as faithfully as I could was sort of an education to me.”

His task was aided by eight trays of metal type of Franklin Gothic No. 2 that had surfaced not long before in the Modern’s basement. Not knowing at the time what he would do with them, Mr. Pusz wheeled the trays one by one on a desk chair down the block to his temporary office on the Avenue of the Americas. Mr. Carter scanned printed samples from the trays, and using a software program called Fontographer, began the long process of plotting the curve points for each letter — a task requiring the full extent of his long-learned craft. He also had to invent the variety of characters typical of modern fonts that didn’t exist in the metal — currency signs and accents, for example. The resulting typeface — two slight variations, actually, one for signage and one for text — are now being tested on mockups by the Modern’s graphic design department to see how they look in different sizes and forms, and, after yet more tweaking, will soon be installed on computers across the museum.

“Much ado about nothing,” some might say, or “ridiculus mus” (if they’re the product of an old-fashioned classical education), but I approve of this kind of maniacal attention to detail. Kudos to all.


  1. Nice choice. Good procedure. I hope they release the finished versions.
    I never feel like a real type maven because I know major-league typographers. I’m just a sportswriter. They can hit the ball out of the park.

  2. Well, that’s what a maven is, right? The one who knows about it rather than the one who does it for a living. Anyway, you’ve forgotten more about the stuff than I’ll ever know, and that’s maven enough for me.

  3. The article mentions that modern digital typography typically doesn’t incorporate the notion of optical scaling, that is, these shape variations between point sizes that used to be universal in the days of metal type. But there’s nothing inherent to digital typography that prevents such a thing; it’s more a historical accident. Some earlier systems did have optical scaling, such as Donald Knuth’s TeX, which is still the favorite in the world of physics journals because of its mathematical typesetting capabilities. (Unfortunately the most popular TeX typeface, Computer Modern, is plug-ugly, but it’s optically scaled!)
    Adobe’s Multiple Master fonts sometimes also have an optical-scale axis. But they’re not in tremendously wide use today, and I doubt that many who use them know how to use that feature properly.

  4. I wonder if they’ll painfully rediscover the niceties developed over centuries in (hot type) typesetting, or if people will just get used to less attractive printed material.

  5. Some say that the latter has already happened. Another example is the widespread use of linearly squashed and stretched versions of normal-width fonts, instead of the condensed and extended versions that used to be specially designed for such purposes. In, say, 1983, computer-squashed Helvetica as opposed to Helvetica Condensed would have looked pretty weird to most eyes– the effect was possible with optical typesetting, but it wasn’t easier than actually using Helvetica Condensed. Now the squashed font is common, especially on signs, and the real condensed font is relatively rare.

  6. (And, by the way, I wouldn’t consider myself worthy of maven status either; I’m just a guy who has a friend who is a pretty good semiprofessional typographer and talks about fonts a lot.)

Speak Your Mind