Font Histories

Ever wonder how a particular font got its name? Or where it came from? Really, what does Helvetica mean? Did the Romans use Times New Roman? Is Arial named after a mermaid? Let’s find out.

The Helvetica font is one of today’s most popular fonts. It is a sans serif style font developed in 1957 by Max Miedinger and has become one of the most anonymous looking fonts out there. It has been used so often that it has become commonplace. In Latin, Helvetica means ‘Swiss.’ In fact, the Helvetica type face is based on the Swiss style of graphic design: a preference for san serif fonts, photography rather than illustrations and use of strict grid systems. Swiss style graphics became popular in the 50′s through early 70′s and Helvetica became an icon of this style. Most U.S. graphic designers embraced the Helvetica typeface during this time. Even after Helvetica fell out of favor, it was so widely available at typesetters and printers that it remained popular. Helvetica became the sans serif of choice with the introduction of laser printers and desktop publishing software, ensuring its place in modern times.

Arial is another familiar font found everywhere, thanks to the dominance of Microsoft. During the early days of desktop publishing and as a workaround to using a specific PostScript font, developers began making PostScript font clones. Monotype developed a Helvetica knockoff and named it Arial. It appears to match the weight and proportions of Helvetica but is different in a variety of ways. When Microsoft adopted TrueType as their standard font format, they chose to go with Arial over Helvetica. Apple, on the other hand, went for the Helvetica over Arial and paid licensing fees to use the real thing. Designers tend to shun Arial as a cheap knock off and as an unfaithful imitation of a no-longer-in-fashion typeface but clients often demand it because their existing work uses Arial and they have Arial on their Microsoft machines.

Futura was another font that gained popularity during the 20th century. Paul Renner developed Futura in 1927 as a geometric sans serif font during a time of fierce competition between foundries. It has been said that Futura was the starting point of san serif history in our century. When first developed, the Futura font was radical and impressive with its strict geometric outline, lack of embellishments and unconventional shapes of its letters. Futura is unique in that it is the only typeface that has been granted copyright as an original work of art. Futura is the font of choice for Volkswagen and has been since the 1960′s.

Verdana is a different type of font than those previously discussed. Verdana is a typeface developed specifically for the screen rather than the printed page. Virginia Howlett, Microsoft’s Program Manager of Typography, wanted a scalable TrueType interface font designed specifically for readability at text sizes for the release of Windows 95. She hired Monotype and its designers, Matthew Carter and Tom Rickner, to design a font to meet these needs. When coming up with the name Verdana, Virginia was brainstorming names based on the word ‘verde’ for green, symbolizing the Evergreen State (Washington) and the Emerald City (Seattle) that are Microsoft’s home. Matthew Carter mentioned the age old tradition of naming fonts after the designer’s daughters. Since Virginia’s daughter was named ‘Ana’, the natural choice became, ‘Verdana.’

The Tahoma font is the actual basis for Verdana, think of Verdana as the wider cousin of Tahoma. Matthew Carter and Tom Rickner were the design team behind Tahoma as well. Tahoma is a font designed for the screen just like Verdana but it has an interesting distinction. It is a highly popular font in the Persian community. In fact, it is the most popular font found on Persian websites. The reason for this is because Tahoma contains the Persian subset.

Another Microsoft inspired font, Georgia, was born soon after Verdana. Georgia is a screen serif font similar to a heavier looking Times New Roman. It has a traditional look yet is very pleasant to view on screen. The idea for Georgia was intended for the Microsoft Network as an on screen alternative to Times. Both Georgia fonts and Verdana fonts are freely downloadable from Microsoft’s website. According to Microsoft’s Simon Earnshaw, ‘The whole point is to make them available to as many users as possible. The more people have the fonts, the more confident a web author can feel when specifying the fonts.’

For early Mac users, the Chicago font is an old friend. Chicago was originally released as the official system font on the original Macintosh computers. Chicago, a san serif font, looked good on screen because of its legible and pleasant bitmap. It was the default font in Macintosh Systems 1-7.6. Chicago was used for both menus and buttons throughout Apple’s operating system up until Mac OS 8 when Apple discarded Chicago in favor of Charcoal. But Chicago didn’t demise with the operating system. It is now found in some of the earlier LCD screens of iPods.

Another Apple system font is called Geneva. Designed in 1983 by Susan Kare, the same designer of Chicago, it is a bitmap that imitates the icons of Swiss style design, Helvetica and Univers. Once TrueType became available on the Macintosh platform, Geneva was converted from a bitmap font to a TrueType font.

Eurostile is a font designed by Italian font designer Aldo Novarese. It’s dynamic, modern feel reflects the zeitgeist of the 50′s and 60′s and is intended for use in headlines and small bodies of text. Novarese took a sans serif font and distorted the shape into more square and rectangular forms. Originally Novarese and A. Butti designed a font in 1952 called Microgramma which proved to be a popular typeface. However, Microgramma was only available in capitol letters. Ten years later, Aldo Novarese added a full character set, including lowercase letters, and Eurostile was born. The square shaped letters with their rounded corners creates a look synonymous with the designs, technology and machinery of the 50′s.

Times New Roman is one of the most successful typefaces in modern history. In 1932, The Times of London felt a need for a change in its typography. They wanted to create a more legible typeface without sacrificing the contents of the columns. After numerous committee meetings, a 9 point type was finally commissioned and cut. The Monotype Corporation produced a full range of the new typeface. Consultations with experts were held about the type’s legibility. Not only did they examine the type, they spent many hours actually reading it, in varying lighting conditions to determine whether the font would cause fatigue after long sessions with the paper. It was eventually proved that Times New Roman was indeed readable in both good and bad lighting conditions. The switch to the new font generated a great deal of controversy and to this day, Times New Roman is the only typeface designed by a newspaper. In the 40s, publishers embraced Times New Roman for both its legibility and its space saving attributes. They could print more and use less paper during a time of paper rationing. It has since become the most successful typefaces in print and it has been said that most English readers come into contact with it on a daily basis.

Courier is a typeface reminiscent of the old typewriter styles. Its characters all have the same width making it a monospaced font. Courier is considered one of the more recognized typefaces of the 20th century, a symbol of typewritten bureaucracy, classified documents and stark facts. Courier was created by IBM in 1955 and soon became the typewriter font of choice. This wasn’t due to IBM’s dominance in the industry though. Rather because IBM failed to claim a proprietary stake in the font. Other typewriter makers adopted Courier. At the time, Courier looked modern and progressive. Because of its status as a typewriter font and its inferred symbolic government bureaucracy look, Courier is commonly used to convey secret government documents and espionage. It is also the font of choice for screenplay writers. No longer considered modern and progressive, Courier is often used to invoke nostalgia.

Not only are today’s modern fonts based on older technology such as typewriters, many date back hundreds of years. Claude Garamond, a 16th century Frenchman, was one of the first independent typographers and was the first to offer affordable type to printers. His typefaces, developed between the 1530′s and 1545 are considered the highlight of 16th century typography. Garamond’s type was based on Roman italic cuts by Francesco Griffo decades beforehand. Over the years Garamond refined the type in later versions, adding his own variations. Today’s modern day version of Garamond type, ITC Garamond, was designed in 1977 by Tony Stan. It is loosely based on Garamond’s 16th century forms and is suitable for advertising, packaging, manuals and handbooks.

Fonts have survived the ages, making their way from cut forms to typewriters to the computer screen. While they might not be named after mermaids, each has a fascinating story behind its creation.