Thirty-six point Gorilla

Essays by Emily King
2 054 words11 min read

The naming of typefaces has never been dictated by a single convention. In the days of proprietary type, when type was made by the manufacturers of type-setting machines, there was some coherence amongst the names within a single library. Now that typefaces from many different periods and sources can be united upon the desktop, the list of typefaces used in even a single piece of contemporary design can make fairly extraordinary reading:

‘Abbess, Altoona, Acropolis, Dolmen Decorated, Egbert, Enlivan, Falstaff, Garage Gothic, Helvetica, Melody, Monster, Narly, Pinwheel, Phrastic, Siena’

Each of this spectacular roll call of typefaces was used by the Los Angeles design group ReVerb in a recent Stella Artois Campaign. The success of the best known amongst them, Helvetica, has often been credited to its name. Originally called Neue Haas-Grotesk by the Haas Foundry of Munchenstein, the Stempel Foundry of Frankfurt renamed the face in order to sell it to a non-German speaking market. Promoted with Alpine imagery and described as a sans serif that was ‘devoid of personality’, the name and the typeface gelled in a way that must be at least partly responsible for its early success and, more recently, its vilification by sections of the design community. Other names within this extravagant list range from the adjectival, through the associative, to the just about impenetrable.

Applying proper nouns to typeface designs could be compared to the naming of any range of products. Yet current type catalogues contain far more incongruous names than those within analogous publications. Scan the latest Ikea catalogue and you find that every item within it has been given a solid, yet mildly exotic, Scandinavian name. A section on storage offers: Totte, Knuff, Endel, Frö, Papp, Moppe, Hemlig and Peng. To an English speaking audience this presents a unified whole, a set of boxes, shelves and racks that will conquer disorder in a systematic manner. A Dulux paint catalogue lists numerous shades, each one a variation on all the others: Dusky Apricot, English Rose, Sea Breeze. Choose between Evensong and Midnight and you are making a decision of degree, not of kind. But unlike these collections, which present the prospective customer with a range of products each of which has a name generated by a single system, just about any contemporary type catalogue will offer an extraordinarily mismatched list. A Monotype catalogue offers the extremes of the range from the industrially minimal OCR-A, through the historical touchstones of Caslon or Garamond, to the daft Bill’s Fat Freddy’s Caps.

The diversity of the names of the typefaces that are currently in use is a product of the wide range of circumstances from which these typefaces have emerged. Typeface credits, like ReVerb’s above, often tell of a strange brew of typefaces, some of which have been used in a very predictable manner alongside others which have been plucked from one context and applied in quite another. The different cultural and industrial circumstances in which type design has taken place are reflected in the names of faces. In many cases the name of a typeface speaks clearly of its origins, and in a sense the list in the Font Book offers an abbreviated history of the design of type.


The sixteenth century typographer Robert Granjon is usually credited as the first to have attached abstract names to his typeface designs, heading specimens with evocative titles such as La Gaillarde. Other type specimens of the same period appear unnamed, suggesting that the practice did not catch on immediately. It was only with the early nineteenth century proliferation of type design, a response the needs of advertisers, that naming typefaces became the standard practice. In Britain, the 1839 Design Copyright Act, an act designed to prevent the piracy of industrial ornament, offered a degree of protection to named typefaces. The first face to be registered was Besley’s Clarendon type in 1845. It has been argued that Besley’s foundry was not the first to offer a typeface of this kind, but the act of naming the face and registering that name secured the grounds to defend its ownership. By the mid nineteenth century typeface names were acting as marketing tools and marks of property and effectively this remains the case.

But while motives for naming a typeface design might have remained pretty consistent, naming schemes have varied a great deal. Advertisements of American foundries from the mid nineteenth century presented a range of fantastical offerings, the series from the Shniedenwend & Lee Foundry for example includes Nymphic, Mystic, Glyphic, Aesthetic, and Attic. In 1892, after most of the small foundries joined together to become the American Type Founders (ATF), many flights of fantasy were curtailed. In order to compete with the new hot metal type-setting machine manufacturers, ATF began to concentrate on a fewer well-stocked families. During this period, both the traditional foundries and the new hot metal industry began to offer scholarly historical revivals under suitable names. Now very familiar these include Caslon, Garamond, Jensen.

Some typeface names clearly reveal the ideas and beliefs behind them. Optimistic universalism led to a style of naming which has spanned decades and bridged typesetting technologies. But while names such as Renner’s Futura, Frutiger’s Univers or Novarese’s Eurostile lay bare an ideology, others that originate from equally strong beliefs remain relatively mute. The prefix DIN, short for Deutsche Industrial Normal, is a remnant of an era when standardisation appeared to offer the key to expansion and prosperity and a commitment to progress required that the past be effaced.

Since the tools of typeface production fell into the hands of designers in the late 1980s, the naming of typefaces has for the most part become the sole province of those designers. Held in check only by legal advisers, and in some cases by the faint hearts of their distributors - famously, Emigre couldn’t stomach Jonathan Barnbrook’s Manson - this has allowed contemporary typefaces to go by an extraordinary range of epithets. To some extent it has amounted to a restoration of the variety of texture in typeface names that existed in the previous century. While many typefaces still find their names through well established methods, maybe the most typical being after the designer (Keedy Sans), their spouse (Priska) or their offspring (Carmella), a number of new naming strategies have emerged.

The act of naming a font often requires designers to confront their history. Some, such as Jonathan Hoefler, play with tradition knowingly. Teasingly applying numbers to the different versions of his type designs - his Fetish face comes in versions including 126 and 338 - Hoefler admits that these suffixes are arbitrary but suggests that they ‘feel like they might have been found in the old ATF book.’ Other designers seem to refer strongly to the type names of the past, but appear to do so through a coincidence of sensibility. The products of many independent foundries go by names which are very close to those of earlier novelty types and nineteenth names such as Freak, Vulcan, Monkish or Rimpled Oldstyle would not look out of place within their specimens. More confrontational are designers such as Elliott Peter Earl’s, who seems to be attacking the bland faith in the future that produced names such as Optima with his disturbed family, Dyslexia, Dysplasia and Dysphasia. Possibly most explicit concerning his relationship with the past is P Scott Makela, who cuts short any notion of a historical continuum with Dead History.


Certain typeface names appear to echo one another, but were actually coined with very different aims in mind. Robin Nicholas’s Nimrod was released by Monotype in the mid 1980s. Thrustingly aggressive, the name was intended to attract attention in the competitive market of professional newspaper type-setters. Also named after a machine of war, Jonathan Barnbrook’s Exocet is the outcome of a much more involved consideration of the relationship between the sounds of words, their appearance and their meanings. Designing the typeface during the Falklands when the word was in common currency, Barnbrook chose Exocet as an elegant and monumental term which acknowledges the weapon’s goal, but denies the bloody brutality of its methods. Like Barnbrook, many other designers now use names that resonate well beyond the culture of type. In particular, the names of the typefaces used within music magazines could often be interchanged those of the bands. With both face and band emerging from a post-punk sensibility, the most obvious example is Blur.

It has been argued that digital technology has rendered typefaces ephemeral and to some extent this has influenced how they are named. Barnbrook suggests that it is no longer appropriate to apply your own name to a face, because that carries the implication that you are offering your life’s work, which is unlikely to be the case. In what might be the antithesis of appointing a typeface with your own name, Rîan Hughes let the font Untitled One name itself. Carrying the default name offered on a desktop, Untitled One feigns authorlessness. But arguments about ephemerality belie that fact that some designers continue to design large families of text faces which they hope will survive a significant number of years. Designer Luc(as) de Groot admits that applying names to these kind of faces is problematic, having been in the process of designing one for two years that still hasn’t suggested an appropriate tag. The name of De Groot’s earlier typeface, Thesis, began as Parenthesis, a reference to his quirky professional name. Only later did it arrive at its current, extremely unthreatening version. Martin Majoor, the designer of Scala and Scala Sans, typefaces which are becoming part of the national identity of the Netherlands, arrived at the name when the serif version was part of the corporate identity of a Dutch music centre. Previous names for the face, including Adagio and Allegro, were rejected for sounding too much like something thought up by a car manufacturer. Majoor, who acknowledges that any poetic, evocative yet fairly unspecific name is likely to be applied to a model of Fiat, suggests a pre-emptive Eastern European version of the face, Skoda.

Designer for the Font Bureau, Tobias Frere-Jones claims to find naming typefaces the most difficult part of the design process. Viewing a face as a tool rather than a finished design, he believes that it is like naming something that does not yet fully exist. Frere-Jones often credits his source within the names of his faces, amongst them he has acknowledged origins as various as the work of fellow designers (Reiner Script) and road signage systems (Interstate). With colleague Matthew Butterick, Frere-Jones invented a system for the naming of successful typefaces: the name must have three syllables; the stress must be upon the second syllable; the name must end with a vowel, preferably a. Never seriously applied, the system does account for a number of the names within the Font Bureau catalogue. But while the existing Agenda, Armada and Bodega strike an appropriate tone, the potential Saliva or Angina do not.

If there is any uniting factor between the various processes by which contemporary typefaces are named, it has to be a prevailing self-consciousness. Just about every strategy for naming fonts has been exhumed and re-explored and this makes it impossible to apply names without a touch of knowingness or irony. Self-consciousness is not only a theme within the naming of typefaces, but has become part of the naming of almost anything - definitely of pets, and in some cases children. But irony notwithstanding, typeface names remain essential tools, especially in a period when the professional vocabulary to describe typefaces is being forgotten and, in any case, many contemporary typefaces would never have submitted to that terminology. Names of fashionable typefaces have become well-known, often taking on an emblematic quality. However much a designer might fret over the application of a name, the more current that name becomes, the more likely it is to float free of its intended meaning.