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Type Families

By: Allan Haley
We take it for granted that typeface families help us organize our type libraries and create documents with consistent type styles, but, in fact, the concept of type families a relatively new idea, dating only from the turn of this century. That may not seem like yesterday, but when you consider that type has been with us for over five hundred years, it´s not so long ago.

At first, typefaces were identified only by their sizes. Remember that early fonts weren´t sold as products, but were manufactured by the individual printers who used them. That meant that Aldus Manutius had his own fonts, Garamond had his, and Bodoni had his. To get the particular typeface he wanted, all Bodoni had to do was call out to one of his workers, “Hey, Luigi, get me that font of 8 point type!” (Actually, the idea of standard type sizes didn't evolve until the middle of the nineteenth century, but that´s another story.)

Over time, some typefaces became identified with their designers, or with the foundry that supplied the type. “That font of 8 point type” became “that font of 8 point Caslon type” or “that font of 8 point Baskerville type.” Even so, naming and organizing type and fonts wasn´t a big deal because there weren't that many fonts to worry about.


The industrial revolution of the mid-1800s changed everything, including the world of type. The mass-production and mass-marketing of products to be sold required advertising, and, then as now, advertising required new and special typefaces. This sudden demand for type faces created a virtual explosion of new typeface designs. Type founding became a big business, and foundries hired staffs of designers to create new typefaces to sell to eager printers. Typefaces began to flood the market.

Besides creating new designs, however, foundries met the demand for type another way: by copying popular designs from other foundries and re-releasing them under different names. The stream of new typefaces and duplicated designs was certainly confusing to printers of the day, but more importantly for the history of type, the duplications began to hurt the bottom line of individual type foundries. Foundries could no longer count on a good return on their investments in new fonts. To solve this problem, in 1892 a merger of more than twenty individual type foundries was formed. The resulting new company was called American Type Founders.

One of the goals of the ATF merger was to eliminate duplication of type development, marketing, and sales efforts, as well as the duplication of typefaces within the libraries of the member companies. ATF had to make sense out of all the typefaces inherited from the separate companies. The man who got the job of untangling this knot of typefaces was Morris Fuller Benton (1872-1948). He solved the problem with an invention of his own-typeface families.



Benton´s idea was that a family of type consists of a number of typefaces which show a strong resemblance, but have individual design variances. Despite differences in weight, width or style, the members of a typeface family all maintain the basic characteristics of the parent design. With Benton´s invention of the type family, typefaces like Thorne Fat Face, Full Face Roman, and Extra Condensed No. 4 all became part of the Bodoni family. Benton proceeded to sort out most of the inherited ATF typefaces into families. Later, he expanded on his idea to create new families.

The Cheltenham, Century, Cloister and Stymie typeface families are just a few of the designs for which Benton was directly responsible. Benton´s original idea has been modified several times since the late 1800s. Type families have become larger, more diverse, and better thought-out. For example, to provide a full range of completely compatible variants that were planned in an orderly fashion, in 1957 the Swiss designer Adrian Frutiger designed a new kind of type family. Since Frutiger felt that the traditional system of providing names (bold, semi-bold, semi-bold condensed, and so on) was confusing and outdated, he proposed what he believed was a logical and systematic number scheme. In Frutiger´s system, each typeface was given a two-digit suffix. The first digit specified the alphabet weight, with the figure 3 indicating the lightest weights in the family and the figure 8 the boldest. The second digit identified the typeface proportion, with higher numbers for condensed designs and lower numbers for expanded designs. In addition, if the second number was odd, the typeface was a roman design; if it was even, the typeface was italic. Thus, Univers 39 is a very light condensed roman; Univers 53 is a medium-weight extended; Univers 55 is a medium-weight roman of normal proportions; Univers 56 is a medium-weight italic and Univers 85 is an extra black roman, etc.


Just like real families, today´s typeface families come in all shapes and sizes. Some are even made up of different sub-families. ITC Stone is a perfect example. The sub-groups consist of serif, sans, and an informal. Each of these has roman and italic versions in three weights, for a total of eighteen individual typefaces. The three basic designs have the same cap heights, lowercase x-heights, stem weights and general proportions. Each typeface has been designed to stand on its own, but can also be mixed easily with other members of the family.


Because the current leading digital font formats are limited to 256 characters per font, and since type designers have increasingly become dissatisfied with this restriction, the idea of a typeface has expanded to include multiple fonts of the same alphabet design. Designers are now creating large, multi-font families with hundreds and sometimes even thousands of additional characters. Mark Jamra´s Latienne family, is a good example. In addition to caps, lower case, numbers and a few punctuation marks, Jamra has created small caps, oldstyle numbers and a whole series of swash and alternate characters.


Another example is Jim Spiece´s revival of Bernhard Gothic - a family of 12 typefaces. Not only did he include the oldstyle figures and all the alternate characters and special ligatures originally drawn by Lucian Bernhard (1885-1972) for ATF in 1930, he even added a few of his own to give today´s graphic designer a more versatile typeface range.




Allan Haley is president of Resolution, a knowledge development company dedicated to helping people in corporate and publishing environments communicate better. Mr. Haley is a regular contributor to publications such as Dynamic Graphics and Step-By-Step Graphics. He has written four books on type and graphic communication. You can contact Allan at fontsmart@aol.com.

All fonts used in this story are available from Dsgnhaus. Mark Jamra´s Latienne and Jim Spiece's version of Bernhard Gothic are exclusive DsgnHaus fonts. 
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