Times New Roman font is the most used character in the world, but also the one with the most controversial story: in fact, almost eighty years after its creation, it is still debated about who its creator is.
For more than fifty years, in the last century, it has been attributed to a giant of the typography: Stanley Morison. In the late 1980s, however, a Canadian printer found that Morison may have copied the font from someone else.
What has always been told about the birth of the Times New Roman is this: in 1929 Morison wrote a sharp article in which he said that the Times Old Roman, the character of the Times, was dated, graceless and in need of help. The newspaper gave him a straight line and gave Morison the task of directing the creation of a new font. Morison completed the assignment and in 1932 the Times New Roman made its debut on the spacious pages of the London newspaper.
Some authoritative art historians claim that the printed book is chronologically the first example of industrial design, since even if this form of applied art was officially created in the late 18th century, however, the ancient printers had to deal with aesthetic issues immediately. Among the many problems of form and aesthetics that the first typographers faced, there was above all that of the drawing of characters. The need to combine the legibility and aesthetics of the printed page was a matter not just and only the skill of the Renaissance sculptors allowed to solve the problem. Accustomed to seeing them, we do not notice certain things. We read a newspaper and a book, and take it for granted to know how to do it, without realizing the work of design and design behind it. And yet, it is everyone’s experience what happens when we find ourselves for the first time in front of a text printed with gothic characters.
These pointed lines seem strange to us, they remind us of the Cyrillic rather than the usual characters. In practice, we are not able to read them. So, perhaps, we realize how much work there is behind something that seems obvious to us. Probably, if a 16th century reader woke up today, he would not know how to read the sliding board with the railway timetables at the station, or the trivial numbers in the led of a liquid crystal clock. Perhaps he would not even realize that it is letters and numbers. Because, even if very slowly, even in the writing sector, things change and evolve.
Very slowly, however, because the world of typography is conservative by nature, and the changes are generally slight, and must pass even centuries because, adding, you get to “substantial” changes. For four centuries, in practice, the press has not changed, and only with the birth of the presses and methods of photographic reproduction the old process of the press has changed, even if only in part. And even the computer revolution, if you think about it, is more of a form than of substance. These are practical improvements, not conceptual revolutions.
For the typefaces the same thing happened. Except for rare exceptions the characters have remained those, with very few modifications, for centuries. Of course, there were those who knew how to draw them better than many others, but also the beautiful Bodonian characters moved in the wake of rigorous tradition. Only at the end of the 19th century the frenzy of Liberty and the birth of advertising graphics led to the creation of absolute novelties. The imagination began to get a little ‘too much fun. Of course, that an artist also invents the characters of a billboard designed by him is good. The writing thus harmonizes with the style of the design. Masterful Toulouse-Lautrec posters, for example, and perfect characters he invented for the posters themselves. But when certain fancy creations are brought to the “normal” white page of a book or a newspaper, then things change. They risk being illegible.
For this reason, after many imaginative solutions, at a certain point it was reversed and the emphasis was on the simplicity and readability of the typeface. The beginning of the 20th century saw a flourish of research aimed at improving and refining the types. Great was the push due to the “Bauhaus”, which at the beginning did not even have to worry about the decoration of the characters, and that instead ended up becoming a reference point in the sector. The types invented or revised were many, also by virtue of requests arising from new needs (the characters for the bright urban boards, for example, such as those for subways and railway stations).
To understand the mechanism that leads to the creation of a character, to its transformation, but also its derivation from the past examples, we can take as an example what happened in the thirties in the headquarters of one of the most famous newspapers in the world, The Times of London. At the time, all in all, the Times was not, from a typographical point of view, one of the worst newspapers, indeed. However, more than one reader had complained about the poor quality and readability of his print. Therefore a talented designer and engraver was called who worked for the Monotype Corporation, the real industry giant: Stanley Morison.
In the beginning, Morison made an attempt using ancient characters such as the Plantin and the Baskerville, which the Monotype had recently modernized. But put to the test, these characters, though so effective in the printing of books, proved to be unsuitable for printing a newspaper. He decided to design a new one. As we have said, in printmaking revolutions do not happen in practice almost never, and Morison for drawing started from the ancient Plantin, created in Amsterdam in the 16th century by the printer Christophe Plantin. The advantage of this type was to allow a more concentrated print, with considerable space savings, even without losing legibility. Morison’s intention was clear: using a beautiful ancient character, revisited in a modern way, he wanted to make sure that the typographic quality of a newspaper approached that of a well-printed book.
He called his character Times New Roman, and the newspaper first used it on October 3, 1932. Very few readers noticed the change, and no protest letter came to the Times, either to report the changes, or to complain about the readability of the character. Rightly, Morison himself considered this a triumph. The fact that millions of ordinary readers did not realize that something had changed, and that if they could read the paper better, the fact was due to a change in the characteristics of the press, in such a conservative environment, so reluctant to changes like that of the typography, it was to be considered an absolute success.
Times New Roman was not adopted by many other newspapers. Too refined for popular newspapers, too expensive for newspapers printed for savings. However, its beauty was immediately noticed by the book printers, who immediately adopted it. Most of the books printed in the 20th century use it. Times New Roman does not know old age, because even today it is a widespread character and is also widely used in word processing. There is no word processor worthy of the name that has not supplied it.
The problem is that some proofs (drafts and drawings of the letters and corresponding brass models) suggest that the true father of the font was not Morison nor another printer, but a Boston boat designer named William Starling Burgess. Burgess is famous in his field for having designed some beautiful and innovative hulls (three of his boats won the America’s Cup), airplanes for the British navy and some experimental automobiles. Before doing all these things, however, when he was only 26 years old, in 1904, Burgess had a moment to approach typography. He wrote to the US section of the Lanston Monotype Corporation, asking for a font to be created according to certain criteria indicated by him. He wanted to use it for the documents of the shipyard he was opening in Marblehead, Mass. He drew the letters in pencil and sent them; Lanston began to prepare proof letters, but then Burgess abandoned the project. Lanston Monotype then attempted to sell the proofs of character at Times Magazine in 1921, but the offer was rejected, and Burgess’s project, simply labeled “Number 54,” was archived for half a century.
It was Canadian typographer Gerald Giampa who came across Number 54 in 1987, shortly after buying what was left in the Lanston Monotype archive. The resemblance of the character with the Times New Roman was impressive. Knowing that he held something precious (the possible proof of plagiarism), Giampa asked Mike Parker, one of the world’s leading typographical authorities, to analyze what he had found. Parker became convinced that Burgess was the true creator of the font, and not only did he write it in an authoritative trade magazine, but went to work to complete the character of Burgess.
It spread in June 2009 and called it “Starling”, as the second name of Burgess. As is known, the Times New Roman does not include a true italic, but uses a standard that was used at Monotype. The italics of the Starling, elaborated on the basis of the proofs of characters on which Burgess had stopped working, is the first true authentic italic of Times New Roman.
The success of the font is due in part to the same reasons why it was perfect for the Times. As Morison wrote, Times New Roman is not “large and open, generous and broad”, but “bigoted and narrow, medium and puritan”; focuses on practicality.
Morison designed the character so that as many words as possible on each sheet, saving space and money. At the same time, however, the words do not seem squashed in the columns, but they are comfortable. The idea was that it was cheap and readable. It must be remembered that the Times was particular because the paper on which it was printed was not thin and grayish but thick and white, more or less like an ordinary sheet for the printer. This is why the Times New Roman has not been used much by other newspapers but has received an excellent reception from books and magazines.
In the last twenty years, Times New Roman has emerged from the world of paper. In the early 1990s, Microsoft’s operating system, Windows, adopted it as a default font, and today is one of the fonts that Google offers for writing emails. The factors that made the character great in its debut in 1932 – readability and economy – are no longer so important, given the size of the characters in digital can be changed with a click; what has made the character strong and resistant to time is its being sophisticated and solid, with a discreet personality.
Morison died in 1967 and many of the tests that could answer definitively to the question about who invented the character no longer exist: a fire destroyed the shipyard of Burgess in 1918, a German bomb exploded near the office of the Monotype of London in 1941, and a flood that hit Giampa’s home on Prince Edward Island in 2000 destroyed the evidence the Canadian had collected in the Lanston Monotype archives. Morison never said he had “invented” the character. He preferred to say that he was the superintendent of his creation. To date, The Times website attributes the character to Morison, to Victor Lardent who had designed some of the drafts, and perhaps to Burgess.
The Times used Times New Roman for 40 years before changing it. The success of this font, however, has not stopped, mainly because it is used by default by many Windows programs, including Office. Now the Times uses Times Classic and Times Modern for his newspaper, but nobody can forget the Times New Roman, the most famous font in the world is defined as readable and proud, but also boring and serious.