Looking Backward to Look Forward: 80+ Type Revivals for the Digital Era

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Detail of a page from Biblia Sacra Hebraica, Chaldaice, Graece, & Latine… (Polyglot Bible) edited by Benedictus Arias Montanus (Antwerp: Christophe Plantin, 1469 – 1472), vol. 1. The italic typeface is by Robert Granjon.


Though it might sound surprising, attitudes about type revivals are quite polarized. What follows is a brief overview of the inherent debate.

Type traditionalists would have it that typefaces from throughout the history of type be maintained for use by designers. It is through this continuity that we keep certain cultural and historical threads intact, and give ourselves the opportunity to learn from and honor the wisdom and ingenuity of typefounders and punchcutters from earlier ages. Technology, a traditionalist would have it, should keep up with the best ways of realizing and perpetuating a typographical continuum, giving designers access to history’s best typefaces. Type modernists, on the other hand, look at the issue differently. In the view of the modernists, types of the past are of and for their time, not just stylistically, but technologically. Updating older typefaces would be an exercise in nostalgia; each new era requires its own unique typefaces.

Marian 1554 Italic, Robert Granjon (Parangon Italic, 1554) – Paul Barnes (Commercial Type, 2011)

Type revivals are interesting in the way they can transcend the debate over their very validity, provoking questions such as: Should a typeface be revived because it solves a current problem? How faithful need the revival type be to the original? How do we anticipate and adjust to changes in technology and taste?

Detail of a 2-line Canon Roman by Hendrik van den Keere (1570) from punches at the Plantin-Moretus Museum


What if the definition of a type revival was broadened in an exciting way, encouraging graphic designers to think more expansively and more deeply about revivals?

Renard no. 1, Hendrik van den Keere (2-line Canon Roman, 1570) – Fred Smeijers (TEFF, 1998)

The internationally-acclaimed graphic designer and design historian Paul Shaw has written a beautiful and inspiring new book. Revival Type: Digital Typefaces Inspired by the Past looks closely at more than 80 modern typefaces derived from a previous typeface, script, or other form of lettering. As Jonathan Hoefler describes it in the book’s foreword, it is “… a typographic tour told through astute profiles that highlight the distinctions and merits of different designs, and together illuminate one of typography’s most cherished treasures, its living history.”

Detail from p. 347 of Bucolica, Georgica at Aeneis by Virgil (Birmingham: John Baskerville, 1757)

Mrs. Eaves, John Baskerville (1757) – Zuzana Licko (Émigré, 1996)


Revival Type features typefaces ranging from the wonderful to the weird, including modern classics like Mrs. Eaves, designed by Zuzana Licko to be a more readable Baskerville (named after John Baskerville’s housekeeper-turned-wife); cult favorites like Renard, which Fred Smeijers based on the work of Hendrik van den Keere (the best 16th century Flemish punchcutter), and used to set his own 1997 book on type design, Counterpunch; innovative interpretations like Arbor, a modern take by Chester Jenkins on Caslon Italian, one of the oddest typefaces ever designed in the metal era; and experimental designs like Marian, for which Paul Barnes stripped a series of landmark typefaces down to their skeletal forms.

Detail of 10- and 5-line Pica Italian, and 7-line Pica Gothic Italian from Specimen of Plain and Ornamental Wood Type, Cut by Machinery by Wells & Webb, (Late D. Wells & Co.) (New York: J.W. Oliver, 1840).

Arbor, Italian (William Caslon IV, 1821) – Chester Jenkins (Village, 2008/2010)

Paul Shaw is an award-winning designer, typographer, and design historian based in New York City. He teaches at Parsons School of Design and the School of Visual Arts, and is the designer or co-designer of eighteen typefaces. Jonathan Hoefler is an award-winning typeface designer and founder of the Hoefler & Co. type foundry. He has designed original typefaces for Rolling Stone Magazine, New York Times Magazine, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the band They Might Be Giants.