Why Did People Start Naming Typefaces After Themselves?

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Illustration: Peader Thomas

When the time comes for soon-to-be parents to name their newborns, there are plenty of books and websites to help find a fashionable or distinctive moniker. A typeface is a type designer’s baby yet there is zilch on what to name it after all those months or years of labor. If such a guidebook were available, it might offer the same wisdom as this paraphrase from the precis to a popular infant-naming resource:

There’s a lot of pressure in choosing a font name. It’ll be one of the first things people learn about your typeface and will be a part of its life. Though naming your new face is a daunting process, it can also be fun. Some designers discuss and research—and argue about the name until it is released. Other designers just hear a name and love the sound. There are about as many ways to pick a name as there are names themselves.

Even if naming a font is not actually that difficult, the result is consequential. It shouldn’t be too loony or obscure or uptight. One of the more conventional options is to name it after a living or dead family member or friend, or sometimes even a fictional character. To play it safe, though, while ensuring a modicum of immortality, it might be just as simple as the designer naming it after himself or herself—which is done all the time.

The following names are memorable—Robert Granjon, Philippe Grandjean de Fouchy, John Baskerville, Claude Garamond, Pierre Simon Fournier, Aldus Manutius, Nicolas Jenson and, of course, Giambattista Bodoni—because revivals of the original types they designed or punch-cut bear their surnames today.

And by virtue of these names being so prominent, their brands live on from one iteration to the next, one generation to the next. If these same fonts were anonymously conceived, they could have been forgotten long ago. But a name provides pedigree, like a signature on a painting. History remembers those who are known. A famous name makes a famous typeface, or vice versa.

Lending proper names to fonts did not all of a sudden happen. “In Bodoni’s epic Manuale Tipografico of 1818, over 100 romans and italics are shown with the name of a city as a kind of nickname,” Tobias Frere-Jones has written, “though the real name was still a size and a number. Trieste is really Ascendonica (22 point) No. 9, Palermo is Sopracanoncino (28 point) No. 3, and so on.” It may not have occurred to Bodoni to call a face by his own name, so it was left to others much later after his death. By the mid-19th century, typefaces were given descriptive names and numbers, or what Frere-Jones called “a tally” of attributes, with monikers like Gothic Condensed No. 7 or Paragon Italian Shaded. Many fonts were only numbered with a catalog reference.

The rise of industry and consumers in the early to mid-19th century necessitated the invention of advertising, which required unique eye-catching typefaces as hooks for consumers. To meet the demand, foundries created decorative, ornamented (and what were later called novelty) types and gave them names that either celebrated something or someone, or reflected their respective styles. For instance, Rustic (1845) was an alphabet made of logs (aka Log Cabin) at the Vincent Figgins Foundry.

It is not known which typeface was the first to be named for its creator, but by the late 19th century foundries found it commercially prudent to exploit the relative fame of their most respected designers. Frederic Goudy’s Goudy Old Style and Goudytype, originally named by American Type Founders, became models for eponymous self-promotion of Goudy’s Village Press & Letter Foundry.

Other designers in Europe and the U.S. understood the marketing value of linkage with reputation. Consider Otto Eckmann’s Eckmann-Schrift, Eric Gill’s Gill Sans, Louis Oppenheim’s Lo-Type, Lucian Bernhard’s Bernhard Gothics and a roman called Lucian, Marcel Jacno’s Jacno, and so many more. Later, Ed Benguiat’s ITC Benguiat and ITC Benguiat Gothic were emblematic of the 1970s. And while Herb Lubalin’s Avant Garde was his bestselling collaborative font, he only gave his name to ITC Lubalin Graph. Many type designers, however, were reluctant to capitalize on their own fame in this way; W.A. Dwiggins and Stanley Morison immediately come to mind.

What to name a typeface is still a difficult decision, but eponymous typefaces are less frequent today than earlier in the 20th century. Is it the end of the me generation? Naming is perhaps more similar to rock bands these days, like Geogrotesque and Brunswick Black. Or, it’s imbued with psychological and personal associations, like Eric Gill’s Joanna or Daniel Pelavin’s ITC Anna, both named for their daughters. A name can also reference the source material on which the face was conceived, like Frere-Jones’ Interstate, based on specifications for highway signage.

In the final analysis, perhaps a typeface name is not like any other name because it must be personal and universal—and, well, sound good, too.