Morris Fuller Benton

mikeoconnor's picture

Article highly questions that Morris Fuller Benton was the type designer claimed. The article just appeared in the APA Journal, publication of the Amalgamated Printers' Association—a group of letterpress printers. You can read the article by downloading this pdf:

Cristobal Henestrosa's picture

Thanks. Good text.

Deus Lux's picture

Yes. I always thought that Franklin Gothic was actually designed by Jesus. Now we have the proof!

John Hudson's picture

James, is that you?

Nick Shinn's picture

Faces such as Broadway and Hobo were mined from popular styles developed by lettering artists.

No doubt one person came up with the prototype, but after the style had gained some traction in the media, having been swiped/reinterpreted by other letterers, than it would have attracted the attention of the new font committee at ATF.

One can imagine a meeting where a number of different examples of a particular style were compared, and a consensus reached as to the direction a type based on the style should take.

A very similar process to how many custom types are commissioned today. Back then at ATF, the draftsperson was not credited, but now, if the work is supplied by an “independent” foundry, that person may well be credited as the designer.

If the expectation is that authorship in type design belongs to the draftsperson, then we can say that that person is the designer.

But if the situation is more like modern art in the present, conceptual era, where the idea is the main thing not the making, which may often be done by anonymous artisans, then the author may be considered the artist or art director, whether or not he/she does the drawing.

brianskywalker's picture


hashiama's picture

Can someone have a look at this book? I found the original thread where James Moseley made those comment it seemed at the time the Archives containing his work were inaccessible. Although here it states that Tobias Frere-Jones did study some Franklin Gothic drawings...

dberlow's picture

Inaccessible can mean many things, from living too far away, to the street around the Smithsonian being closed on Tuesdays. Lots of ATF drawings have been available for a long time.

Sign paintings and hand lettering are not type. Being a sign painter or a letterer and having a style, does not make your style a typeface. Making fonts in metal type, required type design and Benton was about the best.

Yet, this funny question keeps coming up, how much of a "type designer", was this guy responsible for 1,000s of fonts when it took a year for each... and he did not live to 1,000.


hashiama's picture

At the time, it was inaccessible due to asbestos.

Nick Shinn's picture

Certainly, lettering is not type, but do you question the production method I suggested, David? In the early 20 th century, the majority of advertisement headlines were hand lettered, and this was where many type styles originated.

dberlow's picture

I was told about the asbestos after my visit. Glad to have gone anyway, sorry others couldn't.

Nick I would call calling ATF's work a "production method", a way of saying the design was done and they just picked the winners. The majority of all metal types are based on hand lettered, or handwritten forms that become common enough to be made into fonts.

Nick Shinn's picture

David, ATF was a factory with division of labour commensurate with its size.

That is why the design of type was split into different segments along the production process, and why it was possible for Morris Benton to art direct so many typeface designs, just as Cedric Gibbons art directed all those movies for MGM.

It’s a different notion of design than the hands-on craftsmanship practised by Fred Goudy (in the latter part of his career), and by those with Fontographer in the 1990s.

If one expects a proper type designer to be drawing the prototype of each letter, then Benton was riding on the coat-tails of others who did the hand work—and that is why he has not been raised in the pantheon along side Cooper, Goudy and Dwiggins. We like to see some artistry in type design, and associate it with individual authorship, not the impersonality of industrial production and the assembly line. However, if one approaches design as a more conceptual kind of work, then someone like Benton deserves more recognition.

dberlow's picture

Nick: "That is why the design of type was split into different segments along the production process,"

I think you misunderstand — the design of type was not split up with the production. What do you think happened in this process?

And, when you label Benton as the "art director" at a company just making fonts, you lose me. What does an art director do when fonts are the only product?

Nick Shinn's picture

David, I’m on topic.
The issue is, how much work—both conceptual and production—does someone have to do to be considered the designer of a typeface?

Benton’s reputation has suffered because he was the “art director” at ATF.
Compare with Goudy, Cooper and Dwiggins, whose lettering work demonstrated their hand skills, and whose type designs were their own original concepts (mostly).

Benton’s work was conceptually subtler and more adaptive than Goudy, Cooper and Dwiggins; there is no record of his handwork (AFAIK); and at ATF there was a production line where unaccredited draftspersons produced the glyph drawings, under his art direction.

We have letters between Dwiggins and Griffiths discussing the implementation of WAD’s drawings, but are there production notes from ATF concerning any of Benton’s faces? Where are his sketches?

Consider also the relationship between Hermann Zapf and August Rosenberger. Had Zapf not been involved in the production of Palatino, but Rosenberger had adapted it from his lettering (as Slimbach adapted Caflisch), would Rosenberger have been considered the designer of the typeface?

Zapf and Frutiger both did very little work on the “Nova” versions of their faces executed by Kobayashi, they art directed, I would say. For instance, in the old style figures for Frutiger Nova, Frutiger had sketched the figures extremely roughly, with “4” standing on the baseline, no descender. Kobayashi corrected that.

The assignation of authorship is not as simple as “who does what”.


One can have it both ways.
If one draws a revival, one is called the designer of the new typeface, even if one is careful to credit the original and not call oneself the designer.
And yet if one does sketches for an original design, and art directs someone else doing the drawing, one may still be considered the designer of the new typeface.
Follow the money.

Stanley Morison admitted to having “excogitated” Times New Roman, but was for many years credited as the designer. Now wiki says he commissioned it, and Victor Lardent drew it. So nobody designed it!


Over the years, the action in the arts has shifted from making, through direction, to curation.
Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet is a piece of installation art, in which she neither composed nor performed the music, or made the loudspeakers. It was her idea.
If that is how things are now in the art world, I would say this article has it wrong, and that Morris Benton will be getting more recognition in the font world, as a type designer, on those terms.

dberlow's picture

I know, you just have a topic larger than this one in mind... ;).

There are a lot of cases. But we are talking about one.

If someone was responsible for so much of the Holy Book (I can't even say the name of in this now unconcecratable place), you would barf at the thought – would they not have to be a type designer and then a super type designer first, before director of hundreds of type designers, second?

The assignation of authorship is not as simple as “who does what" but in the absence of proof and presence of the Holy Book I can't even say the name of in this now unconcecratable place, i think you are running an Uphill race against a Dead Guy whose Big Red Monument is going Beat You to the Top Every Time :)

But best of luck to you.

Nick Shinn's picture

…would they not have to be a type designer and then a super type designer first, before director of hundreds of type designers, second?

Why do you think the two can be separated, in the case of Benton?
His way of designing type was very much caught up with, and developed within, the context of the large industrial establishment in which has father played so prominent a role as an inventor.
Bear in mind that his degree was in engineering, so he did not develop as a type designer in the manner of the commercial artist — the path followed by his more famous contemporaries. One important part of that was that they were of necessity self-promoters, which he, as a corporate man not a freelancer in trade, didn’t have to be.

If he had an antipathy, for whatever reason, towards presenting himself as a professionally creative individual, well, he has certainly been able to fool most of the people most of the time, including Rick von Holdt.

donshottype's picture

Outstanding discussion.
I see M.F. Benton as akin to Edison, "inventor" of the light blub.
What Edison did was not the actual bench work testing filaments & pumps, but setting up one of the first modern research labs with planning, management etc. that brought it all together and produced results -- and credit for Edison.
So why should we fault M.F. Benton for doing the same thing in his transformation of ATF from a vendor of a hodgepodge of types by the foundries brought into the combine to a focused design enterprise with outstanding technical capabilities.?


dberlow's picture

Nick "Why do you think the two can be separated, in the case of Benton?"

The two what? being a designer and directing type designers? I'm not separating them, I'm saying Benton flows from being one to being both. You are suggesting he just became director of hundreds of type designers, without being one.

Nick "...— the path followed by his more famous contemporaries. "

Who? If you mean Goudy, Dwiggy and Coopy, those guys were fabulous, but they are perfect representations of the "precious" baffoons of type. Of which there are now more than ever. ;)

Truly. Benton did not develop as a type designer in the manner of the commercial artist. Who did? Gutenburg, Garamond, Caslon, Baskerville, Carter? The angle of one's entry into type design does not define their ultimate destination.

Nick Shinn's picture

You are suggesting he just became director of hundreds of type designers, without being one.

Not at all.
I’m attempting to explain why he is not as highly regarded in some circles as the buffoons, as you term them.
As far as I’m concerned, the industrial art director can be just as much a type designer as the artisanal craftsman.

I’ve always considered Morris Benton to be at the top of the profession. As I put it in an article for Druk magazine in 2001:

As the chief engineer and designer of American Type Founders (ATF), the largest U.S. foundry, Morris Benton was the most successful type designer of the 20th Century.

kpromo's picture

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hashiama's picture

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