20 most important type designers of all time

Brown Fox's picture

I'm trying to compile a list of the 20 most important type designers of all time. Which one would they be? I know this is personal, so I just wrote down what came to my mind, odered by living and dead. I know this is by no means complete or correct yet. Please feel free to add / edit!

V.3 —

- Claude Garamond
- William Caslon
- Frederic W. Goudy
- Francesco Griffo
- John Baskerville
- Morris Fuller Benton
- Giambattista Bodoni
- Emil Rudolf Weiss
- Edward Johnston
- Eric Gill
- Stanley Morison
- Rudolf Koch
- Nicholas Jenson
- Paul Renner
- Roger Excoffon
- Herb Lubalin
- Max Miedinger
- Chauncey H. Griffith
- Evert Bloemsma

- Herman Zapf
- Edward Benguiat
- Gerrit Noordzij
- Adrian Frutiger
- Bram de Does
- Mathew Carter
- Erik Spiekermann
- Gerard Unger
- Frank Blokland
- Kris Holmes
- Carol Twombly

marcox's picture

Surely there's a place for Frederic W. Goudy?

I know he designed Avante Garde, but isn't Herb Lubalin known more as a typographer than a type designer?

pattyfab's picture

You might want to limit it to the dead as some of the living frequent this site...

Besides it's subjective who is the most important.

Tim Ahrens's picture

You might want to make a further difference between designers that have created "several designs" and the older ones that are known for "one style". It might be hard to draw the line, however. Bodoni has produced quite different fonts whereas Renner is almost only known for one design.

If you add Bodoni, you definitely need Didot, they were more important imho. I am missing Zapf, Slimbach, possibly Porchez.

Solipsism's picture

I vote for the turkey's leg.

AndrewSipe's picture

What about ol' William Addison Dwiggins?

- 20 seems like such an arbitrary number why not 10 or 25?
- How would you categorize THE GREATEST TYPOGRAPHERS OF ALL TIME? What are the determining factors: Quantity, Quality, Influence, Contributions that changed type design forever, Techniques?

BruceS63's picture

Another vote for Jenson.

As for the living, while he is still young yet, I'd make an argument for Jonathan Hoefler.

gulliver's picture

I second all those already nominated above.

- For additional consideration (all dead):
Ludovico degli Arrighi
Richard Austin
John Baskerville
Morris Fuller Benton
William Caslon
François-Ambrose Didot
Firmin Didot
William Addison Dwiggins
Johann Michael Fleischman
Pierre Simon Fournier
Robert Granjon
Francesco Griffo
François Guyot
Victor Hammer
Jean Jannon
Nicolas Jenson
Miklós Tótfalusi Kis
Giovanni Mardersteig
Oldrich Menhart
Alexander Phemister
Friedrich Poppl
Vojtech Preissig
Rudolph Ruzicka
Georg Trump
Hendrik van den Keere
Christoffel van Dijck
Jan van Krimpen
Justus Erich Walbaum

- And (all living):
Frank Blokland
Chris Brand
John Downer
Tobias Frere-Jones
Jonathan Hoefler
Kris Holmes
Günter Gerhard Lange
Zuzana Licko
Martin Majoor
Hans Eduard Meier
José Mendoza y Almeida
Peter Matthias Noordzij
Sumner Stone
Carol Twombly
Gerard Unger
Rudy VanderLans
Jovica Veljovic
Gudrun Zapf-von Hesse

Also, Pietro Bembo was a Venetian Poet and historian, not a type designer. The Monotype typeface Bembo is named for him, but Bembo Roman was based on a roman font designed by Francesco Griffo in 1495. Bembo Italic was based on Blado, which was, in turn, based on a font used by typographer Antonio Blado of Rome, but designed by Ludovico degli Arrighi about 1526.

David Thometz
(who still hopes to make the list someday :) )

mjpatrick's picture

I don't see how it can be only 20 and complete by any means, but I was sure expecting to see Zapf on the list.

Getting more into the 21st century, a few that come to mind are Carol Twombly and Ray Larabie.

Si_Daniels's picture

How are you defining 'important'?

Miss Tiffany's picture

Ooh. Simon, before I made it to your comment I had the same exact thought. I think for those who come after us, who will run across this thread, it might be more useful for all to include a reason why they should be on the list.

mjpatrick's picture

I was defining 'important' as simply designers whose work -either individual designs, or as a body of work- I felt was relevant during the time it was created (or is now relevant today).

Hermann Zapf: Palatino, Optima, Zapfino... those are good reasons, I don't see a need to go any further.

Carol Twombly: because of Trajan, Charlemagne, contributions to Myriad, etc. Carol's name and work was one of the first I became associated with when I began with digital type (My first college text on type design was "Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works", and Carol was one of several featured within, IIRC). Also her Association Typographique Internationale award- it's always stuck in my mind she was the first woman to win it. I'm not sure if she is still designing today, but her work with type certainly lives on.

Ray Larabie: I would bet some would be surprised to see my mention of Mr. Larabie, largely because his past work was not quite so "original" (considering the freeware fonts he created based from existing corporate logos). Love it or not, I think quite a bit of that became an underground movement in itself, spurred "non-designers" to experiment with type a little more, and indirectly drew more serious attention towards reproducing typefaces not yet digitized.

Since going commercial & focusing on more original work, some of it's become quite popular- I see Neuropol X in the media quite a bit these days, and quite frankly, I think it's a good face for the times.

Does this explain the reasoning behind my choices a little better? I will admit my choices are a little more biased towards my personal taste rather than leaning towards what some may deem more historically significant. I really think this post's question is impossible to answer, but fun nonetheless.

Jackie Frant's picture

I was surprised that Lubalin is on your list - and yet Benguiat seems to be overlooked...

And please, don't forget Phil Martin
he had so many original faces - and a great sense of
type design. RIP Phil.

david h's picture

(designers from the USSR area code)

Tagir Safayev

Vladimir Yefimov

gthompson's picture

Maybe it's just late and I'm being curmudgeonly BUT: Bembo isn't a type designer by any measure. Poor Mr. Griffo always gets ignored when he invented a whole genre of typefaces. Where I come from not mentioning him is a hanging offense. And Johnston wasn't really a type designer--disagree all you want, he was a calligrapher who designed some signage. How on earth could you compile such a list and not mention Goudy, Dwiggins, and Cooper! And how could you make such a list and not mention any WOMEN designers?

Renner belongs even if he only designed Futura since it was one of the most popular and influential faces of the 20th C. and he has the distinction of having been persecuted by the Nazi's for having designed it in the first place. How many other type designers can say that?

And did anyone mention Menhart? The list isn't merely for western europeans is it? How many type designers have been commissioned to design a face for their country's constitution?

And where's Baskerville and Caslon? And if you mention Bodoni (my favorite) you must mention Didot, and not just Firmin, but all of the type designers in the bunch. And where's Fournier??? Vincent Figgins??? Doesn't inventing slab serif types mean anything? William Caslon IV maybe? And where did all those 19th C. advertising faces come from if not for Mr. Thorne? Doesn't that rate? Darius Wells who invented wood type??? Shouldn't he be one of the top guys on the list? And I have to mention Augereau even if he isn't one of the top 20 since he is the only type designer executed for heresy.

Of course there's Jenson, and one could make a case for Sweynheim and Pannartz. But the most glaring omission is of course the most important type designer of all time: Johan Genzfleisch zum Gutenberg who invented it in the first place.

I felt bad because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no Bodoni

Si_Daniels's picture

>Where I come from not mentioning him is a hanging offense.

Nice! ;-) reminds me of the other typographic joke...

"Griffo's brother in law walks into a bar..."

gthompson's picture

Oh, and I forgot to mention Benton, one of the most prolific, and Weiss whose work can be seen in print nearly every day. And Griffith shouldn't be in the top 100, much less the top 20.

I'm avoiding picking up a specimen book since it will only result in more names. I don't think the list can be narrowed down to 20 or even to 100. I think this is like "what typefaces would you want on a desert island?" The correct answer is all of them, every last one.

I felt bad because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no Bodoni

gthompson's picture

“Griffo’s brother in law walks into a bar…”

The way I heard the joke was "Griffo's son in law walks into a bar."

I felt bad because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no Bodoni

Si_Daniels's picture

That will teach me for believing everything I read at MyFonts...


Wiki seems to have it right...


...also someone should put together a list of the top 20 reasons why writing a list of the top 20 things is a complete waste of time.

NigellaL's picture

I thought I read once that James Montalbano designed the official typeface of American highways so I'm sure he's well qualified to be on this list. And didn't Nick Shinn design a very famous typeface for Canadian poetry? I just binned five years worth of design magazines in a fit of cleaning for the new year, so now I can't look it up. Closer to home, one mustn't forget Bruno Maag. His recent exhibition was quite impressive!

jstypo's picture

Surely you're not planning on passing up the opportunity to include Gutenberg's magnificent work[1] as a type designer?

[1] http://prodigi.bl.uk/treasures/gutenberg/search.asp

Brown Fox's picture

Thanks for all your substantial input! What I posted last night was quite spontaneous so I just updated the list (still incomplete - and uh, more than 20!)
Tim: I totally see your point of making more categories. But still I like the idea to have them in one running list. Like with all charts - there's something unsound about them. But still I can appreciate them for what they are, with all the personal distortion and historical inaccuracies.
David Thometz: Please complete your list one day! It obviously exceeds my knowledge and ambition with my top 20 list of today.

Thanks again.

Thomas Phinney's picture

Certainly Carol Twombly should be in the running, for Trajan, Charlemagne, Lithos, Adobe Caslon, and all the rest. However, she is indeed retired from type design, although she is still doing a bit of consulting/reviewing of extensions to her earlier work.

Morris Fuller Benton, Hermann Zapf and Robert Slimbach would certainly be on my own list of the top 20 type designers of all time.



Norbert Florendo's picture

I suggest you move Ephram "Edward" Benguiat off your Dead list and place him among the living, otherwise he might get p.o.-ed!

Last I knew he was still on the faculty at SVA.

Dan Gayle's picture

Bruce Rogers isn't anywhere on the list yet is he?

Nick Shinn's picture

Thanx for the bigup, Nigella!
As Si says, listism is a waste of time.
And speaking of time, perhaps a few places amongst the top 20 of all time should be reserved for those yet to be born.

rs_donsata's picture

I would cast my vote for Frantisek Storm, but I agree it would be a good idea to limit the list to dead figures.


steifar's picture

... and therefore limiting a man like Frutiger from being called one “of the 20 most important type designers of all time“. That makes absoulutely no sense.

But a little common sense should be in order. How about limiting to people with an actual legacy. That would cut almost everyone out of the living list.

pino's picture

Absolutely Max Miedinger. Hard to believe only one person in this discussion has mentioned him so far. Helvetica was the most popular and useful typeface of its time. It still is one of the most useful, despite its having fallen from the graces of the avant garde.

Dan Gayle's picture

You see, that's the trick. Design one typeface that becomes ubiquitous, and ride off into the sunset as one of the greatest type designers of all time. How hard can that be?

On the other hand, who do you think has created the most typefaces? Benguiat has created, what? 600 typefaces according to SVA's website? As much as some might not like it, but Ray Larabie would be up there also.

eriks's picture

...he has the distinction of having been persecuted by the Nazi’s for having designed it in the first place.

Hold your ideological horses here. I do not want to divert from the topic, but Paul Renner certainly did not get persecuted for having designed a typeface. Don't give the Nazis that much credit. Renner wrote about "cultural bolchevism", which was directed at the Nazis more than at the real Bolcheviks, and he altogether didn't make much of a secret of his opinion about the Nazi party, especially their disdain of contemporary art and culture. That's why they sacked him from his teaching post. He never got "persecuted". Saying that insults those who paid with their lives for having critized the Nazis.

Choz Cunningham's picture

It feels like this is two lists fighting. One, the top 20 designers of important typefaces, the other, the top 20 most important people in type design culture. I am by no means equipped to suggest 20 people for either, but I think that some simple statement of what "important" means here might help the list read as more than ...famousness?

Helvetica is an important font, by ubiquity alone, so Miedinger surely makes the first list. Because of that face's influence on other fonts and type proportions and perceptions in general, he perhaps should be on both. Larabie would be an example of someone I find "list-level" important for all the reasons NJPatrick is probably thinking of. His merit is not necessarily one insanely popular singular face, but his style, prolific work and influence on the masses and fledgling designers.

Chris Keegan's picture

Any type designer is an important type designer IMO, since there seem to be so few...

Dan Gayle's picture

Hear Hear!

Charles Leonard's picture

Unfortunately we have so many names and limited criteria for selection. Legacy may not be the issue. Johann Friedrich Unger, who applied the neo-classical style and engraving expertise of Firmin Didot to fraktur, is certainly an important type designer and one of the first to try to resolve the differences between German and Latin type design and typographic practice. However, black letter seems to hold little sway in the list.

Another important designer was Adolph Rusch who holds the historical priority for a roman type face—he was printing a roman as early as 1464. The face isn't very pretty, so he is an important type designer, but not a very good one when compared with those, like Griffo, who follow him.

William Morris/Edward Prince falls into a similar category. The Golden Type was one of the most influential of the 19th century, but doesn't hold a candle to the Venetian revival faces that quickly followed. Morris' disciple, Edward Johnston, is certainly an important figure in the history of type design, but much more for the effect his revival of the art of the letter had on other designers than in the direct contributions he made as a designer of types.

The relationship of Linn Boyd Benton to his son provides an example that might guide selection. Without Linn Boyd's invention of the pantographic/engraving process, which Matthew Carter has called the most important invention in the history of typographic design since the 15th century, most of the type designs and type design processes that occur after c. 1880 would have much different. Benton's work on Century with De Vinne certainly qualifies him as a designer, but the greater breadth of his son's work qualifies Morris Fuller Benton as the more important designer.

marian bantjes's picture

I am way late to the discussion, but I would think that "importance" in type design would be that which influences the evolution of type design signficantly.

And if you're going to assign 20 spots, you shd stick to 20. Otherwise it's 50 or 100 or 200, and then ...

1–6: Gutenberg, Jenson, Garamond, Griffo, Arrighi & Fournier for sure
7: Baskerville, Bodoni & Didot have to duke it out
8: Caslon (for the first sans),
9: maybe Koch for advancements in blackletter (though perhaps someone else was more influential?)
10: Miedinger shd wrestle Günter Gerhard Lange (Akzidenz Grotesk, 1896)
11: maybe Paul Renner
12: Eric Gill
13: Wim Crouwel (please don't tell me I'm the only one who mentioned him. I mean C'mawn!)
14: Zuzana Licko for Emigre 8
15: Someone in the past 20 yrs shd be held responsible for digitally merging faces together.
16: Someone else shd be held responsible for the new digital forms in text faces. Those weird, choppy shapes that I think of as Dutch. That's significant, I think.

by my count there's 4 spots left.


eriks's picture

Miedinger shd wrestle Günter Gerhard Lange (Akzidenz Grotesk, 1896)

As GGL was born in 1921, he could hardly have designed AG on his own. His involvement started in 1957, when he added a new series of weights and sizes, called – surprise! – Akzidenz Grotesk Serie 57. The light, regular and some bolder weights started appearing between the 1890s and the 1920s. All of them apocryphal designs, what Berthold called “Hausschnitt”, i.e. cut in house. Lange’s main contribution, apart from the AG development over 20 years and three technologies, was Concorde, the better Times. And his Bodoni Old Face from the late 70s was the first real Bodoni, not a sanitized version like all the others before.

brett jordan's picture

I'd add Rian Hughes... his type has a brilliant mixture of originality, fun and legibility.

eriks's picture

his type has a brilliant mixture of originality, fun and legibility

While i agree with that assessment of Rian’s work (and we published his first faces over 15 years ago), the list would be more than 200 names long if we only used these criteria (the FontFont library alone has 150 contributors). You do not design a classic; time, talent and economics need to come together to do that. Helvetica was a fairly mediocre cleaning-up of Scheltersche Grotesk via Haasche Grotesk, and Miedinger was a salesman, not a designer. His drawings were pretty basic, but the face hit a nerve: in 1957, postwar Europe was ready for something clean, without a past and without obvious ancestry, coming out of neutral Switzerland. The same applied to most faces that represent a period now; Garamond, Baskerville, Caslon, Bodoni, Akzidenz Grotesk, Futura, Gill, Helvetica.
Some of Roger Excoffon's typefaces are amazing, but they always looked too French to really be a world-wide success. AvantGarde Gothic was a sensation when it came out, but nobody would call it a good typeface. Neither would we regard most ITC designs from the 70s, but they were seminal in their influence. Zuzana Licko’s first Emigre bitmap fonts more than 20 years ago hardly qualify as type design by most standards, but they are now true classics.

And these days? We have more talented type-designers than ever before. They know both their history and their tools, and they make better type than any of the famous names mentioned above. But their chance to make history is minimal. I think that is great, because I do not consider us to be artists, but visual engineers who serve those people who use our typefaces: readers and designers.

Miss Tiffany's picture

So, perhaps, to be on this list it should (a) be bumped to maybe top 50 type designers, and (b) include well their fonts sold. I include (b) because it occurs to me that the audience should be allowed to be involved in how these people get on the list. Shouldn't they?

Dan Gayle's picture

Van Gogh didn't sell a single painting in his entire life, ended up killing himself due to depression and other mental health issues, and was posthumously declared one of the most important painters of all time.

So the answer is... Maybe.

Picasso self-admittedly sold out his artistic heritage because of popular demand. He admitted that many of the things he was doing were purely because that's what the critics and others wanted. He was declared one of the most important painters of all time during his own life span.

So the answer is... Maybe.

Bleisetzer's picture

"I’m trying to compile a list of the 20 most important type designers of all time."

In Germany since around two years the TV guys offer more and more 'Best of..' shows. 'Best commercials of the last 10 years', 'Best 100 comedy shows of the century' up to 'Worst celebraties of the world' (No. 1 was Paris Hilton by the way).

I always try to see a font in close connection with the epoche it was designed. Otherwise you see all these old fonts with only 'modern' eyes. What today is 'old-fashioned' in the past was 'Moderne Fraktur':

And the marketing guys who created this name for the font, brought it to the point.. of 1886. Of course they did not want to design an old-fashioned font.

Its the same with the font artists of today. The answers they give are answers for questions of today. Do we know what a GG Lange or Paul Renner would say about one of the fonts of today? May be they'ld say its not possible to use it (in 1936), because the market would'nt accept it.

So: 'If you want to know who you are, you have to know where you're coming from.' And so a best-of-list may be is a funny thing, but not realy important, isn't it?


timd's picture

Well put Georg.


Choz Cunningham's picture

15: Someone in the past 20 yrs shd be held responsible for digitally merging faces together.

Is that a truly innovative thing, or a mode that has existed for some time. Are you referring to the smooth merger of two similar faces, or that look where it seems like the trademarks of two faces have been smashed into a postmodern hybrid? Who's on the short list?

16: Someone else shd be held responsible for the new digital forms in text faces. Those weird, choppy shapes that I think of as Dutch. That’s significant, I think.

I cannot visualize one off the top of my head, but I am intrigued. Anyone have example faces of the genre?

I mean for this to be answerable by anone, not just the person who wrote it. I just read who posted these. Someone who probably should be on the list or, at very least, on this one.

Choz Cunningham
!Exclamachine Type Foundry
The Snark

NOLAdani's picture

paula scher

SuperUltraFabulous's picture

Isn’t Manfred Klien more prolific than Larabie?

****Tobias Frere Jones and Jonathan Hoefler

Sorry 20 isn’t gonna cut it.

qu1j0t3's picture

Seriously, give up now. Your list will never be 'right' whether it's 20 or 200. Just make a list of those who are important to *you*; top-N lists always suck (just look at imdb.com's best movies of all time for an example).

qu1j0t3's picture

@Choz - I think some of Smeijers' work would fit (Quadraat) or Majoor's Scala. Jan Middendorp's book is probably the ultimate reference to the 'style'.

Syndicate content Syndicate content