Darker Typefaces for Books?

RahimSnow's picture

John D. Berry, in an article on MVB Verdigris, writes:

Too many digital "book" faces don't hold up at the sizes we commonly use for text these days. Many of them are revivals of older, metal typefaces, but are based on a model size that's much larger (12pt or 14pt) than the size at which they'll actually get used. The result is fine, light, wispy text type, instead of the solid, easily-read black type of classical book printing.

Similarly, we hear a lot of complaints about too many light anemic-looking typefaces being used in books. Would it help to come up with an introductory list that people can refer to see what their options are to overcome this problem?

1. MVB Verdigris
2. ?
3. ?


Stephen Coles's picture

Great topic, Rahim. Book designers really need to cast their net wider. Despite the hundreds of excellent text faces designed specifically for today's workflow and presses, the old metal stuff, often poorly digitized, is still being used. Here are some of my favorite digital typefaces designed specifically for long-running text:

FF Clifford
Iowan Oldstyle
Freight Text
Mercury Text
Chronicle Text
ITC Mendoza

And there's no reason to remain married to ye olde oldstyle serifs. Contemporary slabbish and semi-serif designs are just as effective for book text:

FF Tisa
FF Meta Serif

RahimSnow's picture

Thanks for kicking off the list, Stephen.

I saw Versa in a new series of Shakespeare plays published exclusively by Barnes & Noble and the darkness is quite lovely.

What does your darkness-meter say about the following:

FF Maiola
Gentium Book Basic
Dante Pro MT
Sabon Next Pro


blank's picture

Every book face ever released by Font Bureau.

ITC Giovanni. I know some people write Giovanni off as anachronistic or immature in comparison to Slimbach’s other work but it holds up beautifully on cheap paper and reads like a dream under bad lighting.

Whitney Book is an incredible sans for text.
Magma would make a fabulous book face given the right subject.

Are there any contemporary Didones designed with books in mind? I’ve seen Monotype Didot look great in books, but can’t think of any others.

Florian Hardwig's picture

A related thread: Choosing a font for book design?

any contemporary Didones?
Storm’s Walbaum Text.
Prillwitz and FF Acanthus both have an explicit Book/Text weight. ITC Bodoni and H&FJ Didot offer optical sizes, too. Furthermore, maybe Andrade or Gianotten. Idiosyncratic: Antares.

Nick Shinn's picture

This is old news.
Digital type designers have been on the job since day one (Think Quadraat, Charter, Scala, etc.)
In fact it is one of the central issues of contemporary type design.
Many of my faces address it.
And yet lots of books are still set in wishy-washy versions of Perpetua and Bembo.
Go figure.

Stephen Coles's picture

Yes, Nick's post reminds me that we should add his excellent revision of Beufort to the list. Do see the PDF at his site.

Here are links to: FF Quadraat, FF Scala, Scala's follow up FF Nexus, and ITC Charter.

Speaking of Bembo, one of Monotype's better efforts in recent years was its careful reexamination of the face as Bembo Book.

Stephen Coles's picture

Two more: Eason
and Vendetta.

typofoto's picture

May I put in a word for Bitsream News 706? Perhaps not an ideal bookface in terms of all the bits you need, but very nice and dark.

EK's picture

I like the colour of ArnoPro.

SuperUltraFabulous's picture

I second Merlo!!! Excellante!

will powers's picture

& speaking of Bembo Book: what does the designation "VP" mean on the FontShop page Stephen linked to?

As in: "Bembo Book Pro VP"? It is probably something that should be terribly obvious to me; but it ain't right now.

& why did Monotype leave that hideous long-tail R in the basic character set? Don't tyhey look at text composition and see how bad it looks in a line and on a page?


RahimSnow's picture

Arno is nice and dark. The OpenType features that are turned on for the italics just slay me in InDesign. I've never seen a typeface dance like that!

I just printed out a pdf sample of ITC Charter: wow! Wasn't expecting it to look so nice.

I really wish Merlo (love the name!) came in OpenType.


RahimSnow's picture

What does everyone think about the darkness levels of FF Maiola, Athelas, Musee, Dante MT, Sabon Next, and Feijoa?

Florian Hardwig's picture


I assume the VP is for Value Pack.

will powers's picture

Both Dante and Bulmer came through the fires of conversion to PostScript at Monotype with good color intact. It'd be interesting to know how that happened, why those two came out OK when so many did not. I do recall reading about some work that went into Bulmer.

It has amused me that Bulmer came out OK when it was made for PostScript, for as a hot-metal face we had problems getting it to cast right in all the Monotype shops I worked at. It may even be a better face now than it was in metal. That rarely has happened.

Bulmer, by the way, deserves looking at for book work. It has a lot of components, and it is very nicely compact. I always look at Bulmer when I need to fit a lot of text into a book.

Thanks, Florian.


James Arboghast's picture

Thanks so much everyone for the information on this thread. Just marked it as a fave as it's such a useful reference. I'm starting to give serious thought to moving into book design and publishing.

Rahim—yes Charter is superb. Matt Carter has his priorities right.

Will—thanks, that's great news about the Monotype Bulmer. It's my kind of font and I dearly want to use it for books.

j a m e s

Maxx-W's picture

I'm constantly seeing pt.12 Garamond. It annoys me to no end.

SuperUltraFabulous's picture

An opentype Merlo is on the way!

fredo's picture

When we were asked to update the classic Swedish typeface Berling by Karl-Erik Forsberg we made thorough investigations and found boxes of unused Berling type in metal at a printing museum in the south of Sweden. From these we made trial prints in 8 pt and it's from these the new Berling Nova was based. It turned out much darker and not as edgy as previous digital (and photo setting) versions (we saved that for the display version). I'm rather happy with the result.


RahimSnow's picture

Does anyone have any PDFs of FF Meta Serif used in a book (not magazine) that we could print out to see its darkness on a page?

Or does anyone know of a book that is already using it that I could go see at a US bookstore?


will powers's picture

I'm reading a book set in Adobe Jenson ("Ordinary Wolves" by Seth Kantner, Milkweed Editions, 2004). I'm pleased with the dark color on the page. The book is set (I'm guessing) in 10.5 or maybe 11. Leaded to 16, it might be more open than it needs to be.

In a dim November dawn, on a transit bus, there was enough color for good reading.

I'll have to take a look at the Berling Nova color.


Stephen Coles's picture

Rahim - Contact FontShop and they will be happy to create a PDF sample for you according to your specs.

hrant's picture

Although things have improved* I think we can go darker still. Even Smeijers's ideal (darker than most of the examples above) might still be a bit conservative. In any case, it can't be "old news" if "lots of books are still set in wishy-washy versions", so we've got work to do!

* And not just because people are making revivals smarter.


RahimSnow's picture


I totally agree. Even though the problem has been identified by some and solutions have been offered, the importance of avoiding that problem and actually using those new solutions has yet to penetrate the culture of book typesetting so that it becomes more of an expected norm and less of a surprising exception.

Still, I think it would help to speak out more about the importance of doing this in various magazines, industry publications, conferences, blogs, etc. Consistent communication is key.


RahimSnow's picture


I just printed the PDF sample Fontshop kindly sent me. The color on FF Meta Serif Book looks awesome! Very contemporary looking, love the x-height.


will powers's picture

Regarding Clifford:

At FontFeed, FontShop has posted Akira Kobayashi's long essay about how he came to make Clifford and about how he made the face. Go here:


About halfway down, the book page that shows a Victorian-era woman is from "A Gift of Light," a study of 19th-c photography (I designed that book for the University of Notre Dame Press in 2002).

It was printed on a dull coated sheet, and Clifford really works well. It has great body weight for text, captions, and backmatter. It is very easy to read.

The book may be hard to find. Libraries with extensive library holdings in photography may have it. But I have heard that it did not sell well, and that the publisher pulped the remaining copies (without asking if I wanted to buy some!)

Clifford and Miller are pretty much my "house faces" these days.


aszszelp's picture



Sye's picture

is miller in opentype?

SuperUltraFabulous's picture

Yes, but you might want to ask FontBureau what features it has programmed into it. For sure the ligatures will substitute but I would not expect contextual spacing or anything like that. OpenType at it very basic.

Miller is more newsy—Clifford more literary. Miller is just so gorgeous tho. Heck, we need both right?

Mikey :-)

kentlew's picture

All of the Font Bureau Retail fonts are now available in OpenType format. *However,* note that these are what FB is calling "simple" OpenType fonts -- which basically means that they're just a straightforward format conversion, with minimal OTL features, kinda like Adobe's "Std" OT fonts.

FB's sOT fonts provide the basic OT advantages of being single, cross-platform files with Unicode encoding (although the hacked ligatures, et al., are also still in their original positions for backward compatibility, and then duplicated with proper OT names).

In addition, there are a few basic OTL features, the most important being {liga} which allows all the double-f ligatures to substitute automatically now. The three basic fractions have been written into a {frac} substitution; the three basic superiors are in a {sups} substitution; and the two basic ordinals are in a {ordn} substitution.

But, for instance, no attempt has been made yet to integrate SC fonts with their Romans. That will have to wait for the development of ProOT fonts. AFAIK, the FB ProOT standard is still being finalized. I would imagine that Miller would be high on the list of FB fonts for re-development, but I have no specific knowledge.

BTW, simple OT fonts are the same price point as the other formats. And I believe that if you already have a license for FB fonts in PS or TT format, you can get the equivalent sOT by request. But don't quote me on that. You'd have to contact the FB office directly.

-- Kent.

SuperUltraFabulous's picture

Thank You Kent!

kentlew's picture

Glad to be of assistance, Mikey.

P.S. I neglected to mention that in the case of the Miller fonts, specifically, there is also a stylistic alternate {salt} feature to substitute the alternate R and ampersand that Matthew included in the designs.

-- K.

Sye's picture

cool, thanks kent for the info!

RahimSnow's picture

Finally took a good look at Iowan Oldstyle as mentioned by Stephen way up above (it was on my WordPerfect CD of all places!). It's nice and dark and the shape of the dot over the i's looks like a lemon. Nice touch!

Hey Mikey, what's the verdict on an OpenType Merlo? Any timeline?


hrant's picture

Do note that Iowan has a hefty x-height,
so it's not suitable for "book" setting.


RahimSnow's picture

Bigger than, say, Karmina?

from Karmina's description:

"Karmina is a text typeface developed mainly for pocket books and budget editions. It was built to withstand the worst printing conditions: low quality papers, high printing speed with web presses and variations in the ink level of the printing press. More…

Some of Karmina’s most representative features are the rather large serifs, intended to work perfectly in small reproduction sizes, the sharpness of the shapes, including some calligraphic reminiscences, and the large and yet graceful ink traps in the acute connections. Structurally, Karmina combines a significantly large x-height with relatively compressed letterforms. The result of these features grants Karmina outstanding legibility and economy."

Do you think Iowan Oldstyle's large x-height and dark color give it similar advantages when used in small sizes and bad printing conditions, leaving aside that it is not economically compact as Karmina?

Just trying to learn,

will powers's picture


This statement of yours above:

"Do note that Iowan has a hefty x-height,
so it’s not suitable for “book” setting."

is pretty broad. Would you say a bit more?

In general I'd be inclined to agree with you, but my own experience in reading and also in designing a book set in Iowan make me realize that such a sweeping statement needs some backing up.

I'm gonna take a look at Karmina.


kentlew's picture

> Do note that Iowan has a hefty x-height, so it’s not suitable for “book” setting.

I disagree with that conclusion. I've actually used it in a couple books. One needs to take care with the specs, but it can work fine. It's large x-height and proportions give it a particularly approachable feeling that is not appropriate for all settings, but works well in certain others. In this way, I consider it in a class with Stone Serif.

William Berkson's picture

A friend of mine authored a book that was published in Stone Serif, and I do find the short extenders a problem in that particular layout. It is set 10 (I think) over 13 points at a measure of 26 picas.

hrant's picture

Karmina is quite charming, and seems very well-crafted.
And its narrowness makes its large x-height effectively smaller.

> This statement of yours above:
> “Do note that Iowan has a hefty x-height,
> so it’s not suitable for “book” setting.”
> is pretty broad. Would you say a bit more?

Maybe you're right, but my quotes around "book" above hopefully save me from having to retract. :-) I was referring to sizes ideal for reading a long book, as opposed to a publication where other factors (such as economy) take higher precedence. And it's for this reason that "Book" cuts of fonts typically have a smaller x-height* (and lighter color, and tighter spacing). For smaller text (and books that for whatever reason need to be set with small text) Iowan is just fine.

* This is because, as you might agree, extenders
need to be leveraged more in immersive reading.

> I do find the short extenders a problem

Just try to read one of the unfortunately
numerous books set in ITC Garamond.

All this leads to a question I've asked myself (and others, actually :-) concerning the relationship of vertical proportions and authenticity: don't you guys think that a large x-height is anathema to certain styles, like Venetian and Garamond? It's interesting to note here that Mandel believed that a font can't really be French unless it has a small x-height.


William Berkson's picture

>Just try to read one of the unfortunately
numerous books set in ITC Garamond.

As luck would have it, I have been reading essays in a book set in ITC Garamond. It is 9 or 10 over 12 points, set at a measure of 27 picas.

It is in a different category than Stone Sans. The Stone Sans I find a little less comfortable than I would like, but still highly readable. Reading the essays in ITC Garamond in that setting is really a chore. I really think my eyes have a harder time holding the line.

I am old, but still...

Nick Shinn's picture

It seems to be a characteristic of "book" faces that they are quite "busy", with a lot of detail, such as serifs and terminals that vary from letter to letter. Faces that are more uniform in finish are not so bookish.

Why is this redundancy a requirement for sustained reading?

will powers's picture

To Nick's question:

There are people in this discussion who have studied far more thoroughly than I the sciences of making typefaces and of reading them. So I'm going to go out a limb and see what you all make of a few ideas; there'll probably be some words that are "non-tech," but I'll try to make the point.

One: Perhaps the "busy" and the redundancy Nick spoke of are essential to what so many of us want in book faces because they break up the uniformity of letter shapes and thus help them form into specific units (words) more easily. Maybe they also impart some basically recognizable features to specific letters. Some "g-ness" or "q-ness." & those nesses help readers put them together into words.

Two: Perhaps there is some cultural familiarity at work here also. Perhaps readers come to "know" book faces (which are faces with these redundancies and busy parts) from early days of reading, and so these become established as "book faces."

That's as far as I am able to go now. I'm already feeling over my head. But behind it I'm sure are some of the factors that have made me accept some faces and reject others for the work I do. I'm sure–I hope–there is something more to it than "I don't like this type."

To Hrant and my original question to him: Perhaps in my general inclination to agree with you I am just echoing what I was told as a kid compositor. But there's some basis for it. Some years ago I learned that the Monotype house I used had TNR with long descenders. So we designed a quarterly newsletter with those descenders, and the thing did look notably better (letterpress). At this remove I cannot say if it read any better.

I cited a few weeks ago in another thread the 900 pages I recently read in ITC Garamond. It was easy as pie, easy on my eyes. The most recent tome was 700 pages in Adobe Caslon, which I found more difficult to read. What gives there?

Back to work for me.


hrant's picture

Well, if it's a requirement, it's not a redundancy! :-)
Variety => Contrast => Information

That said, most "book" faces do have a lot
of mannered, non-functional decoration.

> What gives there?

You should turn yourself in at once! ;-)

Question: Was the topic of the ITC Garamond book
particularly interesting, versus the Caslon one?


William Berkson's picture

>Why is this redundancy a requirement for sustained reading?

That's a really good question. My take on it is that different aspects have different advantages.

Serifs have four advantages:
1. Help the eye hold the line.
2. Make the ends of strokes easier to detect. Tests have shown that the extremes in a glyph are more salient for reading.
3. I think serifs also help to get even color while having wide enough spacing to relieve crowding.
4. They also probably contribute to a distinctive "word image" better than sans. For example, a "b" and "d" are more different in a serif than a sans.

Some variations in design help evenness of color--for example, making the end of the r heavier than the end of the s.

Some variations help break up the "picket fence"--the tendency of too much vertical emphasis and a dazzle, which is always threatening in roman type, and is bad for text.

Nick Shinn's picture

I was thinking more along the lines of perceptual response to repetitive stimuli.
So it's like you can actively vary what is processed as signal and what is ignored as noise.

will powers's picture

Hrant wonders:

"Question: Was the topic of the ITC Garamond book
particularly interesting, versus the Caslon one?"

Both books were equally fascinating, and moving at times. Garamond was the big McCullough bio of Harry Truman. Calson was the same writer's bio of John Adams. Both verged a bit too much toward hagiography, but that's always a danger of biography.

Caslon types have never pleased me very much. They all seem a bit spiky and sparkly, lacking in the dark color that started this here discussion. I rarely specify a book to be set in any form of Caslon. I know that a participant here is at work on a Caslon; I shall attempt to bring an open mind when I can see it.

I know I'm not "supposed" to like ITC Garamond. Being the serious typographer (ahem) that I am. But it posed no reading problems. Even the few instances of faked small caps did not pester me. Nor the lining figs.


William Berkson's picture

>an open mind when I can see it.


>So it’s like you can actively vary what is processed as signal and what is ignored as noise.

Well, I don't think that's it. I think that the variation helps the signal--the letter and word shapes--come through easily and strongly. I don't think it's noise.

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