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. ?


Zach's picture

I agree with both of you :) With Bill, that mood is more important, or at least equally as important, as historical connection -- but with Nick that the aesthetic of an age interpenetrates both its type and its literature, often meaning that historically-appropriate choices will also be mood-appropriate choices, and vice versa, though of course not always.

I like Walbaum for Dracula not just because of its darkness and superficial creepiness (though I do like that; the S and C triangular serifs and the angular 3s all resemble fangs), but because it seems like there is a historico-philosophical parallel, despite the anachronism: both are rationalistic, but with an asterisk. Walbaum is the least strictly rationalist Modernist/Didone, if I'm not mistaken, and Dracula is full of characters who are too modern to believe in anything so mythical as vampires lurking in Eastern Europe, but find themselves forced to, written to readers who are similarly modern but still feel some attraction to all that dark magic. (Is anyone picking up what I'm putting down, or am I full of it?)

quadibloc's picture

Since the root of the problem is that many digital typefaces are based on large type sizes (presumably in order to have the cleanest originals to work from), I'm surprised no one mentioned Times Ten and other similar faces in this thread.

William Berkson's picture

John (quadibloc), you are quite right about the basic problem of many early digital revivals. And my Williams Caslon is one in a number of more recent efforts to correct that mistake. I think this has been discussed in other threads, so I didn't bring it up here. I will be discussing it at more length in my Part 2 of my essay for iLoveTypography.com

Nick Shinn's picture

Zach, which Walbaum?

Bill, don't forget to mention my Scotch Modern as another of the "more recent efforts to correct that mistake"!

Zach's picture

Storm Walbaum.

Arno Enslin's picture

TypeCulture Expo (Sans and) Serif can be added to the list of dark typefaces. And both are highly legible.

Rahim asked, where Maiola is on the darkness-meter. Maiola does not belong to the list. By the way, I dislike Maiola and I don’t think, that it is highly or comfortably legible.

SuperUltraFabulous's picture

I love Maiola, but I think it looks best on uncoated papers or letterpresses as its features are rather sharp.

I agree that it is not dark.

quadibloc's picture

"I do, and I would say that any Caslon revival is both classic and retro, but I fail to see how something that is timeless can be a 21st century typeface. You can't have it both ways, Bill!"

If something classic is timeless, then having it belong in the 21st century isn't having it both ways - but having it "retro" would be having it both ways. If something is retro, it is ostentatiously dated, and hence not timeless. So I can argue that you have it backwards - although, in fact, something can be classic by having much in it that is of timeless merit without being entirely free of elements that are dated.

Of course, Caslon really is an old typeface, and despite its popularity and merit which makes it a classic, the original face does have some characteristics which render it dated. A modified face, based on Caslon, can emphasize the timeless parts of the design and blunt the dated ones, or make the opposite design choice, and have something that is indeed 'retro' even if the timeless classic merits of the design are also present.

Also, I am surprised to see it suggested that a book ought to be typeset in a typeface belonging to the era in which it was written.

It seems to me there is no good reason not to typeset Shakespeare in Times New Roman, for example. Or She or Tarzan of the Apes, for that matter. The purpose of a type is to be something invisible to convey the words of the author to the mind of the reader, not to be something archaic with which the reader is not comfortable. You know, like a crystal goblet.

That being said, I also think that there are times when an exception is warranted. Thus, I would not at all mind curling up with a copy of "The Well at the World's End" or "The Lord of the Rings" typeset in, say, 14-point Kelmscott Roman. With generous leading, tight word spacing (which means words would be hyphenated at need), and decorative initials at the start of chapters (can you even tell a word processor to put the first line in all-capitals these days)...

But while the occasional indulgence is a pleasant thing, it is not appropriate for a steady diet.

Nick Shinn's picture

John, like most people, you misinterpret Beatrice Warde's metaphor of the crystal goblet.
She did not mean "crystal clear", as in an unadorned, plain wine glass.
She was well aware that crystal goblets, although transparent, are obviously and profusely decorated in an archaic manner.

@John [quadibloc]: But while the occasional indulgence is a pleasant thing, it is not appropriate for a steady diet.

Thank you for agreeing with me.
I was recently looking at new books on Victorian architecture, and nary a one of them was set in a 19th century didone.
Most inappropriate was the choice of Baskerville, as incongruous as a Chippendale chair in a Gothic Revival room.
It would be nice to occasionally come across some discriminating historical allusion, rather than typefaces which people have chosen because they are safe and conventional "book" faces.

Stephen Coles's picture

You could always ask Beatrice herself what she meant.

Arno Enslin's picture

If darkness is regarding to the contrast, I would add fonts like Jenny (FontFarm) and Trinité (TEFF), but I think, it is not only regarding to the contrast. Jenny is a fantastic font with a very fair price by the way. In case of Expo (Serif), it is both, a relative low contrast and relative thick strokes in the regular weight. And Expo looks like it would be very versatile. I prefer typefaces with a relatively low contrast, at least, if they are printed in a dark black. Because of that I also dislike Sabon Next, because the contrast is so big. But I am not a professional and haven’t seen all these typefaces in well printed books, but in laser prints only. At least I never talk about the impressions, that I get, if I see body text typefaces on screen. I mean – I don’t conclude to their quality in print anymore. However, I have compared the quality of my printer with books, from which I think, that they are very well printed – books about typography from the publishing house Hermann Schmidt. And my conclusion is, that my laser prints are on a comparable level with regard to the shapes and the thickness of the glyphs, but not with regard to features like reflection of the toner/ink and the kind of the black, which seem to be not less important than the paper and the quality of the fonts. The toner (of my printer) is on the paper, while the ink of the books is in the paper. So the text looks a bit raised, although the toner coat is thin. And therefore my prints are much more susceptible for lighting conditions. But I think, that I can get a general impression of the typefaces in offset print. Merlo and Feijoa also belong to the dark typefaces. And I like them very much, although Feijoa is less versatile than Merlo and lesser versatile than Expo.

BeatriceWarde's picture

Oh my. Of course Mr Shinn is correct (although I think his typeface for that Canadian newspaper is just frightful - I mean, Times New Roman is obviously the best typeface for the job). I'm surprised that John would have misunderstood my metaphor as so many others have. I would have thought that the President of ATypI could have taken more time with his references. Dear John, please reread it but take careful notice of the paragraphs describing windows. I think that will help you understand it better.

And to both of you, please don't put words in my mouth. As the gracious Mr Coles suggested, just ask me. I'm always happy to give my opinion, as you all well know!

hrant's picture

Ms Ward, if I may ask: have you stopped killing your husbands?


BeatriceWarde's picture


I am here to answer questions about my typographic theories, not about my personal life so
I shall ignore your most impertinent question, as you didn't even spell my name correctly.

Beatrice Lamberton Warde

Arno Enslin's picture

Damn, even if she has killed one husband and continued to kill her husbands, there are more useless husbands than good digitized darker typefaces. Beauty is always a loss, husbands not necessarily. And the same is valid for wifes, children, foetuses and embryos. 216,000 people more per day on a planet, that does not increase its radius, but only 0.01 well made dark typefaces per day. So, just kill your husbands short and sweet (with the help of hrant’s Kalaschnikow for example), except they are just creating darker typefaces or dumping a whaling ship.

hrant's picture

Ms Warp is too much of a lady to use an automatic rifle. BTB*, since
Ms Warn is well and truly deceased, we must discuss Medium weights...

* By the by.


venticaratteruzzi's picture

Minion Pro
Didot (from H&FJ)
Adobe Garamond Premier Pro

Arno Enslin's picture

Minion Pro? What’s dark there? Adobe Garamond Premier Pro is dark neither, as far as I remember. And Hoefler Didot is no typeface for books, or is it? I mean, I cannot imagine, that a book, which is printed in Hoefler Didot, is legible.

Arno Enslin's picture

Okay, maybe some of the less contrasted styles of Hoefler Didot work for longer texts. But even the style with the lowest contrast is very contrasted.

Arno Enslin's picture

It’s so dependent from the printing technology. This really seems to be Scala. And it is dark there.


Bert Vanderveen's picture

I have used Quadraat and it worked like a charm…

RadioB's picture

I always struggle when choosing a typeface for books, do you pick the best typeface for the job, or a good one that has some connection to the book. For example if I was to design Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde should I choose one of the new, very legible typefaces made especially for books with 9pt type, or should I choose one designed in the 19th century maybe by a scotish type designer? maybe bookman oldstyle or something. I always have trouble with that.

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