dot-font: A Rare Font Specimen

The other day, a new typeface catalog from the Hoefler Type Foundry arrived in my mailbox. Entitled simply “Catalogue of Typefaces: Fourth Edition,” it reminded me that there are still a few type foundries that show their typefaces in generously designed, printed catalogs — and how important that is to designers looking for a good typeface to use.

This catalog is the size and format of a 48-page magazine. It has no frills, apart from a fine degree of typographic design. It’s all black-and-white, except for a two-color cover (the back cover, also two-color, doubles as an order form), and it’s printed on a fairly heavy white uncoated stock, stapled at the spine. There are only seven pages that aren’t devoted to showings of the various typefaces for sale.

The Hoefler Type Foundry is the brainchild of Jonathan Hoefler, a prolific and extremely talented type designer in New York City. A decade ago, he was the wunderkind of the type world; while still in his teens, with a fresh-faced look that made him seem even younger than he was, he had become recognized as a masterful designer of typefaces in a surprising range of styles. Today, his business operates out of an address on lower Broadway, in SoHo, where he was recently joined by Tobias Frere-Jones, formerly of the Font Bureau.

When he was starting out, Hoefler had worked for Roger Black’s studio (now called, where he did a lot of work on designing or redesigning magazines; many of Hoefler’s typefaces were originally custom faces, commissioned as part of a redesign by magazines that would retain the exclusive right to use the faces for a year or two, after which Hoefler would be free to sell them to other customers. Not surprisingly, a lot of the typefaces in the Hoefler Type catalog are particularly useful for magazine headlines.

The Poetry of Headlines
In the catalog, every typeface, or at least every series or family, is given its own page on which to show off. Hoefler has followed the old practice, seen in many type specimens from a hundred years ago, of choosing words and phrases that are colorful and attention-grabbing but that also happen to fit exactly into the space allotted for that typeface. For example, in showing Knockout No. 48 (“Featherweight”), he shows four lines all set in caps, in descending sizes (72 pt, 60 pt, 54 pt, and 48 pt), followed by two-line showings of smaller sizes, caps and lowercase. The first four lines read:


Taken together, they don’t make any sense, but they make an amusing if puzzling juxtaposition, and they do show precisely the right number of letters to fill each justified line. The whole book is full of this sort of stuff. (To see these words as they would appear in the print catalog, although only one line at a time, type them into Hoefler’s clever Test Driver utility.)

Bold, Brawling Americans
Jonathan Hoefler has said that he’s inspired by American wood type of the 19th century, and fascinated by the way the creators of this type would make series and families of big display letters that were obviously related but didn’t stem from variations on some master design. The first type family he applied this idea to was Champion Gothic, a series of six heavy sans serif typefaces based on 19th-century Grotesques and designed for headlines and other display uses in Sports Illustrated. Five of the six are condensed to various degrees, and they all look impressive at really huge sizes. If you look at any one letter and compare it across the six-face series (Hoefler chooses the “R” to show this), you can see that they’re not just thickened or emaciated versions of the same letterform, but independent alphabets that work together.

Fully a third of the catalog is devoted to showing off Hoefler’s new variation on the same theme, a 32-member type family he calls Knockout. (Champion Gothic had a boxing theme; the weights were identifed as Bantamweight, Featherweight, Lightweight, Welterweight, Middleweight, and Heavyweight. In Knockout, he says, although each font has its boxing name, such as Junior Flyweight, it also sports a number: “Veteran Champion users will be happy to hear that they’ll never again have to remember whether Welterweight comes before Middleweight.”)

Knockout is “a new take on Champion Gothic,” with an expanded range of widths and weights. It’s also designed to work well in text, which the original was not. Like Champion Gothic, Knockout has that gawky, stark, artless look found in so many wood-type sans serifs. It cries out to be used in a boxing poster: “Frenchie Claude vs. Johnnie Bodoni! Saturday, Caslon Arena!”

European Refinement
At the same time he produces these brawling display heavyweights, Jonathan Hoefler studies the finest details of elegant text faces and creates some remarkably thorough serif text families.

Hoefler Text was originally commissioned by Apple Computer to show off the capabilities of Apple’s (now-abandoned) TrueType GX technology. Hoefler tried a blend of characteristics from Garamond and Janson fonts, to create a sort of Ur-oldstyle typeface, then he gave it every variation under the sun: old-style figures, fractions, small caps, ligatures, “quaint” and “archaic” ligatures, math symbols, even refinements such as alternative versions of punctuation designed to work best with all caps or small caps. There are not one but two “engraved” versions of the caps, and a host of ornaments.

The printed samples show two sizes of text settings, along with display lines for every variation. This is also the typeface used for all the descriptive text throughout the catalog. Instead of the random phrases used to illustrate Knockout, Hoefler Text appears in blocks of text from Cicero’s speech “In Catalinam” — a text used frequently in type specimens a couple of centuries ago.

Another of the serif type families shown here is HTF Didot, which Hoefler calls “a historical revival in the French Neoclassical style.” HTF Didot comprises 42 fonts, organized into seven series based on optical size; there’s a 6 pt master, an 11 pt master, a 16 pt master, and so on up to 96 pt. The hairlines characteristic of Didot’s typefaces are thick and robust in the tiniest sizes, thin and attenuated in the largest display size. Hoefler showed a more extensive sample of the whole family, with notes on how he designed it, in the first (and so far only) issue of his type magazine “Muse.”

Show Us the Length of Your Type
The Hoefler Type Foundry’s fourth catalog is a fine example of how a type foundry should show its wares. It’s very much in the tradition of the best type specimen books from the days when foundries were big business and could afford thick, casebound books with a page or more for every typeface. The Hoefler catalog is actually dealing with no small type library — 141 separate fonts, by my count — but of course it’s nothing like trying to show the entire Adobe library or the Agfa Monotype library, say.

Vendors of typefaces, whether the foundries themselves or resellers, face a dilemma: It costs a lot of money to publish a large printed catalog, and it’s ever so much easier and cheaper just to show the fonts on the web — no paper, no ink, no printing, no shipping — but what every graphic designer wants is a real, physical, paper-and-ink catalog, one that you can hold in your hands and flip through. Unless you’re designing exclusively for the screen, there’s no substitute for seeing the typefaces used on paper, in as thorough and varied a way as possible. You really need fairly extensive showings, too, not just a single word or a phrase for each typeface. But producing even the most compact type catalog is a thankless task that can never pay for itself except in increased font sales.

So we should be glad when a type foundry takes the trouble to produce a well-made, well-thought-out catalog or specimen book like this one. There’ll be well-thumbed copies on my desk in the coming year.

Posted on: July 7, 2000

3 Comments on dot-font: A Rare Font Specimen

  1. This review effectively extoles the virtue of this catalog, It fails, however, to provide any contact info. I’d like to check their work out. A phone number, address or URL would be appreciated.

  2. You can get a look at the work of The Hoefler Type Foundry at The catalog is available by following the “Catalog” link at the top, but it’s worth a visit to the new “TestDrivers” as well, which allow you to try out fonts before buying them.


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