dot-font: An American Typeface Comes of Age

Versatile, readable, well-designed typefaces for text are hard to come by. In 1990, lettering expert John Downer designed a deceptively simple-looking family of serif typefaces, called Iowan Old Style, that should have become a workhorse text type for book and magazine work. But when the face was released in 1991 by Bitstream, it was missing the expert sets and related typographic refinements that Downer had designed to make it a complete type family. Now, nearly a decade later, Bitstream has finally released them, making Iowan Old Style usable at last in the way its designer intended.

This Bitstream promotional graphic highlights Iowa Old Style’s newly released small caps.

Venice on the Prairie
Despite the corn-fed sound of its name, Iowan Old Style has roots deep in the Renaissance; Downer says it’s a Venetian old style, based on the types cut by Nicolas Jenson and Francesco Griffo in 15th-century Italy. It’s a bit startling to see Iowan Old Style described as a Venetian, since the most prominent characteristic that distinguishes the Venetian faces from some of the slightly later Renaissance romans is the slanting crossbar of the lowercase “e”; the crossbar of the “e” in Iowan is straight. But the oblique stress, the low contrast between thick and thin strokes, the generous round letter shapes, and the calligraphic but blunt serifs do mark this face as related to Jenson’s famous roman. As Bitstream describes it, “Iowan Old Style is a hardy contemporary text design modeled after earlier revivals of Jenson and Griffo typefaces but with a larger x-height, tighter letterfit, and reproportioned capitals.” It is also modeled on “classical inscriptional lettering and sign painting seen in certain regions of eastern Iowa.”

The typeface has a few features that remind me of Frederic Goudy‘s typefaces, such as the rounded-diamond shape of the dots over the “i” and “j,” and some of the curves in the italics. And of course Goudy’s most well-known typeface is Goudy Old Style (only one of many faces he designed that bear his name). But Iowan Old Style is smoother and less quirky than most of Goudy’s highly individual designs.

Iowan Old Style has a very open look to its counters, with plenty of space inside the lowercase letters; yet its descenders and especially its ascenders are short, and it fits together fairly compactly. It’s clearly a typeface made for reading in text.

Extended Features
A text typeface needs more than just 26 letters and a handful of punctuation to be truly usable. An old-style text face, based on types that were first cut and used in books in the 15th to 18th centuries, should be accompanied by old-style figures, by a complete set of f-ligatures, and by true small caps. It ought to have a set of real fractions, too, or the numerators and denominators to create them. Without these, it looks as unconvincing as a callow Hollywood actor pretending to be a Shakespearean prince.

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Iowan Old Style’s new expert extensions include the characters necessary to make the typeface truly useful, including small caps and f-ligatures.

I don’t know what misjudgment caused Bitstream to issue Iowan Old Style originally without any of these refinements (no doubt some mistake of marketing triage), but Bitstream has finally rectified its error by releasing a fairly extensive set of extra characters. Besides what I mentioned above, Bitstream included a number of accented letters beyond the usual Western set — enough to typeset Polish, Catalan, and Icelandic (though not, as far as I can see, Czech or Hungarian, except by using a page-layout program to kern diacritical marks back over letters).

The type family also includes a handful of ornaments and two bolder weights (with their italics) — Bold and Black. There are no italic small caps. (This is a traditional omission, but it invariably gets a designer in trouble when the design calls for small caps but the text calls for a word or title in italics.)

So Nothing’s Perfect
There are some peculiarities to the way the supplementary fonts are arranged. The small caps font, for some unfathomable reason, has only small caps, and only in the lowercase positions: If you type a capital letter, all you get is a blank. I can’t imagine why anyone would create a font like this, given that we so often mix small caps and full caps in the same word or phrase. The italic alternates are given in a font that has nothing but them — not a full set of italics with the alternates replacing the appropriate letters. And there is no single font that combines the normal upper- and lowercase letters with old-style figures.

To make use of these typographic refinements, you have to do a lot of replacing or reformatting of individual characters in a block of text, or a lot of careful search-and-replace operations if you’re setting an entire book. Alternatively, you could pick and choose from the extended character set to create your own fonts with all the characters you need in one place.

Signs and Books
John Downer is a sign painter and letterer as well as a skillful type designer, living and working in Iowa City, Iowa. He recently released a set of fonts based on American painted signs of the 19th century, and he has been responsible for typefaces as varied as Triplex Italic (Emigre) and SamSans (Font Bureau). He would be better known, I think, as a designer of text types if Iowan Old Style had been issued in its complete form when it first came out.

Iowan Old Style cries out to be used in book work. It’s a sturdy-looking, open, unfussy typeface with a narrower, contrasting italic, and it’s readable down to very small sizes. Now that the necessary expert sets have been added to the available mix, perhaps we’ll see it used more widely.

  • anonymous says:

    Thanks for the information, as always.

  • anonymous says:

    It was a mini-vacation to read about a real hand-designed font in this digital computer-driven world, and also to discover the designer John Downer, who created it from classical roots mixed with contemporary sign-painting experience. I’ve done just enough sign-painting to know how much skill it takes to do well, and also to know that mixing classical letterform construction with something as homely as sign-painting is not at all strange, though it may sound that way to some. Iowan Old Style is graceful, restrained, squeaky-clean and beautiful. I am looking for an opportunity to try it. THANKS for the interesting article!

  • anonymous says:

    I liked the article about a highly useable font. Should have a link to purchase sorce

  • spruis says:

    As a busy magazine designer with another full time job, I do not have as much time as I would like to research fonts and their uses. These types aof articles are very useful to me. Please keep them coming!

  • Anonymous says:

    What an intelligent, lucid review of the typeface I plan to use on my new vintage photography website. Many thanks, John.


    Michael Flannery

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