dot-font: The Mischievous Mind behind Microsoft’s TrueType Fonts

For a few short years in the early 1990s, Robert Norton had a decisive influence on something the great majority of us use and take for granted: the typefaces that accompanied a whole slew of Microsoft software products, including Microsoft Windows and software available for the Mac. Norton was “the cornerstone of Microsoft’s type group,” as Nicolas Barker put it in his obituary in the “Independent.” He was largely responsible for the selection and creation of typefaces for Windows and all other Microsoft software, including Word and Office.

Norton, who died in England on March 8, brought a lifetime of typographic knowledge to the task of overseeing Microsoft’s development of TrueType fonts. It was a small part of Microsoft’s business but one with a very wide influence, precisely because of the reach of Microsoft products.

Substance with Style
Norton’s stint at Microsoft could be considered just a coda to a long life in the typographic world. Because of his long experience — not just his knowledge of type but also his personal history of putting new typesetting technologies to profitable use — he brought to the Microsoft type group a depth of knowledge and taste that it couldn’t easily create for itself. Despite his skepticism about the gung-ho world of software developers, “his integrity stayed unchanged as his intellect wrestled with the task of preserving the individuality of letter-designs within the Microsoft straitjacket,” as Barker put it.

Norton’s wit, with which he obliquely but relentlessly tried to deflate pretension, including his own, showed up in the most unlikely places — even in the User’s Guides to Microsoft’s packages of TrueType fonts. Describing the very boldest, heaviest face in the Gill Sans family, Gill Sans Ultra Bold, he wrote: “There’s a lot of fun in this face, which is also known as Gill Kayo. In a sinking boat, you wouldn’t want to read directions in Gill Sans Ultra Bold telling you how to put on your life jacket. But if a sign said stop [this one word is printed, in the guide, in the typeface itself], you would probably stop, even if you normally are not very obedient.”

Robert Norton’s playful irreverence found its expression in many venues, including this online type reference.

In its combination of irreverence and historical erudition, Norton’s style is unmistakable. On Baskerville Old Face: “This face is based on one developed by the renowned 18th-century typographer John Baskerville. But tell-tale differences, including the characteristic squarish curves in the capital C and G, identify it as the version first issued by the Fry type foundry, established by the Fry family after they succeeded in the chocolate business. The face first appeared in 1766 under the name of Isaac Moore, the foundry manager.”

Readers who take the trouble to navigate through Norton’s online type primer and reference — A Disagreeably Facetious Type Glossary — are in for more of the same. Norton begins: “We now have to accept font (as the Americans with an uncharacteristic economy took to calling it) as an alternative to fount, even though a font is really what contains the holy water that is used in baptisms in a Christian church. The word is now too widely used to resist. ‘A fount of knowledge’ is nevertheless a far more appropriate association.”

Best Remembered
I knew Robert Norton only briefly, during his stint in the suburban fringe of Seattle. He was a huge man, six foot six and “broad to match” (again, in Barker’s words), with a large head and a shambling gait. He took delight in applying his typographic skills and knowledge to the problems of choosing and judging the fonts that Microsoft would issue, but in that environment of young software whiz kids he seemed a little like a fish out of water. He brought me in at one point for a short stint evaluating the outlines for a bunch of typefaces being considered, but while I was there I was for the most part actually dealing with other, more technical people. I would occasionally go out to lunch with Robert, where we might talk about the job at hand or about anything else under the sun. I’m only sorry I didn’t see more of him after that particular project was through. I did manage to get him a few times to attend an informal group of people in Seattle who liked to get together and talk about type. He was always excellent company.

He was oddly self-deprecating for someone so accomplished. After the release of his wonderfully eccentric little book “Types Best Remembered/Types Best Forgotten,” Norton told me he had sent me an invitation to be one of the contributors (each of whom named one typeface they thought should be commemorated, and one they’d like to see discarded forever), “but you probably filed it in the round file.” He affected not to believe that I might not have received his invitation. (I would have been very happy to contribute. I can easily imagine letting such a letter sit on my desk too long while I thought about the best way to approach the problem, but I would never simply have forgotten it.)

That book was a fine example of his ingenuity, too. He had taken to publishing small books like that himself, at odd intervals, and making their production cheaper by dealing with printers that he knew were doing large jobs; he would find out what size page could be printed on the extra paper that would otherwise be trimmed and thrown away, and he would adjust the format of his book accordingly. This sometimes meant less than ideal control over what kind of paper he could use, but it did make it possible for the books to come out, without the intervention of a large publisher.

A Flair for Business
Robert Norton spent much of his life in the business of type, although he managed to punctuate it with long-distance sailing trips and with such early adventures as living by his wits in New York City and establishing a bookshop and a factory in Jamaica. Sensing the possibilities of the new technology of phototypesetting, he established with a partner what Nicolas Barker calls “an innovative firm that combined phototypesetting with an instant print service,” and he became adept at making his own film strips for the new typesetting systems. In 1982 he designed the type family Else, a modern-style typeface in the Century Old Style tradition. He developed techniques for adapting typefaces for use in early desktop laser printers — not only for the Latin alphabet but also for Hebrew, Arabic, Tibetan, and Japanese.

His last venture, after he left Microsoft in 1997, put his skills in publishing to work again. He went home to England and established Parsimony Press, to publish small, inexpensive, elegantly designed gift books for the intelligent reader. “We will try to make no books whose contents are not proper furniture for an enquiring and mischievous mind,” claims the Parsimony Web site. The new business is simultaneously quixotic and hard-headed: The plan is to give away samples to booksellers, the way a new chocolatier might send free samples to prospective vendors of his product (“These are the chocolate bars to taste”), with the idea that if enough demand is created, the books can be produced in large numbers at very little cost, and sold for the price of a greeting card. The press is being carried on by Robert’s daughters and by Andrew Pennock.

The Web site for Norton’s Parsimony Press provides a description of each volume, along with Norton’s description of the company and the idea behind it.

I didn’t know Robert Norton long enough or well enough to make any attempt to put his life in perspective; and I’ll resist the urge for a glib summing-up. He was an original, and a talented man. All I want to do here is point to a few of the things he did, and to make it clear that one of them, in its unsung way, has affected the way all of us who use computers communicate.

Posted on: April 20, 2001

2 Comments on dot-font: The Mischievous Mind behind Microsoft’s TrueType Fonts

  1. I needed this!!

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