In Bed with the Bembo

Monotype Caslon, The Stinehour Press, specimen sheet

Graphic design is like cooking. If you want to create a successful meal, you need to start with the best ingredients. If I were a chef (which I'm not since I can only make turkey burgers), I would hope to use fresh organic vegetables and spices. I don't imagine I would do well using Rice-a-Roni and Spaghetti-Os. So why are designers willing to stoop to the Kraft macaroni and cheese (that I actually do like) level when picking a typeface?

"Uh, I think it's Caslon."
"I don't know, maybe it's Weirdnamehere typeface"
"It looks ok to me."
"A friend found it."

These are the statements that are the downfall of civilization. It can't just be some trash Caslon you found working the street for free. You'll get a disease. It needs to be the best possible cut of Caslon. But how do you know if it comes from a good family or is from the wrong side of the tracks?

above: Caslon in metal. below: Caslon in digital form

I have a collection of type specimen sheets from Meriden-Stinehour Press. I've had these for almost thirty years. I use these to determine if the digital version is, at least, close to the metal one. Of course changes happen during translation. But I can tell if the ampersand has retained it's original blush of youth or has let itself go.

The lesson here: Stay away from cheap type. Get to know one before getting in bed with it. 

Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Chair of the undergraduate and graduate Graphic Design Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for LinkedIn Learning/ He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.

When Bad Type Happens to Good People

Monotype Bembo, a good font

I may have suspect taste in some things. My food tastes are rather plebian, I’m not so keen on subtle beiges, and I have no issue with Melmac. But I am a type snob. I try to be open minded, but I’m rigid and uptight. I mentioned at the AIGA Conference in Memphis, “Pretend there is no such thing as a bold serif and life will be better.” Ok, back off, I’m not including slab serifs. And for those who disagree, I don’t think Claude Garamond spent years in the middle of the 16th century slaving over the letterforms, hoping that someone would make them fat someday. For the same reason, ITC Garamond isn’t at the top of my list. Type should not be cute. I advise my students to stay away from anything too hip and groovy. These fonts that are all the rage will be like senior class photo from high school and your hair style. “What in God’s name was I thinking?” you’ll ask years later.

When I first started working as a designer I was at The New York Public Library. Many of my projects were for Library trustees or donors. We know money doesn’t buy good taste, and this is especially true with typography. Tiffany (the typeface, not the store) seemed to be all the rage on the upper east side of Manhattan in the mid 1980s. I don’t know why, but it was a disease. I would present an invitation or book design set in Bembo, and someone would pull out something with Tiffany and suggest we use it because it was “classy”. I learned the best response was to explain that these kinds of typefaces were like green shag carpeting. Good people really don’t use that.

The Scholar Adventurer, NYPL, 1987, Sean Adams, good Bembo

The Scholar Adventurer, NYPL, Sean Adams, more Bembo

Bembo, Stinehour Press sample

Garamond, Stinehour Press sample: this is what Garamond should look like

ITC Garamond Bold, very bad, like short sleeve dress shirts, pretend it doesn't exist

Do you want your type to look like this?