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Dancing with the Dead
by Allan Haley

Retro showcard display designs, modern interpretations of classic typefaces and virtual replications of antique fonts: There are more typeface revivals available to graphic designers today than ever before. Maybe Frederic Goudy was right when he said, “The old guys stole all our good ideas.”

The design community has always been polarized when it comes to the topic of typeface revivals. Proponents will tell you that they preserve the rich heritage and tradition of the typographic arts and enable graphic communicators to take advantage of the best typefaces from earlier days. Those less in favor of reinterpreting old designs will argue that most revivals are lifeless clones just trying to make a buck off a good name. For better or worse, type designers have been creating revivals virtually since fonts of moveable type were invented.

There are essentially two kinds of typeface revivals: replications and interpretations. Replications strive to duplicate the look and feel of a typeface as it was originally used. In essence, they try to capture the character, warmth and idiosyncrasies of the font as it was seen by readers of its time. Replications are the typographic equivalent of classical music played on period instruments.

Typeface interpretations, on the other hand, are either new renditions of older designs or are new designs inspired by previous work. Interpretations take an older typeface and add to it by updating the design, correcting the limitations imposed by earlier technologies or by incorporating the essence of one or more designs into something entirely new. Typeface interpretations are comparable to what Seiji Ozawa creates when he conducts Beethoven.

Four brand-new “old” designs have recently joined the ranks of the revivals. One design recreates the beauty of a sixteenth-century French script. Another is a revival of a revival. The third grew out of a custom font project, and the fourth corrects the wrongs that an earlier technology necessitated.

P22 Civilité is a tempered typographic replication. According to Richard Kegler, co-founder, principal and the typographic soul of P22, “We chose to represent the font as accurately as possible, although the design was not distressed in an attempt to create a feeling of ‘oldness.’ We wanted to represent Civilité as it might have been seen by its originators: as an imitation of French handwriting—not perfect, but human—both elegant and quirky.” 

P22 Civilité, an elegant yet eccentric replication.

The original Civilité design dates back to the sixteenth century, when Robert Granjon cut punches for a font based on a style of French handwriting. The typeface became known as caractères de civilité due to its use in a popular book that taught children how to read, write and behave in polite society.

Kegler collaborated with Colin Kahn and Milo Kowalski to create P22 Civilité. Their source materials for the design were a 1908 publication printed from type that was cast from matrices struck from original Civilité punches, a 1926 specimen showing of the same fonts and a 1978 English translation by Harry Carter that was printed with type cast from the same punches. Because many of the original forms were archaic, there are two parts to the Civilité suite of fonts: Historical for the antiquated characters and Modern, which contains revised versions of the odd and confusing older letterforms. In addition, the OpenType fonts of P22 Civilité have a large offering of alternate and swash characters.

Monotype’s Bembo is a double revival. The story begins in fifteenth-century Venice, an important European typographic center. Many printers established businesses in Venice at this time; the most significant of these was Aldus Manutius, the first of the great scholar-printers.

Late in the fifteenth century, Aldus published a relatively insignificant essay by the Italian scholar Pietro Bembo. The type used for the text was a new design cut by Francesco Griffo, a goldsmith-turned-punchcutter. Despite the modest vehicle that prompted its launch, the Bembo typeface became very popular in Italy and soon found its way to France, where the design came to the attention of Claude Garamond, the famous French type founder. He made his own version of the design and sold fonts of it throughout Europe. The Aldine roman, as it came to be known, continued to serve as the foundation for new typeface designs for hundreds of years.

Monotype’s designers used antique books and specimen material set with Aldus's original fonts as the basis for the first Bembo revival in the 1920s. Released as several sizes of metal type, it quickly became one of Monotype’s best-selling typefaces. These first phototype and digital versions of Bembo were based on drawings for the 9-point metal type. The problem, however, was that no allowances were made for the way the 9-point type looked when inked and printed. The resulting phototype and first digital fonts produced a Bembo that was much less robust than the original metal versions. Some critics used the word “spindly” to describe the new design.

Bembo Book is a more robust and more accurate interpretation of the 1920s original.

The second digital revival of Bembo, created in 2006, is called Bembo Book. Robin Nicholas, senior designer in the Monotype drawing office, created the design to produce results comparable to those from the larger sizes of letterpress fonts. Characters were based on the metal type drawings—then edited to preserve the subtle features and typographic color of the printed results of the original metal fonts. Haley
Allan Haley ( is a storyteller and a consultant with expertise in fonts, font technology, type and typographic communication. He held the position of director of words and letters at Monotype for fifteen years and has six books and hundreds of articles to his credit. He is a past president of the Type Directors Club and was executive vice president of International Typeface Corporation.