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NEWS, SEEN AND NOTED · October 28, 2009

New Faces in Washington

Last week the venerable Washington Post unveiled its new design, eight months in the making. More a “tweak” than an extreme makeover, the redesign was accomplished by an in-house team in collaboration with Roger Black and his studio. Charles Apple presents a very thorough review of the newspaper’s structural and design changes on his Visual Editors blog, including ample links to other sources and a PDF of The Post’s own special section detailing the changes.

The obvious change to The Post’s body copy font gets noted in several articles. But some of the more subtle changes in the type palette elude mention, so I thought I’d give a little attention here to some of the less conspicuous qualities of the updated Post typography.

More Modern Text

The previous text typeface was Post Roman (also known as Bureau Roman). It was first drawn by the Font Bureau’s David Berlow on commission from The Post more than a decade ago. The updated Post now sports Miller Daily Three for body copy.

Incidentally, both of these faces can trace their roots back to a single 18th-century founder, William Miller of Edinburgh. Post Roman was a reworking of Morris Fuller Benton’s Century Oldstyle (ca. 1909), restyled for narrow newspaper columns. Century Oldstyle, in turn, was based on an old style cut by Alexander Phemister for Miller & Richard (ca. 1858).

Matthew Carter’s Miller design, on the other hand, is derived from the transitional-style types cut by Richard Austin for the foundries of both William Miller and Alexander Wilson between 1810 and 1820. After the Dickinson foundry of Boston imported these types from the Scottish foundries to the United States, the style came to be called “Scotch Roman.”

Carter’s freer interpretation of his models lends the Miller family a fresh, contemporary feeling. Miller Daily is an adaptation of the original Miller design specifically for use in newspaper text. The more open and even proportions of Miller Daily give it a larger appearance than the Post Roman at the same nominal size.

The Post’s executive editor did note, during a Q&A session with readers following the launch, that not all readers have been initially happy with the lighter color of the new text. However, because the Miller Daily family is part of Font Bureau’s graded Readability Series, the newspaper has the option of bumping up to the slightly heavier Grade Four in the future, if they wish to regain some of the darkness of the previous body copy.

Several different fonts were tested on press, and improved readability was really the primary criteria. As an added design benefit, though, the more modern-style stress and contrast of Miller clearly provide a more natural complement to The Post’s distinctive headline style.

Elegant Refinements

For more than a decade, The Washington Post’s brand has been largely defined by their iconic display typeface — a custom variant of Bodoni, called Postoni, designed specifically for The Post by Matthew Carter in 1997. For the paper’s redesign, Postoni was naturally retained for headlines. To provide further elegance, two additional versions of the design were commissioned: Display and Titling.

Font Bureau’s Richard Lipton, working with Matthew Carter, took the original Postoni and, in a process that Roger Black likes to characterize as “sweetening,” Lipton increased the contrast and added subtle bracketing to produce a more delicate Display version for use at larger sizes. He was assisted in this series by Jill Pichotta and Dyana Weissman. In the redesign of the paper, the original Postoni is generally used up to about 32 point. For headlines set larger than that, the new Display versions take over.

For section headings, an even more refined all-caps Titling version was developed. Here the thins are even thinner, stems are subtly bowed, and serifs are slightly cupped. The overall color is a bit lighter than the bold display weight. The proportions of the capitals are more generous, allowing section flags to stretch out a bit. And a few purely decorative touches have been introduced, like the terminal on the tail of the R.

Postoni is already a fairly narrow design. But as newspapers keep shrinking in width, a condensed headline face has become an eminently useful accessory. So, while Lipton was developing the Postoni Display styles, Pichotta and Weissman also drew a set of Display Condensed styles for The Post.

[Update, Jan 2012: The Postoni and Postoni Display fonts are now available for retail license under the name Stilson.]

A New Baby Elephant

In the previous incarnation, dark accents of rich typographic color were provided by Giza, a heavy Egyptian slab-serif, a style that harkens back to Victorian experiments of the early 1800s. In the new design, this role has been reassigned to a sibling style — the so-called Fat-Face, another 19th-century invention. In this case, the fat-face is Big Figgins, also designed by Matthew Carter.

Where the Egyptian style relied on a minimum contrast between thick and thin, the Fat-Face took the high contrast of the Modern style to its logical and exaggerated extreme.

For Big Figgins, Carter drew inspiration from the fat-face types shown in an 1815 specimen of the London typefounder Vincent Figgins. (The original Figgins types were later marketed with the delightfully evocative name of Elephant, as was also Carter’s initial revival of this style for Microsoft, later to be rechristened Big Figgins.)

Because The Post design staff wanted to use this style also in smaller display settings, like column headings, where the high-contrast thins of Big Figgins might prove too fragile, a version for smaller sizes was commissioned from the Font Bureau. Again, Richard Lipton was called in to adapt Carter’s original, adjusting weights and proportions to provide robustness. The resulting variation was affectionately dubbed “Baby” Figgins.

Industrial Grade Sans

Finally, to round out any multi-purpose type palette, one generally needs a versatile sans-serif family. The previous design of The Post made extensive use of Font Bureau’s Poynter Gothic series. Designed by Tobias Frere-Jones, this family was based on the early 20th-century American gothics of M. F. Benton, including Franklin Gothic, but with many adaptations and adjustments made to open up counters and simplify forms.

The redesigned Post takes up David Berlow’s ITC Franklin, a definitive revision of Franklin Gothic that retains the gutsy character of this industrial gothic style. Details like the slightly more closed forms of a e and c and the two-storied g with its jaunty ear more nearly echo similar forms in Postoni and Big Figgins.

Taken all together, the subtle revisions to The Washington Post’s type palette have brought all of the variables — body copy, heads, secondary display, and sans-serif — into a closer orbit to the paper’s signature Postoni style, and thus provide a greater sense of harmony across the newspaper’s many elements.


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