Move Over, Helvetica. Here Comes Trajan.

Note: This text was originally written for the Huffington Post website at their request last February. For some unexplained reason they have never run it. Thus, I am posting it here.


Eros (Summer 1962). Cover design by Herb Lubalin. Lettering by Tom Carnase.

Move Over, Helvetica. Here Comes Trajan.

Eight years ago the design world was abuzz over the 50th anniversary of Helvetica, the sans serif typeface designed by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann for the Haas typefoundry in Switzerland. The event was commemorated with a book and a movie: Helvetica Forever: Story of a Typeface (Lars Müller Verlag) and Helvetica by Gary Hustwit. The latter became that rare thing, a movie about graphic design that captured the attention of ordinary people. It did so by stressing how ubiquitous Helvetica has become, a typeface no longer the provenance of a small coterie of graphic designers but a font that is on virtually everyone’s personal computer or mobile device; a font that is encountered daily, both in the public (e.g., the logo for McDonald’s and the New York City subway system signage) and private spheres (documents circulated within many offices).

The book and, especially, the movie have elevated Helvetica to mythic status—and contributed to myths about the typeface. One myth is that it is the most popular typeface in the world. It is indeed everywhere, but if we base popularity on sheer usage, then the honor of most popular typeface in the world belongs to Times Roman, another font that nearly everyone has on their personal computers. While not as widely lauded as Helvetica, Times Roman is part of a lettering and typographic lineage that stretches back centuries, all the way to the beginning of the Roman Empire.

Two years ago the Trajan Column, erected during the reign of Emperor Trajan to commemorate the successful military campaign against the Dacians, celebrated its 1900th birthday. The Column is notable for the inscription at its base which is carved in a style of capitals commonly referred to as Capitalis Monumentalis or Imperial Roman Capitals. It is a letterform that has outlasted the Roman Empire itself. It has been discovered and rediscovered several times over the past two millennia, initially in the Carolingian era, and then more significantly during the Renaissance when it collided with the invention of printing. Venetian printers in the 1470s adopted the letters as a guide for the capitals in their typefaces (the lowercase came from Renaissance interpretations of the Caroline minuscule), establishing a model for subsequent printers and typefounders. Thus, the Imperial Roman Capital is the ancestor not only of Times Roman but of all of our capital letters, including Helvetica. And why we when we print letters by hand today we print “roman” letters.

Among all the thousands of inscriptions that survive from the Roman Empire, it is the inscription on the Trajan Column that has constantly entranced and inspired artists and designers. They have been struck by the combination of authority and grace that the capital letters exude. Many have considered them perfect, unsurpassable. They have resisted numerous attempts to find a mathematical explanation for their mix of variable yet harmonious proportions and their subtle details such as serifs.

In the late 1980s, Sumner Stone, type director at Adobe, saw the Trajan capitals as the perfect vehicle to prove to doubters that the new technology of digital type could hold its own with the technologies of the past. He commissioned Carol Twombly to design a font based on them. The result was Adobe Trajan, a font that has become as much a part of our visual culture as either Times Roman or the overhyped Helvetica. Not only does it seem to be the de facto typeface of Hollywood movies—gracing the posters of films like Carrie and American Sniper that have no connection to Ancient Rome—but it can be found on everything from book jackets to pet food packaging to storefronts to—gasp—neon signs. And all of this without a lowercase.


Poster for the 2013 remake of Carrie.

Since the advent of modernist design in the 1920s, sans serif types have been the preferred choice of those seeking to escape the grasp of history. And, as modernism has made inroads in architecture, urban planning, corporate identity and advertising over the past fifty years, sans serifs have increasingly found their way into the mainstream. Due to their simplicity, they are now the dominant style of type for signage and screens. Yet, serif faces—such as Georgia, the best of all the Microsoft screen fonts in the opinion of many—still dominate the world of communication design, whether in print or online, in terms of sheer quantity. They are all the offspring of the classical Roman capital.

Fifty years is indeed a nice ride, but nothing compared to the longevity of the Capitalis Monumentalis. It is truly the eternal letter.


Arp-Hansen Hotel Group neon sign in Copenhagen (2013) set in Adobe Trajan. Photograph by Paul Shaw.

To learn more about the amazing persistence of the classical Roman capital—and to discover a wide world beyond Adobe Trajan—see The Eternal Letter: Two Millennia of the Classical Roman Capital edited by Paul Shaw (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 2013).