Sunday, October 3, 2010

Ask me anything about Didot!

For about a hundred years, during the 18th and 19th centuries, the Didot family were active as designers. They were printers, publishers, typeface designers, inventors and intellectuals. Around 1800, the family owned the most important print shop and font foundry in France. Each of the seven members of the Didot family was involved in various branches of the book trade in some way. Francois Didot (1689-1757) established a print/type foundry and bookselling business in 1713. Under François's elder son, François-Ambroise, the Didot point system of 72 points to the French inch became the standard unit of type measurement, as it remains today. François-Ambroise changed the standard of type design by increasing the contrast between thick and thin letters. His sons Pierre and Firmin took charge of printing and typefounding. Pierre published acclaimed editions of French and Latin classics, and Firmin designed the Didot typeface. Books designed by the Didots have minimal decoration, generous margins, and simple linear borders. The family achieved Neoclassical ideals in their work.
Firmin Didot was born in Paris on April 14, 1764 and died April 24 1836. He was a member of the Parisian dynasty that dominated French typefounding in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Firmin was the most important family member as far as type design is concerned. As a printer, and especially as an engraver and founder, he raised the family name to the highest eminence. He revived and developed the stereotyping process, and produced fine editions of many classical, French, and English works. Didot was the first in France to print books using these stereotype plates, a process he improved and named, enabling him to make less expensive books. In printing, the term “stereotype” refers to the metal printing plate created for the actual printing of pages (as opposed to printing pages directly with movable type). 
Firmin developed Didot in Paris in 1783. He cut the letters, and cast them as type. The Didot types defined the characteristics of the modern type style. This new typeface featured stems flowing into extremely thin hairlines, and very straight across serifs with no bracketing. By this time the Didots were using woven paper and an improved printing press, allowing the fine details of such type to be reproduced. Still widely used today, Didot remained the standard in France for a century. Didot remains France’s greatest contribution to type design.
            Firmin took over the foundry when his father retired in 1789, and continued the production of new types. He favored neo-classical designs with increasingly fine hair serifs. In 1811, Firmin was made printer to the Institut Francais. In 1814, Napoleon appointed him Director of the Imperial Foundry, a position he held until his death. In 1823, one of his tragedies was performed at the Théâtre de l’Odeon. He retired in 1827, leaving his sons Ambroise-Firmin and Hyacinth to continue the business. At this time, Firmin devoted himself to politics and literature. He died in 1836 at the age of 72.
The typefaces Firmin designed include Didot, Linotype Didot, Firmin Didot, Didot LP and Initiales Grecques.
A number of major world-wide events were taking place during the years of Didot’s development. It was right in the midst of the Age of Enlightenment, which lasted until approximately 1789 when the French Revolution began. Didot is described as neoclassical, and is evocative of the Age of Enlightenment. The Age of Enlightenment is the era in Western philosophy and intellectual, scientific, and cultural life, centered upon the 18th century, in which reason was advocated as the primary source for legitimacy and authority. At its core was a critical questioning of traditional institutions, customs, and morals, and a strong belief in rationality and science. In France specifically, the location of Didot’s development, the power of religion and the aristocracy were violently uprooted.
Modern or Didone serif typefaces, which first emerged in the late 18th century, are characterized by extreme contrast between thick and thin lines. Modern typefaces tend to look very structured and could be considered cold. Having said that, modern fonts can look really eye-catching and very elegant at large sizes. They are not suitable for large amounts of body text, either on the web or in print. When used for body copy in print, an effect called “dazzling” occurs, the thick lines become very prominent while the thin lines almost disappear. It’s best to keep them for headings and sub-headings. Modern typefaces have a vertical stress, long and fine serifs, with minimal brackets. Serifs tend to be very thin and vertical lines are very heavy. Most modern fonts are less readable than transitional or old style serif typefaces. Common examples include Bodoni, Didot, and Computer Modern. In the eighteenth century improvements in paper quality combined with more advanced printing methods brought about changes in how typefaces were created. Didones are most commonly used for display and semi-display purposes, where the accentuated contrasts or stroke width create dynamic and elegant graphic effects. While these characteristics are moderated in the smaller sizes to allow for their use in text setting, the extremes of contrast impair readability, making them a less practical choice where large amounts of copy are to be set. At smaller sizes, the delicate hairlines can break up when printed on inferior papers, or fill in when reversed out of solids. The effective use of Didone typefaces depends upon high-quality printing and paper, and serves in turn to demonstrate that quality. As a consequence, they are frequently used to denote values of exclusivity and sophistication.
Didot was introduced by the Didot type foundry in 1784. Improvements in presses and papers allowed printers to get clearer type and the Didot typeface was reworked until it aquired the rigid, finelined serif we recognize today as modern roman letterforms. While designing Didot, Firmin Didot moved away from the handlettering and calligraphic characteristics of the era in search of a cleaner and more legible solution. Didot type diverged with previous typefaces by abandoning these hand penned styles in favor of a cleaner, more precise vertical stroke, extremely then hairlines and strict horizontal serifs with almost no bracketing. The Didot typeface personifies the neoclassical motif that permeated French culture from pre-revolutionary days through the age of Napoleon. These changes personified the beginning of the modern style, and Didot became the French standard for over a century. As happens with older, successful typefaces, Didot has been redrawn many times, weathering the process of reinterpretation and new technologies. Overall, Didot gives text a classic and elegant feel.
Well known Didots include Adrian Frutiger’s Linotype Didot and Jonathan Hoefler’s HTF Didot. While Didot is relatively commonly used, it was a copy of Didot called Bodoni which became more popular. (Maybe for practical reasons, since the Didot serifs often cracked during printing). Bodoni and Didot are often compared because of their similarities. While Didot was created in France, Bodoni worked in Italy. Both were inspired by the transitional-style Baskerville.
Several revivals of the Didot faces have been made. Adrian Frutiger’s version for Linotype may be the best regarded, but the more mordern intepretation by Hoefler & Frere-Jones, designed for Harper’s Bazaar features seven optical sizes-from 6 point to 96 point- that optimize each size to maintain the contrast and finesse deserved by the elegant Didot.
In 1992, Adrian Frutiger designed Linotype Didot. It retained all of the features that make Didot types ideal for book work and other text use. Less robust than Bodoni, Linotype Didot is an elegant face in which the decorative features of the Didone genre can be seen to best advantage. Linotype Didot has a broad form, very high contrast, and a combination of bracketed and hairline serifs. the high contrast and fine hairlines require high-quality printing and a well-considered choice of paper. These qualities limit its use as a text face, making it more suitable for short passages than extended bodies of continuous text. Linotype Didot is available in two weights and a distinguishable lightweight italic. A headline font has been designed for display use, retaining the refinements of detailing at larger sizes. There is also a font of ornaments.H&FJ Didot was designed in 1991, as part of the new Harper’s Bazaar that was being conceptualized. The brief was just the kind of challenge that H&FJ loves: they were asked to create a typeface that works like no other, a Modern which — unlike the commercial cuts of Bodoni — would have hairline serifs, and maintain them over a range of sizes. From the Didot collection they chose the grosse sans pareille no. 206 of Molé le jeune as a historical model, and extended the scant material in Didot’s 1819 Spécimen des Caracteres with quite a bit of invention: italics designed to work at large sizes, a range of different weights, and the many characters that Didot’s workshop never made. In the service of the design’s thin hairlines, they drew each of the family’s six styles in seven different “optical sizes,” each designed to be used at a different range of sizes, for a total of forty-two fonts.
Harper’s Bazaar would become a milestone in fashion publishing, its typeface singled out by the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) as part of “one of the most dramatic magazine reinventions in history.” The H&FJ Didot typefaces continue to be a major part of the most fashionable brands, including Bazaar itself — a testament to the flexibility and durability of the style.
H&FJ Didot also appears on the TV show Ally McBeal. Additionally, the "Foundry Daylight" version of Didot was commissioned and used by broadcast network CBS for many years alongside its famous "eye” logo.

Print Sources:
-Revival of the Fittest: Digital Versions of Classic Typefaces
-The Complete Typographer: A Manual for Designing With Type by Will Hill
-Graphic Design Referenced

Web Sources:



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