Didone (typography)

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For the opera by Francesco Cavalli, see Didone (opera).

Didone is a genre of serif typeface that emerged in the late 18th century and is particularly popular in Europe. It is characterized by:

  • Narrow and unbracketed (hairline) serifs. (The serifs have a constant width along their length.)
  • Vertical orientation of weight axes. (The vertical strokes of letters are thick.)
  • Strong contrast between thick and thin lines. (Horizontal parts of letters are thin in comparison to the vertical parts.)
  • Some stroke endings show ball terminals. (Many lines end in a teardrop or circle shape, rather than a plain wedge-shaped serif.)
  • An unornamented, "modern" appearance.

The category is also known as modern or modern face serif fonts, in contrast to old style serif designs, which date to the Renaissance period.


Didot's type in the Code civil des Français, printed by the company of Firmin Didot in 1804.

Didone types were developed by printers including Firmin Didot, Giambattista Bodoni and Justus Erich Walbaum, whose eponymous typefaces, Bodoni, Didot, and Walbaum, remain in use today. Their goals were to create more elegant, classical designs of printed text, developing the work of John Baskerville in Birmingham and Fournier in France towards a more extreme, precise design with intense precision and contrast, showing off the increasingly refined printing and paper-making technologies of the period.[1][2] These trends were also accompanied by changes to page layout conventions and the abolition of the long s.[3][4][5][6][7][8]

In Britain and America, the lasting influence of Baskerville led to the creation of types such as Bell and Scotch Roman designs, in the same spirit as Didone fonts from the continent but less geometric; these like Baskerville's type are often called transitional serif designs.[9] Later developments of this class have been called Scotch Modern and show increasing Didone influence.[10]

Early ultra-bold Didone type on a newspaper masthead, 1833.

The nineteenth century also saw the arrival of bold type, first for headings, titles and posters, then for emphasis within body text, and while neither Didot nor Bodoni cut bold type for this latter use themselves, many Didone bold types were created by their successors.[11][12] A particular development in this direction was the poster type genre known as 'fat faces', extremely bold designs intended for posters and signage.[13][14] It matched the desire of advertisers for eye-catching new kinds of letters that were not merely enlarged forms of body text fonts.[15]

Didone fonts began to decline in popularity for general use around the end of the nineteenth century, with the rise of the slab serif and sans-serif genres and the growth of the Arts and Crafts movement. This trend rejected austere, classical designs of type, ultimately in favour of gentler designs such as Imprint, Bembo and Garamond, many of which were revivals of Renaissance typefaces.[16] As an experiment in this period, Frederic Goudy attempted to 'redeem' Didone capitals for titling purposes by leaving a white line in the centre of the thick strokes. He hoped this design, Goudy Open, would leave a lighter colour (density of ink) on the paper.[17][18]

Nonetheless, Didone designs have remained in use, and the genre is recognised on the VOX-ATypI classification system of typefaces and by the Association Typographique Internationale (AtypI).[19] The genre remains very popular in the printing of Greek, as the Didot family were among the first to set up a printing press in the newly independent country, and in mathematics, in which Computer Modern is the popular default typeface of the mathematical typesetting programmes TeX and LaTeX.[20] The popular typeface family Century is inspired by the late Didone genre of Scotch Roman type, although compared to many in the Didone genre it has quite a low level of stroke contrast, suitably for its purpose of high legibility in body text. Typefaces of the period have often been revived since for cold type and digital composition, while modern typefaces along the same lines include Filosofia and the open-source Computer Modern. Some revivals have focused on subgenres of the period, such as Surveyor, inspired by labels on maps, and Morris Fuller Benton's Ultra Bodoni and Matthew Carter's Elephant, reinterpretations of 'fat face' designs.[14]


Didone type (among other styles) makes up the body text of this French newspaper, printed in 1890.

In print, Didone fonts are often used on high-gloss magazine paper for magazines such as Harper's Bazaar, on which the paper retains the detail of their high contrast well, and for whose image a crisp, 'European' design of type may be considered appropriate.[21] They are used more often for general-purpose body text, such as book printing, in Europe.

The effective use of Didone typefaces poses unique challenges. While they can look very elegant due to their regular, rational design and fine strokes, a known effect on readers is 'dazzle', where the thick verticals draw the reader's attention and cause them to struggle to concentrate on the other, much thinner strokes that define which letter is which.[22][23][24] For this reason, using the right optical size of font has been described as particularly essential with Didone designs.[25] Fonts to be used at text sizes will be sturdier designs with thicker 'thin' strokes and serifs (less stroke contrast) and more space between letters than on display designs, to increase legibility.[26][27] Optical sizes were a natural requirement of printing technology at the time of Didone typefaces' first creation, since each size of metal type would be custom-cut, but declined as the pantograph, phototypesetting and digital fonts made printing the same font at any size simpler; a revival has taken place in recent years.[28][29] French designer Loïc Sander has suggested that the dazzle effect may be particularly common in designs produced in countries where designers are unfamiliar with how to use them effectively and may choose Didone fonts designed for headings.[30] Many modern Didone digital revivals intended for professional printing, such as Parmagiano, ITC Bodoni and Hoefler & Frere-Jones' Didot and Surveyor, have a range of optical sizes, but this is less common on default computer fonts.[30][31][32][33] Among default Didone fonts on computer systems, Century Schoolbook on Windows is oriented towards body text use, while the Didot revival on OS X was specifically intended for display use and not for body text.


Fat face type on a poster. London, c. 1840s

The shape of nineteenth-century Didone designs, with their narrow apertures, has been suggested as a crucial influence on early sans-serif fonts such as Akzidenz-Grotesk and its derivatives such as Helvetica, developed in Europe some years after their introduction.[34] An example of this influence is the narrow apertures of these designs, in which strokes on letters such as a and c fold up to become vertical, similar to what is seen on Didone serif fonts.[35]

Matthew Carter's Scotch Roman-inspired computer font Georgia is notable as an extremely distant descendent of Didone typefaces. In Georgia, the stroke contrast is greatly reduced and the bold made much bolder than normal in order for the design to render well on a low-resolution computer monitor, but the general letter shape and ball terminals of Scotch Roman designs are preserved. He also developed the Scotch Roman revival Miller for print use.[36] Given these unusual design decisions, Matthew Butterick, an expert on document design, recommended that organizations using Georgia for onscreen display license Miller to achieve a complementary, more balanced reading experience on paper.[37][38]

Reverse-contrast styles[edit]

A document printed in 1836, showing Didone (body text), 'Italian' (the word 'proceedings') and early sans-serif fonts.

An eccentric method of reworking and parodying Didone typefaces has long been to invert the contrast, making the thin strokes thick and the thick strokes thin.[39][40] First seen around 1821 in Britain and occasionally revived since, these are often called reverse-contrast fonts. They effectively become slab serif designs because of the serifs becoming thick. In the 19th century, these designs were called Italian because of their exotic appearance, but this name is problematic since the designs have no clear connection with Italy; they do slightly resemble capitalis rustica Roman writing, although this may be a coincidence. They were also called Egyptian, an equally inauthentic term applied to slab serifs of the period.[41][42]

Intended as attention-grabbing novelty display designs more than as serious choices for body text, within four years of their introduction the printer Thomas Curson Hansard had described them as 'typographic monstrosities'.[43] Nonetheless, somewhat toned-down derivatives of this style persisted in popular use throughout the nineteenth century, and are commonly associated with 'wild west' printing on posters.[44][45] They ultimately became part of the Clarendon genre of slab-serif typefaces, and these later designs are often called called French Clarendon designs.[46]


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  2. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Bodoni, Giambattista". Encyclopedia Americana. 
  3. ^ Mosley, James. "Long s". Type Foundry. Retrieved 11 August 2015. 
  4. ^ Wigglesworth, Bradford, Lieber (1830). Encyclopædia Americana - Didot. Carey, Lea & Carey. 
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  8. ^ . p. 362. ISBN 3038212601.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
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  13. ^ Phinney, Thomas. "Fat faces". Graphic Design and Publishing Centre. Retrieved 10 August 2015. 
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  16. ^ Lawson, A. (1990). Anatomy of a typeface. Boston: Godine, p.200.
  17. ^ "LTC Goudy Open". LTC. Myfonts. Retrieved 26 August 2015. 
  18. ^ Goudy, Frederic (1922). Elements of Lettering. New York: Mitchell Kennerley. pp. 34–5 & 40. Retrieved 3 September 2015. 
  19. ^ Campbell 2000, p.173
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