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Commentary

The Didot You Didn’t Know

Stephen Coles on March 26, 2004

Swiss foundry Optimo releases Didot Elder, a family of typefaces unlike any digital revival of the style, which are mostly based on Firmin Didot’s designs. Didot Elder comes from the early work of Firmin’s brother Pierre. More history from designer François Rappo is below with printed samples of the original types.

This is a strict revival, attempting to reproduce all the features of Pierre Didot’s original, modern conventions be damned. Most apparent of its idiosyncrasies are the arrow serifs on the ‘G’ ‘C’ and ‘S’. No alternates to these glyphs are provided, which I think is a mistake, reducing the font’s usefulness in modern text settings. It’s a lovely thing, nonetheless. Didot scholar Jean François Porchez, whose Ambroise shares some of Didot Elder’s characteristics (see ‘g’ and ‘y’), is impressed.

From creator François Rappo:

The typeface was cut by the punchcutter Vibert under a ten year direction of Pierre Didot. It was first used by Pierre to launch a new collection of books in 1812. In the forward of the first volume (Petit Carême Jean-Baptiste Massillon, Paris, 1812) he exposes the design of his new typeface, specially cut for the collection:

“here are the principles of my new types, … I tried to link as far as I could the design of the lowercase with the design of the uppercase. … I tried to go back to the original design of the lowercase, which is the design of the uppercase. I found that the design of the ‘g’ was so corrupted that I took the risk to correct this type …”

As you can see (image below), in typesetting the word “Egypte”, Pierre Didot compared his types (new ‘g’, new ‘y’) with the types of his brother Firmin. Pierre developed his type until the release of his Specimen in 1819.

Following Pierre, these unusual features were used by many of the Didot punchcutters all along the XIXth century. Porchez’s design is based on a later (poster) version, circa 1838, from the Firmin Didot font foundry. All the existing digital Didot typefaces available today are revivals of Firmin’s typeface (Jonathan Hoefler, Adrian Frutiger for Linotype).

Didot Elder is the first revival ever made of Pierre’s historical font. I tried to translate as close as possible its original design. I followed very closely Pierre Didot’s original types details and features: the asymmetrical serifs and the arrow-like serifs which were present in all the type sizes (see second image below).

The punches are kept today in the Joh. Enschedé Museum in Haarlem, The Netherlands. Until now, there’s no published study about this font. I’m planning to write something about it.


14 Comments

  1. nick shinn says:

    Respect!

    Too many revivals tinker with the idiosyncrasies of the original, bowdlerizing it for the tender eyes of corporate markets.

    But this rocks.

  2. Hrant says:

    I also admire the purism (definitely agree with NOT providing alternates on this one), but I also think this is exactly type of revival that makes me generally uncomfortable about revivals.

    hhp

  3. Why is purism a virtue here, Hrant? If the project is simply an exercise in translating the typeface into a new medium, why not just write a book, print some samples, and leave it at that? My assumption is that Optimo is selling this font as a tool. If there are simple things they can do to make it a better tool, neglecting those things is folly. Alternates don’t soil the revival, they only make it more useful.

  4. Nice point Stephen, a revival is a creation of a contemporary author and on that respect, its his duty to acheive perfect balance between original and today use.

    So, on the case of that new Didot, versions with no arrows is a good idea. Note that the arrows on the images showed here are less “arrows” than on the final digital version.

  5. nick shinn says:

    >simple things they can do to make it a better tool,

    It’s a better tool already, because it’s not a duplicate of the many excellent Didones people already have.

    Providing “normal” alternates waters down the personality of a face, so that it ceases to be that face, becoming a travesty. We don’t have alternates for the peculiar characters in the established classics — because that’s what give the them their recognizable personality — so why here?

  6. Gary Robbins says:

    The only thing worse than a strict revival is a strict revival with modern alternates. If you are going to reproduce someone else’s public domain ideas in a different medium, the least you could do is honor those ideas by not changing them to suit a time when those ideas don’t make sense anyway. If you can’t stand those arrow serifs, use a firminic (firminite?) didone. In all honesty, I think that funky g offends mine modern eye more than the arrows. But again, these were Pierre’s ideas. And the typeface’s raison d’atre

  7. Hrant says:

    Stephen, JF: I don’t know. It’s certainly a tricky balance, making a tool that different people will use differently. But there’s something to be said for tightness of focus in a typeface.

    Nick, Gary: right on.
    And to me this goes beyond not providing character-diluting alternates; actual provision of characters should be considered too. The biggest example I can think of: Trajan should not have an “at” sign, it just contributes to the watering down of the design. You need a balance between versatility and focus. Isuzu uses Trajan, and that’s bad for everybody (except Adobe’s wallet). That said, there’s a difference here between display and text fonts.

    hhp

  8. Hrant says:

    BTW, I think an interesting parallel to the issue of excluding certain characters from certain fonts is this:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/3575159.stm
    It might seem counter-intuitive, and some people will grumble, but the bottom line is that it’s good for you.

    hhp

  9. JonSel says:

    The biggest example I can think of: Trajan should not have an ‘at’ sign, it just contributes to the watering down of the design.

    I just have to disagree with this completely. You’re being too literal. As JFP said, there has to be a blend of upholding the tradition of the typeface’s origin and a nod to its modern application. The ‘@’ sign fits this demand. Whether it is used correctly…that’s another matter entirely.

    On your overall point, though, we do agree. I think that the arrows and funky ‘g’ give Didot Elder a distinctive flair. If one doesn’t like it, they shouldn’t use the face. Supplying alternates to eliminate its distinctiveness simply neuters the face.

  10. nick shinn says:

    >Trajan should not have an ‘at’ sign, it just contributes to the watering down of the design.

    And no Js, Ws, arabic figures, or word-spaces either — just like on the column ! -)

  11. Hrant says:

    Certainly no “U” – that would stop ISUZU from performing sado-masochistic typography! Don’t you think there’s something to be said for the “V” in “BVLGARI”?

    hhp

  12. nick shinn says:

    I get really fucked up by the KIA logo — I always read those upside-down Vs masquerading as As, as “L” (damn classical education), so it’s the KIL car.

  13. Seth Urion says:

    I personally enjoy the oddities of the recreation of this typeface. I notice however that in the graphic Stephen Coles posted above, the lowercase ‘s’ does not have an arrow-like serif at the top. However, in the sample at Optimo’s web page, there is an arrow-like serif on the ‘s’ in all weights.
    Did the original have alternates, or has the modern recreation taken liberties in making the typeface *more* esoteric than the original?
    Just a question.

  14. [...] Justin Howes and  Jean François Porchez have developed revival typefaces, at times influenced by a desire to pro­duce a ‘strict’ inter­pret­a­tion. Howes once remarked to me, in con­trast, that cer­tain late 19th-century type reviv­als were [...]

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