Metro was born of a dare.
In 1928, as a capstone to his career as an advertising artist, W.A. Dwiggins wrote Layout in Advertising. The text explains why he excluded sans serifs from his list of suggested typefaces for advertising:
Gothic — the newspaper standby — in its various manifestations has little to commend it except simplicity; it is not overly legible, it has no grace. Gothic capitals are indispensable, but there are no good Gothic capitals. The typefounders will do a service to advertising if they will provide a Gothic of good design.
Within a few months of publication, Dwiggins’ implicit request in Layout in Advertising was met with a challenge.1 On February 25, 1929, Harry L. Gage, Assistant Director of Linotype Typography at Mergenthaler Linotype, wrote to Dwiggins, asking, “What do you mean ‘good design’? And having defined it, would you like to illustrate it? And if so would you like to see it cut for the Linotype?” Attached to his letter was an advertisement for the Norddeutscher Lloyd shipping line set in Futura. Gage went on to say that Gothic types (sans serifs) continued to be a huge success and that both Kabel and Futura were being imported into the United States. Mergenthaler Linotype needed to respond with a sans serif of their own. Referring to the Norddeutscher Lloyd advertisement, he wrote, “It probably is a good notion to have such a letter in two weights as this one is and to keep it fairly plump, although in my personal opinion it is a mistake to use a compass in making round letters which thereby get to revolving so fast that they interrupt the flow of the type.”
Two days later, Dwiggins responded to Gage’s challenge. He agreed that since the publication of Layout in Advertising, a few “gothics of good design” had been issued, naming Kabel, Futura, and Gill Sans. However, he said, “these new faces are fine in the capitals and bum in the lowercase. I don’t know if you can make a gothic that is good in the lowercase, but we might try. I quite agree with you as to compass-drawn curves, and a fat and thin rendering of the letter.” Dwiggins was very interested in trying his hand at type design, but he cautioned that he was going to “be busy as a bootlegger all summer, but a typeface is a job that you have to dream over anyhow, and take up and lay down again.”
But Gage, though he saw type design as something to be done slowly and carefully, had other ideas. In a letter dated February 28, 1929, he told Dwiggins that time was of the essence for a new design, since Mergenthaler was very eager to capture the sans serif market while the trend for such faces continued.2 Within little more than a week, Dwiggins and Mergenthaler had hammered out a contract and work had begun on what would become Metro.
Dwiggins’ goal was a legible sans serif. “The problem, it strikes me,” he wrote to Gage on March 6, 1929, “lies in the lowercase — the caps would come easily. The problem in the l.c. falls in such letters as a and e with a member in the middle.” He wanted the typeface to have a uniform weight except for the aforementioned letters and g (double-storey like a), which he knew would need to be “thinned out”. He also wanted long ascenders and descenders, capitals shorter than ascenders — “if this is not too revolutionary” — and small caps. Clearly, despite his original request for a good sans serif for advertising purposes, the typeface Dwiggins was envisioning was bookish. The idea for small caps was quickly dropped when Gage told him that Linotype faces did not include such things.
Gage and unnamed people in the Matrix Department at Linotype liked Dwiggins’ initial sketches. On March 8, 1929, they asked him to go ahead with a 12pt design in two weights that could be duplexed. Linotype would worry about other sizes and the necessary optical adjustments involved. “If you carry out your design in the heavier weight and indicate a letter or two of the light weight,” Gage wrote, “they [the Matrix Department] can make up a set of letter drawings which can be submitted for your criticism. This will not impose upon your function as a designer as much as you may perhaps feel. You would not lose control of the letter but would merely be saved a certain amount of routine labor on it.“ All Dwiggins had to do was make drawings for caps, lowercase, figures, and punctuation in one size and weight and for a few typical letters in the second weight. To judge the weights needed, Gage attached some clippings of Futura Halbfette (medium) and Futura Fette (bold). And, as a reminder that the clock was ticking, Gage passed on rumors that Lucian Bernhard was working on a sans serif for American Type Founders. (Bernhard Gothic was released by ATF later that year.)
Four days later, Dwiggins returned two sets of drawings that tried to match the weight of Futura Halbfette, one with letters that mimicked some of Renner’s letters. “I have a hunch that we are merely producing another one of the gothics without much virtue — one more of a family that is too large already,” he wrote to Gage. He was not eager to be part of “the Futura racket,” but wanted to know what Mergenthaler was looking for. He was also worried about the effect of duplexing on the light and heavy weights — that the former would be too loosely spaced and the latter too jammed together. “Strikes me that we can’t make a beautiful type on the heavy weight basis — lowercase I mean,” he concluded.
In response, on March 22, 1929, Gage told Dwiggins not to worry about the duplexing problem as it was something that the Matrix Department could solve. “With the two-letter matrix (sizes up through 14-pt.) we combine roman and italic or roman and bold characters on the same set width,” he explained, “wherever the design can be properly reconciled. Occasionally this has [been] a barrier to design, but it is really surprising how often the problem can be solved. In this case we believe that your problem is to design the heavier weight and that the light weight can be derived therefrom.” As for copying Futura, he urged Dwiggins to avoid an ordinary-looking design and provided some advice:
There is still a trick which can be applied — throw a little bit of swing into the tops of some of the vertical stems like i, l, h, n, etc., and possibly into the bottom of a, t, k, etc. (Kabel has this trait exaggerated in certain letters). Most gothics are purely mechanical. If yours can have a more hand wrought quality I believe it will be more distinctive.
By the middle of April, 1929, the typeface was shaping up. Dwiggins sent new drawings to Gage and remarked, “The capitals may be more severe than you had in mind, but my idea was that the letters ought to be pretty sharp and hard… I have tried to inject good design of shapes and curves into the regular ‘gothic’ without any arty tricks.” A month later, Gage told Chauncey H. Griffith, Director of Typographic Development, that the trials of the “light” weight were considered satisfactory. Dwiggins completed drawings for the “heavy” weight caps and lowercase by the end of May. That is where the documentary trail for the typeface ends. Dwiggins was paid for his labors at the end of July, so it can be assumed that the design (if not the manufacturing) was complete by that point.
From the outset, Mergenthaler had been calling the new typeface “Dwiggins Gothic”. But Dwiggins was against “personality” in typefaces — complaining to Gage about the many faces named after Goudy, Cooper, and Bernhard — so Griffith agreed to look for another name. On July 15, 1929, he suggested “Metro”; Dwiggins quickly agreed.
Metrolite and Metroblack were released at the end of 1929. The design was promoted as an “American” sans serif alternative to the “European” designs Futura and Kabel. Gage — channeling himself rather than Dwiggins — described it in his review of Linotype in 1929 as “a sans serif letter which differs from the older monoline tradition in gothic by deliberately varying the elements as necessary to facilitate legibility. For further ease of reading, none of the round letters are perfect circles, due to a belief that the geometric circle introduced into a work tends to stop the eye instead of allowing it to read through.” The remaining two members of the Metro family, Metrothin and Metromedium (duplexed together), were apparently designed in early 1930, since they were not released until May of that year.
The complete Metro family made its first appearance in “Typographic Sanity”, a special edition of The Linotype Magazine urging a balance between traditional typographic values and the “modernist” ones then in vogue. It concluded that “Modernism is not to be shunned and damned because of its excesses. Nor is it to be embraced as the universal formula for every layout. It can be very effective and it can also be very ridiculous. Use it where it can serve you, but keep a firm grip on your good taste, your common sense and the everlasting fitness of things.” The anonymous text was most likely written by Gage, who had lectured on “Modernism in Typography” in Boston in 1927. (Dwiggins designed the poster for Gage’s talk.)
The accompanying copy for the Metro family stressed the ways in which Dwiggins, “the eminent American artist and typographer,” had avoided the shortcomings of existing gothic faces:
Each letter is freely drawn with an interesting variation of accent in the light and heavy strokes, each is terminated in such a way as to lead into the next so that the letters flow into easily recognizable word forms.
The finely proportioned capitals suggest the feeling of inscriptions on old Greek and Roman coins. The lower case is interesting to compare with some of the newer sans-serif faces recently introduced. While the Metro letters are true sans-serifs, they retain something of the feeling of a well-designed old style lower case — they have more life and sparkle than the average sans-serif, and may be read more quickly and easily.
In short, Metro was both aesthetically and functionally superior to Futura and its imitators.
In his review of Linotype in 1930, Gage said: “In the field of publicity types the acceptance given Mr. Dwiggins’ design of Metrolite and Metroblack prompted the cutting of Metrothin and Metromedium.” This rosy claim obscured one key problem. As early as March, 1930, Mergenthaler customers were complaining about the design of several lowercase letters in the Metro — most notably the e — in the Metro series, particularly in the medium and black weights. Griffith asked Dwiggins to redesign the a and e, which he did by late May. Although the revised letters were ostensibly accepted by customers, sales of Metro were apparently not as robust as Mergenthaler had hoped for: in early 1932, the company announced a significant overhaul of the typeface.
The full-page advertisement in the January 9, 1932 issue of Printing read: “Alternative characters that add fresh sparkle to Linotype’s Metro Series”. Sometime between May of 1930 and December of 1931, Mergenthaler had convinced Dwiggins to change several letters. In the capitals A, M, and N, all gained pointed apexes; V and W gained pointed vertexes and the middle strokes of W no longer partially overlapped; a horizontal bar was added to G; and J was no longer a descender. In the lowercase, a and g became single-storey; e was no longer curly; and the vertexes of v and w were pointed. Finally, the curly comma was replaced by an angled one; the same form was used for the semicolon, apostrophe, and quotation marks. These alternate characters were touted as giving printers the variety in sans serifs that they were demanding. In effect, Metro had been “Futura-ized”. The distinctive quality Dwiggins sought for Metro had been rejected by the marketplace.
Metro No. 2
Within a few months, Mergenthaler was ballyhooing the changes to Metro, seeking to turn a disaster into a triumph. They began running advertisements for “The Double Duty Sans Serif” in which they explained that printers could buy either the original Metro or Metro No. 2, created from Metro by the substitution of the new alternate characters that promised “vigor”. Printers who already had Metro could simply order the new characters as sorts. “What a difference just a few characters make!” exulted Mergenthaler.
Metro underwent other changes in an attempt to make it more palatable to printers, who apparently were clamoring for a more European-looking sans from Linotype. Specimens from the 1930s show alternate characters W and e (labeled Special No. 1) that are clearly modeled on Kabel, as well as alternate sets of figures with features derived from Kabel — note the distinctive curled 2 — and Futura (labeled Gothic Nos. 39–45). Furthermore, there were Art Deco-ish rounded alternate caps A E F G K M N S W Y (Unique Capitals Special No. 20) for Metrothin and Metromedium — possibly made in response to similar capitals created in 1931 by Lanston Monotype for its sans serif clone of Kabel3 — along with alternates Q a (influenced by Kabel) and e f j t (copying Futura) for Metromedium. None of these other options seems to have captured the fancy of printers, as Metro No. 2 quickly became the default version of the typeface.
Between 1935 and 1937, Mergenthaler added italic versions of each weight, all based on Metro No. 2 — but with alternates for Metroblack based on the original Metro.4 The company also added small capitals for Metrothin No. 2 and Metromedium No. 2, and similarly sized “Lining” capitals for Metrothin and Metromedium that were identical except for a Futura-style Q and the addition of lining figures in the Futura/Kabel mold. The italics — actually obliques — were drawn by Dwiggins over Mergenthaler shop drawings of each Metro weight in 1933, but what that actually entailed is unclear from the surviving correspondence. All of the other additions to the Metro family seem to have been carried out by Mergenthaler without his input, though he must have given his assent.
By the 1940s, Metro No. 2 became the standard version of Metro. It was especially popular among newspapers, Mergenthaler’s bread-and-butter customer base. But outside of newspapers, that popularity began to wane by the mid-1950s as Spartan5 gained favor. By the 1960s, Metro No. 2 had virtually vanished, eclipsed not only by Futura/Spartan but also by the newly ascendant Helvetica. Frank Merriman did not include it in the A.T.A. Type Comparison Book, a compilation of typefaces he made for the Advertising Typographers Association of America, Inc. in 1965; and Visual Graphics Corporation (VGC) did not even bother to copy it for its popular typositor library. Apparently, Linotype never adapted it to Linofilm and they definitely did not convert it to PostScript. The only digital versions of Metro available until recently were Linotype’s Metro #2 and Bitstream’s Geometric 415.
Revived interest in Dwiggins’ typefaces in the 1980s due to the efforts of Gerard Unger — who brought his “M Formula” to a new generation of type designers — and Gerrit Noordzij inevitably led to an attempt to bring back the original Metro. In 2006, Akira Kobayashi partially achieved this with his design of Metro Office for Linotype Library. He revived all the original characters — with the notable exception of the curly e and the cursive ampersand — that had been banished, but he redesigned them in a homogenized form that sapped them of their strength. The leg of the R looks more like Arial than Dwiggins’ Metro; the zippy tail of the Q has gone limp; the lower bowl of the distinctive g and the spine of the s have been flattened; and the bowl of the a is wider; the 6 and 9 have lost their raindrop counters.
The problem is that Metro Office consists of only two weights (plus accompanying italics) — regular and bold — neither of which existed in the original Metro or Metro No. 2. Kobayashi based the regular on Metrolite — which Dwiggins, in 1931, without explaining why, told Gage he considered the least successful member of the family — and extrapolated from it to get the bold. In extrapolating the bold weight, he attempted to avoid the condensed characters (e.g., b d h m n p q) that duplexing forced on Dwiggins in Metromedium, the equivalent weight, all the while aiming to give both faces the same set width! To achieve this admittedly difficult — and perhaps quixotic — goal, he seems to have adjusted the widths of the regular in comparison to Metrolite. The result is impressive — but it lacks the original Metro’s peculiar flavor, which resides in the inconsistent character densities.
Since there were never any italic companions to the original Metro, Kobayashi had to improvise. The results, with the notable exception of the f, are predictable — an optically adjusted sloped version of the upright designs. The unusual descending f has a precedent in Metrothin No. 2 Italic. This may have been what Dwiggins would have done, given that in the early 1930s he was under the spell of Stanley Morison’s theory that an italic should be a sloped roman rather than than a cursive, an influence that led to the design of Electra Italic. But then he would not have made a descending f and he would certainly have retained the curly e. It is difficult to speculate any more than this, since Dwiggins used sans serif lettering in only a handful of designs during his career of more than fifty years.
All of this background on the tortured history of Metro is prologue to an even-handed assessment of Metro Nova, the recent digital version of Metro, designed by Toshi Omagari in 2012 and released by Monotype in 2013. When the new design was first announced, my reaction was one of surprise, given that Metro Office was less than a decade old and that in the interim Monotype had acquired Linotype Library. But the opportunity to create a proper digital version of Metro must have seemed irresistible when Doug Wilson, director of Linotype: The Film, suggested it.
Monotype has billed Metro Nova as “a masterpiece lost, found and reimagined”, which is a bit of excessive copywriting. Metro (No. 1) has never been considered a masterpiece — certainly not by Dwiggins, who remarked to Gage in late November of 1929 that it was “a hellish letter when you really stop and look at it…” Although his comment was not very specific, his virtual silence on the typeface after 1931, coupled with the fact that there is no record of him ever using it in a design other than promotional material for Linotype, speaks volumes. Other than Dwiggins cultists — which includes me — no one has been clamoring for a revival of Metro (No. 1). And even Metro No. 2, despite illustrious fans such as Louise Fili and Jim Parkinson, has never had a wide following.
In short, it needs to be said up front that Metro (No. 1) was the work of a rank beginner in type design. And that Metro No. 2 was a haphazard response to the marketplace. Monotype’s publicity suggests that the drawings for Metro (No. 1) had been lost until Wilson stumbled upon them at the Museum of Printing in North Andover, Massachusetts several years ago. In fact, the existence of the drawings was known to many people, but no one — including myself — had bothered to look at them since their acquisition by the museum in the 1980s. One reason is that they were part of an enormous cache of typeface drawings from Mergenthaler Linotype that had not been organized and sorted out until recently due to the precarious status of the museum. All of this doesn’t mean that there is no reason for Metro Nova to exist, only that it is not the reincarnation of a lost masterpiece.
Metro Nova is more than a simple resurrection of Metro (No. 1). It is a “reimagination”, as Monotype has rightly proclaimed. Omagari has not only brought back the original characters of Metro, including the curly e that has become the poster boy for the new font, but, since this is an OpenType design, he has kept the Metro No. 2 alternates as well. More significantly, he has rejiggered Metro’s weights to match contemporary expectations so that there are now seven in total, designed an italic for each, and then for good measure added condensed versions of each of these fourteen designs. Thus, the Metro Nova family now has twenty-eight members.
The new weights — Thin, Light, Regular, Medium, Bold, Black, and Extra Black — should not be confused with the original ones. There is no concordance between them (i.e., Metro Nova Thin, Metro Nova Light, Metro Nova Medium, and Metro Nova Black are not updated versions of Metrothin, Metrolite, Metromedium, and Metroblack, respectively). Thus, making direct comparisons between Dwiggins’ designs and those of Omagari is even more complicated. Faced with a choice between the “normal” widths of the two lighter weights of Metro versus the “condensed” widths of the two heavier weights, Omagari apparently chose the former as the basis for the design of all of the members of the Metro Nova family. His decision was a difficult one and it has had subtle, yet significant, consequences.
The lighter weights of the original Metro are not truly “normal” in width and the heavier weights are not entirely “condensed” in width. Faced with the demands of duplexing, Dwiggins juggled the widths of various characters in all of the weights, making some wider than expected and some narrower than expected. For instance, the o shifts from oval in Metrothin to round in Metrolite and then back to oval in Metromedium and Metroblack; the x is squarish in Metrothin and Metrolite and wide in Metroblack, but condensed in Metromedium; the h and n are wide in Metrolite, narrower in Metrothin and Metroblack, and condensed in Metromedium; the z remains squarish in all four weights; and so on. Omagari has evened out these apparent discrepancies so that the widths are more familiar and predictable.
The result of this standardization is that Metro Nova, especially in the heavier weights, lacks the ineffable syncopation of Metromedium and Metroblack. In widening letters, Omagari has inevitably opened up counters and has been forced to change curves. The energy and tension of key letters in the lowercase — notably a, e, g, s, and z — have been dissipated; and in the capitals the alteration of height-to-width proportions has led to a loss of rhythm. Metro Nova is more legible than Metro, the type family Mergenthaler trumpeted as “The Most Readable of the Sans Serifs”. And it is more internally consistent. But it lacks the spirit of the original.
There are tiny details that Omagari got wrong. It is hard to say whether they were deliberately — though misguidedly — changed or simply overlooked. Some examples: the horizontal strokes on the 2 and 5 have been shortened so that both figures no longer have a sense of being in motion; the tail of the Q has been shortened, giving it a sense of pulling to the left; the thin strokes of a, g, e, and Q are not as thick as before, thus muting the sparkle of the heavier weights; the counter of the 6 is not almond shaped like it should be, though that of the 9 is; the crossbar of the f and t in the heavier weights is too long on the left side, reducing the vibrancy of each letter; and the v, w, and y have lost the difference in stroke thickness between the opposing diagonals. These little details — and there are others — add up. They have a significant impact on the four heavier weights, though some of them have minimal effect on the three lighter weights.
Some of the changes Omagari has made are understandable, given the intent of expanding the family as well as the tendency today to aim for maximum legibility in characters and a high degree of consistency among members of a font family. Quirkiness is slavishly retained, though without any sense of why it exists. Witness the rote treatment of the a, g, and Q across the various weights, widths, and obliques.
Admittedly, this critique of the roman members of the Metro Nova family is colored to some extent by a romantic nostalgia for the original Metro, especially by seeing it printed letterpress, often on newsprint, where it is fuzzier, warmer and — all in all — very retro. It should also be remembered that the original Metro, although eventually manufactured as APL (All-Purpose Linotype) matrices at sizes up to 144 pt, was originally designed at 12 pt. Metro Nova cannot be expected to capture the glow of Metro (No. 1) or even of Metro No. 2. But more attention to some of the details mentioned above would have brought it closer. At least it is a huge improvement on Metro Office.
There is less to say about the italic and condensed members of the Metro Nova family, since they are simple extrapolations from the basic roman weights. The same complaints outlined above about a few tiny but significant details apply equally. In general, I am not keen on sans serif italics. When they are obliques, I find them lacking in sufficient contrast with their roman or upright counterparts. And when they have “humanist” or calligraphic elements, they often feel false to me. Omagari resisted the temptation to provide the italics with a descending f, as Kobayashi had done with the italics for Metro Office. Regarding the Metro Nova italics, I prefer the alternate single-storey a and g to the default two-storey versions, but am not comfortable with either form of e. An interesting alternative is to use the roman curly e rotated clockwise seven degrees.
Mergenthaler never released any condensed versions of Metro. When Griffith asked Dwiggins about such an idea in May of 1931, he got this response: “I think you can design a condensed, but I don’t think you can adapt one…Hideous, I should say.” Despite his view, it has been evident for at least half a century that they are an essential aspect of a sans serif family that aspires to versatility. Certainly users of Metro in the newspaper industry recognized the need for a condensed version of Metro for headline purposes. Jim Parkinson created one for the San Francisco Chronicle in the mid-1990s. Omagari’s condensed Metro Nova fonts are not the disaster that Dwiggins predicted they would be.
A new edition of Layout in Advertising was issued in 1948. It was nearly identical to the original. The lone alteration was to the chart of display or publicity typefaces, which Dwiggins revised to reflect the changes that had occurred in the type industry over the course of twenty years. The new chart included several sans serifs: Gill Sans, Futura Medium, Kabel Bold, 20th Century Medium, Tempo Bold, and Metromedium. (He does not indicate whether Metromedium (No. 1) or No. 2, but I suspect the latter.) Each face was rated for three qualities — legibility, quality, and “eye shock” — with Metromedium faring well, bested only by Gill Sans. Looking back on the Metro family, Dwiggins was clear-eyed about its strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, it is evident that — like most graphic designers of the time — he still viewed it as a design for advertising rather than book or magazine work.
Our attitudes toward sans serifs have changed dramatically in the past half-century. They are increasingly ubiquitous, appearing in an ever-widening array of design situations for print and screen. Reviving an older sans serif like Metro, full of idiosyncrasies and sporting an odd history, is a true challenge. Although I am not wholly satisfied with Omagari’s design, I recognize the immense difficulties he faced in trying to stay true to a typeface that lacks a clear-cut identity while attempting to make a contemporary font family that will function beyond the obvious retro niche uses. Metro Nova is not the second coming of a lost classic, but it is an alternative — as its forebear was — to Futura and its geometric sans serif companions.
- For my most recent thinking on the mythology of Dwiggins’ “dare”, see The Definitive Dwiggins no. 15—The Origins of Metro.⤴
- For more on Gage’s views on Modernism and sans serif type, see The Definitive Dwiggins no. 15 Addendum—W.A. Dwiggins, Harry L. Gage and Lucian Bernhad on Modernism.⤴
- Mac McGrew, author of American Metal Typefaces of the Twentieth Century (1993), says that Sol Hess created several variant letter sets for Sans Serif between 1930 and 1933: “By the substitution of a dozen characters, more or less, for those in the standard font, the Monotype user could have ‘three type faces from one,’ as the advertising said.With one set of alternates, available for most members of the family and designated H91 (suffixed to a series number), Sans Serif could be transformed into an approximation of Futura; another set (H92) contained the round capitals then popular. A set for Sans Serif Bold suggested Bernhard Gothic Medium (H9), while a similar but maverick set was made for Light (H93).” This suggests that Lanston was one-upping Mergenthaler’s “Double-Duty Sans”.⤴
- McGrew shows Metrothin No. 2 Italic with a descending f and j and t in the Futura style, all characters not present in the other three weights.⤴
- ATF’s Futura clone (whose family members were issued between 1939 and 1953), licensed for the Linotype.⤴
Many thanks for this article. Metro is one of my favourite sans fonts. Great to read a more in-depth history of the typeface and the designer.
See some more original master drawings of Metro at Letterform Archive.