Typewriter / Typeface: The Legacy of the Writing Machine in Type Design

Written by María Ramos on July 12, 2016

Typewriter typeface: once referred to the typeface used for writing in a personal printing machine || Currently used to define the appear­ance of faces that remind us of those that were used in typewriters.

Type bars, golf ball, and daisy wheel for Olivetti typewriters. These were the three mechanisms used for printing type in typewriters. Photos by María Ramos (bars and wheel) and Olivetti (ball).

Type bars, golf ball, and daisy wheel for Olivetti typewriters. These were the three mechanisms used for printing type in typewriters. Photos by María Ramos (bars and wheel) and Olivetti (ball).

We all know what “typewriter” and “typeface” mean as separate concepts, so there’s no need to define them. However, there may be some confusion about the use of these two terms together. Nowadays, we often see the word “typewriter” used as a qualifier for certain typefaces. Can typewriter be considered a style? If so, what features define a typewriter typeface? To answer these questions, we need to consider two perspectives: the term’s historical origin and its current usage.

In the course of the history of typewriters — roughly 100 years — the typefaces designed for the machine grew in number and evolved in shape. The shiftless alphabet used in the first commercially manufactured typewriter was soon replaced by a slab-serif design, which would become the unofficial standard among manufacturers in the first half of the 20th century. Most companies had their own Pica typeface, a monospaced font that fit ten characters to the inch. The design of the characters and the printing differences among models were used back then for typewriting identification. This type style quickly spread, but it was not the only option available. Sans serif, script, and italic fonts were also included in early typewriter-font catalogs. There were typefaces created for particular purposes, such as protective writing that perforated paper instead of inking it. The shiftless alphabets were mainly used for advertising, telegrams, and financial work; and the italic and script faces were intended for informal documents like personal correspondence.

Samples of script, perforating, and shiftless typefaces for typewriters. Source: Beeching, W.A. Century of the typewriter. London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1974, 80-81.

Samples of script, perforating, and shiftless typefaces for typewriters. Source: Beeching, W.A., Century of the typewriter. London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1974, 80–81.

Monospaced typefaces were born from the limitations of mechanical typewriters. When the typist pressed a key, the carriage moved the paper the same distance each time, so it was easier to return to a previous printing point to make corrections and do tabulation work. The terms “typewriter” and “monospace” have a common genesis but are not interchangeable. We can find typefaces created for the machine with different character widths, and some monospaced typefaces designed today have no aesthetic or historical link to typewriters.

Ad for the Olivetti Graphika, “the first manually operated standard typewriter with proportional spacing.” Source: The Economist, Nov. 23, 1957.

Ad for the Olivetti Graphika, “the first manually operated standard typewriter with proportional spacing.” Source: The Economist, Nov. 23, 1957.

Proportional type was widely used in electric and electronic machines. But even before the appearance of the IBM Selectric in 1961, manufacturers had already made a few trials for the use of proportional fonts in mechanical models. For instance, A.M. Cassandre and Imre Reiner designed two typefaces that included four different widths for the Olivetti Graphika. And W.A. Dwiggins worked on the design of proportional type for Remington Rand. However, these first attempts were not successful; it wasn’t until the arrival of the electric models that fonts with several character widths had a visible presence in typewriters. The new printing devices — the golf ball and, later on, the daisy wheel in electronic machines — also introduced the possibility of using several fonts in the same machine, so the typist could create richer typographic compositions.

Every company had its own font library with a significant range of styles that fulfilled users’ varying needs. In America, the National Office Machine Dealer Association periodically published the Blue Book, a catalog with type samples and other information about the industry.

Typewriter sales grew fast and manufacturers offered typefaces for different scripts. Although the assortment of styles for non-Latin fonts was rather small, the typewriter market expanded and the machines were distributed all around the world. It was the democratization of typesetting and printing. The new technology allowed for the relatively cheap production of printed material.

The typefaces designed for typewriters also included some minority scripts like this Cree font used in Olivetti typewriters. Source: Zorzi, R. and Saphira, N.H. Design Process: Olivetti, 1908–1978. California: University of California, 1979, 226.

The typefaces designed for typewriters also included some minority scripts like this Cree font used in Olivetti typewriters. Source: Zorzi, R. and Saphira, N.H. Design Process: Olivetti, 1908–1978. California: University of California, 1979, 226.

Monospace typefaces for different scripts included in a Olivetti font catalog (c. 1958). The number after the name stands for the width of the characters. © Associazione Archivio Storico Olivetti, Ivrea, Italy. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Monospace typefaces for different scripts included in a Olivetti font catalog (c. 1958). The number after the name stands for the width of the characters. © Associazione Archivio Storico Olivetti, Ivrea, Italy. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Many typefaces that were born with the machine also died with it; their design needed to be functional because the same typeface was used for different purposes. Users probably looked for fonts with a neutral appearance. Unconventional designs were not a popular choice and they vanished with time.

These days, “typewriter” is an umbrella term for typefaces with different design approaches. It includes fonts that try to imitate the appearance of typewritten letters, like FF Trixie (Erik van Blokland, 1991 and 2008) and Old Typewriter (Thomas Sokolowski, 1992). It also encompasses fonts based on models created for the machine, like Valentine (Stephan Müller, 2002) or Gridnik (Wim Crouwel, 1960s and The Foundry, 1997). Some typefaces used on typewriters were later adapted for computers. Among them: Courier (1955), Letter Gothic (1956), and Orator (1962), all of which were produced at IBM. There are also designs that, though not based on a specific model, nevertheless capture the soul of typewriter fonts, like Pitch (Kris Sowersby, 2012) or the recent Operator (Andy Clymer, 2016). We cannot forget to mention ITC American Typewriter (Joel Kaden and Tony Stan, 1974), the most prolific modern example of a proportional typeface that emulates typewriter fonts, which followed metal faces like Bulletin Typewriter (Morris F. Benton, 1933), a metal face that began as a monospaced typewriter simulation but took on proportional spacing in its phototype incarnation. In a specimen of this typeface from 1975, the text reads: “American Typewriter strikes a happy compromise with its forerunner. The rigid spacing is dispensed with, but the distinctive typewriter flavor is generously enhanced. And there is just enough nostalgia in American Typewriter to give it a top billing in contemporary typography.” Nostalgia and contemporary typography are key points here, and still tell us about the idea behind revivals, trying to bring something from the past to life with a modern look. Tap (Georg Salden, 1979) is another phototype face with a similar approach but slightly rougher contours.

Comparison between Quadrato (Arturo Rolfo, 1963) and Valentine (Stephan Müller, 2002).

Comparison between Quadrato (Arturo Rolfo, 1963) and Valentine (Stephan Müller, 2002).


Sample of typewritten ‘a’ and the three grades of FF Trixie  (Erik van Blokland, 1991 and 2008).

Sample of typewritten ‘a’ and the three grades of FF Trixie (Erik van Blokland, 1991 and 2008).

Typefaces created for typewriters were designed with the limitations of the machine in mind. Despite the variety of styles created, most typefaces shared certain features. To fulfill the monospace need of mechanical models, letters sometimes adopted different shapes from printing type: for instance, the ‘J’ with a large tail aligned with the baseline; the ‘W’ and ‘M’ with a shorter middle joint; or the ‘t’ with a long curved bottom ending. The ink spread caused by the transfer printing method demanded large countershapes and a generous x-height. It was also very difficult to print high-contrast characters and sharp outlines with transfer printing. In typewritten documents, the corners and joints between strokes took on a rounded and irregular appearance. This led designers to create rather monolinear designs to get a more predictable result.

The irregularity in typewritten texts depended on different factors. The problem of both vertical and horizontal alignment, for example, was a common issue. Shown here: enlarged type sample written with an Olivetti Studio 42 using a Pica typeface.

The irregularity in typewritten texts depended on different factors. The problem both vertical and horizontal alignment, for example, was a common issue. Shown here: enlarged type sample written with an Olivetti Studio 42 using a Pica typeface.


Lowercase and uppercase letters of Elite (12 characters to the inch) typewritten on a Olivetti Studio 46.

Lowercase and uppercase letters of Elite (12 characters to the inch) typewritten on a Olivetti Studio 46.

Different arguments can be made to justify the definition of a design as a typewriter typeface, but the term can be confusing if it is used too loosely or lacks a clear rationale. It’s important to try to identify what defines a digital typewriter font. In my opinion, “typewriter” does not define a style, but rather describes a part of the font development process — the brief — in which inspirational sources play a key role in the design.

I hope this article will open up a conversation about the current use of the term “typewriter” in type design. It’s common to see “monospace” and “typewriter” used indiscriminately to name a typeface whose characters all have the same width. Monospaced typefaces have found a new niche in the digital type scene: programmers have found them valuable for coding. Such faces are created today with a different function and for a different technology than in the past. The problems type designers grapple with today diverge from the challenges posed by typewriter technology, and the result is a design with a distinct appearance. In these particular cases, the terms “monospace” and “typewriter” lose their connection.

After obtaining a degree in Advertising, María Ramos worked as a graphic and editorial designer. In 2014, she decided to focus her career on type design; she holds an MATD from the University of Reading. She currently works as a type designer. She is one of the members of NM type and a contributor of Alphabettes.

12 Comments

  1. The example of ITC American Typewriter prompts me to ask why designers today would proportionally space a script so obviously designed to be monospaced: as for example the designer of Unit Editions’s Eating with the Eyes did with Kris Sowersby’s Pitch.

    There’s no point in being purist about type design and application, as if scripts have “essences”. But in the case of typewriter faces the functional compromises in letterforms (i, j, m, t, w) are so obvious, the vertical alignment so natural, that for that alignment to be missing just looks odd. Distinguishing between monospaced and typewriter faces makes sense, and it seems to me that even if not all monospaced faces are typewriter faces, all typewriter faces should be monospaced.

  2. A relevant discussion (click for replies):

  3. María Ramos says:

    Maurice, there is much more diversity in the design of typefaces created for typewriters than those we think of first. I think the definition of a typewriter typeface should not rely only in the monospace feature.

    However, if you are talking about a stylistic preference. I agree with you that if you want to resemble the appearance of a typewritten document you should use a monospace one, because that is the image most people have in mind.

  4. Maria, I’d only go a bit farther than you — I didn’t express myself very well, sorry. As you noted, not all typewriter typeface designs incorporated the letterforms that ensured constant character widths. (Why would they, if the machine they were designed for could handle proportional spacing, right?) But to my eye it feels wrong to proportionally space typefaces that do, whether they be close revivals of the originals or more contemporary designs inspired by them.

    That leads to me wonder, though, if we really can’t talk about a category of fonts being “typewriter”-ish, even beyond the narrowed and extended glyphs that go with monospacing. Your samples demonstrate that there would be no single style that would define the category, and no single or maybe even definitive way to solve any given design problem created by the constraints of process. But surely briefs inspired by older typewriter faces, generated and realized through the relevant processes, over time would express themselves in a more or less discrete set of stylistic choices and elements, such that a typeface with enough of them we could reasonably assign to the category? (Different people disagree over the boundaries, but we don’t find it weird to talk about “Didone”, “Humanist”, “Grotesque”, or even “Transitional” faces, after all.)

  5. María Ramos says:

    I am not against using the term “typewriter” to describe typefaces. I have just found that “typewriter” is sometimes used instead of “monospace”, as if there was no difference between their meanings.

  6. We nipped over to the ICA at the end of last week to catch their exhibition, Olivetti – Beyond Form and Function, showcasing the spatial and graphic design of typewriter manufacturer Olivetti during the post-war era. […]

  7. Blythwood says:

    I remember being really surprised to see typewriter faces in quite early specimen books, like the ATF 1897 volume. Apparently businesses liked them since they made pre-printed direct mail form letters look like they’d been written to you personally. Nothing ever changes.

  8. Dan Johnson says:

    Hi Maria,

    I enjoyed your article, but what you said about proportional typefaces in typewriters – “it wasn’t until the arrival of the electric models that fonts with several character widths had a visible presence in typewriters” – does not seem to be the case.

    Although I don’t know how commercially successful the earliest were, there are several early examples of mechanical typewriters that supported “differential spacing”. These include the Daw and Tate Typewriter in 1884, the Columbia in 1886, Maskelyne in 1889, the Waverly in 1895, and the Maskelyne “Victoria” of 1897.

    The latter is said to be a more successful version of the 1889 model’s mechanism that produced nice results but was too delicate to withstand rough usage. The Waverly used an escapement mechanism with teeth at half-positions allowing for two character widths. (I have not seen examples of their output, alas.)

    Perhaps it is true that practical proportional type spacing did not happen until later, but I believe that was achieved and established a foothold with Coxhead’s post-1933 development of the manual Varityper. (You can get more information about that on ozTypewriter.)

    I have an IBM Executive (electric typebar) that does a very nice job with proportional type, and the Selectric was an astonishing mechanical marvel, but it doesn’t seem accurate or fair to say that proportional type wasn’t possible until the electrics became available.

    Regards,
    -Dan

  9. María Ramos says:

    Thank you for your comments and the references Dan. You are right, as I mention in the article proportional spacing can be seen already in mechanical typewriter: “Even before the appearance of the IBM Selectric in 1961, manufacturers had already made a few trials for the use of proportional fonts in mechanical models”. I know there are other examples, I only mention an Olivetti example because it is the brand I know the best.

    I might not make myself clear enough when I say “it wasn’t until the arrival of the electric models that fonts with several character widths had a visible presence in typewriters”. When I say “visible presence” I mean they became common typefaces for electric typewriters, to a similar level as monospace fonts were.

    It is true that is not easy to make a statement about the success of the different models. From what I can tell and the information I have found in my research, mechanical typewriters with proportional typefaces never achieve the success of typewriters with monospace ones. I guess because of the difficulty in making corrections “Corrections can likewise cause difficulty unless the error is detected and corrected immediately it is made” (Mackay, E. “The typewriting dictionary”, p. 208).

    The Varityper, as the Justowriter and other models alike, were considered type compositors. I know they have a similar mechanism as typewriters, but I include them in a different category.

    I have never said “proportional type wasn’t possible until the electrics became available”. I am sorry if I wasn’t clear enough.

  10. I am intreseted in finding a mechanical typewriter if possible or any other that may be utilized today (access to needed components) with a font of Garamond or similar. Any help toward the discovery of such a machine would be greatly appreciated as I stand out of my league concerning the matter.

  11. María Ramos says:

    Hi Dustin!
    There are many typewriters that are still operating perfectly today. I recommend you to try to find someone in your area who may have a special interest in the machine. There are many blogs where people share their findings and publish typewritten texts. These are some where I found interesting information:
    http://typewriterdatabase.com/
    http://genevatypewriters.blogspot.com.es/p/typewriter-index.html
    http://munk.org/typecast/
    http://xoverit.blogspot.com.es/
    http://writingball.blogspot.com.es/
    http://oztypewriter.blogspot.com.es/
    If you are trying to find a typewriter that includes a proportional font (similar to Garamond), I would recommend you to look for an electric or electronic model. Most mechanical typewriters used monospace fonts. In this blog http://munk.org/typecast/?s=nomda+blue+book there are scanned pages of the NOMDA Blue Book where you can find different typefaces used by different manufacturers.
    I hope this is helpful.

  12. dorian says:

    don’t forget one of the best classics: http://scarab13.com/western_front/

  13. Jens Kutilek says:

    dorian, I’m not sure if I should trust a ‘Original Vintage Typewriter Font’ that is not even monospaced …

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