I Love Typography

A Brief History of Type

Part Four: Modern (Didone)

In the previous installment of this series, we took a closer look at Transitional style typefaces, so-called because they mark a transition from the former Old Style types—epitomized by Baskerville—and the subject of today’s brief history, the Moderns, also known as Didone (the terms Modern and Didone are used synonymously throughout this article).

Baskerville’s types, compared with their Old Style (or Garalde) predecessors, are marked by high contrast between thick and thin strokes, so much so that one commentator declared Baskerville was “blinding the nation.” The Moderns or Didones take this contrast to further extremes (just about as far as one can take them).

The first Modern typeface is attributed to Frenchman Firmin Didot (son of François-Ambroise Didot), and first graced the printed page in 1784. His types were soon followed by the archetypal Didone from Bodoni. The Italian type designer, punchcutter and printer Giambattista Bodoni (what a great name! [1740-1813]) drew his influence from the Romains du Roi (with its flat, unbracketed serifs) and the types of John Baskerville (high contrast), for whom he showed great admiration.

Bodoni Manuale Tipografico

Bodoni will forever be associated with the hordes of digital interpretations from just about every type foundry on earth—the FontBook devotes some 14 pages to flavors of Bodoni; some are faithful digital renderings, others well-crafted interpretations; while others still are nothing but parodies, suitable only for poster headlines or the typographic scrap-heap. However, Bodoni was a prolific type designer, completing hundreds of typefaces; the Museo Bodoniano in Parma, houses more than 25,000 of his punches! Bodoni’s Manuale Tipografico¹ (1818) contains 142 roman typefaces and their corresponding italics—and that’s just volume one. The second volume includes numerous ornaments, Arabic, Greek, Russian, and Tibetan types, to name but a few.


1. High and abrupt contrast between thick and thin strokes;
2. Abrupt (unbracketed) hairline (thin) serifs
3. Vertical axis
4. Horizontal stress
5. Small aperture

didot / modern traits

In fact, if you grab a Baskerville, take away the brakets that join serifs to stems, thicken up the vertical strokes, you’ll be left with something that resembles a Didone (though don’t expect it to be pretty).

baskerville and bodoni

If you’ve read the preceding three installments, then you will have noticed a move away from the Humanist or handwritten letterforms. The romans of the Modern types owe very little, if anything to the earlier calligraphic forms; they are too precise, too sharp, too clean. Whereas the Old Style types are Neoclassical, the Didones are Romantic. Though both forms share a common vertical (rationalist) axis, the Moderns have even greater contrast.

What are they good for?

There’s something rather clinical about the Moderns, especially in the roman capitals. Their vertical axis coupled with strong horizontal stress furnishes them with the stiffness of toy soldiers on parade. They are elegant, and like all things elegant, look unhurried, calm, and in control. They’re generally not suited to setting extended text, as the verticality of the letter forms interferes with the text’s horizontal rhythm. The letters don’t lead our eyes across the page, but rather up and down. Unsurprisingly, Bringhurst brings some clarity to the subject when he writes,

Romantic letters can be extraordinarily beautiful, but they lack the flowing and steady rhythm of the Renaissance forms. It is that rhythm which invites the reader to enter the text and read. The statuesque forms of Romantic letters invite the reader to stand outside and look at the letters instead

The Moderns need lots of space (white space and inter-line space), so give them extra leading and  generous margins; and if you pair a Modern with another face, then make sure it’s not a fussy one, or your page will look like a circus poster designed by a visually impaired dog. If you know the beautiful, yet austere architecture of Tadao Ando, then mixing a Didot with, say a Blackletter is akin to draping one of Ando’s monoliths in a giant lace doily.

Erik Spiekermann, in Stop Stealing Sheep, recommends ITC Bodoni as “much better at small sizes than all the others.”³

Modern-day Moderns

Open just about any fashion magazine, and you’ll spot a Didone. If it’s a premium brand (read “very expensive”), then it may well be brought to you on the back of Bodoni or Didot. Not being a subscriber to any fashion titles (you’d understand if you saw my wardrobe), I took a trip to my local café and snapped about 100 examples of Modern types. Here are just a few:

modern-day moderns

And of the many modern interpretations, these are three of my favourites. The beautifully crafted Didot from Jonathan Hoefler,

H&FJ\'s beautiful Didot

Ambroise from Jean François Porchez (also used to set today’s masthead),

ambroise from Jean Francois Porchez

and Moderno FB,

moderno fb

Here are four Didone m’s compared:

didone comparison

And here are some other notable Moderns: ITC Fenice (I’m not a fan of this one), ITC Zapf Book, Adobe New Caledonia (actually pretty good for extended text), ITC Bodoni*, and Günter Gerhard Lange’s  Berthold Walbaum (a little wider set than your average Didone).

Well, I’ve only just scratched the surface, but I hope that this has given you a taste of the Moderns. In part five, the serif pendulum swings to the opposite extreme when we consider Slab Serifs.

1 You can see the entire book online at Rare Book Room.
The Elements of Typographic Style, page 130.
Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works, page 83.
* See The Typographic Revolution—Porchez Typofonderie.

I have renamed this series “A brief History of Type”. I think it better suits the thrust of these articles.

Read part one | two | three

Read part one | two | three | four | five


  1. Thank you for writing this, Johno. Really, I learn so much from these articles.

    If you were to write a book on typography I would buy it in an instant.

  2. Joey
    Thanks. About the book—who knows ;)

  3. Masud

    Perhaps Computer Modern deserves a mention. It is the default typeface used by LaTeX, which is the typesetting engine of choice for almost every physicist and mathematician.

  4. Masud
    You’re absolutely right. Donald Knuth’s Computer Modern is most likely one of the most widely used of all the Didones. And it’s something of a surprise that nothing, in all that time, has come along to replace it.

  5. I am super excited for the Slab Serif article Johno! By far my favorite of the serif groups.


    PS - I’m moving back to Canada in a week =(

  6. Very interesting. I look forward to reading the other three installments, as my knowledge of typographic history could use some work.


  7. Michael

    I’m pretty new to type — and hence am loving what I am learning at this site.

    But I was a bit surprised to see Moderno FB shown as an example of a Modern face, given its decidely non-abrupt serifs.

    4 out of 5 ain’t bad, I suppose …

  8. Great articles! I’ always look forward to reading your new blog entries.



    oslo, norway

  9. Cody
    Back to Canada! Please mail me about it. Do they have iLT in Canada? ;)

    Yes, abrupt serifs are a general characteristic, but there are numerous Moderns adnate (bracketed serifs). This is one of the many weaknesses of just about any system of type classification; for example, Bell is often classified as a Modern, when it could just as well be a Transitional type. Having said all that, Moderno is a face with high contrast and fine serifs. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

  10. This site is making me want to go back and study typography. It gets more interesting every time I read. Keep it up John!


  11. Amused

    Verticality? Seriously? I mean, could you even type that with a straight face? I would have enjoyed this more if I hadn’t been so distracted by the pretentious tone of the article. Call me a minimalist, but I don’t say “the robust delectability of the globular incarmined birthing of the aboreal’s autumnal perennial was a buoyant ecstasy to my palate” when I mean to say “the apple was delicious”.

    It may have been unintentional, and I hope so, but I enjoy articles when the author gets out of his own way and concentrates on delivering the content rather than showcasing his own intelligence and vocabulary.

    I don’t mean to be insulting or to say the article was not informative once I got past the unnecessary jargon. It was a good article as always. It just could have been written better for its subject matter.

  12. Christian

    Hi you all,

    Does anyone know, where to buy ITC Didi? I have been looking for this, since the first time i saw it - it so gorgeous i think. But i can’t find it anywhere!

    Thanks for your help.

    Have a great day

  13. Chick Byrd

    I don’t sense any pretension in your writing. As for the technical vocabulary, who would even be reading these articles if they weren’t interested in it?

    If you give us multiple ways to say the same thing, readers have the choice of skipping over the extra terms if they want. But if they’re not there they’re not there, and readers are the poorer for it.

    Thanks for the pains you take with this. I appreciate it!

  14. Christian ITC Didi was digitized 1992 (I believe) by Image Club Graphics, but when they became part of Adobe many typefaces, including Didi were discontinued because they didn’t live up to their standards anymore. So you won’t be able to buy it (unless you can find those old ICG collections), sorry.

  15. Christian


    thank you very much for your answer, although it is heartbreaking news :)

    I will have to keep an eye for those old image club graphics collections, it seems. But now i have a mission, something i can get obsessed with. Always nice to have something to collect. :-)

    Thanks again


  16. I’m a web developer, so I’ve studied typography, and frankly, I just don’t get it. I have hobbies that I study avidly because I enjoy them personally, but I don’t expect other people to understand them. I can’t see how these differences you are discussing make any difference to the average reader. Sure, some headline fonts are better than others and certainly have evocative significance, but how many average readers are even going to notice these subtle differences you are talking about, much less have the differences leave any type of impression?

    I’m not being combative here. I would like you to tell me why it’s important to design.

  17. TypoJunkie

    Hey John,

    Nice writings! But I have to agree, this one is a bit more “embellished” than the rest. I must say I’m not a great big fan of Moderns (I REALLY don’t like them); although Ambroise has some interesting qualities.

    As for the importance of knowing the slight differences between fonts, this has been brought up quite often recently. I must agree that the average person won’t be able to tell the difference between Didot and Baskerville; but the average person can’t tell the difference between the Pituitary and Pineal glands. That doesn’t mean it’s not important. If you go to a blog about Typography, this is what you’ll get.

    This debate could go on for hours, but I’ll spare you all…

    Thanks for the article John, I for one, appreciate the input and inspiration that visiting your blog brings. And these particular series help me remember the evolution of typefaces.

    Keep them coming!

  18. Amused again

    I want to clarify that I think the CONTENT is great and I completely appreciate it. I just think it could have been written a bit more succinctly and in a more approachable tone.

    I am a designer who absolutely LOVES typography- would I be here otherwise?- and I understand without question the technical terms here, although one could argue that words like verticality and rationalist axis are not typographic terms.

    I think an article with a more approachable (not dumbed down, of course) tone would help educate designers like Steve Rose who don’t see the difference. And by the way, @Steve Rose, I think they might not consciously see a difference but I think that unconsciously they will notice. “God is in the details”, if you’ll pardon a theistic metaphor. That’s why we’re here, to make sure no detail is ignored.

    Regardless of my comments on your writing style, dear author, you are doing an excellent job on organizing and presenting this important history. Please keep it up!

  19. loco

    average people see things generally.
    designers see things in details. that’s why they are designers.

    like music. average people listen to music without paying attention to the instruments used, arrangements or lyrics. but musicians do! they make sure everything is perfect in order to bring an enjoyable piece to the general audience.

    i am a fashion designer. i pay attention to every details. the fabric, button, pattern, silhouette, color… this is all these little things combined together to make a piece of nice clothes you see in the shop. sometimes i do wonder if the customers would notice the differences, but i believe some do actually!

    i think to a certain extent, a designer is also a perfectionist.

    for the technical terms, think the writer can use it with some explanations along so that everyone can read it without losing its professionalism? anyway it is just an idea… :)

  20. giupina

    Hi John
    this little history is really good for the balance between its explanatory character and the storytelling one. I also like the new title but it’s hard finding and moving from one chapter to the other, expecially forward. so why don’t you add links to previous and next chapters at the bottom and top of the pages?

  21. MP
    Great to hear. That’s what it’s all about.

    Yes, I can type “verticality” with a straight face. It’s one of those words I feel quite comfortable with. Perhaps that has something to do with my own academic background in Economics and Econometrics, where such terms don’t sound at all out of place. However, point taken. I’m always happy to see constructive criticism here, whether that be of my style of writing or of the content itself.
    Pleased that you could enjoy the article, despite the “verticality” :)

    Chick Byrd
    Thanks. It’s sometimes difficult to know how much explaining of terms one should do. Too much interferes with the flow; too little can make the whole thing incomprehensible to those new to the topic. Perhaps the glossary of terms (mentioned below), will go some way toward broadening the articles’ appeal.

    Pleased you answered that one. I hadn’t a clue until I read your comment.

    Let me know how your type quest turns out.

    Steve Ross
    Good to see you here, Steve. I’m sure that as a web developer there are things you do (perhaps habitually), that non-developers would struggle to appreciate. Partly, perhaps, you do those things, out of pride for your own craft; perhaps you code in a particular way to shave milliseconds off load times; and perhaps those details—individually—really do go unnoticed; but details, however small, are pieces in a larger picture.
    Your question has been posed here several times, so I’ve decided to write an article on the topic: Why Type Matters. In the meantime, you might like to read this comment in response to a similar question. Hope to see you here again soon.

    You’re right about this debate over detail being an endless one. I have a friend who is crazy about trees. He knows all the Latin names, and can even tell you when a particular variety was introduced into the country. Most of the time, most of what he says goes over my head, but for him it matters. I think I’ll stick to type, so I’ll certainly keep them coming.

    Welcome to iLT. A very nice analogy. Thank you.

    Good idea. I’ll add those links.

    Upon reading some of the comments here about vocabulary, I’ve decided to get on and complete the “glossary of terms”. I will then link “unfamilair” terms (or those peculiar to typography) to the glossary; that way, no-one will be left in the dark. Let me know what you think.

  22. johno, will the Alec Julien series on how to make a font continue? I enjoyed the first posts very much.

    By the way, I’d consider FB Moderno a Scotch Modern, which is… well, a Modern with bracketed serifs.

  23. nicetype
    I enjoyed Alec’s articles too. They’re still incredibly popular with readers. I’m not sure if he has plans for more. I shall have to ask him.

    I’ve started designing a typeface, and have been keeping a very detailed diary. I’m not a type designer, but I thought that at least attempting to create my own typeface (I have no plans to license it upon completion) would teach me that bit more about type. Eventually, those pages and pages of notes will be turned into a series entitled “The Diary of a Typeface”. Thus far I’ve learned that type design can be great fun, but also incredibly frustrating. What looks (to my eye, at least) great in outline in FontLab, can look like a train-wreck at text sizes. My admiration for designers of good and exceptional typefaces has also gone up a few notches.

    Scotch Modern—like that. There are, of course, numerous metal Moderns with bracketed serifs. Did you get a chance to look at Bodoni’s Manuale Tipografico online. I’ve just discovered that it can be purchased on CD—think it includes an English translation too.

  24. @TypoJunkie:

    As for the importance of knowing the slight differences between fonts, this has been brought up quite often recently. I must agree that the average person won’t be able to tell the difference between Didot and Baskerville; but the average person can’t tell the difference between the Pituitary and Pineal glands. That doesn’t mean it’s not important. If you go to a blog about Typography, this is what you’ll get.

    That is the most brilliant, succinct answer to this concern I’ve ever seen. I think Johno should make it a pull-quote in the About page. ;)

    @nicetype: I’m so glad you liked the font creation posts. I imagine I’ll have more to say on the subject one of these days.

  25. Johno, I have long wondered about this point, and I hope your new article, Why Type Matters, will be more definitive. I have received many assurances from typographers that it does matter, but actual explanations have been few. I know full well that it matters to some extent. I don’t know why I should be concerned about much of the minutia mentioned in your articles, unless I just find it personally fascinating. As a designer, why should I think about what type of serifs or vertical stress a font has?

  26. Steve, just a quick example in the picture here: http://tinyurl.com/5tm4zm
    You see your comment set in HTF Didot on the left, and in Hoefler Text on the right. What is easier to read?

    Underneath the same type used. What looks more like a masthead of an elegant fashion mag?

    That’s why.

    Hmm, ImageShack thumbnails fail to work here…

  27. Thanks for the great writeup, John. And to everyone for this great discussion.

    nicetype’s example shows that this style is much better suited for large type. Like Bringhurst said, you really pay more attention to the letterforms.

    It’s a very elegant and feminine look as well. Vogue is a nice example, does anyone know what font that is?

    Keep up the great work.

  28. nicetype
    Thanks for taking the time to put together that comparison.

    A custom Didot is used for Vogue magazine.

  29. I really like the section titled “What are they good for?” Your notes about how best to use the moderns (extra space, not for body copy) are really helpful and practical, John.

    I’m glad you’ll be writing the Why Type Matters article, John. Even though I do think it matters, I’m looking forward to you elaborating on it.

    I was also thinking that an article on the details of type would be interesting and extremely useful. For example, why the different brackets? What do they accomplish? Why different terminals? I don’t know if it can be broken down that simply, but maybe what I’m looking for is a little primer on if I want a font that says “elegant” what details should I look for? Where (as in what family) might I start looking? What should I be looking for? And of course, why? If you can’t tell, I’m a very practical person; theory is great, application is better ;) That is not to say I don’t enjoy these articles—I do!—but more examples of typography in use or how to use typography would be great!

  30. I’m learning about typography and stumbled across this article, very interesting discussion.

  31. Nikkie

    Thanks so much for this blog, i can’t believe how much eyes have been opened by reading this. It’s unreal.. i managed to read all pages one after another without getting bored (an accomplishment in itself) but to actually take so much information away with me at the same time,… a strawberry cheesecake for my level of information intake must be a good enough reward. Look forward to more entries.
    Thanks again

  32. LaurenMarie
    You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about it. I like some of your suggestions.

    Welcome to iLT!

    Good to see you here. I think you deserve two strawberry cheesecakes! Hope to see you here in the comments again.

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