Imaginary Text

Carol Twombly: A Review

JMaxMarch 8, 2024 typography, reviews

In honour of International Women’s Day, here’s a book review.

I found this serendipitously, browsing through the Z 250s in my campus library – I was after Fred Smeijers’ Counterpunch, which I found, but I also spotted this tall, slim volume with nothing but carol twombly on the spine. Now, Carol Twombly is a person I’ve long been vaguely aware of, and even a fan of, sorta, except that I knew nothing much about her except that her name featured prominently in Adobe’s font catalogue back in the 90s. Perhaps most significantly, at least for me, Twombly is responsible for Adobe’s digital recutting (er…) of William Caslon’s famous book typeface.

Once I got into this book – an Oak Knoll edition from 2016, written by design professor Nancy Stock-Allen – I was fascinated by the places it took me. Not only was Twombly one of the key type designers of the 20th century (which I’d already kinda figured out), but her career, from the mid-1970s through the late 1990s, spanned the advent and evolution of digital typography almost to the point we know it today. She studied under pioneers of digital type Gerard Unger and Charles Bigelow at RISD in the 70s, worked with Bigelow and his partner Kris Holmes designing type with the early Ikarus system, and then ended up at Stanford as a Masters student in a new program in Digital Typography led by Donald Knuth (see my post Playing with Typst for some context), which is to say that she was part of the team working on Knuth’s metafont, an attempt to design fonts purely parametrically, as part of his TeX system. At Stanford, Twombly not only had Knuth and his computer scientists for inspiration, but also type designers like Hermann Zapf and Matthew Carter who were invited to spend time at the lab. Alas, the Masters program in Digital Typography was cancelled by Stanford after that first year.

After Stanford, Twombly quickly found at home at probably the best place in the world for her at that point: early Adobe Systems. This was 1988; Adobe was still a young company, having made an alliance with Apple Computer in 1985 to provide Adobe’s PostScript software to drive Apple’s LaserWriter printers – and thus establishing what would become an industry standard. Desktop publishing software was new, and the Macintosh was revolutionizing publishing. Adobe at that point took typography very seriously, because building a large type library would be necessary for their industrial ambitions. Adobe hired type designer Sumner Stone to lead their type department, and Stone hired Twombly and Robert Slimbach as designers. In the late 80s, Twombly released a set of digital refashionings of Roman inscriptional capitals (Trajan), Greek lettering (Lithos), medieval capitals (Charlemagne), and Caslon’s text face (Adobe Caslon). She then worked with Slimbach on Adobe’s Myriad[1] face, which is a well-respected sanserif in its own right but also the default sans font in Acrobat and therefore the one it uses to substitute for a missing font. You’ve probably seen a lot of Myriad.

Twombly also released some of her own originals for Adobe, notably Nueva in 1994 – a typeface I remember thinking of as the most overused display face of the 90s, which also makes it the most dated-looking 90s font.

Myriad and Nueva were both examples of Adobe’s “multiple masters” technology, in which a user could parametrically alter various values – typically width and weight, but sometimes other axes as well – to fine-tune the fit and colour of a bit of type on the page. This idea, which is different from Donald Knuth’s aspiration of a fully parametric font design, instead allowed the ‘interpolation’ of font features at any point between a set of hand-designed ‘master’ fonts. Adobe’s multiple masters ultimately didn’t catch on, and they abandoned it in the late 90s (after apparently nearly killing Slimbach while he tried to implement the technology in Adobe Garamond), but the idea ultimately succeeded as ‘variable fonts’ within the now-ubiquitous OpenType standard. The EB Garamond font you’re seeing on this blog, for instance, features a variable weight, rather than just “normal” and “bold.”[2]

And then Twombly had enough. Adobe was quickly growing, and evolving as a company. By the end of the 90s it was racing for market dominance with its Creative Suite (now Creative Cloud) software, and type took a back seat. When Adobe moved into its nest of skyscrapers in San Jose, Twombly said, I’m cashing out. Apparently she took her stock options and bought a place in the Sierras, where she has been ever since, doing pottery, sculpture, and printmaking. Well played, Carol!

Nancy Stock-Allen, the author of this book, writes that she originally wanted to write a book about women type designers, and the initial chapter traces the contributions of 20th-century pioneers Elizabeth Friedländer, Gudrun Von Hesse, Kris Holmes, Freda Sack, Zuzana Licko, and especially Dr Fiona Ross, who led a team of women at Linotype UK, drawing and doing the fine finishing on a generation of typefaces there. Carol Twombly having a reputation as a recluse, she didn’t expect to get much from her, but after an introduction was made, Twombly opened up to Stock-Allen, and the book is largely based on extensive interviews and correspondence with Twombly and various colleagues. First rate!

Carol Twombly: Her brief but brilliant career in type design
by Nancy Stock-Allen
New Castle Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2016

  1. Gerrit Imsieke, on Mastodon, pointed out that I had, of course, mixed up Adobe’s two baseline typefaces, Myriad and Minion; I have since corrected the post above. For the record, Myriad is the sanserif, designed by Twombly and Robert Slimbach, and Minion is its serif partner, designed by Slimbach. I have been getting these names confused for decades. ↩︎

  2. Except I can’t show that off, and here’s why: if we load EB Garamond from Google Fonts, as I am indeed doing here, Google delivers the bare font without the nice variants like small-caps or variable weights. That said, if I were to provide the whole, larger font file from my server, I could enable those options. If I change that up at some point, I’ll remove this footnote :-) ↩︎